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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 10. His Friends and Way of Life

Congreve was thirty when he gave The Way of the World to the theatre. He wrote no more for the stage. The history of letters shows no other instance of defection so great as this. Several reasons for his sudden abandonment of letters have been suggested—the cold reception of The Way of the World, or the blundering attack of Jeremy Collier. The reasons are insufficient. The natural aristocracy of Congreve’s mind makes light of such rebuffs as these. A better reason is not far to seek. In depicting society Congreve had fallen in love with it. He turned willingly from art to life, for which his character and his studies alike fitted him. He was by temperament what himself would have called a man of quality. He might have sat for the portrait of Valentine or Mirabell. He lavished in talk his incomparable gifts as an intellectual gladiator, choosing only a quieter field for their display. The generosity of his friends placed him above and beyond the irking of want or debt. Soon after the production of Love for Love he was appointed commissioner for the licensing for hackney coaches, an office which he held until 1707. Commissioner of wine licences from 1705 to 1714, secretary for Jamaica from 1714 onwards, he enjoyed also a place in the Paper office, and lived in comfortable affluence upon £1200 a year. Taking but a modest interest in politics, he kept aloof from the strife of parties, and neither side was urgent to strip him of his emoluments. When—in 1711—he feared to be deprived of his commissionership of wine licences, Swift waited upon “my Lord-Treasurer,” successfully pleaded the cause of Congreve, and was able to reassure his friend. “So I have made a worthy man easy,” he writes, “and that is a good day’s work.” Few of his contemporaries had more or more closely attached friends. Halifax accepted his dedication and guarded his interests. Of Dryden’s generous sympathy towards him something has already been said. It was to him that Steele dedicated his Miscellanies, and that Pope addressed the famous epilogue of his Iliad, which does equal honour to himself and to Congreve.

Such were some of Congreve’s intimates, nor did his wealth of friendship proceed from mere complacency. He was not every man’s friend because he was no man’s enemy. The social graces were active in him. His talk must have been an easy echo of his comedies. Swift, the sternest of judges, “dined with him and Estcourt” on one occasion, “and laughed till six.” Though long before his death he was acclaimed the greatest man of letters in his time, though he lived in an atmosphere of grandeur, his kindly services were always at the disposition of others. “On another visit he gave me a Tatler,” says Swift, “as blind as he is, for little Harrison.” The courage and gaiety of his heart were undiminished by gout or by that fiercest scourge of a scholar, the loss of his eyesight. As the passage of the years separated him further from the triumphs of the stage, the writer was lost in the man of the world. “He is so far from being puff’d up with vanity,” wrote Giles Jacob, “that he abounds with humility and good-nature. He does not show so much the poet as the gentleman.” It was this worldly front, which he showed to Voltaire in 1726, and which shocked the French philosopher, avid of literary fame. Congreve, in conversation, dismissed his masterpieces as trifles, and received Voltaire on the foot of a gentleman, who lived very plainly. Voltaire replied that, had Congreve had the misfortune to be a mere gentleman, he would not have visited him. Both men spoke justly. But Voltaire did not sufficiently appreciate the natural reticence of the Englishman, who, without the slightest vanity, was still unwilling to discuss the masterpieces, which lay a quarter of a century behind him.

Thus, he lived a discreet, well-ordered life, visiting the country houses of his friends, gossiping at Wills’s, seeking such solace as Bath or Tunbridge Wells might afford him. Of Mrs. Bracegirdle, the enchantress, whose genius embellished his plays, he remained unto the end the friend and neighbour. To the duchess of Marlborough, the wife of Francis Godolphin, he was bound in the bonds of a close attachment. When he died in 1729 he left £200 to the actress, and to the duchess £10,000, a sum which might, as Johnson says, “have given great assistance to the ancient family, from which he was descended.” For this disposal of his wealth Congreve has been rated by Macaulay in his best Orbilian manner. At this distance of time and with our imperfect knowledge of his motives, it seems rash to condemn the poet, whose generosity was rewarded after her own guise by the duchess of Marlborough. Davies tells us that she had

  • an automaton, or small statue of ivory, made exactly to resemble him, which every day was brought to table. A glass was put in the hand of this statue, which was supposed to bow to her Grace, and to nod in approbation of what she spoke to it.
  • This is the mere frippery of fame. Posterity, content, like Voltaire, to forget the gentleman, remembers the poet, who used the English tongue with perfect mastery, and who, alone of his race and time, was fit to tread a measure in wit and raillery with Molière himself.