|1658||Les précieuses ridicules, comédie de Molière (1622-1673). Les comédies de Molière auront une grande influence sur le théâtre anglais de la Restauration.|
|1660||Restauration des Stuart sur le trône d’Angleterre (Charles II).|
|Naissance de William Congreve à Barsey, près de Leeds (en Angleterre, dans le West Yorkshire).|
|1671||Psyché, tragédie-ballet co-écrite par Molière, Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) et Philippe Quinault (1635-1688), avec une musique de Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687).|
|1673||Le malade imaginaire, comédie-ballet de Molière. Mort de Molière.|
|Le père de Congreve, officier, est bientôt nommé commandant de la garnison de Youghal, près de Cork. La famille s’installe donc en Irlande.|
|Suréna, tragédie de Pierre Corneille.|
|Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711) publie L’art poétique.|
|1675||The Country Wife (L'épouse campagnarde), comédie de William Wycherley (1633-1688).|
|1676||The Plain Dealer, comédie de William Wycherley.|
|The Man of Mode, comédie de George Etherege (v. 1635-1691).|
|1677||All for Love, or The World Well Lost, tragédie de John Dryden (1631-1700).|
|The Rover, comédie d’intrigue d’Aphra Behn (1640-1689).|
|1678||John Bunyan (1628-1688), Pilgrim’s
voyage du pèlerin).
|Mme de La Fayette (1634-1693), La princesse de Clèves.|
|1680||The Spanish Fryar, comédie de John Dryden.|
|Congreve va à l’école à Kilkenny, où il se lie d’amitié avec Jonathan Swift (1667-1745).|
|The Second Part of The Rover, comédie d’intrigue d’Aphra Behn.|
|1682||John Dryden publie son poème satirique Absalom and Achitophel.|
|Congreve entre au Trinity College de Dublin.|
|Jacques II succède à son frère Charles II.|
|Naissance de Johann Sebastian Bach, de Georg Friedrich Händel et de Domenico Scarlatti.|
|1687||John Dryden, The Hind and the Panther.|
|Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Philosophiæ
naturalis principia mathematica, (Principes mathématiques de la
|Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696), Les caractères ou Les mœurs de ce siècle.|
|Les Congreve rentrent en Angleterre.|
|1689||Guillaume III succède à son oncle Jacques II sur le trône d’Angleterre.|
|Esther, tragédie de Jean Racine (1639-1699).|
|1690||John Locke (1632-1704), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Essai sur l’entendement humain).|
|Congreve s’installe à Londres. Il y étudie le droit au Middle Temple.|
|Athalie, tragédie de Jean Racine.|
|Charles Perrault (1628-1703) commence à publier ses Contes.|
|Congreve publie un
roman d’intrigue, Incognita, or Love and Duty
Reconcil’d, sous le pseudonyme de Cleophil.
=> texte original
Theatre Royal de Drury Lane
de sa première comédie, The Old
Bachelor (avec Anne Bracegirdle (1671-1748)
dans le rôle d'Araminta). La
pièce est bien accueillie par le public et par la critique, et
vaut à l’auteur les louanges et l’amitié de Dryden, et le
soutien financier de Charles Montague, futur Lord Halifax.
=> texte original
à un recueil de Dryden
consacré aux satires de Juvénal et de Perse, en
traduisant la onzième satire de Juvénal et en composant
un poème, To
Mr. Dryden, On His Translation of Persius.
=> texte anglais de la onzième satire de Juvénal
à Drury Lane de la
Double Dealer. Grand succès.
=> Le texte original.
|La Fontaine, Fables.|
|Médée, opéra de Thomas Corneille (1625-1709) et Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704).|
|1694||L’Académie française publie son premier dictionnaire.|
Muse of Alexas, pastorale, lamentation sur
la mort de la reine Marie.
=> texte original
Ode, Humbly Offer'd to the King on His Taking Namure, pour célébrer la prise de Namur par
=> texte original
Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre
de la comédie Love
for Love (Amour pour amour), avec Anne Bracegirdle dans le
rôle d'Angelica. C’est encore un triomphe.
=> texte original
|1696||The Relapse, de John Vanbrugh (1664-1726).|
d’une tragédie de
Congreve, The Mourning
Bride, avec Anne Bracegirdle dans le
=> texte original
|The Provoked Wife, de John Vanbrugh (avec Anne Bracegirdle dans le rôle de Belinda).|
|The Birth of
the Muse, poème.
=> texte original
Jeremy Collier publie A
Short View of the
Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, qui attaque directement les comédies de la
Restauration, en particulier celles de Congreve et Dryden, mais aussi
tout le théâtre élisabéthain. Les
« Anciens » sont mis à l’écart par
les « Modernes ». La « comédie
de la Restauration » va s’éteindre progressivement
jusqu’aux années 1710.
|Congreve publie une
réponse au pamphlet
de Collier : Amendments
of M. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations.
|1699||Fénelon (1651-1715), Les aventures de Télémaque.|
Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre
Way of the World (Le train du monde ; Ainsi va le monde) avec Anne
le rôle de Millamant. La
pièce, qui est
encore une défense
contre le pamphlet de Collier, est mal reçue par la critique et
par le public. C’est pourtant la pièce qui assurera à
Congreve sa notoriété. Elle est considérée
depuis comme l’une des plus grandes comédies de langue anglaise.
=> texte original
|John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern. Mort de Dryden.|
Dorset Gardens Theatre du masque The
Judgment of Paris, or The Prize of Music,
sur un livret de Congreve et une musique de John Eccles (1668-1735).
C'est l'aboutissement d'un concours qui consistait
à mettre en musique le livret de Congreve : les quatre premiers
prix ont été gagnés respectivement par John
Weldon, John Eccles, Daniel Purcell (frère de Henry) et
=> texte original
Funeral, or Grief-à-la-mode, comédie de John Steele (1672-1729).
|1702||La reine Anne succède à son beau-frère Guillaume III, et règne désormais sur toute la Grande-Bretagne.|
|A Hymn to
Harmony, In Honour of St Cecilia's Day,
poème mis en musique par John Eccles.
=> texte original
|The Tears of
Amaryllis for Amyntas, pastorale.
