1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Waller

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 142-43.



EDMUND WALLER, born at Coleshill, Hertfordshire, in March, 1605, was the son of Robert Waller, Esq. a gentleman of an ancient family and good fortune, who married a sister of the celebrated John Hampden. The death of his father during his infancy left him heir to an estate of 3500 a year, at that period an ample fortune. He was educated first at Eton, whence he was removed to King's College in Cambridge. His election to parliament was as early as between his sixteenth or seventeenth year; and it was not much later that he made his appearance as a poet: and it is remarkable that a copy of verses which he addressed to Prince Charles, in his eighteenth year, exhibits a style and character

Versification as perfectly formed as those, of his maturest productions. He again served in parliament before be was of age; and he continued his services to a later period. Not insensible of the value of wealth, he augmented his paternal fortune by marriage with a rich city heiress. In the long intermissions of parliament which occurred after 1628, he retired to his mansion of Beaconsfield, where he continued his classical studies, under the direction of his kinsman Morley, afterwards bishop of Winchester; and he obtained admission to a society of able men and polite scholars, of whom Lord Falkland was the connecting medium.

Waller became a widower at the age of twenty-five; he did not, however, spend much time in mourning, but declared himself the suitor of Lady Dorothea Sydney, eldest daughter of the Earl of Leicester, whom he has immortalized under the poetical name of Saccharissa. She is described by him as a majestic and scornful beauty; and he seems to delight more in her contrast, the gentler Amoret, who is supposed to have been a Lady Sophia Murray. Neither of these ladies, however, was won by his poetic strains; and, like another man, be consoled himself in a second marriage.

When the king's necessities compelled him, in 1640, once more to apply to the representatives of the people, Waller, who was returned for Agmondesham, decidedly took part with the members who thought that the redress of grievances should precede a vote for supplies; and he made an energetic speech on the occasion. He continued during three years to vote in general with the Opposition in the Long Parliament, but did not enter into all their measures. In particular, he employed much cool argument against the proposal for the abolition of Episcopacy; and he spoke with freedom and severity against some other plans of the House. In fact, he was at length become a zealous loyalist in his inclinations; and his conduct under the difficulties into which this attachment involved him became a source of his indelible disgrace. A short narrative will suffice for the elucidation of this matter.

Waller had a brother-in-law, named Tomkyns, who was clerk of the queen's council, and possessed great influence in the city among the warm loyalists. On consulting together, they thought it would be possible to raise a powerful party, which might oblige the parliament to adopt pacific measures, by resisting the payment of the taxes levied for the support of the war. About this time Sir Nicholas Crispe formed a design of more dangerous import, which was that of exciting the king's friends in the city to an open resistance of the authority of parliament; and for that purpose he obtained a commission of array from his majesty. This plan appears to have been originally, unconnected with the other; yet the commission was made known to Waller and Tomkyns, and the whole was compounded into a horrid and dreadful plot. Waller and Tomkyns were apprehended, when the pusillanimity of the former disclosed the whole secret. "He was so confounded with fear," (says Lord Clarendon,) "that he confessed whatever he had heard, said, thought, or seen, all that he knew of himself, and all that he suspected of, others, without concealing any person, of what degree or quality soever, or any discourse which he had ever upon any occasion entertained with them." The conclusion of this business was, that Tomkyns, and Chaloner, another conspirator, were hanged, and that Waller was expelled the House, tried, and condemned; but after a year's imprisonment, and a fine of ten thousand pounds, was suffered to go into exile. He chose Rouen for his first place of foreign exile, where he lived with his wife till his removal to Paris. In that capital he maintained the appearance of a man of fortune, and entertained hospitably, supporting this style of living chiefly by the sale of his wife's jewels. At length, after the lapse of ten years, being reduced to what he called his rump jewel, he thought it time to apply for permission to return to his own country. He obtained this licence, and was also restored to his estate, though now diminished to half its former rental. Here he fixed his abode, at a house built by himself, at Beaconsfield; and he renewed his courtly strains by adulation to Cromwell, now Protector, to whom his mother was related. To this usurper the noblest tribute of his muse was paid.

When Charles II. was restored to the crown and past character was lightly regarded, the stains of that of Waller were forgotten, and his wit ant poetry procured him notice at court, and admission to the highest circles. He had also sufficient interest to obtain a seat in the House of Commons in all the parliaments of that reign. The king's gracious manners emboldened him to ask for vacant place of provost of Eton college, which granted him; but Lord Clarendon, then Lord Chancellor, refused to set the seal to the grant, alledging that by the statutes laymen were excluded from that provostship. This was thought the reason why Waller joined the Duke of Buckingham, in his hostility against Clarendon.

On the accession of James II., Waller, then in his 80th year, was chosen representative for Saltash. Having now considerably passed the usual limit of human life, he turned his thoughts to devotion, and composed some divine poems, the usual task in which men of gaiety terminate their career. He died at Beaconsfield in October, 1687, the 83d year of his age. He left several children by his second wife, of whom, the inheritor of his estate, Edmund, after representing Agmondesham its parliament, became a convert to quakerism.

Waller was one of the earliest poets who obtained reputation by the sweetness and sonorousness of his strains; and there are perhaps few masters at the present day who surpass him in this particular.