1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Waller

Anna Brownell Jameson, in Loves of the Poets (1829; 1857) 273-84.



The courtly Waller, like the lady in the Maids' Tragedy, loved with his ambition, — not with his eyes; still less with his heart. A critic, in designating the poets of that time, says truly that "Waller still lives in Sacharissa:" he lives in her name more than she does in his poetry; he gave that name a charm and a celebrity which has survived the admiration his verses inspired, and which has assisted to preserve them and himself from oblivion. If Sacharissa had not been a real and an interesting object, Waller's poetical praises had died with her, and she with them. He wants earnestness; his lines were not inspired by love, and they give "no echo to the seat where love is throned." Instead of passion and poetry, we have gallantry and flattery; gallantry, which was beneath the dignity of its object; and flattery, which was yet more superfluous, — it was painting the lily and throwing perfume on the violet.

Waller's Sacharissa was the Lady Dorothea Sydney, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Leicester, and born in 1620. At the time he thought fit to make her the object of his homage she was about eighteen, beautiful, accomplished, and admired. Waller was handsome, rich, a wit, and five and twenty. He had ever an excellent opinion of himself, and a prudent care of his worldly interests. He was a great poet, in days when Spenser was forgotten, Milton neglected, and Pope unborn. He began by addressing to her the lines on her picture, "Such was Philoclea and such Dorus' flame."

Then we have the poems written at Penshurst, — in this strain,—

Ye lofty beeches! tell this matchless dame,
That if together ye fed all one flame,
It could not equalize the hundredth part
Of what her eyes have kindled in my heart, &c.

The lady was content to be the theme of a fashionable poet: but when he presumed farther, she crushed all hopes with the most undisguised aversion and disdain: thereupon he rails, — thus,—

To thee a wild and cruel soul is given,
More deaf than trees, and prouder than the heaven;
Love's foe profest! why dost thou falsely feign
Thyself a Sydney? From which noble strain
He sprung that could so far exalt the name
Of love, and warm a nation with his flame.

His mortified vanity turned for consolation to Amoret, (Lady Sophia Murray,) the intimate companion of Sacharissa. He describes the friendship between these two beautiful girls very gracefully.

Tell me, lovely, loving pair!
Why so kind, and so severe?
Why so careless of our care
Only to yourselves so dear?...

Not the silver doves that fly
Yoked to Cytherea's car;
Not the wings that lift so high,
And convey her son so far,

Are so lovely, sweet and fair,
Or do more ennoble love,
Are so choicely matched a pair,
Or with more consent do move.

And they are very beautifully contrasted in the lines to Amoret—

If sweet Amoret complains,
I have sense of all her pains;
But for Sacharissa, I
Do not only grieve, but die!...

'Tis amazement more than love,
Which her radiant eyes do move;
If less splendor wait on thine,
Yet they so benignly shine,
I would turn my dazzled sight
To behold their milder light....

Amoret! as sweet and good
As the most delicious food,
Which but tasted does impart
Life and gladness to the heart.
Sacharissa's beauty's wine,
Which to madness doth incline,
Such a liquor as no brain
That is mortal, can sustain.

But Lady Sophia, though of a softer disposition, and not carrying in her mild eyes the scornful and destructive light which sparkled in those of Sacharissa, was not to be "be-rhymed" into love any more than her fair friend. She applauded, but she repelled: she smiled, but she was cold. Waller consoled himself by marrying a city widow, worth thirty thousand pounds.

The truth is, that with all his wit and his elegance of fancy, of which there are some inimitable examples, — as the application of the story of Daphne, and of the fable of the wounded eagle; the lines on Sacharissa's girdle; the graceful little song, "Go, lovely Rose," to which I need only allude, and many others, — Waller has failed in convincing us of his sincerity. As Rosalind says, "Cupid might have clapped him on the shoulder, but we could warrant him heart whole." All along our sympathy is rather with the proud beauty, than with the irritable self-complacent poet. Sacharissa might have been proud, but she was not arrogant; her manners were gentle and retiring; and her disposition rather led her to shun than to seek publicity and admiration.