=> texte original
|1704||Création au Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre de Squire Trelooby (traduction de Monsieur de Pourceaugnac de Molière, par Congreve et John Vanbrugh).|
|Antoine Galland (1646-1715) publie sa traduction française des Mille et une nuits.|
|A Pindarique Ode, Offer'd to the Queen on the Victorious Progress of Her Majesty's Arms, Under the Conduct of the Duke of Marlborough.|
|The Recruiting Officer, comédie de George Farquhar (v. 1677-1707).|
|1707||The Beaux’ Stratagem, comédie de George Farquhar.|
Bracegirdle, éclipsée par de nouvelles stars, fait ses
adieux à la scène.
|1709||Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Pastorals.|
|Congreve compose un
d’opéra, Semele, d'après Ovide,
mis en musique par
John Eccles (mais jamais
monté). Händel le mettra en musique à son tour en
1743 (sa version sera créée en 1744 sous forme
d'oratorio, mais ne sera représentée sur scène
=> texte original
|Parution des œuvres complètes de William Congreve en trois volumes.|
|Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) publie en français Essais de théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal.|
|1711||Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism.|
|Jonathan Swift, The Conduct of the Allies, satire politique.|
|Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, William Congreve et d’autres forment le « London’s Scriblerus Club », groupe littéraire satirique.|
|1713||Aristomenes, tragédie d’Anne Finch (1661-1720).|
|1714||Fin de la dynastie des Stuart. C’est la famille de Hanovre qui prend le pouvoir en Grande-Bretagne.|
|John Gay (1685-1732), The Shepard’s Week, poème satirique.|
|1715||Mort de Louis XIV.|
|1719||Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), Robinson Crusoe.|
|An Impossible Thing, conte.|
|Jonathan Swift commence à écrire les Voyages de Gulliver.|
|John Gay, Poems on Several Occasions.|
|1721||Parution des œuvres complètes de Joseph Addison (1672-1719).|
|Montesquieu (1689-1755), Lettres Persanes.|
mort de son père, Henrietta Godolphin (1681-1733),
fille du premier duc de Marlborough et de Sarah Jennings (†1744),
mariée depuis 1699 au comte Francis Godolphin (†1744),
hérite du duché de Marlborough. Congreve va devenir son
amant, et ils auront une fille, Mary.
|Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (Journal de l'année de la peste) et Moll Flanders.|
|La Surprise de l’amour, de Marivaux (1688-1763).|
|1723||Voltaire (1694-1778), La Henriade.|
|La Double inconstance, de Marivaux.|
|1728||The Beggar’s Opera (L'opéra des gueux), de John Gay.|
|Art of Pleasing.
Epître à Sir Richard Temple, vicomte de Cobham.
=> texte original
|Mort de William Congreve, en
janvier, à Londres, des suites
d’un accident de
voiture survenu sur la route de Bath en décembre. Il est
enterré en l’abbaye de Westminster.
Dans son testament, dont il a confié l'exécution au mari de sa maîtresse Henrietta, il cède dix mille livres à cette dernière, et deux cents à Anne Bracegirdle.
Je ne sais comment le sage et ingénieux M. de Muralt, dont nous avons les Lettres sur les Anglais et sur les Français, s’est borné, en parlant de la comédie, à critiquer un comique nommé Shadwell. Cet auteur était assez méprisé de son temps ; il n’était point le poète des honnêtes gens ; ses pièces, goûtées pendant quelques représentations par le peuple, étaient dédaignées par tous les gens de bon goût, et ressemblaient à tant de pièces que j’ai vues en France attirer la foule et révolter les lecteurs, et dont on a pu dire :
Tout Paris les condamne, et tout Paris les court.
M. de Muralt aurait dû, ce semble, nous parler d’un auteur excellent qui vivait alors : c’était M. Wicherley, qui fut longtemps l’amant déclaré de la maîtresse la plus illustre de Charles Second. Cet homme, qui passait sa vie dans le plus grand monde, en connaissait parfaitement les vices et les ridicules, et les peignait du pinceau le plus ferme et des couleurs les plus vraies.
Il a fait un Misanthrope, qu’il a imité de Molière. Tous les traits de Wicherley y sont plus forts et plus hardis que ceux de notre misanthrope ; mais aussi ils ont moins de finesse et de bienséance. L’auteur anglais a corrigé le seul défaut qui soit dans la pièce de Molière ; ce défaut est le manque d’intrigue et d’intérêt. La pièce anglaise est intéressante, et l’intrigue en est ingénieuse : elle est trop hardie sans doute pour nos mœurs. C’est un capitaine de vaisseau plein de valeur, de franchise, et de mépris pour le genre humain ; il a un ami sage et sincère dont il se défie, et une maîtresse dont il est tendrement aimé, sur laquelle il ne daigne pas jeter les yeux ; au contraire, il a mis toute sa confiance dans un faux ami qui est le plus indigne homme qui respire, et il a donné son cœur à la plus coquette et à la plus perfide de toutes les femmes ; il est bien assuré que cette femme est une Pénélope, et ce faux ami un Caton. Il part pour s’aller battre contre les Hollandais, et laisse tout son argent, ses pierreries et tout ce qu’il a au monde à cette femme de bien, et recommande cette femme elle-même à cet ami fidèle, sur lequel il compte si fort. Cependant, le véritable honnête homme dont il se défie tant s’embarque avec lui ; et la maîtresse qu’il n’a pas seulement daigné regarder se déguise en page et fait le voyage sans que le capitaine s’aperçoive de son sexe de toute la campagne.
Le capitaine, ayant fait sauter son vaisseau dans un combat, revient à Londres, sans secours, sans vaisseau et sans argent, avec son page et son ami, ne connaissant ni l’amitié de l’un, ni l’amour de l’autre. Il va droit chez la perle des femmes, qu’il compte retrouver avec sa cassette et sa fidélité : il la retrouve mariée avec l’honnête fripon à qui il s’était confié, et on ne lui a pas plus gardé son dépôt que le reste. Mon homme a toutes les peines du monde à croire qu’une femme de bien puisse faire de pareils tours, mais pour l’en convaincre mieux, cette honnête dame devient amoureuse du petit page et veut le prendre à force. Mais comme il faut que justice se fasse, et que dans une pièce de théâtre le vice soit puni et la vertu récompensée, il se trouve, à fin de compte, que le capitaine se met à la place du page, couche avec son infidèle, fait cocu son traître ami, lui donne un bon coup d’épée au travers du corps, reprend sa cassette et épouse son page. Vous remarquerez qu’on a encore lardé cette pièce d’une comtesse de Pimbesche, vieille plaideuse, parente du capitaine, laquelle est bien la plus plaisante créature et le meilleur caractère qui soit au théâtre.
