"For 'tis Some Virtue, Virtue To Commend"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: William Congreve, Restoration playwright and wit, gives a new twist to the often-debated superiority of the pen over the sword. He compares the pen to the paint brush in a poem to the fashionable painter of his time, Godfrey Kneller, who, as Gottfried Kniller (1646-1723) came to England in 1675 after having studied art in Amsterdam, Rome, and Venice. Following the death of the court painter of Charles II, Pieter Van der Faes (1618-1680), he joined the royal circle. His predecessor had been knighted as Sir Peter Lely, from a lily over the door of the house where his father was born; the new court painter was renamed Sir Godfrey Kneller. By means of an army of apprentices, Kneller turned out an enormous number of portraits of famous people, including the well-known "Ten Beauties of the Court of William III." His period extended from Charles II to George I, with a brief visit to the court of Louis XIV. Dryden had also accorded Kneller poetic tribute when Congreve wrote. The latter begins his poem with an acknowledgment that Kneller's brush can produce better likenesses of people than can his quill pen. He has been looking at the artist's portrait of L––Y––, using an abbreviation common in English literature, though the real name could probably have been easily discovered by anyone acquainted with Kneller's productions. Though he has often tried, says Congreve, to "trace some image of the much-lov'd fair," only the painter could reproduce her in a way that spoke to the heart. Not only does he catch her likeness, but he "paints her mind." To most people, recognition does not come during their lifetime. "Fame due to vast desert is kept in store, Unpaid, till the deserver is no more." However, Kneller's genius has been recognized during his lifetime, especially by the connoisseurs, and Congreve wants to join them. As Polonius said about virtue in Hamlet, "Assume a virtue if you have it not," so there is some virtue in recognizing qualities even if you do not possess them. In the first four and last eight lines of the poem, Congreve writes:

I yield, O Kneller, to superior skill,
Thy pencil triumphs o'er the poet's quill:
If yet my vanquish'd Muse exert her lays,
It is no more to rival thee, but praise.
. . .
Ev'n Dryden has immortalized thy name;
Let that alone suffice thee, think that fame.
Unfit I follow where he led the way,
And court applause by what I seem to pay.
Myself I praise, while I thy praise intend,
For 'tis some virtue, virtue to commend;
And next to deeds which our own honor raise,
Is to distinguish them who merit praise.