Such cheerful modesty, such humble state,
Moves certain love, but with as doubtful fate;
As when beyond our greedy reach, we see
Inviting fruit on too sublime a tree.

The address to Sacharissa's femme-de-chambre, beginning, "Fair fellow-servant," is not to be compared with Tasso's ode to the Countess of Scandiano's maid, but contains some most elegant lines.

You the soft season know, when best her mind
May be to pity, or to love inclined:
In some well-chosen hour supply his fear,
Whose hopeless love durst never tempt the ear
Of that stern goddess; you, her priest, declare
What offerings may propitiate the fair:
Rich orient pearl, bright stones that ne'er decay,
Or polished lines, that longer last than they....

But since her eyes, her teeth, her lip excels
All that is found in mines or fishes' shells,
Her nobler part as far exceeding these,
None but immortal gifts her mind should please.

These lines impress us with the image of a very imperious and disdainful beauty; yet such was not the character of Sacharissa's person or mind. Nor is it necessary to imagine her such, to account for her rejection of Waller, and her indifference to his flattery. There was a meanness about the man: he wanted not birth alone, but all the high and generous qualities which must have been required to recommend him to a woman, who, with the blood and the pride of the Sydneys, inherited their large heart and noble spirit. We are not surprised when she turned from the poet to give her hand to Henry Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, one of the most interesting and heroic characters of that time. He was then only nineteen, and she was about the same age. This marriage was celebrated with great splendor at Penshurst, July 30, 1639.

Waller, who had professed that his hope

Should ne'er rise higher
Than for a pardon that he dared admire,

pressed forward with his congratulations in verse and prose, and wrote the following letter, full of pleasant imprecations, to Lady Lucy Sydney, the younger sister of Sacharissa. It will be allowed that it argues more wit and good-nature than love or sorrow; and that he was resolved that the willow should sit as gracefully and lightly on his brow, as the myrtle or the bays.

"To my Lady Lucy Sydney, on the marriage of my Lady Dorothea, her sister.

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 Dorothea, 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 this love, before the year come about, make her taste of the first curse imposed on 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 resemble her Lord as much as herself.

"May she, that always affected silence and retiredness, have the house filled with the noise and number of her children, and hereafter of her grandchildren, 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 that all this may also befall their 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 bed-fellow of the other sex.

"Madam, I humbly kiss your hands, and beg pardon for this trouble from your Ladyship's most humble servant,

E. WALLER."

Lady Sunderland had been married about three years: she and her youthful husband lived in the tenderest union, and she was already the happy mother of two fair infants, a son and a daughter, — when the civil wars broke out, and Lord Sunderland followed the King to the field. In the Sydney papers are some beautiful letters to his wife, written from the camp before Oxford. The last of these, which is in a strain of playful and affectionate gayety, thus concludes, — "Pray bless Poppet for me and tell her I would have wrote to her, but that, upon mature deliberation, I found it uncivil to return an answer to a lady in another character than her own, which I am not yet learned enough to do. — I beseech you to present his service to my Lady, who is most passionately and perfectly yours, &c. SUNDERLAND."

Three days afterwards this tender and gallant heart had ceased to beat; he was killed in the battle of Newbury, at the age of three-and-twenty. His unhappy wife, on hearing the news of his death, was prematurely taken ill, and delivered of an infant, which died almost immediately after its birth. She recovered, however, from a dangerous and protracted illness, through the affectionate and unceasing attentions of her mother, Lady Leicester, who never quitted her for several months. Her father wrote her a letter of condolence, which would serve as a model for all letters on similar occasions. "I know," he says, "that it is to no purpose to advise you not to grieve; that is not my intention; for such a loss as yours, cannot be received indifferently by a nature so tender and sensible as yours," &c. After touching lightly and delicately on the obvious sources of consolation, he reminds her, that her duty to the dead requires her to be careful of herself, and not hazard her very existence by the indulgence of grief. "You offend him you loved, if you hurt that person whom he loved; remember how apprehensive he was of your danger, how grieved for any thing that troubled you! I know you lived happily together, so as nobody but yourself could measure the contentment of it. I rejoiced at it, and did thank God for making me one of the means to procure it for you," &c.

