Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by Henry Austin Dobson
William Congreve (16701729)
[William Congreve was born in 1670. His first comedy, The Old Bachelor, was acted in 1693. In 1694 and 1695 respectively appeared two others, The Double Dealer and Love for Love. These were followed in 1697 by the tragedy of The Mourning Bride. His last and best comedy, The Way of the World, conspicuous for its all-conquering character of Millamant, so admirably interpreted by the beautiful Mrs. Bracegirdle, was produced in 1700. After this he practically retired from literature. His works, which include a volume of miscellaneous poems, were published in 1710. He died in 1729.]
THE POETICAL remains of Congreve, especially when considered in connection with those remarkable dramatic works which achieved for him so swift and splendid a reputation, have but a slender claim to vitality. His brilliant and audacious Muse seems to have required the glitter of the foot-lights and the artificial atmosphere of the stage as conditions of success; in the study he is, as a rule, either trivial or frigidly conventional. A translation of the third book of Ovids Art of Love has the merit of being still readable; but his Pindaric Odes and Pastorals, such as that to the King on the taking of Namur, and The Mourning Muse of Alexis, can now only detain those who are curious in the class of poetry which flourishes under the patronage of royalty. The opening stanza of the lines On Mrs. Arabella Hunt singing has a suave and delicate movement:
This is beautifully and musically said. The second stanza is not so good; and in the third the charm is altogether loosed by the absurd appearance of Silence, draped in a melancholy Thought, and insecurely seated upon an ancient Sigh,an intrusion from which the reader barely recovers in time to recognise a strange, and we think hitherto unnoticed, anticipation of the last lines of Keats famous last sonnet in the concluding couplet of the whole:
In his songs and minor pieces Congreve is more successful, though he never reaches the level of his contemporary Prior. Amoret, which we quote, sets a tune which has often since been heard in familiar verse; and the little song False though she be to me and love has almost a note of genuine regret.