EDMUND WALLER, the celebrated poet, was born at Coleshill in Hertfordshire, on the 3rd of March, 1605. He was the son of Robert Waller, Esq., a gentleman of Agmondesham in Buckinghamshire, who died during Edmund's infancy, leaving him a yearly income of £3500 per annum, which may be fairly reckoned as equal to four times that amount at the present day.
Waller's mother placed him at Eton, where he must have diligently availed himself of the aid of his instructors in Greek and Roman literature, as is testified by the extensive and accurate scholarship which his earliest works display, and by the classic elegance of taste that generally pervades his writings. On leaving Eton, Waller was placed at King's College; this must have been as a Fellow Commoner, as his name does not appear in the Registrum Regale.
At the early age of eighteen, Waller was a statesman, a courtier, and a poet. The House of Commons in those days was not so strict as it afterwards became in excluding minors from its walls; and Waller, as his Epitaph by Rymer expresses it, "Nondum octodecennalis inter ardua regni tractantes sedem habuit, a burgo de Agmondesham missus." Our young senator was well received at the Court of James the First, which he assiduously frequented; and the first published specimen of his poetical powers was a copy of congratulatory verses on Prince Charles's escape from shipwreck at St. Andero on his return from Spain. Johnson says of this piece, that it justifies the observation made by one of Waller's editors, that he attained, by a felicity like instinct, a style which perhaps will never be obsolete. The rhythm and elegance of expression which are displayed in Waller's earliest poems, are not only equal to those of his more mature productions, but they are remarkable in themselves; and he is certainly the first writer in whose hands our heroic couplet assumed any smoothness and metrical harmony. Waller was an attentive reader of Fairfax's translation of Tasso (in the same metre as the original), and he professed himself indebted to this model for the smoothness of his own numbers. The practice of Latin versification at Eton must also have contributed to give Waller his distinguishing excellence in rhythm. I know no instance of a poet showing elegance in Latin versification, but betraying ruggedness when he uses his own language. Petrarch and the other great Italian scholars, Milton and Gray among our own, are splendid examples to the contrary.
Waller's residences at King's cannot have been very long and frequent, as, besides his senatorial functions and his attendances at Court, we find that he had become the husband of a great city heiress, the father of two children, and was a widower by the time he was five-and-twenty. He must, however, have sometimes assumed his station at Cambridge as a member of the university, as a Latin epigram signed Ed. Waller, Armiger, Coll. Regal. is preserved in "Rex Redux," the collection of Cambridge verses on the return of Charles the First from Scotland, after his coronation there in 1633.
Waller's first marriage had largely increased his previously ample wealth, and he sought to advance himself in rank by winning a second wife from among the high-horn beauties of the day. His poetical courtships of Lady Dorothea Sidney, whom he immortalised by the name of Sacharissa, and of Lady Sophia Murray, whom he sang of as his Amoret, were long, melodious and unsuccessful. But though he lost the ladies, he won what probably he loved better than either of them, universal celebrity: and as he himself elegantly expressed it, like Apollo in vain pursuit of Daphne,
He catched at love, and filled his arms with bays.
Johnson has described Waller's courtships with peculiar sarcasm, and thus narrates the circumstances of his second marriage.
"When he had lost all hopes of Sacharissa, he looked around him for an easier conquest, and gained a lady of the family of Bresse, or Breaux. The time of his marriage is not exactly known. It has not been discovered that his wife was won by his poetry; nor is anything told of her, but that she brought him many children. He doubtless praised some whom he would have been afraid to marry, and perhaps married one whom he would have been ashamed to praise. Many qualities contribute to domestick happiness, upon which poetry has no colours to bestow; and many airs and sallies may delight imagination, which he who flatters them never can approve. There are charms made only for distant admiration. No spectacle is nobler than a blaze."
Waller was a second time returned to Parliament for Agmondesham in 1640, and he again represented that borough in the Long Parliament. Waller was Hampden's nephew, and he was also connected, though more distantly, with the family of Cromwell. He joined these and other popular leaders in insisting that a redress of grievances ought to precede a vote of supply; and he soon signalised himself as one of the best orators on the opposition side of the house. So highly did the chiefs of his party esteem his abilities, that he was put forward by them as the manager of the prosecution of Mr. Justice Crawley, for the part which that judge had taken on the Ship-money question. Waller's speech on this occasion must have been one of no ordinary power and skill, inasmuch as 20,000 copies of it are said to have been sold in a single day.
