Page images
PDF
[ocr errors]

temps que celui deces fables!” Men of letters there still be : but I doubt whether any Pipe Offices are left. The public has smoked them long

O. Words, like men, pass current for a while with the public, and being known everywhere abroad, at length take their places in society; so even the most secluded and refined ladies here present will have heard the phrase from their sons or brothers at school, and will permit me to call William Congreve, Esquire, the most eminent literary “swell” of his age. In my copy of “Johnson's Lives,” Congreve's wig is the tallest, and put on with the jauntiest air of all the laurelled worthies. “I am the great Mr. Congreve,” he seems to say, looking out from his voluminous curls. People called him the great Mr. Conve.” From the beginning of his career until the endeverybody admired him. Having got his education in Ireland, at the same school and college with Swift, he came to live in the Middle Temple, London, where he luckily bestowed no attention to the law; but splendidly frequented the coffee-houses and theatres, and appeared in the side box, the tayern, the Piazza, and the Mall, brilliant, beautiful, and victorious from the first. Everybody acknowledged the oung chieftain. The great Mr. Drydent declared that he was equal to Shakspeare, and bequeathed to him his own undisputed poetical crown, and writes of him : “Mr.

pipes or quills.”—BAcon: The Office of Alienations.” ... [We are indebted to Richardson's Dictionary for this fragment of erudition. But a modern man of letters can know little on these points—by experience.] * “It has been observed that no change of Ministers affected him in the least; nor was he ever removed from any post that was given to him, 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 twelve hundred a year.”—Biog. Brit., Art. CoNgrieve. H. Dryden addressed his “twelfth epistle” to “My dear friend, Mr. Congreve,”

[blocks in formation]

The “Double Dealer,” however, was not so palpable a hit as the “Old Bachelor,” but, at first, met with opposition.* The critics first having fallen foul of it, our “Swell ?” o the scourge to that presumptuous body, in the “Epistle Dedicatory” to the “Right Honorable Charles Montague.” “I was conscious,” said he, “where a true critic might have put me upon my defence. I was prepared for the attack . . . but I have not heard anything said sufficient to provoke an answer.” He goes on — “But there is one thing at which I am more concerned than all the false criticisms that are made upon me; and that is, some of the ladies are offended. I am heartily sorry for it; for I declare, I would rather disoblige all the critics in the world than one of the fair sex. They are concerned that I have represented some wo: men vicious and affected. How can I

help it? It is the business of a comic

poet to paint the vices and follies of hu: man kind. . . . I should be very #. an opportunity to make my comp

to . i. who are or. But they can no more expect it in a comed than to be tickied by a surgeon when he letting their blood.”

cated his “Iliad” to him; * Swift, Addison, Steele, all acknowledge Congreve's rank, and lavish compliments upon him. Voltaire went to wait upon him as on one of the Representatives of Literature; and the man who scarce praises any other living person —who flung abuse at Pope, and Swift, and Steele, and Addison — the Grub Street Timon, old John Dennis,f was hat in hand to Mr. Congreve; and said that when he retired from the stage, Comedy went with him. Nor was he less victorious elsewhere. He was admired in the drawing-rooms as well as the coffee-houses; as much beloved in the side-box as on the stage. He loved, and conquered, and jilted the beautiful Bracegirdle, f the heroine of all his plays, the favorite of all the town of her day; and the Duchess of Marlborough, Marlborough's daughter, had such an admiration of him, that when

he died she had an ivory figure made to imitate him,” and a large wax doll with gouty feet to be dressed just as the great Congreve's gouty feet were dressed in his great lifetime. He -saved some money by his Pipe Office, and his Custom House office, and his Hackney Coach office, and nobly left it, not to Bracegirdle, who wanted it,t but to the Duchess of Marlborough, who didn’t. #