Wicherley a encore tiré de Molière une pièce non moins singulière et non moins hardie : c’est une espèce d’École des femmes.
Le principal personnage de la pièce est un drôle à bonnes fortunes, la terreur des maris de Londres, qui, pour être plus sûr de son fait, s’avise de faire courir le bruit que dans sa dernière maladie les chirurgiens ont trouvé à propos de le faire énuque. Avec cette belle réputation, tous les maris lui amènent leurs femmes, et le pauvre homme n’est plus embarrassé que du choix ; il donne surtout la préférence à une petite campagnarde qui a beaucoup d’innocence et de tempérament, et qui fait son mari cocu avec une bonne foi qui vaut mieux que la malice des dames les plus expertes. Cette pièce n’est pas, si vous voulez, l’école des bonnes mœurs, mais en vérité c’est l’école de l’esprit et du bon comique.
Un chevalier Vanbrugh a fait des comédies encore plus plaisantes, mais moins ingénieuses. Ce chevalier était un homme de plaisir ; par-dessus cela, poète et architecte : on prétend qu’il écrivait comme il bâtissait, un peu grossièrement. C’est lui qui a bâti le fameux château de Blenheim, pesant et durable monument de notre malheureuse bataille d’Hochstaedt. Si les appartements étaient seulement aussi larges que les murailles sont épaisses, ce château serait assez commode.
On a mis dans l’épitaphe de Vanbrugh qu’on souhaitait que la terre ne lui fût point légère, attendu que de son vivant il l’avait si inhumainement chargée.
Ce chevalier, ayant fait un tour en France avant la guerre de 1701, fut mis à la Bastille, et y resta quelque temps, sans avoir jamais pu savoir ce qui lui avait attiré cette distinction de la part de notre ministère. Il fit une comédie à la Bastille ; et ce qui est à mon sens fort étrange, c’est qu’il n’y a dans cette pièce aucun trait contre le pays dans lequel il essuya cette violence.
Celui de tous les Anglais qui a porté le plus loin la gloire du théâtre comique est feu M. Congreve. Il n’a fait que peu de pièces, mais toutes sont excellentes dans leur genre. Les règles du théâtre y sont rigoureusement observées ; elles sont pleines de caractères nuancés avec une extrême finesse ; on n’y essuie pas la moindre mauvaise plaisanterie ; vous y voyez partout le langage des honnêtes gens avec des actions de fripon : ce qui prouve qu’il connaissait bien son monde, et qu’il vivait dans ce qu’on appelle la bonne compagnie. Il était infirme et presque mourant quand je l’ai connu ; il avait un défaut, c’était de ne pas assez estimer son premier métier d’auteur, qui avait fait sa réputation et sa fortune. Il me parlait de ses ouvrages comme de bagatelles au-dessous de lui, et me dit, à la première conversation, de ne le voir que sur le pied d’un gentilhomme qui vivait très uniment ; je lui répondis que s’il avait eu le malheur de n’être qu’un gentilhomme comme un autre, je ne le serais jamais venu voir, et je fus très choqué de cette vanité si mal placée.
Ses pièces sont les plus spirituelles et les plus exactes ; celles de Vanbrugh les plus gaies, et celles de Wicherley les plus fortes.
Il est à remarquer qu’aucun de ces beaux esprits n’a mal parlé de Molière. Il n’y a que les mauvais auteurs anglais qui aient dit du mal de ce grand homme. Ce sont les mauvais musiciens d’Italie qui méprisent Lulli, mais un Buononcini l’estime et lui rend justice, de même qu’un Mead fait cas d’un Helvétius et d’un Silva.
L’Angleterre a encore de bons poètes comiques, tels que le chevalier Steele et M. Cibber, excellent comédien et d’ailleurs poète du roi, titre qui paraît ridicule, mais qui ne laisse pas de donner mille écus de rente et de beaux privilèges. Notre grand Corneille n’en a pas eu tant.
Au reste ne me demandez pas que j’entre ici dans le moindre détail de ces pièces anglaises dont je suis si grand partisan, ni que je vous rapporte un bon mot ou une plaisanterie des Wicherley et des Congreve ; on ne rit point dans une traduction. Si vous voulez connaître la comédie anglaise, il n’y a d’autre moyen pour cela que d’aller à Londres, d’y rester trois ans, d’apprendre bien l’anglais et de voir la comédie tous les jours. Je n’ai pas grand plaisir en lisant Plaute et Aristophane : pourquoi ? c’est que je ne suis ni Grec ni Romain. La finesse des bons mots, l’allusion, l’à-propos, tout cela est perdu pour un étranger. Il n’en est pas de même dans la tragédie ; il n’est question chez elle que de grandes passions et de sottises héroïques consacrées par de vieilles erreurs de fable ou d’histoire. Oedipe, Électre appartiennent aux Espagnols, aux Anglais, et à nous, comme aux Grecs. Mais la bonne comédie est la peinture parlante des ridicules d’une nation, et si vous ne connaissez pas la nation à fond, vous ne pouvez guère juger de la peinture.
This gentleman was descended from the ancient house of Congreve in Staffordshire, but authors differ as to the place of his birth; some contend that he was born in Ireland, others that he drew his first breath at the village of Bardsa, near Leeds in Yorkshire, which was the estate of a near relation of his by his mother's side. Mr. Jacob, in his preface to the Lives of the Poets, has informed us, that he had the advice and assistance of Mr. Congreve in that work, who communicated to him many particulars of the lives of cotemporary writers, as well as of himself, and as Mr. Congreve can hardly be thought ignorant of the place of his own birth, and Mr. Jacob has asserted it to be in England, no room is left to doubt of it. The learned antiquary of Ireland, Sir James Ware, has reckoned our author amongst his own country worthies, from the relation of Southern; but Mr. Congreve's own account, if Jacob may be relied on, is more than equal to that of Southern, who possibly might be mistaken.
