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'HIS is the first time that any attempt has been
made to write a detailed biography of Congreve, and that circumstance may be held to excuse the intrusion, of what is commonly dispensed with in the volumes of this series—a lengthy prefatory note. There can be no question that, unless fresh material should most unexpectedly turn up, the opportunity for preparing a full and picturesque life of this poet has wholly passed away.
The task should have been undertaken a hundred and fifty years ago, when those were still alive who had known him personally. This occasion was unaccountably allowed to slip by, partly, no doubt, because the modern art of biography was but very poorly understood, but partly, also, because Congreve was no very fascinating or absorbing human being. Correct biographies of Pope or Swift were not published until long after the decease of those writers, yet we have no difficulty whatever in restoring them to life in fancy. But then they possessed an interesting personal quality, of which the author of The Way of the World seems to have been devoid.
In 1730, the year after Congreve's death, that audacious pirate Curll issued a volume entitled Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Amours of William Congreve, Esq. He had the effrontery to invite Mrs. Bracegirdle to contribute facts to it; in refusing, that admirable actress predicted that the book would not have “a new sheet" in it. She might safely have said “a new page.” It is an absolutely worthless construction of scissors and paste, containing nothing previously unprinted, except one or two lies, and it is mainly occupied either with reprints of Congreve's scattered minor writings or with gossip absolutely foreign to his career. The name of Charles Wilson appears on the title of this wretched forgery; it is understood that there never existed such a person, and it has been conjectured that it was John Oldmixon, “that virulent party writer for hire,” who was the guilty hack.
The publication of these spurious Memoirs seems to have dissuaded any honest writer from undertaking in earnest the task which “Charles Wilson” pretended to have carried out. At all events, no life of Congreve has appeared since that date, until the present volume. The best account of Congreve, published during the age after his death, is the article by Dr. Campbell in the Biographica Britannica. Campbell can scarcely have known Congreve personally, but he was helped by the aged Southerne, who had been Congreve's friend from college onwards, and who supplied him with notes. In later times the known particulars of his life have been more or less accurately summarized and added to by Dr. Samuel Johnson, Leigh Hunt, and Macaulay. The portion of an essay which the last-mentioned writer dedicates to Congreve is well known, and is so admirable that we regret that Macaulay never returned to treat Vanbrugh and Farquhar in the same broad and sympathetic spirit. Thackeray's more brilliant essay is much less accurate than Macaulay's. It must be read for the pleasure such beautiful imaginative writing gives, but not as a portrait of the veritable Congreve.
None of these accounts of Congreve, however, extends beyond the limits of a very few pages, and, extraordinary as it seems, in these days of research, no one till now has taken the trouble to examine the existing sources of information, and collect the facts still discoverable about the greatest of our comic dramatists. I have not attempted to make a hero of this unromantic, “unreproachful” bard; I shall be satisfied if I have succeeded in surveying rather minutely a little province of our literary history which had been neglected, and in so adding my small contribution to the materials of criticism. Some fallacies I think I have destroyed; the theory of Congreve's magnificent and preposterous wealth in early life is shown to be without a basis, and I hope it will be acknowledged that as .we know him more intimately he turns out to be more amiable and much less cynical than he had been depicted to us. But I am very far from pretending that he was one of those whom, in the phrase so persistently and falsely attributed to him, “ to love is a liberal education.”
The story of this book is compiled from materials scattered over a great many volumes, not all of which are to be found in any single library. Among the more obvious sources of information I may mention Cibber, Giles Jacob, Malone's Dryden, Spence's Anecdotes, Swift's correspondence, George Monck Berkeley's curious and valuable volume, Luttrel's Diary, and the newspapers of the day. I am glad to be able, for the first time, to chronicle the exact date of the publication of almost all Congreve's writings. The bibliography of this poet, crowded. as it mainly is into a short span of years, had hitherto been entirely neglected; this is a small matter, perhaps, but not to be despised in dealing with such masterpieces as the great comedies of Congreve. I may be allowed to call attention to the chapter on the Collier controversy. This is the first time in which the pamphlets which were provoked by that interesting crisis in our literary ethics have been successively examined and chronologically arranged.
From the minor and less attainable writings of Congreve I have occasionally quoted But I have thought it needless to pad out the limited space at my disposal by citing passages from the great comedies, more especially as the text of these is now at the command of every reader. Only last year there appeared an excellent text of Congreve's Plays, in the Mermaid Series (Vizetelly & Co.), at a low price. To this edition the Congreve section of Macaulay's Essay was prefixed, and Mr. A. C. Ewald appended a few valuable notes.
F all the important men of letters born after the
Restoration, the earliest to distinguish himself was William Congreve, and with him, in a certain sense, the literature of the eighteenth century began. He was the most eminent poet between Dryden and Pope, and he formed the advanced guard of the army of the Age of Anne. Like other writers of his time-like Gay, for instance, and Steele-he lost count of his years, and thought, or affected to think, that he was younger than we know him to have been. In contradiction to the general impression of his friends, however, he maintained that the event took place in England, not in Ireland ; he was right, but this fact was not proved until the close of last century. Theophilus Cibber, and others following him, have asserted that Sir James Ware reckoned Congreve among writers born in Ireland, on evidence received from Southerne. There is some mystification here, for Sir James Ware died before our poet was born, and the enlarged edition of his book, published long afterwards by Walter Harris, gives no authority of Southerne's for in