1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Waller

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 2:240-57.



EDMUND WALLER was descended of a family of his name in Buckinghamshire, a younger branch of the Wallers of Kent. He was born March 3, 1605 at Coleshill, which gives Warwickshire the honour of his birth. His father dying when he was very young, the care of his education fell to his mother, who sent him to Eton school, according to the author of his life, but Mr. Wood says, "that he was mostly educated in grammaticals under one Dobson, minister of Great Wycombe in Bucks, who had been educated in Eton school," without mentioning that Mr. Waller had been at all at Eton school: after he had acquired grammar learning, he was removed to King's college in Cambridge, and it is manifest that he must have been extremely assiduous in his studies, since he acquired so fine a taste of the ancients, in so short a time, for at sixteen or seventeen years of age, he was chosen into the last Parliament of King James I, and served as Burgess for Agmondesham.

In the year 1623, when Prince Charles nearly escaped being cast away in the road of St. Andre, coming from Spain, Mr. Waller wrote a Poem on that occasion, at an age when, generally speaking, persons of the acutest parts just begin to shew themselves, and at a time when the English poetry had scarce any grace in it. In the year 1628 he addressed a Poem to his Majesty, on his hearing the news of the duke of Buckingham's death, which, with the former, procured him general admiration: harmony of numbers being at that time so great a novelty, and Mr. Waller having, at once, so polished and refined versification, it is no wonder that he enjoyed the felicity of an universal applause. These poems recommended him to court-favour, and rendered him dear to persons of the best taste and distinction that then flourished. A Writer of his life observes, as a proof of his being much caressed by people of the first reputation, that he was one of the famous club, of which the great lord Falkland, Sir Francis Wainman, Mr. Chillingworth, Mr. Godolphin, and other eminent men were members. these were the immortals of that age, and to be associated with them, is one of the highest encomiums which can possibly be bestowed, and exceeds the most laboured strain of a panegyrist.

A circumstance related of this club, is pretty remarkable: One evening, when they were convened, a great noise was heard in the street, which not a little alarmed them, and upon enquiring the cause, they were told, that a son of Ben Johnson's was arrested. This club was too generous to suffer the child of one, who was the genuine son of Apollo, to be carried to a jail, perhaps for a trifle: they sent for him, but in place of being Ben Johnson's son, he proved to be Mr. George Morley, afterwards bishop of Winchester. Mr. Waller liked him so well, that he paid the debt, which was no less than one hundred pounds, on condition that he would live with him at Beconsfield, which he did eight or ten years together, and from him Mr. Waller used to say, that he learned a taste of the ancient poets, and got what he had of their manner. But it is evident from his poems, written before this incident of Mr. Morley's arrest, that he had early acquired that exquisite Spirit: however, he might have improved it afterwards, by the conversation and assistance of Mr. Morley, to whom this adventure proved very advantageous.

It is uncertain, at what time our author was married, but, it is supposed that his first wife Anne, daughter and heir of Edward Banks, esq; was dead before he fell in love with lady Dorothy Sidney, daughter to the earl of Leicester, whom he celebrates under the name of Sacharissa. Mr. Waller's passion for this lady, has been the subject of much conversation; his verses, addressed to her, have been renowned for their delicacy, and Sacharissa has been proposed, as a model to succeeding poets, in the celebration of their mistresses. One cannot help wishing, that the poet had been as successful in his Addresses to her, as he has been in his love-strains, which are certainly the sweetest in the world. The difference of station, and the pride of blood, perhaps, was the occasion, that Sacharissa never became the wife of Waller; though in reality, as Mr. Waller was a gentleman, a member of parliament, and a person of high reputation, we cannot, at present, see so great a disproportion: and, as Mr. Waller had fortune, as well as wit and poetry, lord Leicester's daughter could not have been disgraced by such an alliance. At least we are sure of one thing, that she lives for ever in Waller's strains, a circumstance, which even her beauty could not have otherwise procured, nor the lustre of the earl of Sunderland, whom she afterwards married: the countess of Sunderland, like the radiant circles of that age, long before this time would have slept in oblivion, but the Sacharissa of Waller is consigned to immortality, and can never die but with poetry, taste, and politeness.

