William Congreve (1670–1729), English poet and playwright of the Restoration period in the 17th and 18th centuries, his comic plays have enjoyed a distinguished place in history, including The Old Batchelor (1693), and Love for Love (1694).
William Congreve was born in January of 1670 in Bardsey Grange, Yorkshire, England, the son of William Congreve (1637–1708) and his wife, Mary. By 1674 the Congreves were living in Ireland and there young William attended Kilkenny College then Trinity College, Dublin with fellow student and friend Jonathan Swift. After graduation he would become a disciple of John Dryden, poet, playwright and literary critic. The Congreves moved back to Staffordshire, England around 1689 during the exodus of Protestants from Ireland. Though never called to the bar in 1691 Congreve entered the Middle Temple to study law.
It was while writing poetry and working on translations that Congreve made his first entrance into London's literary world, publishing under the pseudonym "Cleophil" Incognita (1692), "an Essay". His influences were many including Plato, Epictetus, Aesop, Cervantes, and Shakespeare. Whilst living in Staffordshire, then later in Iliam, Derbyshire, where the landscape he so admired is reflected in Sir Godfrey Kneller's 1709 Kit-Cat club portrait of him, Congreve started work on his comedy The Old Batchelor. The scripts' first reviewers were frustrated by the promising young dramatists inexperience of the theatre world and writing for the stage, though it was well-received in 1693, and had a long run at the Drury Lane theatre, acted by the best actors of the day. Anne Bracegirdle was among them for whom Congreve would write all his best roles including Angelica in Love for Love and Mrs. Millamant in The Way of the World (1700).
With a royal command performance for Queen Mary of The Double Dealer, Congreve was disappointed with its poor reception. Love for Love (1694), (dedicated to the earl of Dorset) which is full of comic turns and satire, gained back some of Congreve's reputation. His first poetic tragedy The Mourning Bride (1697) contains the oft quoted lines of blank verse, now a proverb;
"Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd."
It was an instant success and would be revised a few times, with the famous actress Sarah Siddons as Zara in the 1780s. The Restoration comedy The Way of the World's complex scenes and witty verbiage opened to mixed reviews though his friend John Dryden reviewed it as deserving much better attention.
While Congreve held numerous government posts over the years including Customs Collector at Poole, Commissioner for wine licences, and Undersearcher of the London port, he also had time for the study of music and won a prize for the libretto he wrote for The Judgment of Paris. Drawing from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Congreve wrote the opera Semele, about a woman, in love with Jupiter, yearning to be immortal. "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast." (The Mourning Bride). Congreve's skill in lyric—including sung lyric, pastoral, and verse epistle is demonstrated in his poem, written upon the death of Queen Mary in 1694, and of which he received £100 from the King, The Mourning Muse of Alexis and The Tears of Amaryllis for Amyntas which was written on the death of John, marquess of Blandford, in 1703. Congreve continued to collaborate with his friend Dryden, and The Works of Mr. William Congreve (1710) was published in three octavo volumes.
Other friends who appreciated the genial Congreve's wit and unaffected generosity of spirit included Jonathan Swift, Frances Porter, Alexander Pope and Henrietta, Lady Godolphin, with whom he'd have an illegitimate daughter, Mary (1723–1764), who he provided for in his will. Congreve was a man who lived by his own words, "A Clear Wit, sound Judgement and a Merciful Disposition". Afflicted with poor eyesight for most of his life, his gout was also starting to take its toll on him incapacitating him more frequently. After an accident with his coach in 1728 where he may have suffered internal injuries, William Congreve died on 19 January 1729. He is interred in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, near the grave of Aphra Behn, with a medallion carved from a Kneller portrait and an epitaph by the duchess of Marlborough;
"To whose most valuable memory this monument is set up by Henrietta, duchess of Marlborough as a mark how clearly she remembers the happiness and honour she enjoyed in the sincere friendship of so worth and honest a man. Whose virtue candour and wit gained him the love and esteem of the present age and whose writings will be the admiration of the future."
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.
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