1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Waller

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 2:29-30.



Blest beyond the poet's usual lot, Edmund Waller was born to independence, which, notwithstanding the troublesome times in which he lived, he enjoyed to a very advanced age. He was the son of Robert Waller, Esq. of Buckinghamshire, by a sister of the celebrated patriot Hampden, and first saw the light in 1605.

After receiving a classical education at Eton, he was removed to King's College, Cambridge; and at the age of 18, produced his first acknowledged poem. Though rich, he increased his wealth by marrying a city heiress; but becoming a widower before he was twenty-five, he long cherished a poetical passion for lady Dorothea Sidney, daughter of the Earl of Leicester, whom he teas immortalized under the name of Sacharissa. The lady, however, gave her hand to the earl of Sunderland; and Waller was afterwards united to a Miss Bresse, whom, perhaps, he would have blushed to celebrate in poetry, but with whom he enjoyed much domestic comfort, and had by her no fewer than thirteen children.

Connected as he was, it is not to be imagined that he could pass quietly through the tempestuous scenes of civil war. In fact, he was a considerable actor in them, and performed various parts. At first he opposed the court, but in a short time changed his party; and being detected in a plot against the Parliament, he saved his life by a fine of 10,000, and withdrew to France, where he lived in a style of princely luxury. At length having obtained a pardon, he returned to England, and was highly favoured by his kinsman Cromwell; whose death he laments in numbers peculiarly sweet; while with a versatility that would have condemned an ordinary man, he hailed the restoration of Charles II. in another copy of verses, which were indifferently received by that good-humoured monarch. When Charles however bantered him on the superiority of his composition in favour of Cromwell, Waller extricated himself with great address by observing, "that poets always succeed better in fiction than in truth."

Waller was no less distinguished as a senator than as a poet. He was in parliament the greatest part of his life, and obtained the reputation of being an eloquent and able speaker. He died of the dropsy at the age of 82, and was buried at Beaconsfield, where a monument is erected to his memory, and where his descendants still have a seat.

As a poet, Waller is characterised by softness and smoothness of numbers. His compositions possess little strength, but they are generally elegant and harmonious. Indeed he was the first who gave a musical cadence to his lines, and therefore is still read with pleasure. He has none of the forced conceits of Cowley, nor the obsolete diction of Spenser. As a man he was gay, cheerful, and sociable, and could accommodate himself to the most dissimilar characters and be acceptable to all,

The estimable Mr. [Robert] Anderson has observed, that the poetry of Waller, when we consider the time in which his first pieces (which are no ways inferior to his later ones) were written, displays a great elegance of taste, and a judgment almost congenially matured. One can scarcely believe, that but twenty years intervened between the last publication of Spenser, and the first of Waller; yet the former (who indeed affected the obsolete,) cannot be read without a glossary; whereas, the diction and turn of style (save a few scattered expletives) of the latter, are so entirely modern, that they seem no otherwise different, than by conveying that superior weight and energy of sentiment, which so strongly mark the character of the older poetry, and which yet promises it a longer existence than its florid but feeble offspring can hope for.