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POETICAL WORKS

OF

EDMUND WALLER

AND

SIR JOHN DENHAM.

WITH MEMOIR AND DISSERTATION,

BY THE

REV. GEORGE GILFILLAN.


M.DCCC.LVII.




THE

LIFE OF EDMUND WALLER.

It is too true, after all, that the lives of poets are not, in general,
very interesting. Could we, indeed, trace the private workings of their
souls, and read the pages of their mental and moral development, no
biographies could be richer in instruction, and even entertainment, than
those of our greater bards. The inner life of every true poet must be
poetical. But in proportion to the romance of their souls' story, is
often the commonplace of their outward career. There have been poets,
however, whose lives are quite as readable and as instructive as their
poetry, and have even shed a reflex and powerful interest on their
writings. The interest of such lives has, in general, proceeded either
from the extraordinary misfortunes of the bard, or from his extremely
bad morals, or from his strange personal idiosyncrasy, or from his being
involved in the political or religious conflicts of his age. The life of
Milton, for instance, is rendered intensely interesting from his
connexion with the public affairs of his critical and solemn era. The
life of Johnson is made readable from his peculiar conformation of body,
his bear-like manners, his oddities, and his early struggles. You devour
the life of Gifford, not because he was a poet, but because he was a
shoemaker; and that of Byron, more on account of his vices, his peerage,
and his domestic unhappiness, than for the sake of his poetry. And in
Waller, too, you feel some supplemental interest, because he united what
are usually thought the incompatible characters of a poet and a
political plotter, and very nearly reached the altitudes of the gallows
as well as those of Parnassus.

March 1605 was the date, and Coleshill, in Hertfordshire, the place, of
the birth of our poet. He was of an ancient and honourable family
originally from Kent, some members of which were distinguished for their
wealth and others for the valour with which, at Agincourt and elsewhere,
they fought the battles of their country. Robert Waller, the poet's
father, inherited from Edmund, _his_ father, the lands of Beaconsfield,
in Bucks, and other territory in Hertfordshire. These had been in 1548-9
left by Francis Waller, in default of issue by his own wife, to his
brothers Thomas and Edmund, but Thomas dying, Edmund inherited the
whole. Robert, on receiving his estates, quitted the profession of the
law, to which he had attached himself, and spent the rest of his life
chiefly at Beaconsfield, employed in the manly business and healthy
amusements of a country gentleman. He died in August 1616, and left a
widow and a son--the son, Edmund, being eleven years of age. It was at
Beaconsfield. We need hardly remind our readers, that a far greater
Edmund--Edmund Burke--spent many of his days. It was there that he
composed his latest and noblest works, the "Reflections on the French
Revolution," and the "Letters on a Regicide Peace;" and there he
surrendered to the Creator one of the subtlest, strongest, brightest,
and best of human souls. Shortly after Burke's death, the house of
Beaconsfield was burnt down, and no trace of it is now, we believe,
extant.

Mrs. Waller's brother, William, was the father of John Hampden. His
wife, Elizabeth Cromwell, the aunt of the great Oliver, was, however,
and continued to the end, a violent Royalist; and Cromwell, although he
treated both her and her son with kindness, and on the terms of their
relationship, was so provoked at hearing that she carried on a secret
correspondence with the Stewart party, that he confined her under a very
strict watch in the house of her daughter, Mrs. Price, whose husband was
on the side of the Parliament. It is exceedingly probable that from the
"mother's milk" of early prejudice was derived that spirit of
partisanship which distinguished alike the writings and the life of the
poet. It is possible, too, that contact with men so far above moral
heroism and rugged mental force as Cromwell and Hampden, instead of
exciting emulation, led to envy, and that his divergence from their
political path sprung more from personal feeling than from principle.

