The reputation of Waller has suffered greater fluctuation of fortune than that of any other English poet. In his youth, he was outshone by the last great Elizabethans, his contemporaries; during the Civil Wars he gradually rose to be considered second only to Cowley. After the Restoration, and when that writer was in his grave, Waller found himself still more popular, and when he died, at a very great age, the wits and critics, with Thomas Rymer at their head, exalted him to the first place in the English Parnassus. Until the end of the century it was tacitly admitted that Waller was the greatest English poet. The juster sense of Addison and of Pope curtailed these extravagant honours, while leaving to Waller the praise of unrivalled sweetness. In the hands of Gray, Johnson and Cowper, Waller sank gradually back into the rank and file of poets, while the critics of the beginning of our century went further still, and denied him all lyrical merit. Of late even his historical position has been assailed, and there is perhaps no famous writer at the present moment so little read or considered as Waller. But the scale has certainly descended too far on the side of dispraise, and it is time to insist on the part filled by this poet in the progress of our literature.
It was Dryden who, with his usual nice discrimination, first observed the quality in which Waller differed from all the writers of his time. In the preface to The Rival Ladies, 1664, that great critic remarks: "the excellence and dignity of rhyme were never fully known till Mr. Waller taught it; he first made writing easily an art, first showed as to conclude the sense, most commonly, in distichs, which in the verse of those before him runs on for so many lines together, that the reader is out of breath to overtake it." Half a century later, Voltaire paraphrased and enlarged this criticism of Dryden's in language which has become more famous, but which is far from being so pithy or so exact. It is not true, as Voltaire would teach us, that sweetness of versification, the art of liquid numbers, was invented by Waller, but it is true, as Dryden noted, that Waller was the first English poet to adopt the French fashion of a writing in couplets, instead of enjambments. He seems to have been born as neat a poet as he died; his complimentary piece, called His Majesty's Escape at St Andrews, has the full character of Augustan verse, and was written as early as 1623. We have given an extract front this poem in our selection, not on account of its intrinsic merit so much as on account of its extraordinary interest as the first note of classicism in English poetry. From this piece, through Denham, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Darwin, the chain of heroic distich-writing passes unbroken down to English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a progress of nearly two hundred years. It was long before Waller gained a single imitator, and the old system of enjambments continued in fashion until the Restoration, with its tide of thought setting from France, swept it away. The Pharonnida of Chamberlayne, 1659, and the Thealma and Clearchus of Chalkhill, 1683, were the last heroic poems in the old style, and Waller, who had for years written alone in the French manner, lived to see his experiment universally adopted. If we consider this fact, and moreover the satisfaction with which the new mechanic art of rhyming was regarded, we shall not wonder at the immense reputation of Waller. It is, moreover, only fair to note that he persevered twenty years in his new versification before he gained his first disciple, Denham.
Waller continued to polish his verses, and to add to them, for nearly sixty years, yet they remained a slender collection to the last. If we except his absurd dramatic efforts, a travesty of the Maid's Tragedy in rhyme, and a certain share in the holiday task, set by Orinda to the wits, of translating a play by Corneille, the body of his poems does not much exceed five thousand lines. In his youth he wrote a florid epic about the Bermudas, which he proposed to visit, but did not; this is The Battle of the Summer's Islands; towards the close of his life he composed six very serious cantos Of Divine Love, in the didactic manner afterwards to become so fashionable. Of the remainder of his verse, half is occupied with love-ditties addressed to Sacharissa, the poetic name under which, between the years 1629 and 1639 he courted Lady Dorothy Sidney, who finally married the Earl of Sunderland. Waller married and was left a widower very early in life; he was a man of fortune, a country gentleman, and a member of parliament, staunch on the royalist side, at least at that time, and some of his biographers have wondered that he did not secure the hand of Lady Dorothy. But the reader who studies the Sacharissa poems will doubt whether he was really very anxious to do so; the lovemaking is extremely elegant and ingenious, but without passion, and the ambition to be remembered through Sacharissa as Petrarch through Laura is a little too obvious. But Waller's love-verses, though frigid, are more manly than those of Cowley, and if they do not take the heart by storm, they beleaguer it with great strategic art, and an infinite show of patience.
The ingenuity of Waller is entirely distinct from that "metaphysical" wit for a which his contemporaries were famous. He does rot strive to dazzle and bewilder the mind with paradox, like Donne, or to deck out one poor thought in gaudy raiment of conceits, like the school of Donne. He is scholastic in a politer sense; he balances his thoughts, as he does his syllables, and in him first we detect that see-saw of phraseology, now up, now down, which was to become the crowning sin of the classic poetry. His powers of antithesis, though trifling in comparison with those of Dryden and Pope, and in his own last days equalled by such inferior writers as Roscommon and Aphra Behn, were the wonder of his earlier contemporaries and chiefly led to his great reputation for wit. Charles I., among whose faults neglect of polite letters has never been included, early became aware of the polished style of Waller, and welcomed him to Whitehall that he might secure his poetical services. The poet proved only too easy a courtier, and his poems, as published in his own lifetime, display a singularly cynical indifference to political rectitude, for a "Panegyric upon Oliver Cromwell" immediately precedes a piece on the "Death of the late usurper O. C." He appears, however, to have conceived a sincere regard for Cromwell, and even in calling him a usurper, he cannot refrain from eulogy.
The poetry of Waller can never again be popular, even with students. It is hard, dry, and insignificant, it fails to touch the heart, and requires laborious attention so be understood, not because it is obscure, but because the argument lies outside the track of human interest. From this condemnation all the world exempts the celebrated song to a Rose, and the careful reader will also exempt a few little pieces scarcely inferior so this in sincerity and simplicity. English poetry is studded with the names of those who have possessed imagination and warmth of fancy, but who have failed to survive, in popular estimation, through their lack of style. Waller, on the other hand, is a signal example of the converse law, that a writer cannot subsist on style alone. The decay of reputation seems in the latter case to be less rapid, but it is in the end more fatal, for it is beyond the hope of reparation.