Upon the marriage of that lady to lord Spenser, afterwards earl of Sunderland, which was solemnized July 11, 1639, Mr. Waller wrote the following letter to lady Lucy Sidney, her sister, which is to full of gallantry, and so elegantly turned, that it will doubtedly give pleasure to our readers to peruse it.

"MADAM,

In this common joy at Penshurst, I know, none to whom complaints may come less unseasonable than to your ladyship, the loss of a bedfellow, being almost equal to that of a mistress, and therefore you ought, at least, to pardon, if you consent not to the imprecations of the deserted, which just Heaven no doubt will hear. May my lady Dorothy, if we may yet call her so, suffer as much, and have the like passion for this young lord, whom she has preferred to the rest of mankind, as others have had for her; and may his love, before the year go about, make her taste of the first curse imposed upon womankind, the pains of becoming a mother. May her first born be none of her own sex, nor so like her, but that he may referable her lord, as much as herself. May she, that always affected silence and retirement, have the house filled with the noise, and number of her children, and hereafter of her grand-children; and then may she arrive at that great curse, so much declined by fair ladies, old age; may she live to be very old, and yet seem young; be told so by her glass, and have no aches to inform her of the truth; and when she shall appear to be mortal, may her lord not mourn for her, but go hand in hand with her to that place, where we are told there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage, that being there divorced, we may all have an equal interest in her again! my revenge being immortal, I wish all this may befal her posterity to the world's end, and afterwards! To you, madam, I wish all good things, and that this loss may, in good time, be happily supplied, with a more constant bedfellow of the other sex. Madam, I humbly kiss your hand, and beg pardon for this trouble, from

Your ladyship's

most humble Servant,

E. WALLER."

He lived to converse with lady Sunderland when the was very old, but his imprecations relating to her glass did not succeed, for my lady knew she had the disease which nothing but death could cure; and in a conversation with Mr. Waller, and some other company at lady Wharton's, she asked him in raillery, "When, Mr. Waller, will you write such fine verses upon me again?" Oh Madam, said he, when your ladyship is as young again."

In the year 1640, Mr. Walter was returned Burgess for Agmondesham, in which Parliament he opposed the court measures. The writer of his life observes, "that an intermission of Parliaments for 12 years disgusted the nation, and the House met in no good humour to give money. It must be confessed, some late proceedings had raised such jealousies as would be sure to discover themselves, whenever the King should come to ask for a supply; and Mr. Waller was one of the first to condemn those measures. A speech he made in the House upon this occasion, printed at the end of his poems, gives us some notion of his principles as to government." Indeed we cannot but confess he was a little too inconstant in them, and was not naturally so steady, as he was judicious; which variable temper was the cause of his losing his reputation, in a great measure, with both parties, when the nation became unhappily divided. His love to poetry, and his indolence, laid him open to the insinuations of others, and perhaps prevented his fixing so resolutely to any one party, as to make him a favourite with either. As Mr. Wailer did not come up to the heighths of those who were for unlimited monarchy, so he did not go the lengths of such as would have sunk the kingdom into a commonwealth, but had so much credit at court, that in this parliament the King particularly sent to him, to second his demands of some subsidies to pay the army; and Sir Henry Vane objecting against first voting a supply, because the King would not accept it, unless it came up to his proportion; Mr. Waller spoke earnestly to Sir Thomas Jermyn, comptroller of the houshold, to save his master from the effects of so bold a falsity; for, says he, I am but a country gentleman, and cannot pretend to know the King's mind; but Sir Thomas durst not contradict the secretary; and his son the earl of St. Alban's, afterwards told Mr. Waller, that his father's cowardice ruined the King.

