1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Waller

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:325-26.



EDMUND WALLER (1605-1687) was a courtly and amatory poet, inferior to Herrick or Suckling in natural feeling and poetic fancy, but superior to them in correctness and in general powers of versification. The poems of Waller have all the smoothness and polish of modern verse, and hence a high, perhaps too high, rank has been claimed for him as one of the first refiners and improvers of poetical diction. One cause of Waller's refinement was doubtless his early and familiar intercourse with the court and nobility, and the light conversational nature of most of his productions. He wrote for the world of fashion and of taste — consigning "The noon of manhood to a myrtle shade." And he wrote in the same strain till he was upwards of fourscore! His life has more romance than his poetry. Waller was born at Coleshill, in Hertfordshire, and in his infancy was loft heir to an estate of £3000 per annum. His mother was a sister of the celebrated John Hampden, but was a royalist in feeling, and used to lecture Cromwell for his share in the death of Charles I. Her son, the poet, was either a roundhead or a royalist, as the time served. He entered parliament and wrote his first poem when he was eighteen. At twenty-five, he married a rich heiress of London, who died the same year, and the poet immediately became a suitor of Lady Dorothea Sidney, eldest daughter of the Earl of Leicester. To this proud and peerless fair one Waller dedicated the better portion of his poetry, and the groves of Penshurst echoed to the praises of his Sacharissa. Lady Dorothea, however, was inexorable, and bestowed her hand on the Earl of Sunderland. It is said that, meeting her long afterwards, when she was far advanced in years, the lady asked him when he would again write such verses upon her. "When you are as young, madam, and as handsome, as you were then," replied the ungallant poet. The incident affords a key to Waller's character. He was easy, witty, and accomplished, but cold and selfish; destitute alike of high principle and deep feeling. As a member of parliament, Waller distinguished himself on the popular side, and was chosen to conduct the prosecution against Judge Crawley for his opinion in favour of levying ship-money. His speech, on delivering the impeachment, was printed, and 20,000 copies of it sold in one day. Shortly afterwards, however, Waller joined in a plot to surprise the city militia, and let in the king's forces, for which he was tried and sentenced to one year's imprisonment, and to pay a fine of £10,000. His conduct on this occasion was mean and abject. At the expiration of his imprisonment, the poet went abroad, and resided, amidst much splendour and hospitality, in France. He returned during the protectorate, and when Cromwell died, Waller celebrated the event in one of his most vigorous and impressive poems. The image of the commonwealth, though reared by no common hands, soon fell to pieces under Richard Cromwell, and Waller was ready with a congratulatory address to Charles II. The royal offering was considered inferior to the panegyric on Cromwell, and the king himself (who admitted the poet to terms of courtly intimacy) is said to have told him of the disparity. "Poets, sire," replied the witty, self-possessed Waller, "succeed better in fiction than in truth." In the first parliament summoned by Charles, Waller sat for the town of Hastings, and he served for different places in all the parliaments of that reign. Bishop Burnet says he was the delight of the house of commons. At the accession of James II. in 1685, the venerable poet, then eighty years of age, was elected representative for a borough in Cornwall. The mad career of James in seeking to subvert the national church and constitution was foreseen by this wary and sagacious observer: "he will be left," said he, "like a whale upon the strand." Feeling his long-protracted life drawing to a close, Waller purchased a small property at Coleshill, saving, "he would be glad to die like the stag, where he was roused." The wish was not fulfilled; he died at Beaconsfield on the 21st of October 1687, and in the churchyard of that place (where also rest the ashes of Edmund Burke) a monument has been erected to his memory.

The first collection of Waller's poems was made by himself, and published in the year 1664. It went through numerous editions in his lifetime; and in 1690 a second collection was made of such pieces as he had produced in his latter years. In a poetical dedication to Lady Harley, prefixed to thus edition, and written by Elijah Fenton, Waller is styled the "Maker and model of melodious verse." This eulogium seems to embody the opinion of Waller's contemporaries, and it was afterwards confirmed by Dryden and Pope, who had not sufficiently studied the excellent models of versification furnished by the old poets, and their rich poetical diction. The smoothness of his versification, his good sense and uniform elegance, rendered him popular with critics as with the multitude; while his prominence as a public man, for so many years, would increase curiosity as to his works. Waller is now seldom read. The playfulness of his fancy, and the absence of any striking defects, are but poor substitutes for genuine feeling and the language of nature. His poems are chiefly short and incidental, but he wrote a poem on Divine Love, in six cantos. Cowley, had written his "Davideis," and recommended sacred subjects as adapted for poetry; but neither he nor Waller succeeded in this new and higher walk of the muse. Such an employment of their talents was graceful and becoming in advanced life, but their fame must ever rest on their light, airy, and occasional poems, dictated by that gallantry, adulation, and play of fancy, which characterised the cavalier poets.