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after having passed through the usua! preparatory studies, as may be reasonably supposed with
great celerity and success, his father thought it proper to aflign 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
a' novel, called Incognita, or Love and Duty reconciled: It is praised by the biographers, who quote fome 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 dramatick labour was the old Batchelor; of which he says, in his defence against Collier, “ that comedy was written,
several know, some years before it
When I wrote it, I had little " thoughts of the stage; but did it, to amufe “ myself, in a flow recovery from 'a fit of 66 sickness. Afterwards through my indif“ cretion it was seen, and in some little time
more it was acted; and I, through the res 4 mainder of
my indiscretion, suffered myself to be drawn in, to the prosecution of a “ difficult and thankless study, and to be in• volved in a perpetual war with knaves and
There seems to be a strange affectation in authors of appearing to have done every thing by chance.
The Old Batchelor was written for amusement, in the languor of convalescence. Yet it is apparently compofed with great elaborateness of dialogue, and inceffant 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 requisite 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 pipeoffice, and another in the customs of fix 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 dramatick poetry professes the imitation of common life, of real manners, and daily incidents, it apparently presupposes a familiar knowledge of many chara&ers, and Vol. III.
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 Batchelor 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 furtiished with comick 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 neceffarily from the occasion, or is dictated by nature. The 'characters both of men and women are either fi&titious '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 a very powerful and fertile mind: the dialogue is quick and sparkling, the incidents
fich 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
the audience. These apologies are always useless; de gustibus non eft difputandum; men may be convinced, but they cannot be pleased, against their will. But though taste is obftinate, 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 teftified his gratitude by a despicable effusion of elegiac paftoral; 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