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Besides his dramatic works, Rowe was the author of two volumes of miscellaneous poems, in which, however, he scarcely ever rises above mediocrity. He was the earliest editor of Shakspeare entitled to the name, and the first to attempt the collection of a few biographical particulars of the immortal dramatist's life. He also translated 'Lucan's Pharsalia ;' and Dr. Johnson regarded this performance as one of the greatest productions of English poetry,' for,' says he, there is, perhaps, none that so completely exhibits the genius and spirit of the original. Though this praise may be somewhat extravagant, still Rowe's 'Pharsalia’ deserves much more notice than it has hitherto received; and should it be more extensively read, it would be more highly appreciated.
Lecture the Twenty-Eightly
WILLIAM CONGREVE-SIR OH VANBRUGH-GEORGE FARQUHAR-COLLEY CIBBER
-MRS. SUSANNA CENTLIVRE-WILLIAM LILLO—SIR RICHARD STEELE-AARON HILL.
TROM the tragic poets who occupied our chief attention during the last
lecture, we pass to notice their contemporary comedy writers. Among these, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar are the most conspicuous.
William CONGREVE was descended from a family in Staffordshire, of so great antiquity that it claims a place among the few that can trace their ancestry beyond the Norman Conquest. He was born at Bardsa, near Leeds, in 1672; but in consequence of some military appointment which his father held in Ireland, the future poet was carried, in his infancy, to that country, and there educated. This circumstance has given rise to the impression, long current, that Ireland was the country of his nativity. His studies were at first conducted at the grammar-school of Kilkenny, and afterward in Dublin; and though his proficiency in classical learning was very respectable, it was attained without the aid of a university. About the time of the Revolution, when Congreve was in the seventeenth year of his age, his father sent him to study law in the Middle Temple, London, where he lived for several years, but with very little attention to statutes or reports. His inclination to become an author,' says Dr. Johnson, ‘appeared even in his youth ; for at that early period he felt that force of imagination, and possessed that copiousness of sentiment which uniformly afford intellectual pleasure.
Congreve's first essay in authorship was a novel under the title of Incognita, or Love and Duty reconciled. This work, when we remember that the author was not yet seventeen years of age at the time it was written, must be regarded as a very unusual production. His first dramatic performance was his comedy of The Old Bachelor. The success of this play, after it had undergone slight revisions by Dryden and Southerne, was so great as to recommend the youthful author to the patronage of Lord Halifax, who being desirous to place so eminent a wit in a condition of ease
and tranquillity, immediately made him one of the commissioners for licensing hackney coaches; and soon after appointed him to a place in the customs, from which he received six hundred pounds a year. The very remarkable success that attended The Old Bachelor,' induced Congreve to bring out, in the following year, 1694, his second comedy, The Double Dealer. This play, though highly approved and commended by the best judges, was not so successful as the first; the cause of which is supposed to have been its regularity-regular comedy then being a new thing before an English audience. The death of Queen Mary, at the close of this year, drew from Congreve a Pastoral, entitled The Mourning Muse of Alexis, which is simple, correct, and partially elegant, but in no respect remarkable.
In another year, 1695, Congreve's prolific pen produced Love for Love, a comedy more nearly allied to life, and exhibiting more real manners than either of the former. Having thoroughly established his reputation as a comic writer, he now invoked the tragic muse, and, in 1697, produced The Mourning Bride, a tragedy written with such skill as to show that the author was entirely qualified for either department of dramatic poetry. His last drama, The Way of the World, a comedy, was written in 1700. When we reflect that all his fine plays were produced before he had reached the twenty-eighth year of his age, we are prepared to overlook such dramatic defects as they may contain, and to acknowledge that among all the efforts of early genius which literary history records, not one can be produced that more surpasses the common limits of nature, than the plays of Congreve.