Waller was, however, far from going all the lengths to which the fierce zealots of his party were eager to proceed. A speech of his on the question of the abolition of Episcopacy has been preserved, and is quoted by Johnson. Johnson truly says that he spoke against the innovation coolly, reasonably, and firmly. Waller opposed several other of the extreme measures which the Parliamentary majority voted. And, though he remained in London after the war broke out, and continued to sit in the House of Commons at Westminster, he is supposed to have done so by the King's secret permission. He was one of the Parliamentary Commissioners sent to Oxford to negotiate with the King, who showed great favour and attention to him; and Waller, being now completely won over to the royal side, on his return to London tried to organise a scheme for an armed rising in the city in the King's behalf. This project, which is known as Waller's plot, proved an utter failure. Some intelligence of it was gained by Pym; and Waller, on being apprehended, betrayed his confederates' lives and begged for his own, with equal perfidy and cowardice. Clarendon, whom other events made a personal enemy to Waller, has exerted all his power in branding this infamous part of Waller's career. Johnson cites these censures of the noble historian's, and adds some weighty ones of his own. But he also quotes the milder comment of another biographer, who bids us "not to condemn Waller with untempered severity, because he was not a prodigy which the world has seldom seen, because his character included not the poet, the orator and the hero."
Waller was expelled from the House of Commons, and tried and condemned by a court-martial, for his participation in this affair. But Lord Essex reprieved him, and after a year's imprisonment his life was granted him on his paying a fine of £10,000. After which the ruling party in the Parliament "permitted him to recollect himself in another country."
Waller went to France, where he remained some years in exile. He lived at first in great splendour; but at length his remittances from England began to fail. He was obliged to sell his wife's jewels: and on being reduced, as he expressed it, to the rump-jewel, he employed the interest of his brother-in-law, Colonel Scroop, with Cromwell to obtain leave to return to England. This was readily granted; and Waller, whose powers of making his society agreeable to all men of all kinds, must have been very remarkable, soon became a personal favourite with the Protector.
"Waller, as he used to relate, found him sufficiently versed in ancient history; and when any of his enthusiastick friends came to advise or consult him, could sometimes overhear him discoursing in the cant of the times: but when he returned, he would say, 'Cousin Waller, I must talk to these men in their own way:' and resumed the common style of conversation.
"He repaid the Protector for his favours (1654) by the famous panegyrick which has been always considered as the first of his poetical productions. His choice of encomiastic topicks is very judicious; for he considers Cromwell in his exaltation, without enquiring how he attained it; there is consequently no mention of the rebel or the regicide. All the former part of his hero's life is veiled with shades; and nothing is brought to view but the chief, the governor, the defender of England's honour, and the enlarger of her dominion."
This from Johnson is no slight praise. Johnson also remarks that—
"The poem on the death of the Protector seems to have been dictated by real veneration for his memory. Dryden and Sprat wrote on the same occasion; but they were young men, struggling into notice, and hoping for some favour from the ruling party. Waller had little to expect: he had received nothing but his pardon from Cromwell, and was not likely to ask anything from those who should succeed him."
He says of the poem itself—
"The Panegyrick upon Cromwell has obtained from the publick a very liberal dividend of praise, which however cannot be said to have been unjustly lavished; for such a series of verses had rarely appeared before in the English language. Of the lines some are grand, some are graceful, and all are musical. There is now and then a feeble verse, or a trifling thought; but its great fault is the choice of its hero."
Hallam observes on this that "It may not be the opinion of all, that Cromwell's actions were of that obscure and pitiful character which the majesty of song rejects." I cannot, however, agree with this last great critic that "Waller's deficiency in poetical vigour will surely be traced in this composition:" that "if he rarely sinks, he never rises very high." Surely such a censure does not apply to the following stanza, in which he describes how Cromwell, as he raised himself above all his countrymen, raised his country above all other nations.
Still as you rise the state exalted too
Finds no distemper while 'tis changed by you;
Changed like the world's great scene, when without noise
The rising sun night's vulgar lights destroys!
On the Restoration, Waller, with the complaisant versatility that has been too common among poets, wrote a series of congratulatory verses to Charles the Second. These were far inferior to the panegyric on Cromwell. The King noticed this to Waller, who amply redeemed his character both for loyalty and wit by the courtly reply, that "Poets succeed much better in fiction than in truth."
Waller sate in all the parliaments of Charles the Second's reign. Burnet says of him that "he was the delight of the house, and, though old, said the liveliest things of any among them."
He was a great favourite at Court; and, though a strict water-drinker, his wit and gaiety made him a chosen guest at the tables of those who were the highest in rank and the deepest in drink in the kingdom. In 1665, trusting to his favour with Charles, Waller solicited the Provostship of Eton, which fell vacant by the death of Dr. Meredith that year. The King consented to nominate him; but Clarendon, then prime minister, refused to put the seal to the grant, alleging that the Provostship could not be held by a layman. This incensed Waller against the minister; and when Clarendon was soon afterwards impeached in Parliament, Waller signalised himself among the prosecutors by his acrimonious violence.