Those who have known deep sorrow, and felt what it is to shrink with shattered nerves and a wounded spirit from the busy hand of consolation, fretting where it cannot heal, will appreciate such a letter as this.

Lady Sunderland, on her recovery, retired from the world, and centering all her affections in her children, seemed to live only for them. She resided, after her widowhood, at Althorpe, where she occupied herself with improving the house and gardens. The fine hall and staircase of that noble seat, which are deservedly admired for their architectural beauty, were planned and erected by her. After the lapse of about thirteen years, her father, Lord Leicester, prevailed on her to choose one from among the numerous suitors who sought her hand; he dreaded, lest on his death, she should be left unprotected, with her infant children, in those evil times; and she married, in obedience to his wish, Sir Robert Smythe, of Sutton, who was her second cousin, and had long been attached to her. She lived to see her eldest son, the second Earl of Sunderland, a man of transcendent talents, but versatile principles, at the head of the government, and had the happiness to close her eyes before he had abused his admirable abilities, to the vilest purposes of party and court intrigue. The Earl was appointed principal Secretary of State in 1682; his mother died in 1683.

There is a fine portrait of Sacharissa at Blenheim, of which there are many engravings. It must have been painted by Vandyke, shortly after her marriage, and before the death of her husband. If the withered branch, to which she is pointing, be supposed to allude to her widowhood, it must have been added afterwards, as Vandyke died in 1641, and Lord Sunderland in 1643. In the gallery at Althorpe, there are three pictures of this celebrated woman. One represents her in a hat, and at the age of fifteen or sixteen, gay, girlish, and blooming; the second far more interesting, was painted about the time of her first marriage; it is exceedingly sweet and ladylike. The features are delicate, with redundant light brown hair, and eyes and eye-brows of a darker hue; the bust and hands very exquisite; on the whole, however, the high breeding of the face and hair is more conspicuous than the beauty of the person. These two portraits are by Vandyke; nor ought I to forget to mention that the painter himself was supposed to have indulged a respectful but ardent passion for Lady Sunderland, and to have painted her portrait literally con amour.

A third picture represents her about the time of her second marriage; the expression wholly changed — cold, faded, sad, but still sweet-looking and delicate. One might fancy her contemplating with a sick heart, the portrait of Lord Sunderland, the lover and husband of her early youth, and that of her unfortunate but celebrated brother, Algernon Sydney; both which hang on the opposite side of the gallery.

The present Duke of Marlborough, and the present Earl Spencer, are the lineal descendants of Waller's Sacharissa.

One little incident, somewhat prosaic indeed, proves how little heart there was in Waller's poetical attachment to this beautiful and admirable woman. When Lady Sunderland, after a retirement of thirty years, reappeared in the court she had once adorned, she met Waller at Lady Wharton's, and addressing him with a smiling courtesy, she reminded him of their youthful days: — "When," said she, "will you write such fine verses on me again?" — "Madam," replied Waller, "when your Ladyship is young and handsome again." This was contemptible and coarse — the sentiment was not that of a well-bred or a feeling man, far less that of a lover or a poet, — no!

Love is not love,
That alters where it alteration finds.

One would think that the sight of a woman, whom he had last seen in the full bloom of youth and glow of happiness, — who had endured, since they parted, such extremity of affliction as far more than avenged his wounded vanity, might have awakened some tender thoughts and called forth a gentler reply. When some one expressed surprise to Petrarch, that Laura, no longer young, had still power to charm and inspire him, he answered, "Piaga per allentar d' arco non sana," — "The wound is not healed though the bow be unbent." This was in a finer spirit.

Something in the same character, as his reply to Lady Sunderland, was Waller's famous repartee, when Charles the Second told him that his lines on Oliver Cromwell were better than those written on his royal self. "Please your Majesty, we poets succeed better in fiction than in truth." Nothing could be more admirably apropos, more witty, more courtier-like; it was only false, and in a poor time-serving spirit. It showed as much meanness of soul as presence of mind. What true poet, who felt as a poet, would have said this?