He went from the school of Kilkenny to the university of Dublin, where under the direction of Dr. George Ash, he acquired a general knowledge of the classics. His father, who was desirous that his studies should be directed to a profitable employment, sent him over to England a little after the revolution, and placed him as a student in the Middle-Temple. But the severe study of the Law was so ill adapted to the sprightly genius of Congreve, that he never attempted to reconcile himself to a way of life, for which he had the greatest aversion. But however he disappointed his friends with respect to the proficiency they expected him to make in the Law; yet it is certain he was not negligent in those studies to which his genius led him.
Mr. Congreve's first performance, written when but a youth of seventeen, was a Novel, dedicated to Mrs. Katherine Leveson, which gave proof, not only of a great vivacity of wit, but also a fluency of stile, and a solid judgment. He was conscious that young men in their early productions generally aimed at a florid stile, and enthusiastic descriptions, without any regard to the plot, fable, or subserviency of the parts; for this reason he formed a new model, and gave an example how works of that kind should be written. He pursued a regular plan, observed a general moral, and carried on a connexion, as well as distinction, between his characters.
Soon after Mr. Congreve's return to England, he amused himself, during a slow recovery from a fit of sickness, with writing a comedy. Captain Southern, in conjunction with Mr. Dryden, and Arthur Manwayring, esq; revised this performance, which was the Old Batchelor; of which Mr. Dryden said, he never saw such a first play in his life, adding, that the author not being acquainted with the stage, or the town, it would be pity to have it miscarry for want of a little assistance. Mr. Thomas Davenant, who had then the direction of the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, had so high a sense of the merit of the piece, and was so charmed with the author's conversation, that he granted him the freedom of the house before his play came on, which, according to the maxims of theatrical government, was not only an unusual, but an unprecedented favour. In 1693 the Old Batchelor was acted before a numerous, and polite audience. The play was received with such general applause, that Mr. Congreve was then considered as a prop to the declining stage, and a rising genius in dramatic poetry. It was this play, and the singular success which attended it upon the stage, that introduced our author to the acquaintance of the earl of Hallifax, who was then the professed patron of men of wit; and who, being desirous to raise a man of so promising a genius, above the necessity of too hasty productions, made him one of the commissioners for licensing Hackney coaches. The earl bestowed upon him soon after a place in the Pipe-Office, and gave him likewise a post in the Custom-House, to the value of 600 l. per annum.
In the following year Mr. Congreve brought upon the stage the Double Dealer, which met not with so good a reception as the former.
Mr. Congreve has informed us in the dedication of this play, to Charles Montague, esq; that he was very assiduous to learn from the critics what objections could be found to it; but, says he, 'I have heard nothing to provoke an answer. That which looks most like an objection, does not relate in particular to this play, but to all; or most that ever have been written, and that is soliloquy; therefore I will answer it, not only for my own sake, but to save others the trouble to whom it may be hereafter objected. I grant, that for a man to talk to himself, appears absurd, and unnatural, and indeed it is so in most cases, but the circumstances which may attend the occasion, makes great alteration. It often happens to a man to have designs, which require him to himself, and in their nature cannot admit of a confident. Such for certain is all villainy, and other less mischievous intentions may be very improper to be communicated to a second person. In such a case, therefore the audience must observe, whether the person upon the stage takes any notice of them at all, or no: for if he supposes any one to be by, when he talks to himself, it is monstrous and ridiculous to the last degree; nay not only in this case, but in any part of a play, if there is expressed any knowledge of an audience it is insufferable. But otherwise, when a man in a soliloquy reasons with himself, and pro's and con's, and weighs all his designs, we ought not to imagine that this man either talks to us, or to himself; he is only thinking, and thinking such matter, as it were inexcusable folly in him to speak. But, because we are concealed spectators of the plot in agitation, and the poet finds it necessary to let us know the whole mystery of his contrivance, he is willing to inform us of this person's thoughts, and to that end is forced to make use of the expedient of speech, no other, or better way being yet invented for the communication of thought.'
Towards the close of the same year Queen Mary died. Upon that occasion Mr. Congreve produced an elegiac Pastoral, a composition which the admirers of this poet have extolled in the most lavish terms of admiration, but which seems not to merit the incense it obtained.
When Mr. Betterton opened the new house at Lincoln's-Inn, Congreve took part with him, and gave him his celebrated comedy of Love for Love, then introduced upon the stage, with the most extraordinary success. This comedy, with some more of our author's, was smartly criticised by the ingenious Mr. Collier, as containing lessons of immorality, and a representation of loose characters, which can never, in his opinion, appear on a stage without corrupting the audience.
Messrs. Congreve, Dennis, and Dryden, engaged in a vigorous defence of the English stage, and endeavoured to shew the necessity of such characters being introduced in order to be exposed, and laughed at. To all their defences Mr. Collier replied, and managed the point with so much learning, wit, and keenness, that in the opinion of many, he had the better of his antagonists, especially Mr. Congrove, whose comedies it must be owned, though they are admirably written, and the characters strongly marked, are so loose, that they have given great offence: and surely we pay too dear for pleasure, when we have it at the expence of morality.
The same year he distinguished himself in another kind of poetry, viz. an irregular Ode on the taking Namure, which the critics have allowed to contain fine sentiments, gracefully expressed. His reputation as a comic poet being sufficiently established, he was desirous of extending his fame, by producing a tragedy. It has been alledged, that some, who were jealous of his growing reputation, put him upon this task, in order, as they imagined, to diminish it, for he seemed to be of too gay and lively a disposition for tragedy, and in all likelihood would miscarry in the attempt. However,
In 1697, after the expectation of the town had been much raised, the Mourning Bride appeared on the New Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields: few plays ever excited so great an ardour of expectation as this, and very few ever succeeded to such an extravagant degree. There is something new in the management of the plot; after moving the passions of the audience to the greatest commiseration, he brings off his principal characters, punishes the guilty, and makes the play conclude happily.