In the year after Clarendon's banishment the Eton Provostship became vacant again, in consequence of the death of Dr. Allestree. Waller renewed his application. The King, who was willing to oblige him, caused the matter to be argued before his Council, who came to the conclusion that none but a clergyman could properly fill the office, as the Provostship of the College was also a parsonage, and that the Provosts had always received institution from the Bishops of Lincoln. They resolved that the appointment of Waller would be a violation of the newly-passed Act of Uniformity; and the King thereon said that he could not break the law which he had made; and Waller's desire to become the Head of Eton was a second time refused.
Waller lived during two years of James the Second's reign, and was treated with great kindness by that monarch, who, with all the characteristic faults of a Stuart, possessed alsotheir characteristic merit, a respectful fondness for men of literary eminence.
"One day, taking him into the closet, the King asked him how he liked one of the pictures: 'My eyes,' said Waller, 'are dim, and I do not know it.' The King said it was the Princess of Orange. 'She is,' said Waller, 'like the greatest woman in the world.' The King asked who was that? and was answered, Queen Elizabeth. 'I wonder,' said the King, 'you should think so; but I must confess she had a wise council.' 'And, sir,' said Waller, 'did you ever know a fool choose a wise one?'
"When the King knew that he was about to marry his daughter to Dr. Birch, a clergyman, he ordered a French gentleman to tell him that 'the King wondered he could think of marrying his daughter to a falling Church.' 'The King,' says Waller, 'does me great honour in taking notice of my domestic affairs; but I have lived long enough to observe that this falling Church has got a trick of rising again.'
"He took notice to his friends of the King's conduct, and said that 'he would be left like a whale upon the strand.' Whether he was privy to any of the transactions which ended in the Revolution is not known. His heir joined the Prince of Orange.
"Towards the decline of life he bought a small house with a little land at Colshill, and said, 'he should be glad to die, like the stag, where he was roused.' This, however, did not happen. When he was at Beaconsfield he found his legs grow tumid: he went to Windsor, where Sir Charles Scarborough then attended the King, and requested him, as both a friend and physician, to tell him what that swelling meant. 'Sir,' answered Scarborough, 'your blood will run no longer.' Waller repeated some lines of Virgil, and went home to die.
"As the disease increased upon him, he composed himself for his departure; and calling upon Dr. Birch to give him the holy sacrament, he desired his children to take it with him, and made an earnest declaration of his faith in Christianity. It now appeared what part of his conversation with the great could be remembered with delight. He related that, being present when the Duke of Buckingham talked profanely before King Charles, he said to him, 'My Lord, I am a great deal older than your Grace, and have, I believe, heard more arguments for atheism than ever your Grace did; but I have lived long enough to see there is nothing in them, and so I hope your Grace will.'
"He died October 21, 1687, and was buried at Beaconsfield." (Johnson.)
Waller's poems were universally read and admired in the age in which they were published: nor was their general popularity much diminished during the early portion of the last century. The greater part of them now seldom find a reader; and the large majority of educated Englishmen are familiar with only a few lines of Waller; yet these few lines are such standard favourites, that their author's poetical reputation is safely preserved by them. Every one knows the middle stanza of his address to the lady whom he heard singing one of his songs:—
That eagle's fate and mine are one,
Which on the shaft that made him die,
Espy'd a feather of his own
Wherewith he wont to soar so high.
The scholar who reads Porson's notes on the Medea knows that Waller caught the hint for this simile from Aeschylus. The reader of "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" may know that Byron, in his celebrated lines on Kirke White, followed Aeschylus and Waller; but how few there are who know the stanza which precedes, or the stanza which follows this renowned quatrain of Waller's, — how few, in fact, there are who know that it is part of a poem, and not an epigram complete in itself.
Waller's eagle might waft his name down to posterity "tenui penna;" but he has a surer foundation for his fame in his exquisite song, "Go, lovely rose," which pleased at once and for ever. It is well worth a literary lifetime to have written one such song as this; for, if Virgil is right in saying that the poet's true reward is
Virum volitare per ora,
assuredly the "chansonnier" takes the surest plan to gain it both literally and metaphorically:—
Go, lovely rose!
Tell her, that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet, and fair, she seems to be.
Tell her that's young,
And shuns to have her graces spy'd,
That hadst thou sprung
In desarts, where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended dy'd.
Small is the worth
Of beauty, from the light retir'd:
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desir'd,
And not blush so to be admir'd.
Then die! that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee:
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair.
(Life in Johnson. — Biog. Brit., &c.)