In the latter end of the year 1642, he was one of the commissioners appointed by the Parliament, to present their propositions for peace to his Majesty at Oxford. Mr. Whitelocke, in his Memorials, tells us, that when Mr. Waller kissed the King's hand in the garden at Christ's Church, his Majesty said to him, "though you are last, yet you are not the worst, nor the least in our favour." The discovery of a plot, continues Mr. Whitelocke, then in hand in London to betray the Parliament, wherein Mr. Waller was engaged, with Chaloner, Tomkins, and others, which was then in agitation, did manifest the king's courtship of Mr. Waller to be for that service." In the beginning of the year 1643, our poet was deeply engaged in the design for the reducing the city of London, and the Tower, for the service of his Majesty, which being discovered, he was imprisoned, and fined ten thousand pounds. As this is one of the most memorable circumstances in the life of Waller, we shall not pass it slightly over, but give a short detail of the rise, progress, and discovery of this plot, which issued not much in favour of Mr. Waller's reputation.

Lord Clarendon observes, "that Mr. Waller was a gentleman of very good fortune and estate, and of admirable parts, and faculties of wit and eloquence, and of an intimate conversation and familiarity with those who had that reputation. He had, from the beginning of the Parliament, been looked upon by all men, as a person of very entire affections to the King's service, and to the established government of church and state; and by having no manner of relation to the court, had the more credit and interest to promote the service of it. When the ruptures grew so great between the King, and the two houses, that many of the Members withdrew from those councils, he, among the rest, absented himself, but at the time the standard was set up, having intimacy and friendship with some persons now of nearness about the King, with his Majesty's leave he returned again to London, where he spoke, upon all occasions, with great sharpness and freedom, which was not restrained, and therefore used as an argument against those who were gone upon pretence, that they were not suffered to declare their opinion freely in the House which could not be believed, when all men knew what liberty Mr. Waller took, and spoke every day with impunity, against the proceedings of the house; this won him a great reputation with all people who wished well to the King; and he was looked upon as the boldest champion the crown had in either House, so that such Lords and Commons who were willing to prevent the ruin of the kingdom, complied in a great familiarity with him, as a man resolute in their ends, and best able to promote them; and it may be, they believed his reputation at court so good, that he would be no ill evidence there of other men's zeal and affection; so all men spoke their minds freely to him, both of the general distemper, and of the passions and ambition of particular persons, all men knowing him to be of too good a fortune, and too wary a nature, to engage himself in designs of hazard."

Mr. Tomkins already mentioned, had married Waller's sister, and was clerk of the Queen's council, and of very good fame for honesty and ability; great interest and reputation in the city, and conversed much with those who disliked the proceedings of the Parliament, from whom he learned the dispositions of the citizens on all accidents, which he freely communicated to his brother Waller, as the latter imparted to him whatever observations he made from those with whom he conversed. Mr. Waller told him, that many lords and commons were for a peace. Mr. Tomkins made the same relation with respect to the most substantial men of London, which Mr. Waller reported to the well affected members of both houses; and Mr. Tomkins to the well affected citizens; whence they came to a conclusion, that if they heartily united in the mutual assistance of one another, they should be able to prevent those tumults which seemed to countenance the distractions, and both parties would be excited to moderation. The lord Conway at that time coming from Ireland incensed against the Scotch, discontented with the Parliament here, and finding Waller in good esteem with the earl of Northumberland, and in great friendship with the earl of Portland, entered into the same familiarity; and being a soldier, in the discourses they had, he insinuated, it was convenient to enquire into the numbers of the well affected in the city, that they might know whom they had to trust to. Mr. Waller telling Mr. Tomkins this, the latter imparted it to his confidents there; and it was agreed, that some trusty persons in every ward and parish about London should make a list of all the inhabitants, and by guessing at their several affections, compute the strength of that party which opposed an accommodation, and that which was for it.

