"What Her Eyes Enthralled Her Tongue Unbound"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The original Lesbia was a Greek poetess, Sappho, born in Lesbos, who lived and wrote during the seventh century B.C. Only a few fragments of her verse remain, quoted by admirers. The name was also given to Clodia, notorious sister of Clodius and wife of Quintus Metellus Celer, who was the subject of much verse by one of the greatest of Roman lyric poets, Gaius Valerius Catullus (84?–54 B.C.). When the Restoration poet, Congreve, sought a literary name under which to address one of the fine ladies of the late seventeenth century, he cloaked her identity under that "nom d'amour." Noted as the greatest writer of Restoration comedy who, in the words of his admirer Voltaire, raised the art "to a greater height than any other English writer before or since," Congreve showed a facility in verse as well. Samuel Johnson called his wit "a meteor." However, while Johnson selected a dozen lines from his play The Mourning Bride as the most poetical passage in the whole mass of English poetry, he lamented that the poetic power of Congreve seemed to desert him when he left the stage. He had little favorable to say about Congreve's miscellaneous poetry except that he taught English writers that the odes of Pindar were regular, and that while Congreve lacked the fire for the higher species of lyric poetry, he could demonstrate that enthusiasm can still have rules, and that in mere confusion there is neither grace nor greatness. Perhaps Congreve himself did not esteem his brief poetry very highly because after he wrote "CURTAIN" at the end of his fourth comedy in 1700, he lived on government sinecures largely provided by his patron, Lord Halifax, and did practically no writing. But his poem to Lesbia has the dexterity and the felicity of expression that are so evident in his comedies. The idea of being "cured by the hair of the dog that bit you," or that "poison has its own antidote," is expressed engagingly. With Lesbia, eyes might enchain the lover, but her stupid speech quickly breaks the chain. The poem was first published in Dryden's Fifth Poetical Miscellany (1704), along with ten more by Congreve, but officially published in his own Writings of Mr. William Congreve, in 1710. Here is the whole poem.

When Lesbia first I saw so heavenly fair,
With eyes so bright, and with that awful air
I thought my heart, which durst so high aspire,
As bold as his who snatch'd celestial fire.
But soon as e'er the beautious idiot spoke,
Forth from her coral lips such folly broke,
Like balm the trickling nonsense heal'd my wound,
And what her eyes enthrall'd her tongue unbound.