How can I introduce to merry and shameless Comic Muse who won him such a reputation ? Nell Gwynn's servant fought the other footman for having called his mistress a bad name: and in like manner, and with pretty like epithets, Jeremy Collier attacked. that godless, reckless Jezebel, the English comedy of his time, and called her what Nell Gwynn's man's fellow-servants called Nell Gwynn's man's mistress. The serwants of the theatre, Dryden, Congreve,” and others, defended themselves with the same success, and for the same cause which set Nell's lackey fighting. Shé was a disreputable, daring, laughing, painted French baggage, that Comic Muse. She came over from the Continent with Charles (who chose many more of his female friends there) at the Restoration — a wild, dishevelled Lais, with eyes bright with wit and wine — a saucy court-favorite that sat at the King's knees, and laughed in his face, and when she showed her bold cheeks at her chariot-window, had some of the noblest and most famous people of the land bowing round her wheel. She was kind and popular enough, that daring Comedy, that audacious poor Nell: , she was gay and oenerous, kind, frank, as such people can afford to be: and the men who lived with her and laughed with her, took her pay and drank her wine,

* “Instead of endeavoring to raise a vain monument to myself, let me leave behind me a memorial of my friendshi with one of the most valuable men as well as 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 am sure, seriously rejoices with me at the }. of my labors. To him, therefore,

aving brought this long work to a con:

clusion, I desire to dedicate it, and to have the honor and satisfaction of placing together in this manner the names of Mr. Congreve and of— A. Pop E.” – Postscript to Translation of the Iliad of Homer. Mar. 25, 1720.

f “When asked why he listened to the praises of Dennis, he said he had much rather be flattered than abused. Swift had a particular friendship for our author, and generally took him under his protection in his high authoritative manner.” — THos. DAVIEs: Dramatic Miscellanies.

f “Congreve was very intimate for years with Mrs. Bracegirdle, and lived in the same street, his house very near hers, until his *... with the young Duchess of Marlborough. He then quitted that house. The Duchess showed us a diamond necklace (which Lady Di. used afterwards to wear) that cost seven thousand pounds, and was purchased with the money Congreve left her. How much better would it have been to have given it to poor Mrs. Bracegirdle.”—DR. YoUNg. Spence’s Anecdotes.

ou that

* “A glass was put in the hand of the statue, which was supposed to bow to her Grace, and to nod in approbation of what she spoke to it.”—THos. DAVIEs: Dra matic Miscellanies.

f The sum Congreve left Mrs. Bracegirdle was 200l., as is said in the “Dramatic Miscellanies” of Tom Davies; where are some particulars about this charming actress and beautiful woman.

She had a “ o aspect,” says Tom, on the authority of Cibber, and “such a glow of health and cheerfulness in her countenance, as inspired everybody with desire.” “Scarce an audience saw her that were not half of them her lovers.”

Congreve and Rowe courted her in the p. of their lovers. “In Tamerlane,

we courted her Selima, in the person of Axalla. . . . . Congreve insinuated his addresses in his Valentine to her Angelica, in his ‘Love for Love;’ in his Osmyn to her Almena, in the ‘Mourning Bride;’ and, lastly, in his Mirabel, to her Millamant, in the “Way of the World.” Mirabel, the fine gentleman of the play, is, I believe, not very distant from the real character of Congreve.”—Dramatic Miscellanies, vol. iii. 1784.

She retired from the stage when Mrs. Oldfield began to be the public favorite. She died in 1748, in the eighty-fifth year of her age.

f Johnson calls his legacy the “accumulation of attentive parsimony, which,” he continues, “though to her (the Duchess) 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.” – Lives of the Poets.

* He replied to Collier, in the pamhlet called “Amendments of Mr. Collier's alse and Imperfect Citations,” &c. A specimen or two are subjoined:– “The greater part of these examples which he has produced are only demonstrations of his own impurity: they only savor of his utterance, and were sweet enough till tainted by his breath. -- cre the expression is unblamable in its own pure and genuine signification, he enters into it, himself, like the evil spirit; he possesses the innocent phrase, and makes it bellow forth his own blasphemics. “If I do not return him civilities in calling him names, it is because I am not very well versed in his nomenclatures. . . . I will only call him Mr. Collier, and that I will call him as often as I think he shall deserve it. “The corruption of a rotten divine is the generation of a sour critic.” “Congreve,” says Dr. Johnson, “a very young man, elated with success, and impatient of censure, assumed an air of confidence and security. . . The diso was protracted through two years; ut at last Comedy grew more modest, and Collier lived to see the reward of his labors in the reformation of the theatre.”— Life of Congreve.