Lord Clarendon declares, that he believes this design, was to beget such a combination among the well affected parties, that they would refuse to conform to those ordinances of the twentieth part, and other taxes for the support of the war; and thereby or by joint petitioning for peace, and discountenancing the other who petitioned against it, to prevail with the Parliament to incline to a determination of the war, "but that there ever was, says the earl, any formed design either of letting the King's army into London, which was impossible to be effected, or raising an army there, and surprizing the Parliament, or any person of it, or of using any violence in, or upon the city, I could never yet see cause to believe." But it unluckily happened, that while this combination was on foot, Sir Nicholas Crisp procured a commission of array to be sent from Oxford to London, which was carried by the lady Aubigny, and delivered to a gentleman employed by Sir Nicholas to take it of her; and this being discovered at the same time Mr. Waller's plot was, the two conspiracies were blended into one; tho' the earl of Clarendon is satisfied that they were two distinct designs. His lordship relates the discovery of Mr. Waller's plot in this manner: "A servant of Mr. Tomkins, who had often cursorily overheard his master and Mr. Waller discourse of the subject which we are upon, placed himself behind the hangings, at a time when they were together; and there whilst either of them discovered the language and opinion of the company which they kept, overheard enough to make him believe, that his information and discovery could make him welcome to those whom he thought concerned, and so went to Mr. Pym, and acquainted him with all he had heard, or probably imagined. The time when Mr. Pym was made acquainted with it, is not known; but the circumstance of publishing it was such as filled all men with apprehensions."

"It was on Wednesday the 31st of May, their solemn fast day, when being all at their sermon in St. Margaret's church, Westminster, according to their custom, a letter or message was brought privately to Mr. Pym; who thereupon with some of the most active members rose from their seats, and after a little whispering together, removed out of the church. This could not but exceedingly affect those who stayed behind. Immediately they sent guards to all the prisons, at Lambeth house, Ely-house, and such places where malignants were in custody, with directions to search the prisoners, and some other places which they thought fit should be suspected. After the sermon was ended, the houses met, and were only then told, that letters were intercepted going to the King and the court at Oxford, which expressed some notable conspiracy in hand, to deliver up the Parliament and the city into the hands of the Cavaliers; and that the time for the execution of it drew near. Hereupon a committee was appointed to examine all persons they thought fit, and to apprehend some nominated at that time; and the same night this committee apprehended Mr. Waller and Mr. Tomkins, and the next day such as they suspected."

The Houses were, or seemed to be, so alarmed with the discovery of the plot, that six days after they took a sacred vow and covenant, which was also taken by the city and army, denouncing war against the King more directly than they had done before. The earl of Portland and lord Conway were imprisoned on Mr. Waller's accusation, and often confronted with him before the committee, where they as peremptorily denying, as he charging them, and there being no other witness but him against them, they were kept a while in restraint, and then bailed. Mr. Waller, after he had had "says the earl of Clarendon, with incredible dissimulation, acted such a remorse of conscience, that his trial was put off out of christian compassion, till he should recover his understanding (and that was not till the heat and fury of the prosecutors was abated by the sacrifices they had made) and by drawing visitants to himself of the most powerful ministers of all factions, had by his liberality and penitence, his receiving vulgar and vile sayings from them with humility and reverence, as clearer convictions, and informations than in his life he had ever had; and distributing great sums to them for their prayers and ghostly council, so satisfied them, that they satisified others; was brought at his suit to the bar of the House of Commons on the 4th of July 1643, where being a man in truth very powerful in language, and who, by what he spoke, and the manner of speaking it, exceedingly captivated the good will, and benevolence of his hearers, with such flattery, as was most exactly calculated to that meridian, with such a submission as their pride took delight in, and such a dejection of mind and spirit, as was like to couzen the major part. He laid before them, their own danger and concernment if they should suffer one of their body, how unworthy and monstrous soever, to be tried by the soldiers, who might thereby grow to such power hereafter, that they would both try those they would not be willing should be tried, and for things which they would account no crime, the inconvenience and insupportable mischief whereof wise commonwealths had foreseen and prevented, by exempting their own members from all judgments but their own. He prevailed, not to be tried by a Council of War, and thereby preserved his dear-bought life; so that in truth he did as much owe the keeping his head to that oration, as Cataline did the loss of his to those of Tully; and having done ill, very well, he by degrees drew that respect to his parts, which always carries some compassion to the person, that he got leave to compound for his transgression, and them to accept of ten thousand pounds for his liberty; whereupon he had leave to recollect himself in another country (for his liberty was to be banishment) how miserable he had made himself in obtaining that leave to live out of his own. And there cannot be a greater evidence of the inestimable value of his parts, than that he lived in the good affection and esteem of many, the pity of most, and the reproach and scorn of few, or none."

