Introduction - II

William Congreve was born at Bardsey, near Leeds, and was baptized on 10th February 1669 [1670].  The Congreves were a Staffordshire family, of an antiquity of four hundred years at the date of the poet’s birth.  Richard, his grandfather, was a redoubtable Cavalier, and William, his father, an officer in the army.  The latter was given a command at Youghal, while his son was still an infant, and becoming shortly afterwards agent to Lord Cork, removed to Lismore.  So it chanced that the poet had his schooling at Kilkenny (with Swift), and proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1685, rejoining Swift, and like his friend becoming a pupil of St. George Ashe, the mathematician.  In 1688 he left Dublin, remained with his people in Staffordshire for some two years, entered himself at the Temple, and came upon the town with The Old Bachelor in January 1692.  The Double-Dealer was produced in November 1693.  In 1694 a storm in the theatre led to a secession of Betterton and other renowned players from Drury Lane: with the result that a new playhouse was opened in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, on 30th April 1695, with Love for Love.  In the same year Congreve was appointed ‘Commissioner for Licensing Hackney Coaches.’  The Mourning Bride was produced in 1697, and was followed, oddly enough, by the controversy, or rather ‘row,’ with Jeremy Collier.  In March 1700 came The Way of the World.  The poet was made Commissioner of Wine-Licences in 1705, and in 1714 with his Jamaica secretaryship and his places in the Customs and the delightful ‘Pipe-Office,’ he had an income of twelve hundred pounds a year.  He died at his house in Surrey Street, Strand, on 19th January 1728 [1729].

One or two comments on these dates are obvious.  They dissipate the Thackerayan fable that on the production of The Old Bachelor, the fortunate young author received a shower of sinecures, ‘all for writing a comedy.’

     ‘And crazy Congreve scarce could spare

     A shilling to discharge a chair,’

writes Swift, and ‘crazy’ indicates that Congreve was gouty before he was rich.  But then, the gout was a very early factor in his life, and one may call the line an exaggeration.  Another couplet:

     ‘Thus Congreve spent in writing plays,
     And one poor office, half his days:’

probably expresses the truth.  With his plays and his hackney coaches he doubtless got through his twenties and thirties with no very hardly grinding poverty, and at forty or so was comfortably secure.  But another fact, which the dates bring out very sharply, has a different interest.  At an age when Swift was beginning to try his powers, Congreve’s work was done.  A few odes, a few letters he was still to write, but no more comedies.  Was it ill-health? or because the town had all but damned his greatest play? or because he cared more for life than for art?