The controversy we have just now mentioned, was thought to have occasioned a dislike in Mr. Congreve towards the stage; yet he afterwards produced another comedy called The Way of the World, which was so just a picture of the world, that, as an author prettily says,
The world could not bear it.
The reception this play met with, compleated our author's disgust to the theatre; upon which Mr. Dennis, who was a warm friend to Congreve, made this fine observation, 'that Mr. Congreve quitted the stage early, and that comedy left it with him.'
It is said that when Congreve found his play met with but indifferent success, he came in a passion on the stage, and desired the audience to save themselves the trouble of shewing their dislike; for he never intended to write again for the Theatre, nor submit his works to the censure of impotent critics. In this particular he kept his word with them, and as if he had foreseen the fate of his play, he took an ample revenge, in his Epilogue, of the race of Little Snarlers, who excited by envy, and supported by false ideas of their own importance, dared to constitute themselves judges of wit, without any just pretensions to it. This play has long ago triumphed over its enemies, and is now in great esteem amongst the best judges of Theatrical Entertainments.
Though Mr. Congreve quitted the stage, yet did not he give up the cause of poetry; for on the death of the marquis of Blandford, the only son of the duke of Marlborough, which happened in 1705, we find him composing a pastoral to soften the grief of that illustrious family, which he addressed to the lord treasurer Godolphin.
About the same time, the extraordinary success of the duke of Marlborough's arms, furnished him with materials for an Ode to Queen Anne. In another Pindaric Ode he celebrates the lord Godolphin; taking occasion from that nobleman's delight in horse-racing to imitate the Greek Poet in his favourite manner of writing, by an elegant digression; to which he added a criticism on that species of poetry.
As in the early part of his life, Mr. Congreve had received favours from people of a less exalted station, so of these he was highly sensible, and never let slip any opportunity of shewing his gratitude. He wrote an Epilogue to his old friend Southern's Tragedy of Oroonoko; and Mr. Dryden has acknowledged his assistance in the translation of Virgil: He contributed by his Version of the eleventh Satire of Juvenal, to the translation of that poet, published also by Mr. Dryden, to whom Mr. Congreve wrote a copy of Verses on his Translation of Persius. He wrote likewise a Prologue for a Play of Mr. Charles Dryden's, full of kindness for that young gentleman, and of respect for his father.
But the noblest testimony he gave of his filial regard to the memory of his poetical father, Mr. John Dryden, was the Panegyric he wrote upon his works, contained in the dedication of Dryden's plays to the duke of Newcastle.
Mr. Congreve translated the third Book of Ovid's Art of Love; some favourite passages from the Iliad, and writ some Epigrams, in all which he was not unsuccessful, though at the same time he has been exceeded by his cotemporaries in the same attempts.
The author of the elegant Letters, not long ago published under the name of Fitz Osborne, has taken some pains to set before his readers; the version of those parts of Homer, translated by our author, and the same passages by Pope and Tickell, in which comparison the palm is very deservedly yielded to Pope.
Our author wrote a Satire called Doris, celebrated by Sir Richard Steele, who was a warm friend to Mr. Congreve. He also wrote the Judgment of Paris, a Masque; and the Opera of Semele; of these, the former was acted with great applause, and the latter is finely set to music by Mr. Eccles. The last of his Poetical Works, is his Art of Pleasing, addressed to Sir Richard Temple, the late viscount Cobham. He has written many Prose Epistles, dispersed in the works of other writers, and his Essay on Humour in Comedy, published in a Collection of Dennis's Letters, is an entertaining, and correct piece of criticism: All his other Letters are written with a great deal of wit and spirit, a fine flow of language; and are so happily intermixt with a lively and inoffensive raillery, that it is impossible not to be pleased with them at the first reading: we may be satisfied from the perusal of them, that his conversation must have been very engaging, and therefore we need not wonder that he was caressed by the greatest men of his time, or that they courted his friendship by every act of kindness in their power.
It is said of Mr. Congreve, that he was a particular favourite with the ladies, some of whom were of the first distinction. He indulged none of those reveries, and affected absences so peculiar to men of wit: He was sprightly as well as elegant in his manner, and so much the favourite of Henrietta duchess of Marlborough, that even after his death, she caused an image of him to be every day placed at her toilet-table, to which she would talk as to the living Mr. Congreve, with all the freedom of the most polite and unreserved conversation. Mrs. Bracegirdle likewise had the highest veneration for our author, and joined with her Grace in a boundless profusion of sorrow upon his death. Some think, he had made a better figure in his Last Will, had he remembered his friendship he professed for Mrs. Bracegirdle, whose admirable performance added spirit to his dramatic pieces; but he forgot her, and gratified his vanity by chusing to make a rich duchess his sole legatee, and executrix.
Mr. Congreve was the son of fortune, as well as of the muses. He was early preferred to an affluent situation, and no change of ministry ever affected him, nor was he ever removed from any post he enjoyed, except to a better.
His place in the custom-house, and his office of secretary in Jamaica, are said to have brought him in upwards of 1200 l. a year; and he was so far an oeconomist, as to raise from thence a competent estate. No man of his learning ever pass'd thro' life with more ease, or less envy; and as in the dawn of his reputation he was very dear to the greatest wits of his time, so during his whole life he preserved the utmost respect of, and received continual marks of esteem from, men of genius and letters, without ever being involved, in any of their quarrels, or drawing upon himself the least mark of distaste, or, even dissatisfaction. The greatest part of the last twenty years of his life were spent in ease and retirement, and he gave himself no trouble about reputation. When the celebrated Voltaire was in England, he waited upon Congreve, and pass'd some compliments upon him, as to the reputation and merit of his works; Congreve thanked him, but at the same time told that ingenious foreigner, he did not chuse to be considered as an author, but only as a private gentleman, and in that light expected to be visited. Voltaire answered, 'That if he had never been any thing but a private gentleman, in all probability, he had never been troubled with that visit.'