After this storm had subsided, Mr. Waller travelled into France, where he continued several years. He took over his lady's jewels to support him, and lived very hospitably at Paris, and except that of lord Jermyn, afterwards earl of St. Albans, who was the Queen of England's prime minister when she kept her court there, there was no English table but Mr. Waller's; which was so costly to him, that he used to say, "he was at last come to the Rump Jewel." Upon his return to England, such was the unsteadiness of his temper, he sided with those in power, particularly the Lord Protector, with whom he lived in great intimacy as a companion, tho' he seems not to have acted for him. He often declared that he found Cromwell very well acquainted with the Greek and Roman story; and he frequently took notice, that in the midst of their discourse, a servant has come to tell him, that such and such attended; upon which Cromwell would rise and stop them; talking at the door, where Mr. Waller could over-hear him say, "The lord will reveal, the lord will help," and several such expressions; which when he returned to Mr. Waller, he excused, saying, "Cousin Waller, I must talk to these men after their own way."

In 1654 he wrote a panegyric on Oliver Cromwell, as he did a poem on his death in 1658. At the restoration he was treated with great civility by King Charles II, who always made him one of his party in his diversions at the duke of Buckingham's, and other places, and gave him a grant of the provostship of Eaton-College tho' that grant proved of no effect. He sat in several Parliaments after the restoration, and wrote a panegyric upon his Majesty's return, which however, was thought to fall much short of that which he before had wrote on Cromwell. The King one day asked him in raillery, "How is it Waller, that you wrote a better encomium on Cromwell than on me." "May it please your Majesty, answered the bard, with the most admirable fineness, Poets generally succeed best in fiction."

Mr. Waller continued in the full vigour of his genius to the end of his life; his natural vivacity bore up against his years, and made his company agreeable to the last; which appears from the following little story.

King James II. having ordered the earl of Sunderland to desire Mr. Waller to attend him one afternoon; when he came, the King carried him into his closet, and there asked him how he liked such a picture? "Sir, says Mr. Waller, my eyes are dim, and I know not whose it is." The King answered, "It is the Princess of Orange;" and says Mr. Waller, "she is like the greatest woman in the world." "Whom do you call so, said the king," "Queen Elizabeth, said he. "I wonder, Mr. Waller, replied the King, you should think so; but I must confess, she had a wise council;" and Sir, said Mr. Waller, "did you ever know a Fool chuse a wise one."

Mr. Wailer died of a dropsy October 21, 1687. Finding his distemper encrease, and having yielded all hopes of recovery, he ordered his son-in-law Dr. Peter Birch, to desire all his children to join with him, and give him the sacrament. He at the same time professed himself a believer in revealed religion with great earnestness, telling them, that he remembered when the duke of Buckingham, once talked profanely before King Charles, he told him, "My lord, I am a great deal older than your grace, and I believe I have heard more arguments for atheism, than ever your grace did; but I have lived long enough to see, there was nothing in them, and to I hope will your grace." It is said, that had Mr. Waller lived longer, he would have inclined to the revolution, which by the violent measures of James II. he could foresee would happen. He was interred in the church-yard of Beaconsfield, where a monument is erected to his memory, the inscriptions on it were written by Mr. Thomas Rymer.

He left several children behind him: He bequeathed his estate to his second son Edmund, his eldest, Benjamin, being so far from inheriting his father's wit, that he had not a common portion. Edmund, the second son, used to be chosen member of Parliament for Agmondesham, and in the latter part of his life turned Quaker. William, the third son, was a merchant in London, and Stephen, the fourth, a civilian. Of the daughters, Mary was married to Dr. Peter Birch, prebendary of Westminster; another to Mr. Harvey of Suffolk, another to Mr. Tipping of Oxfordshire.

These are the most material circumstances in the life of Mr. Waller, a man whose wit and parts drew the admiration of the world upon him when he was living, and has secured him the applause of posterity. As a statesman, lord Clarendon is of opinion, he wanted steadiness, and even insinuates, that he was deficient in point of honour; the earl at least construes his timidity, and apparent cowardice, in a way not very advantageous to him.