He was educated, first, at the grammar school of Market, Wickham; then
at Eton; and, in fine, at King's College, Cambridge. Accounts vary as to
his proficiency--one Bigge, who had been his school-fellow at Wickham,
told Aubrey that he never expected Waller to have become such an eminent
poet, and that he used to write his exercises for him. Others, on the
contrary, have alleged that it was the fame of his scholarship which led
to his election for Agmondesham, a borough in Bucks, when he was only
sixteen years of age. This story, so far as his premature learning goes,
seems rather apocryphal; but certain it is, that when scarcely eighteen,
he had become M.P. for the above-mentioned borough. The parliament in
which he found himself, was one of those subservient and cringing
assemblies which James I. was wont to summon to sit till they had voted
the supplies, and then contemptuously to dismiss. It met in November
1621, and after passing a resolution in support of their privileges,
which James tore out of the Journals with his own hand, and granting the
usual supplies, was dissolved on the 6th of January 1622. Waller was
probably as silent and servile as any of his neighbours. He began,
however, to feel his way as a courtier, and overheard some curious and
not very canonical talk of James with his lords and bishops, the record
of which reminds you of some of the richer scenes of the "Fortunes of
Nigel." The next parliament was not called till 1624, when Waller was
not elected. The electors of Agmondesham, who had, meantime, obtained
fuller privileges, chose two matured members to represent them, and the
precocious boy lost his seat.

Waller's "political and poetical life began nearly together." It was in
his eighteenth year that he wrote his first poetical piece--that on the
escape of Prince Charles from a tempest on his return from Spain. It is
a tissue of smooth and musical mediocrity. It shews a kind of stunted
prematurity. The perfection which is attained by a single effort is
generally a poor and tame one. This poem of Waller's, like several of
his others, has all that merit which arises from the absence of fault,
and all that fault which arises from the absence of merit--of high
poetic merit, we mean, for in music it is equal to any of his poems.
Much has been said about the model which he followed in his
versification, the majority of critics tracing in it an imitation of
Fairfax's Tasso. The fact seems to be that Waller, with a good ear, had
a very limited theory of verse. He worshipped smoothness, and sought it
at every hazard. He preferred the Jacob of a soft flowing commonplace to
the rough hairy Esau of a strong originality, cumbered with its own
weight and richness. We think that this excessive love of the soft, and
horror at the rude, materially weakened his genius. The true theory of
versification lies in variety, and in accommodation to the necessities
and fluctuations of the thought. The "Paradise Lost," written in
Waller's rhyme, would have been as ridiculous as Waller's love to
Saccharissa expressed in Milton's blank verse. The school before Waller
were too rugged, but surely there is a medium between the roughness of
Donne, and the honied monotony of the author of the "Summer Islands."
The practice of running the lines into one another, severely condemned
by Johnson, and systematically shunned by Waller, has often been
practised with success by poets far greater than either--such as Shelley
and Coleridge. It is remarkable that Dryden, while he praised, did not
copy our poet's manner, but gave himself freer scope. Pope, on the other
hand, pushed his love of uniform tinkle and unmitigated softness to
excess, and transferred this kind of luscious verse from small poems,
where it is often a merit, to large ones, where it is a mistake. In his
"Iliad," for instance, the fierce ire of Achilles, the dignified
resentment of Agamemnon, the dull courage of Ajax, the chivalrous
sentiment of Hector, the glowing energy of Diomede, the veteran wisdom
of Nestor, the grief of Andromache, the love of Helen, the jealousy of
Juno, and the godlike majesty of Jupiter, are all expressed in the same
sweet and monotonous melody--a verse called "heroic," by courtesy, or on
the principle of contradiction, like _lucus a non lucendo_. In Waller,
however, his poems being all, without exception, rather short, you never
think of quarrelling with his uniformity of manner; and rise from his
lines as from a liberal feast of hot-house grapes, thankful, but feeling
that a _few more_ would have turned satisfaction into nausea. Yet you
feel, too, that perhaps his selection of small themes, and the
consequent curbing of his powers, have sprung from his fastidiousness in
the matter of versification. The sermons, the satires, the speeches, the
odes, and the didactic poems of the fastidious are generally _short_,
and do not, therefore, fully mirror the amplitude, or express the energy
of their genius. To his poem on the escape of Prince Charles, succeeded
that on the Prince, and two or three others of a similar kind; all
finding their inspiration, not as yet in that love of others which
animated his amatory effusions, but in that love to himself and his own
interest which marks the incipient courtier, who is beginning, in
Shakspeare's thought, to hang his knee upon "hinges," that it may bend
more readily to power. Yet his case shews that there is a certain
incompatibility between the profession of a courtier and that of a poet.
He often began his panegyrics with much fervour, but the fit passed, or
his fastidious taste produced disgust at what he had written, and it was
either not finished, or was delayed till the interest of the occasion
had passed away.

After the death of James I., Charles called a new parliament in 1625,
and in it Waller took his place for Chipping-Wycombe, a borough in
Buckinghamshire.



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