Mr. Voltaire upon this occasion observes, that he was not a little disgusted with so unseasonable a piece of vanity:—This was indeed the highest instance of it, that perhaps can be produced. A man who owed to his wit and writings the reputation, as well as the fortune, he acquired, pretending to divest himself of human nature to such a degree, as to have no consciousness of his own merit, was the most absurd piece of vanity that ever entered into the heart of man; and of all vanity, that is the greatest which masks itself under the appearance of the opposite quality.
Towards the close of his life, he was much troubled with the gout; and for this reason, in the summer of the year 1728, he made a tour to Bath, for the benefit of the waters, where he had the misfortune to be overturned in his chariot, from which time he complained of a pain in his side, which was supposed to arise from some inward bruise. Upon his return to London, he perceived his health gradually decline, which he bore with fortitude and resignation.
On January the 19th, 1728-9, he yielded his last breath, about five o'clock in the morning, at his house in Surrey-street in the Strand, in the fifty-seventh year of his age. On the sunday following, January 26, his corpse lay in state in the Jerusalem-Chamber, from whence the same evening, between the hours of nine and ten, it was carried with great decency and solemnity to Henry the VIIth's Chapel; and after the funeral service was performed, it was interred in the Abbey. The pall was supported by the duke of Bridgewater, earl of Godolphin, lord Cobham, lord Wilmington, the honourable George Berkley, Esq; and Brigadier-general Churchill; and colonel Congreve followed his corpse as chief mourner; some time after, a neat and elegant monument was erected to his memory, by Henrietta duchess of Marlborough.
Mr. Congreve's reputation is so extensive, and his works so generally read, that any specimen of his poetry may be deemed superfluous. But finding an epistle of our author's in the Biographia Brittannica, not inserted in his works, it may not be improper to give it a place here. It is addressed to the lord viscount Cobham, and the ingenious authors inform us, that they copied it from a MS. very correct.
As in this poem there is a visible allusion to the measures, which the writer thought were too complaisant to the French, it is evident it must have been penned but a very small time before his death.
Of improving the present time.
We shall conclude the life of this eminent wit, with the testimony of Mr. Pope in his favour, from the close of his postscript to the translation of Homer: It is in every respect so honourable, that it would be injurious to Mr. Congreve to omit it.—His words are—'Instead of endeavouring to raise a vain monument to myself, let me leave behind me a memorial of my friendship with one of the most valuable men, as well as the finest writers of my age and country. One who has tried, and knows by his own experience, how hard an undertaking it is to do justice to Homer, and one who I'm sure sincerely rejoices with me at the period of my labours. To him therefore, having brought this long work to a conclusion, I desire to dedicate it, and have the honour and satisfaction of placing together in this manner, the names of Mr. Congreve and of A. POPE.'
William Congreve descended from a family in Staffordshire of so great antiquity, that it claims a place among the few that extend their hue beyond the Norman Conquest, and was the son of William Congreve, second son of Richard Congreve, of Congreve and Stratton. He visited, once at least, the residence of his ancestors; and, I believe, more places than one are still shown in groves and gardens, where he is related to have written his Old Bachelor.
Neither the time nor place of his birth is certainly known. If the inscription upon his monument be true, he was born in 1672. For the place, it was said by himself that he owed his nativity to England, and by everybody else that he was born in Ireland. Southern mentioned him with sharp censure as a man that meanly disowned his native country. The biographers assigned his nativity to Bardsa, near Leeds, in Yorkshire, from the account given by himself, as they suppose, to Jacob. To doubt whether a man of eminence has told the truth about his own birth is, in appearance, to be very deficient in candour; yet nobody can live long without knowing that falsehoods of convenience or vanity, falsehoods from which no evil immediately visible ensues, except the general degradation of human testimony, are very lightly uttered, and once uttered are sullenly supported. Boileau, who desired to be thought a rigorous and steady moralist, having told a pretty lie to Louis XIV., continued it afterwards by false dates; thinking himself obliged in honour, says his admirer, to maintain what, when he said it, was so well received. [Congreve was baptised at Bardsey, February 10, 1670.]
Wherever Congreve was born, he was educated first at Kilkenny, and afterwards at Dublin, his father having some military employment that stationed him in Ireland; but after having passed through the usual preparatory studies, as may be reasonably supposed, with great celerity and success, his father thought it proper to assign him a profession, by which something might be gotten, and about the time of the Revolution sent him, at the age of sixteen, to study law in the Middle Temple, where he lived for several years, but with very little attention to statutes or reports. His disposition to become an author appeared very early, as he very early felt that force of imagination, and possessed that copiousness of sentiment, by which intellectual pleasure can be given. His first performance was a novel called Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconciled; it is praised by the biographers, who quote some part of the preface, that is, indeed, for such a time of life, uncommonly judicious. I would rather praise it than read it.
His first dramatic labour was The Old Bachelor, of which he says, in his defence against Collier, “That comedy was written, as several know, some years before it was acted. When I wrote it I had little thoughts of the stage; but did it to amuse myself in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness. Afterwards, through my indiscretion it was seen, and in some little time more it was acted; and I, through the remainder of my indiscretion suffered myself to be drawn into the prosecution of a difficult and thankless study, and to be involved in a perpetual war with knaves and fools.”
There seems to be a strange affectation in authors of appearing to have done everything by chance. The Old Bachelor was written for amusement in the languor of convalescence. Yet it is apparently composed with great elaborateness of dialogue, and incessant ambition of wit. The age of the writer considered, it is indeed a very wonderful performance; for, whenever written, it was acted (1693) when he was not more than twenty-one years old; and was then recommended by Mr. Dryden, Mr. Southern, and Mr. Maynwaring. Dryden said that he never had seen such a first play; but they found it deficient in some things necessary to the success of its exhibition, and by their greater experience fitted it for the stage. Southern used to relate of one comedy, probably of this, that when Congreve read it to the players he pronounced it so wretchedly, that they had almost rejected it; but they were afterwards so well persuaded of its excellence that, for half a year before it was acted, the manager allowed its author the privilege of the house.
Few plays have ever been so beneficial to the writer, for it procured him the patronage of Halifax, who immediately made him one of the commissioners for licensing coaches, and soon after gave him a place in the Pipe-office, and another in the Customs, of six hundred pounds a year. Congreve’s conversation must surely have been at least equally pleasing with his writings.
