Edmund Waller Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Edmund Waller’s poetic corpus is singular in its homogeneity. Although his career spanned more than half a century, it is difficult to trace any stylistic development; as Samuel Johnson remarks in his “Life of Waller,” “His versification was, in his first essay, such as it appears in his last performance.” What changes do appear in Waller’s poetry are primarily thematic rather than technical and can be attributed to the demands of genre rather than to any maturation in style. An examination of several poems composed at different periods of Waller’s life and for very different occasions demonstrates this uniformity and, at the same time, demonstrates the innovations that Waller brought to seventeenth century verse.

“Of His Majesty’s Receiving the News of the Duke of Buckingham’s Death”

Waller’s earliest poems are mainly panegyrics composed on Charles I and Henrietta Maria. In “Of His Majesty’s Receiving the News of the Duke of Buckingham’s Death,” one of the best of these pieces, Waller charts the program that English poets would follow for the next century in celebrating the virtues of the Stuart monarchs. The assassination of George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, in 1628 constituted a major blow, both political and emotional, to the young king. According to the earl of Clarendon, Charles publicly received the news with exemplary calm. When a messenger interrupted the monarch at prayers to blurt out the report of Buckingham’s death, Charles continued to pray without the least change of expression; only when the service was completed and his attendants dismissed did he give way to “much passion” and “abundance of tears.” In his panegyric, Waller celebrates the king’s public response to the assassination and suppresses the unedifying private sequel. Charles’s refusal to suspend his household’s devotions is viewed as an act of heroic piety:

So earnest with thy God! can no new care,No sense of danger, interrupt thy prayer?The sacred wrestler, till a blessing given,Quits not his hold, but halting conquers Heaven.

The conceit of the “sacred wrestler,” which implicitly identifies Charles with the biblical patriarch Jacob, emphasizes that it is only through exertion that the king masters his natural impulses of grief and fear. His outward composure proceeds from a tenacious courage rather than from any lack of feeling. The direct address of the first line and the succession of present tense active verbs inject the description with dramatic urgency. Although threatened by personal harm and lamed (“halting”) by the loss of his chief minister, Charles struggles and triumphs. By subordinating his personal grief to a faith in divine providence, the king “conquers” no mere earthly kingdom, but heaven itself.

Waller provides a context for Charles’s heroism by comparing his response to Buckingham’s death with the behavior of Achilles and of David in similar circumstances. While Achilles reacts to the death of Patroclus with “frantic gesture,” Charles maintains a princely serenity; while David “cursed the mountains” for the death of Jonathan, Charles prays. The English king represents the ideal Christian hero, of which David and Achilles were but imperfect types: His absolute self-control and religious faith crown those virtues that he shares with the heroes of biblical and classical antiquity.

Charles’s composure in the face of adversity constitutes both the justification and the outward manifestation of his kingship. Waller’s contemplation of Charles Stuart’s simultaneous humanity and divinity explodes in a final burst of compliment:

Such huge extremes inhabit thy great mind,Godlike, unmoved, and yet, like woman, kind!Which of the ancient poets had not broughtOur Charles’s pedigree from Heaven, and taughtHow some bright dame, compressed by mighty Jove,Produced this mixed Divinity and Love?

The poet’s initial sympathy with the king in his effort to master his grief and fear gradually shades into an awed recognition of his godhead: Dramatic struggle concludes in masquelike apotheosis.

Several aspects of Waller’s technique in “Of His Majesty’s Receiving the News of the Duke of Buckingham’s Death” constitute innovations in Caroline verse. Although nearly every seventeenth century poet employed classical and biblical mythology in his work, Waller exploits this legacy in a new way; the detailed comparisons between Charles and Achilles and David anticipate the elaborate typological schemes used so effectively by poets such as John Dryden in Absalom and Achitophel (1681, 1682) or Alexander Pope in his ethical epistles. Accompanying this predilection for allusion is Waller’s use of the extended simile and the Homeric epithet. All these devices derive from classical epic: By his own admission, Waller’s early reading consisted mainly of Vergil, George Chapman’s translation of Homer, and Edward Fairfax’s translation of Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (1581, Jerusalem Delivered, 1600).

More striking than the presence of sustained classical allusion, perhaps, is the regularity of Waller’s verse. Of the nineteen couplets in the poem, all but one is closed; the individual lines are by and large end-stopped and the few instances of enjambment are not particularly dramatic. In short, Waller is using the heroic couplet with sophisticated ease in this poem of 1628-1629. Waller’s sense of balance within individual lines is no less precise: Rhetorical devices such as zeugma and chiasmus lend the poem an unmistakable Augustan ring.

“Of the Lady Who Can Sleep When She Pleases”

The presence of these devices in panegyrics on the monarchs seems appropriate, but their translation to lyric is a surprising development. “Of the Lady Who Can Sleep When She Pleases,” for example, addresses the conventional amatory situation of the indifferent mistress and the...

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