Edmund Waller

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Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Edmund Waller was born on March 3, 1606, into a wealthy landowning family. John Hampden, the future parliamentary leader, was a maternal first cousin; Oliver Cromwell was a more distant kinsman. The death of Robert Waller in 1616 left his ten-year-old son the heir to an estate worth 3,500 per annum. Anne Waller, the poet’s mother, sent him to Eton, and from there he proceeded to Cambridge. In 1620, he was admitted a Fellow-Commoner of King’s College, but appears to have left without taking a degree. Waller may have represented Agmondesham, Buckinghamshire, in the Parliament of 1621; it is certain that he sat for Ilchester in the Parliament of 1624 at the age of eighteen.

In July, 1631, Waller married Anne Bankes, the wealthy heiress of a London mercer, against the wishes of her guardians. The Court of Aldermen, which had jurisdiction over the wardship of Mistress Bankes, instituted proceedings against Waller in Star Chamber; only the personal intervention of King Charles I appeased the aldermen and they dropped their suit upon payment of a fine by the young bridegroom. Anne Waller died in October, 1634, after bearing a son and a daughter.

Waller had begun writing verses at a young age. What is generally supposed to be his earliest poem, “On the Danger of His Majesty (Being Prince) Escaped in the Road at St. Andrews,” was composed sometime during the late 1620’s. A series of occasional poems on Charles I and Henrietta Maria constituted the bulk of Waller’s literary production during the late 1620’s and early 1630’s. With his good friend George Morley, later bishop of Winchester, the poet joined the philosophic and literary circle that Lucius Carey, Viscount Falkland, gathered about him at Great Tew. During this period Waller also became an intimate of Algernon Percy, who succeeded to the earldom of Northumberland in 1632, and his sisters Lucy Hay, countess of Carlisle, and Dorothy Sidney, countess of Leicester. Sometime after the death of his wife, Waller commenced a prolonged poetic courtship of Lady Leicester’s daughter Dorothy, whom he celebrated under the name of Sacharissa (from the Latin sacharum, “sugar”). Many, though by no means all, of Waller’s best-known lyrics are addressed to Lady Dorothy. It is questionable whether the Sidneys ever took Waller seriously as a suitor; in any event, with the marriage in July, 1639, of Lady Dorothy to Lord Spencer of Wormleighton, later created earl of Sunderland, the poet was disappointed in his hopes. Waller and Lady Sunderland were frequent correspondents for the remainder of their lives. An anecdote relates that the pair met at the house of Lady Woburn after both had attained old age. The widowed Lady Sunderland asked, presumably in jest, “When, Mr. Waller, I wonder, will you write such beautiful verses to me again?” “When, Madam,” replied the poet, “your ladyship is as young and handsome again.”

With the political upheavals of the early 1640’s, Waller entered on the most active phase of his public career. He sat in the Short Parliament of 1640 as the member for Agmondesham; he was returned to the Long Parliament, which convened in November, 1640, for St. Ives. Waller at first aligned himself with the constitutional moderates who resisted the abuses of the royal prerogative, but as the temper of Parliament grew more radical, he increasingly took the side of the king. Waller played a prominent role in the attack on ship-money, of which his cousin Hampden was the most prominent opponent; his speech condemning what he considered an unlawful tax was immensely popular and reportedly sold twenty thousand copies in one day. On the other hand, Waller attacked the proposals to abolish the episcopacy, arguing that such tinkering with fundamental institutions would lead to the abolition of private property and undermine the basis of English society. With the outbreak of the civil war in August, 1642, Waller remained in the parliamentary stronghold of London,...

(The entire section is 1,585 words.)