Such a comedy, written at such an age, requires some consideration. As the lighter species of dramatic poetry professes the imitation of common life, of real manners. and daily incidents, it apparently presupposes a familiar knowledge of many characters, and exact observation of the passing world; the difficulty, therefore, is to conceive how this knowledge can be obtained by a boy.
But if The Old Bachelor be more nearly examined, it will be found to be one of those comedies which may be made by a mind vigorous and acute, and furnished with comic characters by the perusal of other poets, without much actual commerce with mankind. The dialogue is one constant reciprocation of conceits or clash of wit, in which nothing flows necessarily from the occasion, or is dictated by nature. The characters, both of men and women, are either fictitious and artificial, as those of Heartwell and the ladies, or easy and common, as Wittol, a tame idiot; Bluff, a swaggering coward; and Fondlewife, a jealous Puritan; and the catastrophe arises from a mistake, not very probably produced, by marrying a woman in a mask. Yet this gay comedy, when all these deductions are made, will still remain the work of very powerful and fertile faculties; the dialogue is quick and sparkling, the incidents such as seize the attention, and the wit so exuberant that it “o’er- informs its tenement.”
Next year he gave another specimen of his abilities in The Double Dealer, which was not received with equal kindness. He writes to his patron the Lord Halifax a dedication, in which he endeavours to reconcile the reader to that which found few friends among the audience. These apologies are always useless: de gestibus non est disputandem. Men may be convinced, but they cannot be pleased, against their will. But though taste is obstinate, it is very variable, and time often prevails when arguments have failed. Queen Mary conferred upon both those plays the honour of her presence; and when she died soon after, Congreve testified his gratitude by a despicable effusion of elegiac pastoral, a composition in which all is unnatural and yet nothing is new.
In another year (1695) his prolific pen produced Love for Love, a comedy of nearer alliance to life, and exhibiting more real manners, than either of the former. The character of Foresight was then common. Dryden calculated nativities; both Cromwell and King William had their lucky days; and Shaftesbury himself, though he had no religion, was said to regard predictions. The Sailor is not accounted very natural, but he is very pleasant. With this play was opened the New Theatre, under the direction of Betterton, the tragedian, where he exhibited two years afterwards (1687) The Mourning Bride, a tragedy, so written as to show him sufficiently qualified for either kind of dramatic poetry. In this play, of which, when he afterwards revised it, he reduced the versification to greater regularity; there is more bustle than sentiment; the plot is busy and intricate, and the events take hold on the attention; but, except a very few passages, we are rather amused with noise and perplexed with stratagem, than entertained with any true delineation of natural characters. This, however, was received with more benevolence than any other of his works, and still continues to be acted and applauded.
But whatever objections may be made either to his comic or tragic excellence, they are lost at once in the blaze of admiration, when it is remembered that he had produced these four plays before he had passed his twenty-fifth year, before other men, even such as are some time to shine in eminence, have passed their probation of literature, or presume to hope for any other notice than such as is bestowed on diligence and inquiry. Among all the efforts of early genius, which literary history records, I doubt whether any one can be produced that more surpasses the common limits of nature than the plays of Congreve.
About this time began the long-continued controversy between Collier and the poets. In the reign of Charles I. the Puritans had raised a violent clamour against the drama, which they considered as an entertainment not lawful to Christians, an opinion held by them in common with the Church of Rome; and Prynne published Histriomastix, a huge volume in which stage-plays were censured. The outrages and crimes of the Puritans brought afterwards their whole system of doctrine into disrepute, and from the Restoration the poets and players were left at quiet; for to have molested them would have had the appearance of tendency to puritanical malignity. This danger, however, was worn away by time, and Collier, a fierce and implacable non-juror, knew that an attack upon the theatre would never make him suspected for a Puritan; he therefore (1698) published A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, I believe with no other motive than religious zeal and honest indignation. He was formed for a controvertist, with sufficient learning, with diction vehement and pointed, though often vulgar and incorrect, with unconquerable pertinacity, with wit in the highest degree and sarcastic, and with all those powers exalted and invigorated by just confidence in his cause. Thus qualified and thus incited, he walked out to battle, and assailed at once most of the living writers, from Dryden to Durfey. His onset was violent; those passages, which, while they stood single, had passed with little notice, when they were accumulated and exposed together, excited horror. The wise and the pious caught the alarm, and the nation wondered why it had so long suffered irreligion and licentiousness to be openly taught at the public charge.
Nothing now remained for the poets but to resist or fly. Dryden’s conscience or his prudence, angry as he was, withheld him from the conflict. Congreve and Vanbrugh attempted answers. Congreve, a very young man, elated with success, and impatient of censure, assumed an air of confidence and security. His chief art of controversy is to retort upon his adversary his own words: he is very angry, and hoping to conquer Collier with his own weapons, allows himself in the use of every term of contumely and contempt, but he has the sword without the arm of Scanderbeg; he has his antagonist’s coarseness but not his strength. Collier replied, for contest was his delight. “He was not to be frighted from his purpose or his prey.”
The cause of Congreve was not tenable; whatever glosses he might use for the defence or palliation of single passages, the general tenour and tendency of his plays must always be condemned. It is acknowledged, with universal conviction, that the perusal of his works will make no man better, and that their ultimate effect is to represent pleasure in alliance with vice, and to relax those obligations by which life ought to be regulated.
The stage found other advocates, and the dispute was protracted through ten years: but at last comedy grew more modest, and Collier lived to see the reformation of the theatre.
Of the powers by which this important victory was achieved, a quotation from Love for Love, and the remark upon it, may afford a specimen:
“Here you have the sacred history burlesqued, and Sampson once more brought into the house of Dagon, to make sport for the Philistines!”
From this time his life ceased to be public; he lived for himself and his friends, and among his friends was able to name every man of his time whom wit and elegance had raised to reputation. It may be therefore reasonably supposed that his manners were polite, and his conversation pleasing. He seems not to have taken much pleasure in writing, as he contributed nothing to the Spectator, and only one paper to the Tatler, though published by men with whom he might be supposed willing to associate: and though he lived many years after the publication of his Miscellaneous Poems, yet he added nothing to them, but lived on in literary indolence, engaged in no controversy, contending with no rival, neither soliciting flattery by public commendations, nor provoking enmity by malignant criticism, but passing his time among the great and splendid, in the placid enjoyment of his fame and fortune.
