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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Edmund Waller (1606–1687)

THE LIFE of Edmund Waller extended over a period of important change in English literature. When he began to write, in the early part of the seventeenth century, the great literature of the Elizabethan era had been written, the surge of inspiration and impassioned poetry of which Shakespeare was the heart had died away. The brilliant formalism which was to attain its apotheosis in Pope was already discernible. Edmund Waller made use in his verse of the classic iambic and distich. He first appears among the court poets of Charles I. In some respects most commonplace, he yet presents a singular figure among his associates,—Cowley, Crashaw, Lovelace, and Suckling. His poetry, like that of the other Cavalier poets, was more of gallantry than of love; he wrote with no great range of subjects, nor depth of feeling. But the form of his verse bears a closer resemblance to that of Dryden and Pope, and indeed to the poetry of to-day, than it does to the writing of Crashaw and Cowley. Later in his life Waller invariably confined the sense within the limits of the distich; making his verse somewhat monotonous, but giving to it a finish quite unusual in his time. The polish of his verse may have been due to French influence, exerted during his nine years’ exile in that country; but Dr. Johnson declares that Waller wrote as smoothly at eighteen as at eighty,—“smoothness” being the particular quality ascribed to him.

The poet’s life was more varied than his poetry, furnishing him an abundance of subjects to overlay with his light play of fancy. He was born in Hertfordshire, March 3d, 1606. His family were wealthy land-owners, and his mother, although related to Cromwell, was an ardent royalist. He followed whichever side was victorious. At sixteen he was in Parliament, but kept becomingly silent, merely using the advantages of his position to marry a young heiress; and with her fortune joined to his, he retired to the country to give himself up to literary pursuits. Just when he began to write is not known. The date of the subject of his first poem, ‘His Majesty’s Escape,’ is 1623. Some of his best poetry was written in an effort to win Lady Dorothea Sidney, his Saccharissa, between the death of his wife in 1634 and the marriage of Lady Dorothea in 1639. Meeting him years after, the lady asked him when he would again write such verses to her. “When you are as young, madam, and as handsome, as you were then,” replied the poet. This remark furnishes a key to his character. He was facile and witty, but cold, shallow, and selfish.

In 1643, when the struggle between the King and Parliament grew hotter, Waller was implicated in what was known as Waller’s plot. He was discovered, and behaved with the most abject meanness; immediately turning informer, and saving himself by giving up three others to death. He was let off with a fine of £1,000, and was banished to France. From France he directed the publication of his first volume of poems. Here he lived in high reputation as a wit for nine years; when, at the intervention of anti-royalist friends, he was allowed to return to England. He immediately wrote a ‘Panegyric to my Lord Protector,’ which is one of his best poems. Cromwell was friendly to him; and on the Protector’s death, Waller wrote another poem to him, which under the circumstances must appear somewhat disinterested. However, when Charles II. came into his kingdom, Waller was ready with a series of verses for him. Charles, who admitted the poet to his intimacy, complained that this poem was inferior to Cromwell’s. “Sire,” responded the quick-witted Waller, “poets succeed better in fiction than in truth.”

Waller was in Parliament up to the time of his death in 1687. He was said to be the delight of the Commons for his wit. His poems went through several editions, and he continued to write. Long before his death he saw the end of the romantic and irregular school, and the full establishment of the classic and regular. John Dryden has been called the first of the moderns. But “Edmund Waller,” said Dryden, “first showed us 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.” Thus Waller becomes the founder of a school, the influence of which extended over a hundred and fifty years; though as a poet he sinks into insignificance beside Dryden and Pope, who gave the school its character when they stamped it with their genius.

Fenton calls Waller “maker and model of melodious verse.” In the sense that he revived the form of a past age, and gave to it a greater precision than it had ever possessed, he is a maker of verse. Moreover, in ‘Go, Lovely Rose,’ he wrote one of the most perfect lyrics in the tongue; and one such poem will embalm its writer. But Waller’s art was limited; the form was not new: and the popularity of the poet exists chiefly through the praises of greater men, who having too much to say to take time for the invention of a method of their own, used the form to which he had directed their attention.