1902 Encyclopedia > Edmund Waller

Edmund Waller
English poet
(1605-87)




EDMUND WALLER (1605-1687), enjoyed in the latter half of his long life a high reputation as a poet, which has been partly fixed by the compliments of Dryden and Pope. Waller is a singular and piquant figure in the history of the 17th century; his relations with Charles I., with the Long Parliament, with Cromwell, with Charles II., his position as a poet, as a courtier, as a privileged water-drinker among the bibulous Restoration wits, form a com-bination that has no parallel. The character might be paralleled, but the run of incidents is unique. He was born at Coleshill, in Hertfordshire, March 3, 1605, and came of distinguished ancestry, landed gentry, with estates in Kent and other counties, and prominent places in the public service from the reign of Henry V. downwards. He inherited a position of difficulty in view of the civil strife that began when he reached manhood; his mother was herself an ardent Royalist, but was connected by blood with Hampden and by marriage with Cromwell. His father died when he was eleven years old. He entered parliament at sixteen, and sat also in the first and in the third parliaments of Charles I. He was thus, as Clarendon put it, nursed in parliament, and this early experience helped him to make a figure afterwards ; but he took no active part at the time, the chief use that he made of his advantages as a courtier and a youth of fashion being to marry a wealthy city heiress. With this addition to the handsome fortune left him by his father, he retired to his estate at Beaconsfield and studied literature. This was about 1632.
When he first began to write verses is a doubtful and disputed point. Clarendon says that he began at an age when most men leave off, and if we put this at thirty there is no published or even probable evidence to the contrary; but, on the other hand, it is argued that he began at the age of eighteen, in 1623, this being the date of the subject of his first poem,—Prince Charles's escape from a storm at St Andero. This earliest date must be increased by at least two years, the whole point of the poem being Charles's marriage with his queen Henrietta, which took place in 1625. The exact date of his beginning acquires some interest from Johnson's dictum that he wrote as smoothly at eighteen as at eighty, " smoothness" being his established merit; and the difficulty of determining the date arises from his not having " gathered his sticks into a faggot" and published till 1645. The incidents that furnished him with themes for his peculiar artificial and decorative treatment occurred long before,—for example, the duke of Buckingham's death in 1628, the taking of Salle in 1632, the repair of St Paul's in 1633, the death of the earl of Carlisle in 1636, his courtship of Lady Dorothy Sidney — " Saccharissa "—between the death of his first wife in 1634 and Saccharissa's marriage to another in 1639. But that the poems, as we now have them, were written immediately after the incidents glorified in his verse is an uncertain assumption, considering his elaborating habits, the strongly Royalist tone of his verses on public events, and the express statement of Clarendon, who was likely to have known if copies had been circulated in the society of the court long before they appeared in print. If they were at least retouched by him between the ages of thirty and forty, the wonder of his uniformity of manner from first to last—which, after all, has been somewhat exaggerated -—is considerably lessened.
In the struggle between king and parliament, Waller tried at first to mediate, holding the king's demands un-constitutional, but endeavouring through his advisers to induce him to modify them. He made such a mark as a speaker in the Short Parliament that at the opening of the Long Parliament he was chosen by the Commons to conduct the impeachment of Judge Crawley for his ship-money decision. Thereafter, as the struggle became fiercer, with a view apparently to prevent parliament from pro-ceeding to extremities, he engaged in what was known as Waller's plot. The object of the plot seems to have been to restrain the extreme Parliamentarians by some public declaration of moderate opinion, but it was complicated with another plot, the object of which was to assist the king with armed force. All Waller's relations, except his mother, were anti-Royalist, and it is said that his complicity was discovered by domestic treachery. He behaved with the most abject meanness when arrested by order of Pym on May 31, 1643, saved himself by at once turning informer and making disclosures that were at least unreserved, and was let off eventually with a fine of £10,000 and banish-ment. It was from his exile in Paris, in 1645, that he directed his first publication of poems. He lived there in high repute as a wit and a munificent host till 1654, when Cromwell, at the intercession of his anti-Royalist relatives, allowed him to return to England, and try to mend his impaired estate. He celebrated the Protector's greatness in a lofty panegyric, and Cromwell is said to have relished his pleasant qualities as a companion. It deserves to be noted, as evidence of a real admiration, that he wrote also a lament " Upon the Death of the Lord Protector," wher the sincerity of his panegyric was less open to question. The poem contains two famous lines of bathos—
Under the tropic is our language spoke And part of Flanders hath received our yoke.
But otherwise it does not fall beneath the poet's steady level.
Upon the Restoration Waller hastened to express his joy, mingled with trembling, " Upon His Majesty's Happy Return," and found little difficulty in making his peace. He met the king's complaint that his congratulation was inferior to his panegyric on the Protector with the famous retort, " Poets, Sire, succeed better in fiction than in truth." He was soon on such terms with Charles that he applied for the provostship of Eton; the king

