William Congreve

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William Congreve Poetry: British Analysis

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William Congreve’s best poetry, like his plays, brings Restoration society to life: the intricacies of the courtship dance and the war in the theaters between playwrights and critics. When Congreve strays from his own milieu into political propaganda, however, or makes attempts at the sublime, his poetry rarely rises above the mediocre.

Courtship

Congreve’s poems, particularly his songs, reveal the feelings of both partners in the courtship dance. His men are not confident and promiscuous Horners who accumulate conquest after conquest but insecure young men who often have been hurt or discarded by women. One song, in anapests, mimics the headstrong impetuosity and lumbering clumsiness of a young man in love: “I Look’d, and I sigh’d, and I wish’d I cou’d speak.” Another song, “The Reconciliation,” reminds one of John Donne’s “Go and Catch a Falling Star”: A cynical young man insists that women prove ungrateful whenever men are true and claims that the joys women give are “few, short, and insincere.” “Song,” one of Congreve’s best-known and most-liked poems, purportedly composed for Anne Bracegirdle, is written in the calm yet bittersweet manner of Sir Thomas Wyatt. A lover, remembering the past joys of his inconstant mistress, determines not to seek revenge but to be grateful for what has been. Many of Congreve’s songs sound this same theme of a young man bemoaning his lost love.

Congreve’s women fall into two categories: honorable women torn between their desire to love and be loved and their need to maintain their virtue and inconstant women who leave heartbroken, hapless men in their wake. Congreve shows great sensitivity to the plight of women in the love-honor struggle of Restoration society. In “Song in Dialogue, for Two Women,” the two women speakers decide whether to yield to their lovers’ enticements. The first speaker claims she will but changes her mind after listening to the second. Both sing a chorus that acknowledges how quickly men can lose interest: “And granting Desire,/ We feed not the Fire,/ But make it more quickly expire.” In another song, Selinda is caught between her religious desire for purity and her secular desire to keep her lover: She runs to the church if he asks her favor yet cries when she thinks he will leave her. Selinda’s lover wittily reveals the pressure put on a Restoration woman: “Wou’d she cou’d make of me a Saint,/ Or I of her a Sinner.”

Like Alexander Pope, Congreve has his essay on women: three short poems on Amoret, Lesbia, and Doris. “Doris,” which was much praised by Sir Richard Steele, presents a fully rounded picture of a promiscuous “Nymph of riper Age” who shines on various lovers in the night and quickly forgets them the next day. “Lesbia” describes a young man’s discovery of the empty head of the idol he worships: the “trickling Nonsense” from her coral lips like balm heals his heart wounded by love. “Amoret” presents a contradictory young woman, who affects “to seem unaffected” and laughs at others for what she prizes in herself. A blind hypocrite, she does not see that “She is the Thing that she despises.”

Congreve claimed to be a moralist, exposing the vice and folly of his society. He is indeed harsh in his condemnation of unfaithful, hypocritical wives. In his epilogue to Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko (1695), he satirizes town ladies who profess to be Christian and virtuous yet despise their spouses and take their marriage vows lightly. Promiscuous single women may leave angry, unhappy men, but they do not undermine the foundations of society—marriage and family.

Prologues and epilogues

Congreve’s prologues and epilogues,...

(This entire section contains 1859 words.)

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though less vigorous and daring than Dryden’s, comment on the state of the theater and society through the use of witty imagery. His prologues are fitting appetizers for the feasts that follow: forgetting lines, pleading with the audience to like the play, and running offstage in confusion.

Critics habitually drew the ire of Restoration playwrights, and Congreve regularly traded insults with them. The epilogue to The Old Bachelor sandwiches a witty comparison of young women and playwrights between the standard pleading to be approved and the standard insulting of the critics (“If he’s an ass, he will be tried by’s peers”). Once the end is gained, both women and playwrights are damned (discarded).

The prologue to The Double-Dealer is more sophisticated, with fewer drops in tone. It compares the play to a Moorish infant, thrown by its father (the playwright) into the sea (the pit) to prove its legitimacy. The image serves Congreve well; he can describe the pit as tempestuous and call the critics sharks. The epilogue to The Double-Dealer classifies the audience of the Restoration theater, critics all: the men of learning, the pit, the ladies, the beaux, and the witlings, each of whom has different exacting requirements for a successful play. The same theme recurs in Congreve’s epilogue to Oroonoko. The poet divides his time among the different tastes; his one foot wears the sock, the other the buskin, and in striving to please, he is forced to hop in a single boot.