All men have honoured him as the great refiner of English poetry, who restored numbers to the delicacy they had lost, and joined to melifluent cadence the charms of sense. But as Mr. Waller is unexceptionally the first who brought in a new turn of verse, and gave to rhime all the graces of which it was capable, it would be injurious to his fame, not to present the reader with the opinions of some of the greatest men concerning him, by which he will be better able to understand his particular excellencies, and will see his beauties in full glow before him. To begin with Mr. Dryden, who, in his dedication to the Rival Ladies, addressed to the earl of Orrery, thus characterizes Waller.

"The excellency and dignity of rhime were never fully known till Mr. Waller sought it: He first made writing easily an art; first shewed us to conclude the sense most commonly in distichs, which in the verses of those before him, runs on for so many lines together, that the reader is out of breath to overtake it."

Voltaire, in his letters concerning the English nation, speaking of British poets, thus mentions WaIler. "Our author was much talked of in France. He had much the same reputation in London that Voiture had in Paris; and in my opinion deserved it better. Voiture was born in an age that was just emerging from barbarity; an age that was still rude and ignorant; the people of which aimed at wit, tho' they had not the least pretensions to it, and sought for points and conceits instead of sentiments. Bristol stones are more easily found than diamonds. Voiture born with an easy and frivolous genius, was the first who shone in this Aurora of French literature. Had he come into the world after those great genius's, who spread such glory over the age of Lewis XIV, he would either have been unknown, would have been despised, or would have corrected his stile. Waller, tho' better than Voiture, was not yet a finished poet. The graces breathe in such of Waller's works as are wrote in a tender strain; but then they are languid thro' negligence, and often disfigured with false thoughts. The English had not at this time attained the art of correct writing; but his serious compositions exhibit a strength and vigour, which could not have been expected from the softness and effeminacy of his other pieces."

The anonymous author of the preface to the second part of our author's poems, printed in the year 1690, has given his character at large, and tells us; "That Waller is a name that carries every thing in it that is either great, or graceful in poetry. He was indeed the parent of English verse, and the first who shewed us our tongue had beauty and numbers in it. The tongue came into his hands like a rough diamond; he polished it first, and to that degree, that artists since have admired the workmanship without pretending to mend it. He undoubtedly stands first in the list of refiners; and for ought I know the last too; for I question whether in Charles II's reign; the English did not come to its full perfection, and whether it had not had its Augustan age, as well as the Latin." Thus far this anonymous author. If I may be permitted to give my opinion in so delicate a point as the reputation of Waller, I shall take the liberty to observe, that had he, in place of preceding, succeeded those great wits who flourished in the of Charles II, he could never have rose to such great reputation, nor would have deserved it: No small honour is due to him for the harmony which he introduced, but upon that chiefly does his reputation stand. He certainly is sometimes languid; he was, rather a tender than a violent lover; he has not that force of thinking, that amazing reach of genus for which Dryden is renowned, and had it been his lot to have appeared in the reign of Queen Anne, I imagine, he would not have been ranked above the second class of poets. But be this as it may, poetry owes him the highest obligations for refining it, and every succeeding genius will be ready to acknowledge, that by copying Waller's strains, they have improved their own, and the more they follow him, the more they please.

Mr. Waller altered the Maid's Tragedy from Fletcher, and translated the first Act of the Tragedy of Pompey from the French of Corneille. Mrs. Katharine Philips, in a letter to Sir Charles Cotterell, ascribes the translation of the first act to our author; and observes, that Sir Edward Filmer did one, Sir Charles Sidley another, lord Buckhurst another; but who the fifth, says she, I cannot learn.

Mrs. Philips then proceeds to give a criticism on this performance of Waller's, shews some faults, and points out some beauties, with a spirit and candour peculiar to her.

The best edition of our author's works is that published by Mr. Fenton, London 1730, containing poems, speeches, letters, &c. In this edition is added the preface to the first edition of Mr. Waller's poems after the restoration, printed in the year 1664.