turned out when the Puritans hooted her, to fight and defend her. But the jade was indefensible, and it is pretty certain her servants knew it. There is life and death going on in every thing : truth and lies always at battle. Pleasure is always warring against self-restraint. Doubt is always crying Pshal and sneering. A man in life, a humorist, in writing about life, sways over to one principle or the other, and laughs with the reverence for right and the love of truth in his heart, or laughs at these from the other side. Didn't I tell you that dancing was a serious business to Harlequin 4 I have read two or three of Congreve's plays over before speaking of him; and my feelings were rather like those, which I dare say most of us here have had, at Pompeii, looking at Sallust's house and the relics of an orgy: a dried winejar or two, a charred supper-table, the breast of a dancing-girl pressed against the ashes, the laughing skull of a jester: a perfect stillness round about, as the cicerone twangs his moral, and the blue sky shines calmly over the ruin. The Congreve Muse is dead, and her song choked in Time's ashes. We gaze at the skeleton, and wonder at the life which once revelled in its mad veins. We take the skull up, and muse over the frolic and daring, the wit, scorn, passion, hope, desire, with which that empty bowl once fermented. We think of the glances that allured, the tears that melted, of the bright eyes that shone in those vacant sockets; and of lips whispering love, and cheeks dimpling with smiles, that once covered yon ghastly yellow framework. They used to call those teeth pearls once. See there's the cup she drank from, the gold chain she wore on her neck, the vase which held her rouge for her cheeks, her looking-glass, and the harp she used to dance to. Instead of a feast we find a gravestone, and in place of a mistress, a few bones. Reading in these plays now, is like shutting your ears and looking at people dancing. What does it mean? the measures, the grimaces, the bowing, shuffling and retreating, the cavalier seul advancing upon those ladies—those ladies and men twirling round at the end in a mad galop, after which everybody bows and the uaint rite is celebrated. Without the music we can't understand that comic dance of the last century—its strange gravity and o: its decorum or its indecorum. It has a jargon of its own quite unlike life; a sort of moral of its own quite unlike life too. I'm afraid it's a Heathen mystery, symbolizing a Pagan doctrine; o: — as the Pompeians very likely were, assembled at their theatre and laughing at their games; as Sallust and his friends, and their mistresses, protested, crowned with flowers, with cups in their hands—against the new, hard, ascetic, pleasure-hating doctrine whose gaunt ... o passed over from the Asian shores of the Mediterranean, were for breaking the fair images of Venus, and flinging the altars of Bacchus down. I fancy poor Congreve's theatre is a temple of Pagan delights, and mysteries not permitted except among heathens. fear the theatre carries down that ancient tradition and worship, as masons have carried their secret signs and rites from temple to temple. When the libertine hero carries off the beauty in the play, and the dotard is laughed to scorn for having the young wife: in the ballad, when the poet bids his mistress to gather roses while she may, and warns her that old Time is still a-flying: in the ballet, when honest Corydon courts Phillis under the treillage of the pasteboard cottage, and leers at her over the head of grandpapa in red stockings, who is o asleep; and when seduced by the invitations of the rosy youth she comes forward to the footlights, and they perform on each other's tiptoes that pas which you all know, and which is only interrupted by old grandpapa awaking from his doze at

the pasteboard châlet (whither he returns to take another nap in case the young people get an encore): . when Harlequin, splendid in youth, strength, and agility, arrayed in gold and a thousand colors, springs over the heads of countless, perils, leaps down the throat of bewildered giants, and, dauntless and splendid, dances danger down : when Mr. Punch, that godless old rebel, breaks every law and laughs at it with odious triumph, outwits his lawyer, bullies the beadle, knocks his wife about the head, and hangs the hangman — don't you see in the comedy, in the song, in the dance, in the ragged little Punch's H.” Pagan protest ? oesn't it seem as if Life puts in its |. and sings its comment? Look ow the lovers walk and hold each other's hands and whisper! Sings the chorus – “There is nothing like love, there is nothing like youth, there is nothing like beauty of your spring. time. Look! how old age tries to meddle with merry sport! Beat him with his own crutch, the wrinkled old dotard | There is nothing like youth, there is nothing like beauty, there is nothing like strength. Strength and valor win beauty and youth. Be brave and conquer. Be young and happy. o enjoy, enjoy! Would you know the Segreto per esser felice 2 Here it is, in a smiling mistress and acup of Falernian.” As the boy tosses the cup and sings his song— hark 1 what is that chant coming nearer and nearer? What is that dirge which will disturb us? The lights of the festival burn dim— the cheeks turn pale— the voice quavers—and the cup drops on the floor. Who's there 4 Death and Fate are at the gate, and they will come in. Congreve's comic feast flares with lights, and round the table, emptying their flaming bowls of drink, and exchanging the wildest jests and ribaldry, sit men and women, waited on by rascally valets and attendants as dissolute as their mistresses—perhaps the very worst company in the world.

