Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 12.djvu/14

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sufficient to make him a worthy representative of national literature. Swift (letter to Pope, 10 Jan. 1721) repeats the famous reply of Harley to Halifax when Congreve was afraid of being turned out by the tories in 1711—

Non obtusa adeo gestamus pectora Pœni,
Nec tam aversus equos Tyrià Sol jungit ab urbe.

Voltaire visited him in his last years, and was disgusted by his affectation of desiring to be regarded as a gentleman instead of an author, a sentiment which is susceptible of more than one explanation (Lettres sur les Anglais). Congreve was a member of the Kit-Cat Club (Spence, Anecdotes, p. 338), and according to Pope and Tonson, he, Garth, and Vanbrugh were the 'three most honest-hearted real good men' of the poetical members (ib. p. 46). Lady Mary W. Montagu addressed a poem to him of rather questionable delicacy.

Congreve was evidently a man of pleasure, and petted in good society. His relations to Mrs. Bracegirdle [q. v.], who always acted his heroines, and spoke a prologue or epilogue in his plays, were ambiguous, but in any case very intimate. He became in later years the special favourite of the second Duchess of Marlborough, and was constantly at her house. He had, according to Swift (to Pope, 13 Feb. 1729), 'squandered away a very good constitution in his younger days.' In 1710, as we learn from the 'Journal to Stella,' he was nearly blind from cataract, and he suffered much from gout. Probably his bad health helped to weaken his literary activity. Like Byron, he seems to have combined epicurean tastes with the 'good old gentlemanly vice,' avarice. An attack of gout in the stomach was nearly fatal in the summer of 1726 (Arbuthnot to Swift, 20 Sept. 1726). He had gone to drink the waters at Bath in the summer of 1728 with the Duchess of Marlborough and Gay. He there received some internal injury from the upsetting of his carriage, and died at his house, in Surrey Street, Strand, on 19 Jan. 1728–9.

The body lay in state in the Jerusalem Chamber and was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey. A monument was erected in the abbey by the Duchess of Marlborough, with an inscription of her own writing, and a hideous cenotaph was erected at Stowe by Lord Cobham. It was reported that the duchess afterwards had a figure of ivory or wax made in his likeness, which was placed at her table, addressed as if alive, served with food, and treated for 'an imaginary sore on its leg.' The story, if it has any foundation, would imply partial insanity. Congreve left 10,000l., the bulk of his fortune, to the duchess, a legacy of 200l. to Mrs. Bracegirdle, and an annuity of 20l. to Anne Jellatt, besides a few small sums to his relations. Young says (Spence, p. 376) that the duchess showed him a diamond necklace which she had bought for 7,000l. from Congrieve's bequest, and remarks that it should have been better if the money had been left to Mrs. Bracegirdle.

Besides his plays, Congreve wrote minor poems, congratulatory and facetious, which Johnson (followed by Leigh Hunt ) declares to be generally 'despicable.' He wrote a letter upon humour in comedy, published in the works of Dennis, to whom it was first addressed, he contributed to the 'Tatler' the character of Lady Elizabeth Hastings (the famous phrase, 'To love her is a liberal education'—attributed to Congreve by Lady Hunt—occurs in No. 49, by Steele). Congreve has been excellently criticised by Hazlitt, 'Lectures on the Comic Writers,' Charles Lamb, 'On the Artificial Comedy of the last Century,' and by Leigh Hunt, in whose essay the others are reprinted. Hazlitt's judgment that Congreve's is 'the highest model of comic dialogue' has been generally accepted, with the occasional deduction that the strain of his perpetual epigrams becomes tiresome. Hunt, a sympathetic and acute critic, admits that Lamb's famous defence of Congreve against the charge of immorality is more ingenious than sound. The characters, instead of being mere creations of fancy, are only too faithful portraits of the men (and women) of the town in his day. Congreve's defects are to be sought not so much in the external blemishes pointed out by Collier as in the absence of real refinement of feeling. His characters, as Voltaire observes, talk like men of fashion, while their actions are those of knaves. Lamb's audacious praise of him for excluding any pretensions to good feeling in his persons might be accepted if it implied (as he urges) a mere 'privation of moral light.' But, although a 'single gush of moral feeling' would, as Lamb says, be felt as a discord, a perpetual gush of cynical sentiment is quite in harmony. His wit is saturnine, and a perpetual exposition of the baser kind of what passes for worldly wisdom. The atmosphere of his plays is asphyxiating. There is consequently an absence of real gaiety from his scenes and of true charm in his characters, while the teasing intricacy of his plots makes it (as Hunt observes) impossible to remember them even though just read and noted for the purpose. It is therefore almost cruel to suggest a comparison between Congreve and Molière, the model of the true comic spirit. The faults are sufficient to account for the neglect of Congreve