In addition to condemning the critics and the problems they create for authors, Congreve condemns the amateur playwrights who at the time were drowning the stage. He laments that the theater has become a church whose main activity is funerals, not christenings. In another witty metaphor, he tells the wits that Pegasus—that is, the art of writing—has tricks that take more to master than merely getting up and riding. He ridicules the lady playwrights in lines as good as Pope’s in The Dunciad (1728-1743): “With the same Ease, and Negligence of Thought,/ The charming Play is writ, and Fringe is wrought.” One important theme of Congreve is the hard task serious writers have, not in writing itself but in presenting their works, when they are assailed by ignorant critics and torpedoed by amateurish mishmash.

Jeremy Collier attacked Congreve’s licentiousness in his “Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage,” but Congreve blamed the audience for the type of plays that were popular. Reciting his “Epilogue at the Opening of the Queen’s Theatre,” Bracegirdle told the audience that the beaux may find it hard to spend one night without smutty jests, but she promises them soon “to your selves shew your dear selves again” and display “in bold Strokes the vicious Town.” Congreve whirls in defensive fury against the pseudoreformers. In “Prologue, to the Court, on the Queen’s Birthday,” he claims that playwrights seek to war against vice and folly but reformers force the Muse to assume the very forms she has been fighting. Reformers break the mirror (the plays), which reflects their own ignorance and malice. Congreve renounces the stage, saying his Muse will now pursue the nobler tasks of painting the “Beauties of the Mind” and, by showing the court the virtues of one such as the queen, “shame to Manners an incorrigible Town.” He says he will remain a moralist although his means have changed. Unfortunately, when he praises the virtuous queen, his lines lack the strength of the earlier diatribe: The only line in this prologue that matches the eloquence of his fury is one in which the Muse “secretly Applauds, and silently Admires” the queen.

Imagery

When Congreve leaves writing for the stage or writing about the stage, his poetic powers by and large desert him and his claim of remaining a moralist is specious; it is hard to find any morality in “poet laureate” praises. The only thing that redeems Congreve’s laudatory verses to William and to Mary is his imagery, which leaps out from the sycophantic meanderings. In “To the King, on the Taking of Namure,” Congreve admits that his proper sphere is singing simple love songs, but he underestimates his own abilities. His description of the Battle of Namure rises above the commonplace, with its discordant consonants imitating the clash and clang of battle (before Pope’s strictures on sound and sense) and his images of the earth in labor giving birth to the “dead Irruptions” and the air tormented by the cannon fire and smoke. Warlord man is shown to victimize nature.

On the other hand, nature befriends human beings when they are gentle. In “The Mourning Muse of Alexis, Lamenting the Death of Queen Mary,” Congreve describes the beauty and peace of nature mourning Queen Mary: Sable clouds adorn the chalk cliffs, bees deposit their honey on Mary’s tomb, and glowworms light the dirges of fairies. The imagery is beautiful, but if one comes to the poem with the expectation that it will give solace, it is disappointingly silly.

Although the classical set pieces in Congreve’s poems to King William are disastrous, the set piece in the irregular ode “On Mrs. Arabella Hunt, Singing” works well. Much like Pope’s portrayal of dullness in The Dunciad, Congreve’s mighty god Silence is wrapped in a melancholy thought, wreathed by mists and darkness, lulled by poppy vapors, and sitting on an “ancient” sigh. Silence is vanquished by the beauty of Hunt’s singing, and her listeners are left in a state reminiscent of the lovers on John Keats’s Grecian urn, “For ever to be dying so, yet never die.”

Congreve’s “A Hymn to Harmony, in Honour of St. Cecilia’s Day, 1701” and Pope’s “Ode for Musick, on St. Cecilia’s Day,” when compared, illustrate the difference between a great poet and a minor one. In both poems, the authors describe the ability of music to soothe troubled minds. Congreve says that the Muses with balmy sound assuage a wrathful and revengeful mind, while Pope turns the idea into a concrete image, personifying melancholy, sloth, and envy and showing rather than explaining the effect of music on them. Pope may have mined Congreve’s ore for ideas, but he cut, polished, and presented the more beautiful gems.

Congreve’s technical abilities never equal the power of his imagery. He squirms and struggles under the burden of rhyming. To achieve his rhymes, he often destroys his syntax or creates a jingle of sound rather than a flow. Even when he does find a rhyme, it frequently is only an eye-rhyme or a jarring approximation of a rhyme. Perhaps one reason that Congreve was able to create exquisite poetry in The Mourning Bride, lines that Samuel Johnson called “the most poetical paragraph” in the “whole mass of English poetry,” is that he was not forced into rhyme and could write blank verse.

Like other writers who experiment in genres other than their major ones, Congreve does not repeat the brilliance of his plays in his poetry. Lacking technical virtuosity, flawed by absurd and frozen set pieces, and distinguished by no more than ordinary political praise, his poems nevertheless can sparkle with striking imagery and wit. Above all, Congreve’s poems, with their views of the theater and of love and honor in Restoration society, add to the reader’s understanding of his plays.

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