William Congreve Poetry: British Analysis - Essay

William Congreve Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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.


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, 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...

(The entire section is 1859 words.)