Having owed his fortune to Halifax, he continued, always of his patron’s party, but, as it seems, without violence or acrimony, and his firmness was naturally esteemed, as his abilities were reverenced. His security therefore was never violated; and when, upon the extrusion of the Whigs, some intercession was used lest Congreve should be displaced, the Earl of Oxford made this answer:
He that was thus honoured by the adverse party might naturally expect to be advanced when his friends returned to power, and he was accordingly made secretary for the island of Jamaica, a place, I suppose without trust or care, but which, with his post in the Customs, is said to have afforded him twelve hundred pounds a year. His honours were yet far greater than his profits. Every writer mentioned him with respect, and among other testimonies to his merit, Steele made him the patron of his Miscellany, and Pope inscribed to him his translations of the Iliad. But he treated the muses with ingratitude; for, having long conversed familiarly with the great, he wished to be considered rather as a man of fashion than of wit; and, when he received a visit from Voltaire, disgusted him by the despicable foppery of desiring to be considered not as an author but a gentleman; to which the Frenchman replied, “that, if he had been only a gentleman, he should not have come to visit him.”
In his retirement he may be supposed to have applied himself to books, for he discovers more literature than the poets have commonly attained. But his studies were in his later days obstructed by cataracts in his eyes, which at last terminated in blindness. This melancholy state was aggravated by the gout, for which he sought relief by a journey to Bath: but, being overturned in his chariot, complained from that time of a pain in his side, and died at his house in Surrey Street in the Strand, January 29, 1728-9. Having lain in state in the Jerusalem Chamber, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a monument is erected to his memory by Henrietta Duchess of Marlborough, to whom, for reasons either not known or not mentioned, he bequeathed a legacy of about ten thousand pounds, the accumulation of attentive parsimony, which, though to her superfluous and useless, might have given great assistance to the ancient family from which he descended, at that time, by the imprudence of his relation, reduced to difficulties and distress.
Congreve has merit of the highest kind; he is an original writer, who borrowed neither the models of his plot nor the manner of his dialogue. Of his plays I cannot speak distinctly, for since I inspected them many years have passed, but what remains upon my memory is, that his characters are commonly fictitious and artificial, with very little of nature, and not much of life. He formed a peculiar idea of comic excellence, which he supposed to consist in gay remarks and unexpected answers; but that which he endeavoured, he seldom failed of performing. His scenes exhibit not much of humour, imagery, or passion: his personages are a kind of intellectual gladiators; every sentence is to ward or strike; the contest of smartness is never intermitted; his wit is a meteor playing to and fro with alternate coruscations. His comedies have, therefore, in some degree, the operation of tragedies, they surprise rather than divert, and raise admiration oftener than merriment. But they are the works of a mind replete with images, and quick in combination.
Of his miscellaneous poetry I cannot say anything very favourable. The powers of Congreve seem to desert him when he leaves the stage, as Antaeus was no longer strong than when he could touch the ground. It cannot be observed without wonder, that a mind so vigorous and fertile in dramatic compositions should on any other occasion discover nothing but impotence and poverty. He has in these little pieces neither elevation of fancy, selection of language, nor skill in versification: yet, if I were required to select from the whole mass of English poetry the most poetical paragraph, I know not what I could prefer to an exclamation in the Mourning Bride:
He who reads these lines enjoys for a moment the powers of a poet; he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but he feels it with great increase of sensibility; he recognises a familiar image, but meets it again amplified and expanded, embellished with beauty and enlarged with majesty. Yet could the author, who appears here to have enjoyed the confidence of Nature, lament the death of Queen Mary in lines like these:
And many years after he gave no proof that time had improved his wisdom or his wit, for, on the death of the Marquis of Blandford, this was his song:
In both these funeral poems, when he has yelled out many syllables of senseless dolour, he dismisses his reader with senseless consolation. From the grave of Pastora rises a light that forms a star, and where Amaryllis wept for Amyntas from every tear sprung up a violet. But William is his hero, and of William he will sing:-
It cannot but
be proper to show what they shall have to catch and carry:
The Birth of
the Muse is a miserable fiction. One
good line it has which was borrowed from Dryden. The
concluding verses are these:
Of his irregular poems, that to Mrs. Arabella Hunt seems to be the best; his Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, however, had some lines which Pope had in his mind when he wrote his own. His imitations of Horace are feebly paraphrastical, and the additions which he makes are of little value. He sometimes retains what were more properly omitted, as when he talks of vervain and gums to propitiate Venus.
Of his Translations, the Satire of Juvenal was written very early, and may therefore be forgiven, though it had not the massiness and vigour of the original. In all his versions strength and sprightliness are wanting; his Hymn to Venus, from Homer, is perhaps the best. His lines are weakened with expletives, and his rhymes are frequently imperfect. His petty poems are seldom worth the cost of criticism; sometimes the thoughts are false and sometimes common. In his verses on Lady Gethin, the latter part is in imitation of Dryden’s ode on Mrs. Killigrew; and Doris, that has been so lavishly flattered by Steele, has indeed some lively stanzas, but the expression might be mended, and the most striking part of the character had been already shown in Love for Love. His Art of Pleasing is founded on a vulgar, but perhaps impracticable principle, and the staleness of the sense is not concealed by any novelty of illustration or elegance of diction. This tissue of poetry, from which he seems to have hoped a lasting name, is totally neglected, and known only as it is appended to his plays.
While comedy or while tragedy is regarded, his plays are likely to be read; but, except what relates to the stage, I know not that he has ever written a stanza that is sung, or a couplet that is quoted. The general character of his Miscellanies is that they show little wit and little virtue. Yet to him it must be confessed that we are indebted for the connection of a national error, and for the cure of our Pindaric madness. He first taught the English writers that Pindar’s odes were regular; and though certainly he had not the lire requisite for the higher species of lyric poetry, he has shown us that enthusiasm has its rules, and that in mere confusion there is neither grace nor greatness.