There doesn't seem to be a pretence of morals. At the head of the table sits Mirabel or Belmour (dressed in the French fashion and waited on by English imitators of Scapin and Frontin). Their calling is to be irresistible, and to conquer everywhere. Like the heroes of the chivalry story, whose long-winded loves and combats they were sending out of fashion, they are always splendid and triumphant — overcome all dangers, vanquish all enemies, and win the beauty at the end. Fathers, husbands, usurers, are the foes these champions contend with. They are merciless in old age, invariably, and an old man plays the part in the dramas which the wicked enchanter or the great blundering giant performs in the chivalry tales, who threatens and grumbles and resists — a huge stupid obstacle always overcome by the knight. It is an old man with a money-box: Sir Belmour his son or nephew spends his money and laughs at him. It is an old man with a young wife whom he locks up : Sir Mirabel robs him of his wife, trips up his gouty old, heels and leaves the old hunks. The old fool, what business has he to hoard his money, or to lock up blushing eighteen 4 Money is for youth, love is for youth, away with the old people. hen Millamant is sixty, having of course divorced the first Lady Millamant, and married his friend Doricourt's grand-daughter out of the nursery — it will be his turn; and young Belmour will make a fool of him. All this pretty morality you have in the comedies of William Congreve, Esq. They are full of wit. Such manners as he observes, he observes with great humor; but ah! it's a weary feast, that banquet of wit where no love is. It palls very soon ; sad indigestions follow it and lonely blank headaches in the morning. I can’t pretend to quote scenes from the splendid Congreve's plays *— * The scene of Valentine’s pretended madness in “Love for Love” is a splen5

which are undeniably bright, witty, and daring — any more than I could

did specimen of Congreve's daring manner:“Scandal. —And have you master a hint of their plot upon him? “Jeremy. —Yes, Sir; he says he'll favor it, and mistake her for Angelica. “Scandal. —It may make us sport. *4 ;: —Mercy on us! “Valentine. — Husht—interrupt me not—I’ll whisper predictions to thee, and thou shaltoão am truth, and can teach thy tongue a new trick,--I have told thee what's ssed—now I’ll teil what's to come:–Dost thou know what will happen to-morrow? Answer me not —for I will tell thee. To-morrow knaves will thrive thro” craft, and fools thro' fortune; and honesty will go as it did, frostnipt in a summer suit. Ask me questions concerning to-morrow. “Scandal.– Ask him, Mr. Foresight. “Foresight. — Pray what will be done at Court? * Valentine.—Scandal will tell you; —I am truth, I never come there. “Foresight. —In the city? “Valentine. —Oh, prayers will be said in empty churches at the usual hours. Yet you will see such zealous faces behind counters as if religion were to be sold in every shop. Oh, things will go methodically in the city, the clocks will strike twelve at noon, and the horn’d herd buzz in the Exchange at two. Husbands and wives will drive distinct trades, and care and pleasure separately occupy the family. Coffee-houses will be full of smoke and stratagem. And the cropt 'prentice that sweeps his master's shop in the morning, may, ten to one, dirty his sheets before night. But there are two things that you will see very strange; which are, wanton wives with their legs at liberty, and tame cuckolds with chains about their necks. But hold, I must examine you before I go further; you look suspiciously. Are you a husband 2 “Foresight. —I am married. “Valentine.—Poor creatures Is your wife of Covent-garden Parish? Foresight.-No; St. Martin’s-in-theFields. “Valentine, – Alas, poor man! his eyes are sunk, and his hands shrivelled; his legs dwindled, and his back bow’d. Pray, pray, for a metamorphosis—change thy shape, and shake off age; get thee Medea's kettle and be boiled anew; come forth with lab’ring callous hands, and chine of steel, and Atlas’ shoulders. Let Taliacotius trim the calves of twenty chairmen, and make thee pedestals to stand erect upon, and look matrimony in the face. a, ha, ha! That, a man should have a stomach to a wedding-sup

G

given your

[ocr errors][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »