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About this time began the long continued controversy between Collier and the poets. In the reign of Charles the first 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 afterward 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 nonjuror, 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 keen 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 D'Urfey. 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 Vanburgh atteinpted answers. Congreve, a very young man, elated with success, and impatient of censure, assumed an air of confidence and security. His chief artifice 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 VOL. II.
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 tenor 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 reward of his labour in 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.
“ Sir Samps. Sampson's a very good name; for your Sampsons were strong dogs from the beginning."
“ Angel. Have a care ; If you remember, the strongest Sampson of your name pulld an old house over his head at last.”
“ Here you have the sacred history burlesqued, and Sampson once more brought into the house of Dagon, to make sport for the Philistines !"
Congreve's last play was The Way of the World; which, though as he hints in his dedication, it was written with great labour and much thought, was received with so little favour, that, being in a high degree offended and disgusted, he resolved to commit his quiet and his fame no more to the caprices of an audience.
From this time his life ceased to the 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 ;
“ Non obtusa adeo gestamus pectora Peni,
Nec tam aversus equos Tyriâ sol jungit ab urbe.” 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 translation 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 latter 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 dutchess 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 any thing very favourable.
The powers of Congreve seem to desert him when he leaves the stage, as Antæus 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..
It was a fancy'd noise ; for all is hush'd.
It bore the accent of a human voice.
It was thy fear, or else some transient wind
No, all is hush'd and still as death. 'Tis dreadful !
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 recognizes 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 ;
The rocks are cleft, and new descending rills