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declared, that he never saw such a first play, though from the author's inexperience it stood in need of some corrections, to render it fitting for representation on the stage; which he readily supplied. So high was the opinion entertained of Congreve, after Dryden's perusal of his play, that, for some time before its appearance on the stage, he was admitted to the freedom of the theatre.3 At length in January, 1692-3, THE OLD BACHELOR was performed, with such success, that, before the end of the following month, three editions of it passed through the press. As at the time of the author's sitting down to compose this play, he is said to have been only nineteen, so at that of its representation, we are told by all his biographers, that he was but one-and-twenty. The marvellous is always so much more captivating than simple truth,
3 MS. Harl. ut supr.
+ GENT. JOURN. for 1692-3, p. 61.
So says Dr. Birch in the GENERAL DICTIONARY, from the information of Southerne. So also Lord Falkland, in a Prologue intended for THE OLD BACHELOR:
"As for our youngster, I am apt to doubt him, "With all the vigour of his youth about him ; “But he, more sanguine, trusts in one-and-twenty, "And impudently hopes he shall content you." And so also Dr. Johnson, (in his Life of Congreve,) relying on these authorities: "The age of the writer considered, it is indeed a very wonderful performance; for, whenever written, it was acted (1693) when he was not more than twenty-one years old."
that we are not to wonder at this early exertion of his talents having been rendered still more extraordinary, by subtracting somewhat from his real age. At what time he began to write this comedy, has not been ascertained either by himself or his friend Southerne; but if, according to the account given by the latter to Dr. Birch, two years only intervened between its composition and its performance, he was twenty-one, when he began to write it; for assuredly, when it was first exhibited, he was twenty-three years old. This fact is ascertained by the Register of Bardsey, in Yorkshire, from which it appears that he was baptised there, February 10, 1669-70. Every year at that early
6" William, the sonne of Mr. William Congreve, of Bardsey Grange, was baptised, Febru. 10th, 1669.' Register of the parish of Bardsey, or Bardsa, in the West Riding of the county of York.
For this extract I am indebted to the Reverend Francis Wilkinson, Vicar of that parish.
Bardsey, as Mr. Wilkinson informs me, is a village in a singularly retired situation, about eight miles from Leeds. The tradition of the village is, that Congreve's father resided only a short time at Bardsey Grange, which appears to have been the manor-house, and was once the estate of Francis Thorpe, Esq. who was a Baron of the Exchequer during the Usurpation of Cromwell, and is said to have been a near relation of the poet's mother. But Jacob, from the information of Congreve himself, tells us, that at the time of the poet's birth, Bardsey Grange was part of the estate of Sir John Lewis, his mo
period of life being of great importance in estimating the merit of a piece which professes to exhibit the manners and characters of men, this minute account of the age of this great comick writer, I trust, will not be considered tedious or uninteresting. On another ground also it may be pardoned; for it has long been a doubt, whether Congreve was born in England or Ireland, a question which may now for ever be at rest. It is a singular circumstance, that Southerne, who lived in great intimacy with this poet, should have con
Congreve died on the 19th of January, 1728-9, at which time he had nearly completed his sixtieth year; yet on his monument in Westminster Abbey, erected by Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, he is said to have been only fifty-six years old: a striking instance of the inaccuracy of tombstones. See p. 5.
"Whatever objections (says Dr. Johnson) may be made either to Congreve's comick or tragick excellence, they are lost at once in the blaze of admiration, when it is remembered that he had produced these four plays before he had passed his twenty-fifth year; before other men, even such as are some time to shine in eminence, have passed their probation of literature, or presume to hope for any other notice than such as is bestowed on diligence and inquiry. Among all the efforts of early genius which literary history records, I doubt whether any one can be produced that more supasses the common limits of nature than the plays of Congreve."
Sufficient subject for admiration will still remain ; but we now find, from unquestionable authority, that when Congreve produced his fourth play, he was in his twentyeighth year.
stantly affirmed that he was an Irishman, speaking of him after his death with sharp censure, as a man that meanly denied his country; and that he should have been equally incorrect concerning his friend's age, when he produced his first comedy. His inaccuracy in these points, which have now far above half a century been mistated on the testimony of an intimate friend and contemporary, of unimpeached veracity, may shew, how extremely difficult it is, at any considerable distance of time, to ascertain with precision the smaller incidents of biography; and may entitle those to some degree of indulgence, who, however sedulous they may be in their researches, are still liable to minute
Previous to the performance of THE OLD BACHELOR, the author, in the month of January, 1692-3, furnished his friend Southerne with a
Johnson, in his Life of Congreve; probably from the information of John, Earl of Orrery, with whom Southerne lived much in his latter days.
Congreve is enrolled among the Irish Writers, by Harris, in his edition of Ware's History. The notion, indeed, that he was an Irishman, prevailed in his own time; for in "Animadversions on his Answer to Collier," 8vo. 1698, we find the following dialogue :· JOHNSON." Will Congreve's alive, man; he's my countryman; he has been regenerated ever since he turn'd poet, and his Muse has had a new birth too since the Peace. SMITH. What miracle has made him a Staffordshire-man, I know not; but I'm sure his Muse, for all his fine flights, is but a bog-trotter still."
Song, which was introduced in his comedy entitled THE MAID'S LAST PRAYER, and was perhaps the first acknowledged essay presented by Congreve to the publick. From this period he lived
"Tell me no more, I am deceiv'd," &c. set by Purcell in return for which Southerne addressed some commendatory verses to Congreve, in which he thus at once compliments his old and young friend:
Dryden has long extended his command,
By right divine, quite through the Muses' land, "Absolute lord; and holding now from none "But great Apollo his undoubted crown,"That empire settled, and grown old in power,"Can wish for nothing but a successor; Not to enlarge his limits, but maintain "Those provinces, which he alone could gain. "His eldest, Wycherley, in wise retreat,
Thought it not worth his quiet to be great;
"Loose wand'ring Etherege, in wild pleasure tost,
May'st thou live long in thy great master's smiles, "And growing under him, adorn these isles! "But when when part of him, (be that but late!) "His body yielding, must submit to fate;
Leaving his deathless works, and thee, behind,
"The natural successor of his mind,
"Then may'st thou finish what he has begun, "Heir to his merit, be in fame his son !"
In the same strain, Bevill Higgons:
"What may'n't we then, great youth, of thee presage, "Whose art and wit so much transcend thy age!