Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 8. His Comic Art

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

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 8. His Comic Art

It is in the interpretation of this gallantry that Congreve displayed his true genius. He was, above and before all, a man of letters. It was not enough for him, as for most of his contemporaries, to devise an ingenious situation or to excite the laughter of the pit by the voice of boisterous fun. He had a natural love and respect for the English tongue. He cared supremely for the making of his sentences. His nice scholarship had taught him the burden of association which time had laid upon this word or that. He used the language of his own day like a master, because he was anchored securely to a knowledge of the past. In point and concision, his style is still unmatched in the literature of England. There is never in his writing a word too much, or an epithet that is superfluous. He disdains the stale artifices wherewith the journeyman ties his poor sentences together. As a stern castigator of prose, he goes far beyond the example of his master, Molière. And this sternly chastened prose, with its haunting memories of Shakespeare and Jonson, its flashing irony, and its quick allusiveness, is a clear mirror of Congreve’s mind. The poet’s phrase is penetrated and informed by the wit and raillery of the poet’s thought.