agreed, but Clarendon refused, on the ground that he was a layman, and the refusal was sustained by the council. He thus failed in his only application for substantial evidence of the king's favour, but in every other respect the changed state of things made his old age happy and glorious. He entered parliament again, and became, Burnet says, " the delight of the House, and, though old, said the liveliest things of any of them." His witty sayings were circulated through the town, and, as Johnson suspects, good things were fathered on him,—a tribute to his reputation. Although a water-drinker, he was a boon companion with the roystering wits, Dorset saying that *' no man in England should sit in his company without drinking, except Ned Waller." Further, surviving all his early contemporaries, he found himself in higher reputa-tion than ever as a poet. His poems now went through Beveral editions, each increased by new productions, though the bulk was never large. He wrote in his formed eulo-gistic fashion on topics of the day, on St James's Park, on Somerset House, the victory over the Dutch, the queen's birthday, the beauties, and other celebrities of the time. He fitted The Maid's Tragedy with a happier ending in rhymed couplets, assisted Dorset and Godolphin in the translation of the Pompey of Corneille, and wound up his career becomingly with Divine Poems, continuing to write to the last. He died in 1687, at the age of eighty-two, and at the height of his poetic reputation. Bymer of the Foedera, the savage critic of Shakespeare, wrote the epitaph for his tomb at Beaconsfield, in which it is recorded that " inter poetas sui temporis facile princeps, lauream, quam meruit adolescens, octogenarius haud abdicavit." Fenton, Pope's coadjutor in the translation of the Odyssey, edited and commented on his poems after his death, justifying the pains bestowed by comparing him to Petrarch and Malherbe.
There can be no doubt that as a panegyrical poet, ready to o-ver-lay any subject, entirely irrespective of its intrinsic worth, with a cleverly woven and tastefully coloured garment of words and images, Waller deserved all the admiration he received, and would be hard to beat in our literature. Fenton showed true discern-ment in urging that his excellence lay in commendation, whether or not he was right in adding that any ill-natured person could be a satirist. And complimentary poetry was so much in fashion when poets were courted and munificently rewarded by politicians that Waller's fame from the Restoration till the time of Walpole, who dispensed with the aid of complimentary poets, is easy to understand. But Mr Gosse's recent contention that Waller must be regarded as the founder of the classical school, and that his influence changed the course of our literature for a century, must pass as a hurried exaggeration. He was so eminently successful that he influenced minor poets at the close of his life and for a generation afterwards, but his range of subjects as well as his art was extremely limited, and much larger and wider influences were at work. He is an example of one of the tendencies, but it is absurd to represent him as a commanding influence, except in a very humble field. He influenced pane-gyrical writing, and, inasmuch as this fell in with and influenced the tendency "to dress nature to advantage," "toraise sentiments above the vulgar pitch" with the borrowed riches of genuinely impassioned poetry, it might be argued that Waller's influence extended beyond his own narrow circle of aims. But his effect on Dryden or on Pope was infinitesimal. Even on the form of the favourite " classical" couplet Waller's single example cannot be held to have told in any considerable degree. It was already an established form for complimentary verse when he began to write. "Waller was smooth," it is true, but Pope at once qualifies the compliment with a reference to his want of variety. And Pope is also strictly correct in confining Waller's metrical improve-ments to his post-Restoration verse. When we place Waller's later couplets side by side with his earlier, say The Triple Combat or The Divine Poems, with His Majesty's Escape, or The Countess of Carlisle in Mourning, or The Death of Lady Mich, we become aware of a marked change in his metrical scheme, notwithstanding the current opinion to the contrary. It is only in his later couplets that he aims, under French influence, as Pope justly implies, at making each distich complete in itself, varying this only with a stave of four, generally with a break in the third line. His earlier couplets are less monotonous, and were obviously modelled on the Hero and Leandcr of Marlowe and Chapman. To that noble poem, indeed, which was not known in the days when Waller's rhythm was so admired, he owed a large part of his panegyrical stock-in-
trade, as anybody familiar with it can trace, not merely in his
" classical " allusions, but also in his diction and his earlier metre.
As regards smoothness and balance, there are no couplets in the
edition of 1645 that could not be paralleled from the verses of
his contemporaries, George Sandys and Cowley. (W. M.)







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