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ILLIAM CONGREve, Esq. was descended
from the ancient Family of the Congreves, of Congreve in Staffordshire, his Father being second Sou to Richard Congreve, of that Place. Some Authors, and in particular Sir James Ware, contend for his having been born in Ireland; but as Jacob, who was particularly acquainted with him, and who in his Preface acknowledges his Obligations to Mr. Congreve for his Communication of what related to himself, has absolutely contradicted that Report, I fall on his Authority, which I consider to be the same as Mr. Con. greve's own, fix the Spot of his Nativity at a place called Bardja, not far from Leeds in Yorkshire, being Part of the Eftate of Sir John Lewis, his Great-Cncle by his Mother's Side. It is certain, however, that he went over to that Kingdom very young.-For his
Father being only a younger Brother, and provided for in the Army by a Commission on the Irish Establisiment, was compelled to undertake a Journey thither in Consequence of his Command; which he afterwards parted with, to accept of the Management of a considerable Ettate belonging to the Burlington Family, which fixed his Residence there. Howerer, though he suffered this Son to receive his first Tinclure of Letters in the great School at Kilkenny, and afterwards to coinpleat his Classical Learning under the Direction of Dr. Ah, in the University of Dublin ; yet, being defirous that his Studies should be directed to Proñit as well as Improvement, he sent him over to England foon after the Revolution, and placed him as a Student in the Temple. The dry, plodding Study of the Law, however, was by no Means suitable to the sprightly volatile Genius of Mr. Congreve; and therefore, though he did not want Application in those Studies to which his Genius led hiin, yet he did not even at. tempt to make any Proficiency in a Service which he was probably conscious he should make no Figure in. Excellence and Perfection were what, it is apparent, he laid it down as his Principle, froin the very firit, to make it his Aim the acquiring; for in the very earliest Exertion of his Genius, and a very early one indeed it was, viz. his Novel, called Love and Däty' riconcled, written when he was not above leventeen Years of Age, he had not only endeavoured at, but indeed fucceeded in, the presenting to the World not a meer Novel according to Tatte and Fashion then prevailing, but a Piece which should point out, and be in itself a Model of, what Novels ought to be. And though this cannot itself be called with Propriety a dramatic Work, yet he has so strictly adhered to dramatic Rules in the Composition of it, that his arriving at fo great a Degree of Perfection in the regular Drama, in to thort a Time afterwards, is hardly to be wondered at.-
His firit Play was the Old Batchelor, and was the Amusentent of some leisure Hours during a tlow Recovery from a Fir of Illness, foon after his Return to England, and was in itself fo perfect, that Mr. Dryden, on it's being sewn to him, declared he had never in his Life seen such a first Play; and that great
Poet having, in Conjunction with NÍr. Southerne and Arthur Mancvaring, Elg. given it a flight Revital, Dr. Davenant, who was the Manager of Drury Lane Theatre, and was delighted both with the Piece and its Author, brought it on the Stage in 1693, where it met with fuch universal A protation, that Mr. Congreve, though he was but nineteen Yean of Age at the Time of his writing it, became now considered as a Prop to the declining Stage, and a rifing Genius in dramatic Poetry.
The next Year he produced the. Double Draler, which, for what Reason however I know not, did not meet with so much Success as the former. The Merit of his first Play, however, had obtained him the Favour and Patronage of Lord Halifax, and some peculiar Marks of Distintion from Queen Mary, on whose Death, which happened in the Close of this Year, he wrote a very elegant Elegiac Pastoral.
In 1695, when Betterton opened the new House in Lincoln's Inn-Ficlds, Mr. Congreve joining with him, gave him his Comedy of Love for Love; wish whicli the Company opened their Campaign, and which met with such Success, that they immediately offered the Author a Share in the Management of the House, on Condition of his furnishing them with one Play yearly. This Offer he accep:ed: of; but whether through Indolence, or that. Correctness which he looked on as necessary to bis Works, his Maursting Bride did not come out till 1697, nor his Way of the
World till ewo Years after that. The indifferent Suecels this last-mentioned Play, though an exceeding good one, met from the Public, compleated that Dit. gust to the Theatre, which a long Contest with feremy Collier, who had attacked the Immoralities of the English Stage, and more especially fome of his Pieces, had begun ; and he determined never more to write for the Stage--This Resolution he punctually kept, and Mr. Dennis's Observation on that Point will, I am afraid, be found but too true, when he said, “ that “ Mr. Congreve quitted the Stage early, and that w Comedy left it with him."-Yet, though he quitted dramatic Writing, he did not lay down the Pen encirely; but occalionally wrote many little Pieces both in Profe and Verle, all of which stand on the Records of literary Fame.
It is very possible, however, that he might not so soon have given Way to this Disgust, had not the Eafiness of his Circuinstances rendered any Subservience to the Opinions and Caprice of the Town abfolutely unnecessary to him. For his Abilities having very early in Life raised him to the Acquaintance of the Earl of Halifax, who was then the Mecenas of the Age, that Nobleman, desirous of raising so promising
a Genius above the Necessity of too hafty Productions, * made him one of the Commissioners for licensing
Hackney-Coaches, or, according to Coxeter, a Commiffioner of the Wine Licence. He soon after bestowed on him a Place in the Pipe-Office; and not long after that; gave him a Post in the Custoins, worth fix hun. dred Pounds per Annum.
In the Year 1718, he was appointed Secretary of Jamaica, so that, ' with all together, his Income towards the latter Part of his Life was upwards of twelve hundred Pounds a Year. Thus raised above Depen
dance, it is no Wonder he would no longer render himself subject to the capricious Censureș of impotent Critics. And had his poetical Father, Mr. Dryden, ever been raited to the fame Circumstances, it is probable that his All for Love would not now have been esteemed the best of his dramatic Pieces, nor would he have been compelled for a bare Livelihood to the Drudgery of producing four Plays in a Space of Time searce inore than sufficient for forming the Plot of one.
But to return to Congrever-The greatest Part of the last twenty Years of his life was spent in Ease and Retirement, and he either did not, or affected not to give hinself any Trouble about Reputation. Yet fome Part of that Conduct might proceed from a Degree of Pride. T. Cibber, in his Lives of the Poets, Vol. IV. p. 93. relates an Anecdote of him, which I cannot properly omit here--" When the celebrated Voltaire, * says he, was in England, he waited upon Congreve, " and passed him some Compliments as to the Reputao tion and Merit of his Works.-Congreve thanked him, " but at the same Time told that ingenious Foreigner, “ be did not chujė to be considered as an Author, but only " as a private Gentleman, and in that Light expected to “ be visited.-Voltaire answered, That if he had nezer bren
any Thing but a private Gentkman, in all Probability “ be had never been troubled with that Vifit.-And ob“ serves in his own Account of the Transaction, that “ he was not a little disgusted with so unseasonable a “ Piece of Vanity."
Towards the Close of his Life he was much afflicted with the Gout; and making a Tour to Bath, for the Benefit of the Waters, was unfortunately overturned in his Chariot, by which it is supposed he got some inward Bruile, as he ever after complained of a Pain in "hisSide ; and on his Return to London, continued gradually declining in his Health, till the 19th of Jan,