In 1710, Congreve published a collection of miscellaneous poems; and though none of them rise above mediocrity, yet his good fortune still followed him. On the accession of George the First, he obtained the office of secretary for Jamaica, which, though a mere nominal office, raised his annual income to twelve hundred pounds. Basking in the sunshine of opulence and courtly society, he now wished to forget that he was an author, and when Voltaire waited upon him, he said he would rather be considered a gentleman than a poet. "If you had been merely a gentleman,' said the witty Frenchman, 'I should not have come to visit you. In his retirement, Con greve devoted himself closely to his books, but his studies were at length interrupted by cataracts upon his eyes, which resulted in total blindness. This melancholy state was aggravated by the gout, from which he sought relief by a journey to Bath; but being overturned in his chariot, a disease in his side ensued, which eventually terminated his life, on the twenty-ninth of January, 1729. Having lain in state, in the Jerusalem Chamber, for some days, he was then buried in Westminster Abbey, and his pall was borne by the Duke of Bridgewater, Lord Cobham, the Earl of Wilmington, and other men of high rank. His fortune, which amounted to ten thousand pounds, he bequeathed to Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, by whom a monu ment was erected to his memory, and who purchased with the bequest a diamond necklace, which she wore in honor of her departed friend.
With all Congreve's genius for the drama, we are constrained to say that
his plays are generally without poetry or imagination, and his comedies are inextricably associated with sensuality and profaneness. We admire his brilliant dialogue and repartee, and his exuberance of dramatic incident and character ; but the total absence of the higher virtues which ennoble lifethe beauty and grace of female virtue, the feelings of generosity, truth, honor, affection, modesty, and tenderness-leaves his pages barren and unproductive of any permanent interest or popularity. His glittering artificial life possesses but few charms to the lovers of nature or poetry, and is not recommended by any moral purpose of sentiment. "The Mourning Bride' possesses higher dramatic merit than most of the serious plays of that day. Though generally destitute of passion, yet it contains numerous poetical scenes and much poetical language. The following opening lines are familiar to most readers :
Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,
By magic numbers and persuasive sound. Dr. Johnson considered the description of the cathedral in the following extract, the most poetical paragraph in the whole range of the English drama :
Alm. It was thy fear, or else some transient wind
Alm. No; all is hush'd and still as death. 'Tis dreadful!
Leon. Let us return; the horror of this place
Alm. It may my fears, but can not add to that.
Of Garcia's more detested bed: that thought
Exerts my spirits, and my present fears
Of Congreve's comedies it is difficult, through quotations, to convey an adequate idea. It is not in particular passages that he shines, but in a constant stream of wit and liveliness, and the quick interchange of dialogue and incident. We will, however, venture the following scene from "The Double Dealer:
SCANDAL AND LITERATURE IN HIGH LIFE.
CYNTHIA-LORD AND LADY FROTH-BRISK. Lady Froth. Then you think that episode between Susan the dairy-maid and our coachman is not amiss. You know, I may suppose the dairy in town, as well as in the country.
Brisk. Incomparable, let me perish! But, then, being an heroic poem, had not you better call him a charioteer. Charioteer sounds great. Besides, your ladyship's coachman having a red face, and you comparing him to the sun--and you know the sun is called 'heaven's charioteer.'
Lady F. Oh! infinitely better; I am extremely beholden to you for the hint. Stay; we'll read over those half a score lines again. [Pulls out a paper.] Let me see here ; you know what goes before--the comparison you know. [Reads.!
For as the sun shines every day,
So of our coachman I may say. Brisk. I am afraid that simile won't do in wet weather, because you say the san shines every day.
Lady F. No; for the sun it won't, but it will do for the coachman; for you know there's most occasion for a coach in wet weather.
Brisk. Right, right; that saves all.
Lady F'. Then I don't say the sun shines all the day, but that he peeps now and then; yet he does shine all the day, too, you know, though we don't see him.
Brisk. Right; but the vulgar will never comprehend that.
For as the sun shines every day
Just as the sun does, more or less.
And when at night his labour's done,
Then, too, like heaven's charioteer, the sun
Into the dairy he descends,
His fare is paid him, and he sets in milk.
Brisk. Incomparable well and proper, egad! But I have one exception to make: