صور الصفحة
النشر الإلكتروني

wise man, whose authority will be as weighty whenitis as old, “That it is no excuse for a poet who relates what is incredible, that the thing stated is a matter of fact.” This may, perhas, be allowed true with regard to poetry, but it may be thought impracticable to extend it to the historian; for he is obliged to record matters as he finds them, though they may be of so extraordinary a nature as will require 10 small degree of historical faith to swallow them. Such was the successless armament of Xerxes, described by Herodotus, or the suc(tsful expedition of Alexander, related by Asian: such of later years was the victory of Agincourt, obtained by Harry the Fifth, or that of Narva, won by Charles the Twelfth of Sweden: all which instances, the more we reflect On them, appear still the more astonishing. Such facts, however, as they occur in the thread of the story, nay, indeed, as they conSitute the essential part of it, the historian is not only justifiable in recording as they really happened, but indeed would be unpardonable should he omit or alter them. But there are Other facts, not of such consequence nor so necessary, which, though ever so well attested, may nevertheless be sacrificed to oblivion, In complaisance to the scepticism of a reader: such is that memorable story of the ghost of George Williers, which might with more pro|titly have been made a present of to Dr. |Rincourt, to have kept the ghost of Mrs. Veale company, at the head of his “Discourse upon Death,” than have been introduced into so solemn a work as the “History of the Rebellion." To say the truth, if the historian will onfine himself to what really happened, and utterly reject any circumstance, which, though or so well attested, he must be well assured sfalse, he will sometimes fall into the marvelhos, but never into the incredible: he will often raise the wonder and surprise of his reader, but over that incredulous hatred mentioned by Horace. It is by falling into fiction therefore that we generally offend against this rule, of losetting probability, which the historian seldom, fever, quits till he forsakes his character, and commences a writer of romance. In this, however, those historians who relate public Tansactions, have the advantage of us, who confine ourselves to scenes of private life. The tiedit of the former is by common notoriety supported for a long time; and public records, With the concurrent testimony of many authors, bear evidence to their truth in future ages. Thusa Trajan and an Antoninus, a Nero and

a Caligula, have all met with the belief of posterity; and no one doubts but that men so very good and so very bad were once the masters of mankind: but we, who deal in private character, who search into the most retired recesses, and draw forth examples of virtue and vice from holes and corners of the world, are in a more dangerous situation. As we have no public notoriety, no concurrent testimony, no records to support and corroborate what we deliver, it becomes us to keep within the limits not only of possibility, but of probability too; and this more especially in painting what is greatly good and amiable. Knavery and folly, though ever so exorbitant, will more easily meet with assent, for ill-nature adds great support and strength to faith. Thus we may perhaps with little danger, relate the history of Fisher, who having long owed his bread to the generosity of Mr. Derby, and having one morning received a considerable bounty from his hands, yet in order to possess himself of what remained in his friend's escritoire, concealed himself in a public office of the Temple, through which there was a passage into Mr. Derby's chambers. Here he overheard Mr. Derby for many hours solacing himself at an entertainment which he that evening gave his friends, and to which Fisher had been invited; during all this time no tender, no grateful reflections arose to restrain his purpose; but when the poor gentleman had let his company out through the office, Fisher came suddenly from his lurking-place, and, walking softly behind his friend into his chamber, discharged a pistol ball into his head. This ma be believed when the bones of Fisher are us rotten as his heart. Nay, perhaps, it will be credited, that the villain went two days afterwards with some young ladies to the play of Hamlet, and, with an unaltered countenance heard one of the ladies, who little suspected how near she was to the person, cry out, “Good God! if the man that murdered Mr. Derby was now present " manifesting in this a more seared and callous conscience than even Nero himself; of whom we are told by Suetonius, “that the conscious ness of his guilt, after the death of his mother, became immediately intolerable, and so (on. tinued; nor could all the congratulations of the soldiers, of the senate, and the people, allay the horrors of his conscience.” But now, on the other hand, should I te]] my reader, that I had known a man whose penetrating genius had enabled him to raise a large fortune in a way where no beginning was chalked out to him; that he had done this with the most perfect preservation of his integrity, and not only without the least injustice or injury to any one individual person, but with the highest advantage to trade, and a vast increase of the public revenue; that he had expended one part of the income of this fortune in discovering a taste superior to most, by works where the highest dignity was united with the purest simplicity, and another part in displaying a degree of goodness superior to all men, by acts of charity to objects whose only recommendations were their merits or their wants; that he was most industrious in searching after merit in distress, most eager to relieve it, and then as careful, perhaps too careful, to conceal what he had done; that his house, his furniture, his gardens, his table, his private hospitality, and his public beneficence, all denoted the mind from which they flowed, and were all intrinsically rich and noble, without tinsel, or external ostentation; that he filled every relation in life with the most adequate virtue; that he was most piously religious to his Creator, most zealously loyal to his sovereign, a most tender husband to his wife, a kind relation, a munificent patron, a warm and firm friend, a knowing and a cheerful companion, indulgent to his servants, hospitable to his neighbours, charitable to the poor, and benevolent to all mankind: – should I add to these the epithets of wise, brave, elegant, and indeed every other epithet in our language; I might surely say,

. . . Quis credet? nemo, Hercule ! nemo: Vel duo, vel nemo: "

and yet I know a man who is all I have here described. But a single instance (and I really know not such another) is not sufficient to justify us, while we are writing to thousands who never heard of the person, nor of anything like him. Such rarae aves * should be remitted to the epitaph-writer, or to some poet, who may condescend to hitch him in a distich, or to slide him into a rhyme with an air of carelessness and neglect, without giving any offence to the reader.

In the last place, the actions should be such as may not only be within the compass of human agency, and which human agents may probably be supposed to do; but they should be likely for the very actors and characters themselves to have performed; for what may be only wonderful and surprising in one man, may

* Who will believe it? No one, by Hercules 1 no one; two at most, or none. . * rare birds

become improbable, or indeed impossible, when related of another. This last requisite is what the dramatic critics call conservation of character; and it requires a very extraordinary degree of judgment, and a most exact knowledge of human nature. It is admirably remarked by a most excellent writer, that zeal can no more hurry a man to act in direct opposition to itself, than a rapid stream can carry a boat against its own current. I will venture to say, that for a man to act in direct contradiction to the dictates of his nature, is, if not impossible, as improbable and as miraculous as anything which can be well conceived. Should the best parts of the story of M. Antoninus be ascribed to Nero, or should the worst incidents of Nero's life be imputed to Antoninus, what would be more shocking to belief than either instance? whereas both these, being related of their proper agent, constitute the truly marvellous. Our modern authors of comedy have fallen almost universally into the error here hinted at: their heroes generally are notorious rogues, and their heroines abandoned jades, during the first four acts; but in the fifth, the former become very worthy gentlemen, and the latter women of virtue and discretion; nor is the writer often so kind as to give himself the least trouble to reconcile or account for this monstrous change and incongruity. There is indeed no other reason to be assigned for it, than because the play is drawing to a conclusion; as if it was no less natural in a rogue to repent in the last act of a play, than in the last of his life; which we perceive to be generally the case at Tyburn, a place which might indeed close the scene of some comedies with much propriety, as the heroes in these are commonly eminent for those very talents which not only bring men to the gallows, but enable them to make an heroic figure when they are there. Within these few restrictions, I think, every writer may be permitted to deal as much in the wonderful as he pleases; nay, if he thus keeps within the rules of credibility, the more he can surprise the reader, the more he will engage his attention, and the more he will charm him. As a genius of the highest rank observes in his fifth chapter of the Bathos, “The great art of all poetry is to mix truth with fiction, in order to join the credible with the surprising:” for though every good author will confine himself within the bounds of probability, it is by no means necessary that his characters or his incidents should be trite, common, or vulgar; such as happen in every street or in every house, or which may be met with in the home articles of a newspaper; nor must he be inhibited from showing many persons and things, which may possibly have never fallen within the knowledge of great part of his readers. If the writer strictly observes the rules above-mentioned, he has discharged his part; and is then entitled to some faith from his reader, who is indeed guilty of critical infidelity if he disbelieves him. For want of a portion of such faith, I remember the character of a young lady of quality was condemned on the stage for being unnatural, by the unanimous voice of a very large assembly of clerks and apprentices, though it had the previous suffrages of many ladies of the first rank; one of whom, very eminent for her understanding, declared it was the picture of half the young people of her acquaintance.



Reader, it is impossible we should know what sort of person thou wilt be; for perhaps thou mayest be as learned in human nature as Shakspeare himself was, and perhaps thou mayest be no wiser than some of his editors. Now, lest this latter should be the case, we think proper, before we go any farther together, to give thee a few wholesome admonitions, that thou mayest not as grossly misunderstand and misrepresent us, as some of the said editors have misunderstood and misrepresented their author. First, then, we warn thee not too hastily to condemn any of the incidents in this our history as impertinent and foreign to our main design, because thou dost not immediately conceive in what manner such incident may conduce to that design. This work may, indeed, be considered as a great creation of our own; and for a little reptile of a critic to presume to find fault with any of its parts, without knowing the manner in which the whole is connected, and before he comes to the final catastrophe, is a most presumptuous absurdity. The allusion and metaphor we have here made use of, we must acknowledge to be infinitely too great for our occasion; but there is, indeed, no other which is at all adequate to express the difference between an author of the first rate and a critic of the lowest. Another caution we would give thee, my good reptile, is, that thou

dost not find out too near a resemblance between certain characters here introduced; as, for instance, between the landlady who appears in the seventh book and her in the ninth. Thou art to know, friend, that there are certain characteristics in which most individuals of every profession and occupation agree: to be able to preserve these characteristics, and at the same time to diversify their operations, is one talent of a good writer. Again, to mark the nice distinction between two persons actuated by the same vice or folly, is another; and as this last talent is found in very few writers, so is the true discernment of it found in as few readers; though, I believe, the observation of this forms a very principal pleasure in those who are capable of the discovery. Every person, for instance, can distinguish between Sir Epicure Mammon and Sir Fopling Flutter; but to note the difference between Sir Fopling Flutter and Sir Courtly Nice requires a more exquisite judgment, for want of which, vulgar spectators of plays very often do great injustice in the theatre, where I have sometimes known a poet in danger of being convicted as a thief, upon much worse evidence than the resemblance of hands has been held to be in the law. In reality, I apprehend every amorous widow on the stage would run the hazard of being condemned as a servile imitation of Dido, but that happily very few of our playhouse critics understand enough of Latin to read Virgil.

In the next place, we must admonish thee, my worthy friend (for perhaps thy heart may be better than thy head), not to condemn a character as a bad one because it is not perfectly a good one. If thou dost delight in these models of perfection, there are books enow written to gratify thy taste; but as we have not, in the course of our conversation, ever happened to meet with any such person, we have not chosen to introduce any such here. To say the truth, I a little question whether mere man ever arrived at this consummate degree of excellence, as well as whether there has ever existed a monster bad enough to verify that

. nulla virtute redemptum A vitiis " . . .

in Juvenal: nor do I, indeed, conceive the good purposes served by inserting characters of such angelic perfection, or such diabolical depravity, in any work of invention; since, from contemplating either, the mind of man is more likely to be overwhelmed with sorrow and shame, than to draw any good uses from such patterns; for, in the former instance, he may be both concerned and ashamed to see a pattern of excellence in his nature, which he may reasonably despair of ever arriving at: and, in contemplating the latter, he may be no less affected with those uneasy sensations, at seeing the nature, of which he is a partaker, degraded into so odious and detestable a creature. In fact, if there be enough of goodness in a character to engage the admiration and affection of a well-disposed mind, though there should appear some of those little blemishes, quas humana partum cavit natura," they will raise our compassion rather than our abhorrence. Indeed, nothing can be of more moral use than the imperfections which are seen in examples of this kind; since such form a kind of surprise, more apt to affect and dwell upon our minds, than the faults of very vicious and wicked persons. The foibles and vices of men, in whom there is a great mixture of good, become more glaring objects from the virtues which contrast them and show their deformity; and when we find such vices attended with their evil consequence to our favourite characters, we are not only taught to shun them for our own sake, but to hate them for the mischiefs they have already brought on those we love. And now, my friend, having given you these few admonitions, we will, if you please, once more set forward with our history.

* by no virtue redeemed from his vices


William Congreve descended from a family in Staffordshire, of so great antiquity that it claims a place among the few that extend their line beyond the Norman Conquest; and was the son of William Congreve, second son of Richard Congreve, of Congreve and Stratton. He visited, once at least, the residence of his ancestors; and, I believe, more places than one are still shown, in groves and gardens, where he is related to have written his “Old Bachelor.”

Neither the time nor place of his birth are certainly known; if the inscription upon his monument be true, he was born in 1672. For the place; it was said by himself, that he owed his nativity to England, and by every body

* which human nature too little avoids

else that he was born in Ireland. Southern mentioned him with sharp censure, as a man that meanly disowned his native country. The biographers assign his nativity to Bardsa, near Leeds in Yorkshire, from the account given by himself, as they suppose, to Jacob. To doubt whether a man of eminence has told the truth about his own birth, is, in appearance, to be very deficient in candour; yet nobody can live long without knowing that falsehoods of convenience or vanity, falsehoods from which no evil immediately visible ensues, except the general degradation of human testimony, are very lightly uttered, and once uttered are sullenly supported. Boileau, who desired to be thought a rigorous and steady moralist, having told a petty lie to Lewis XIV, continued it afterwards by false dates; “thinking himself obliged in honour,” says his admirer, “to maintain what, when he said it, was so well received.” Wherever Congreve was born, he was educated first at Kilkenny, and afterwards at Dublin, his father having some military employment that stationed him in Ireland: but, after having passed through the usual preparatory studies, as may be reasonably supposed, with great celerity and success, his father thought it proper to assign him a profession, by which something might be gotten; and about the time of the Revolution sent him, at the age of sixteen, to study law in the Middle Temple, where he lived for several years, but with very little attention to Statutes or Reports. His disposition to become an author appeared very early, as he very early felt that force of imagination, and possessed that copiousness of sentiment, by which intellectual pleasure can be given. His first performance was a novel, called “Incognita, or Love and Duty reconciled:” it is praised by the biographers, who quote some part of the Preface, that is, indeed, for such a time of life, uncommonly judicious. I would rather praise it than read it. His first dramatic labour was “The Old Bachelor;” of which he says, in his defence against Collier, “that the comedy was written, as several know, some years before it was acted. When I wrote it, I had little thoughts of the stage; but did it to amuse myself in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness. Afterwards, through my indiscretion, it was seen, and in some little time more it was acted; and I, through the remainder of my indiscretion, suffered myself to be drawn into the prosecution of a difficult and thankless study, and to be

involved in a perpetual war with knaves and fools.” There seems to be a strange affectation in authors of appearing to have done every thing by chance. “The Old Bachelor” was written for amusement in the languor of convalescence. Yet it is apparently composed with great elaborateness of dialogue, and incessant ambition of wit. The age of the writer considered, it is indeed a very wonderful performance; for, whenever written, it was acted (1693) when he was not more than twenty-one years old; and was then recommended by Mr. Dryden, Mr. Southern, and Mr. Maynwaring. Dryden said that he never had seen such a first play; but they found it deficient in some things requisite to the success of its exhibition, and by their greater experience fitted it for the stage. Southern used to relate of one comedy, probably of this, that, when Congreve read it to the players, he pronounced it so wretchedly, that they had almost rejected it; but they were afterwards so well persuaded of its excellence, that, for half a year before it was acted, the manager allowed its author the privilege of the house. Few plays have ever been so beneficial to the writer; for it procured him the patronage of Halifax, who immediately made him one of the commissioners for licensing coaches, and soon after gave him a place in the pipe-office, and another in the customs of six hundred pounds a year. Congreve's conversation must surely have been at least equally pleasing with his writings. Such a comedy, written at such an age, requires some consideration. As the lighter species of dramatic poetry professes the imitation of common life, of real manners, and daily incidents, it apparently presupposes a familiar knowledge of many characters, and exact observation of the passing world; the difficulty therefore is, to conceive how this knowledge can be obtained by a boy. But if “The Old Bachelor” be more nearly examined, it will be found to be one of those comedies which may be made by a mind vigorous and acute, and furnished with comic characters by the perusal of other poets, without much actual commerce with mankind. The dialogue is one constant reciprocation of conceits, or clash of wit, in which nothing flows necessarily from the occasion or is dictated by nature. The characters both of men and women are either fictitious and artificial, as those of Heartwell and the Ladies; or easy and

common, as Wittol a tame idiot, Bluff a swaggering coward, and Fondlewife a jealous puritan; and the catastrophe arises from a mistake not very probably produced, by marrying a woman in a mask. Yet this gay comedy, when all these deductions are made, will still remain the work of very powerful and fertile faculties; the dialogue is quick and sparkling, the incidents such as seize the attention, and the wit so exuberant that it “o'er-informs its tenement.” Next year he gave another specimen of his abilities in “The Double Dealer,” which was not received with equal kindness. He writes to his patron the lord Halifax a dedication, in which he endeavours to reconcile the reader to that which found few friends among the audience. These apologies are always useless: “de gustibus non est disputandum;” men may be convinced, but they cannot be pleased, against their will. But, though taste is obstinate, it is very variable: and time often prevails when arguments have failed. Queen Mary conferred upon both those plays the honour of her presence; and when she died soon after, Congreve testified his gratitude by a despicable effusion of elegiac pastoral; a composition in which all is unnatural, and yet nothing is new. In another year (1695) his prolific pen produced “Love for Love;” a comedy of nearer alliance to life, and exhibiting more real manners than either of the former. The character of Foresight was then common. Dryden calculated nativities; both Cromwell and King William had their lucky days; and Shaftesbury himself, though he had no religion, was said : to regard predictions. The Sailor is not accounted very natural, but he is very pleasant. With this play was opened the New Theatre, under the direction of Betterton the tragedian; where he exhibited two years afterwards (1687) “The Mourning Bride,” a tragedy, so written as to show him sufficiently qualified for either kind of dramatic poetry. In this play, of which, when he afterwards revised it, he reduced the versification to greater regularity, there is more bustle than sentiment; the plot is busy and intricate, and the events take hold on the attention; but, except a very few passages, we are rather amused with noise, and perplexed with stratagem, than entertained with any true delineation of natural characters. This, however, was received with more benevolence than any other of his works, and still continues to be acted and applauded.

« السابقةمتابعة »