"She Is The Thing That She Despises"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Congreve, called the greatest of Restoration writers of comedy, was probably born in England and educated in Ireland, though Samuel Johnson, one of the first to publish his poetry, gave his birthplace as Ireland and the date, according to the inscription on his monument, 1672. However, Johnson added that to doubt his claim of birth in Leeds in 1670 is to be "very deficient in candor." The Revolution drove him from Ireland to study law in London. There he wrote a number of comedies that established his reputation as the greatest comic dramatist since the theater was opened in 1660 after being closed by the Puritans in 1642. To these Restoration writers, wit and elegance were essential. Judged by the customs of the time, the comedies were not especially immoral, but a literary quarrel with the Reverend Jeremy Collier about immorality and profanity on the English stage caused Congreve's best play, The Way of the World (1700), to be badly received. In anger, Congreve severed his connections with the theater and enjoyed witty conversations with his friends until his death. The literary life no longer appealed to him. He did write some light verse, but though acquainted with Steele and Addison, he contributed only once to the Tatler and never to the Spectator. Apparently he preferred being a gentleman of fashion to being a literary light. However, when he said as much to Voltaire, who came to visit him, the Frenchman replied in disgust: "If you had been only a gentleman, I would not have come to see you." The same Restoration fashion of gaiety attacked the women, too. As the truly fine gentleman was a rake, but an elegant and charming rake, so the truly fine lady was often the mistress of a rake, but in an elegant, aloof, and secret way. It was to some such unknown "fine lady" that Congreve wrote "Amoret," one of his best lyrics. It was first published in a single-sheet on March 19, 1698, with music by John Eccles. It seems symbolic of the life of idleness the poet was living at the time. But its sixteen lines analyze for all time the mind of a coquette, its tricks, deceptions, contradictions, and the final tragic perception of its own emptiness.

Fair Amoret is gone astray;
Pursue and seek her, every lover;
I'll tell the signs by which you may
The wandering shepherdess discover.
Coquet and coy at once her air,
Both study'd, though both seem neglected;
Careless is she with artless care,
Affecting to seem unaffected.
With skill her eyes dart every glance,
Yet change so soon you'd ne'er suspect them;
For she'd persuade they wound by chance,
Though certain aim and art direct them.
She likes herself, yet others hates
For that which in herself she prizes;
And while she laughs at them, forgets
She is the thing that she despises.