Edmund Waller 1606-1687
Waller was an urbane and technically sophisticated poet whose career spanned the greater part of the seventeenth century, from the reign of Charles I, through the years of the English Civil War and the Protectorate, to the Restoration. Celebrated by his contemporaries and eighteenth-century successors for its wit, smoothness of line, and rhetorical eloquence, Waller's poetry is seen as uniting the fluency of the Cavaliers and the abstract imagery of the Metaphysical poets with the dignified tone and elevated sentiments of the neoclassical Augustan poets who emerged later in the century. Of Waller's influence on his successors, John Dryden, a younger contemporary, is recorded as having declared: “Unless he had written, none of us could write.” Less admired were Waller's actions during the period of the Civil War; indeed, his political opportunism, reputed corruption, and apparent betrayal of his compatriots in order to secure his own political and personal survival during that turbulent time, have been roundly condemned as cowardly and ignoble.
Waller was born March 3, 1606, at the Manor-House, Coleshill, in what was then Hertfordshire. When Waller was ten, his father died, leaving him a significant fortune; he would later greatly increase his wealth through an advantageous marriage. Waller was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, but did not take a degree. Reportedly, he became a member of Parliament as early as the age of sixteen. Waller married Anne Banks, a London heiress, in 1631. She died giving birth to their second child, a daughter, in 1634. After her death Waller began the study of poetry as a member of the intellectual circle at Dr. George Morely's country home. Waller's early works consisted of political panegyrics and love poems. The latter were written in an unsuccessful attempt to court Lady Dorothy Sidney. In 1633 Waller published “To the King, On his Return from Scotland,” a panegyric dedicated to Charles I that was typical of his works during this period. In his political poetry Waller expressed his support for tradition, moderation, and civilized values. In Parliament Waller supported the reform of ecclesiastical abuses but did not espouse radical change in the social order or the institutions of religion and the monarchy. Such a centrist position in the increasingly anti-royalist House of Commons was a precarious one. In 1643 he was appointed to the parliamentary commission charged with negotiating with the king. A few months after this appointment, however, he was discovered to be a leading figure in what came to be known as Waller's Plot, which sought to restore royal prerogatives. Waller apparently betrayed some of his fellow conspirators, who were hanged, but Waller himself escaped death by bribing the entire House of Commons. He was fined £10,000 and exiled in late 1644. Waller traveled on the continent, settling in Paris, where he met leading intellectuals of the period, including René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. Waller's brother-in-law interceded with Oliver Cromwell—himself a distant relation of Waller—and obtained a pardon in late 1651; Waller returned to England early the following year. Waller wrote A Panegyrick to My Lord Protector, of the present greatness and joynt interest of His Highness, and this nation in 1652. When it was published in 1655, he was criticized for betraying his royalist convictions. Waller also wrote an elegy upon Cromwell's death: Upon the Late Storme and of the death of His Highnesse ensuing the same, by Mr. Waller (1658). In 1660, when Charles II returned and the monarchy was restored, he published a poem praising the monarch, To the King, upon His Majesties happy return (1660). Waller again took a seat in Parliament in 1661. During this period Waller published two important works, On the Park at St. Jamese's (1660) and Instructions to a painter, for the drawing of a picture on the state and posture of the English forces at sea, under the command of His Royal Highness in the conclusion of the year 1664 (1665). Toward the end of his life, Waller lived on his estates in Buckinghamshire and wrote spiritual poetry. He died at his birthplace, Coleshill, in 1687.
Waller's poetry consists of political panegyrics, occasional poems dedicated to individuals, and love poems. His best-known poems include those addressed to “Sacharissa” (his epithet for Lady Dorothy Sidney): “At Penshurst,” and “Go, Lovely Rose.” In his panegyrics to Cromwell, A Panegyrick to My Lord Protector and Upon the Late Storme and of the death of His Highnesse, Waller justifies Cromwell's reign because it ensures that anarchy and civil war do not break out in the country. In the earlier poem, Waller compares Cromwell to biblical King David; in the later he compares Cromwell's death to that of Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, and praises the Protector's work in increasing Britain's power. Waller's poem praising Charles II at the time of the Restoration, To the King, upon His Majesties happy return, glorifies Charles II, comparing him to the eye of a Cyclops, and depicts the English people demanding the return of the monarchy. Waller also showed support for the monarchy in On the Park at St. Jamese's, which praises England's newfound stability under the monarchy. Instructions to a painter, for the drawing of a picture on the state and posture of the English forces at sea, under the command of His Royal Highness in the conclusion of the year 1664. was one of many poems Waller wrote about art and artists. Written in heroic couplets, the poem uses the trope of instructing a painter on how to depict the triumph of the Duke of York's victory at Lowestoft. Because of revelations of ineptitude and neglect on the part of the Duke of York, which resulted in the subsequent loss of the advances made in the battle, the poem was viewed as having uncritically glossed over the less-than-heroic truths of the conflict. The poem was satirized by both Waller's contemporaries and later writers, including Andrew Marvell. Waller's later religious poems, which were collected in Divine Poems (1685) reflect the positive images and themes characteristic of most of Waller's works.
Waller enjoyed popular and critical success during his lifetime and for some fifty years after his death. The Augustan poets who wrote in the generation after him believed Waller civilized and refined English poetry by developing the use of the heroic couplet, regularizing diction and phrasing, employing stronger rhymes, popularizing gentle irony, and emphasizing objectivity and wit. As times and tastes changed, Waller's poetry fell out of favor, and commentators began to question the extent of Waller's technical achievements. To a certain degree, Waller's reputation remains in decline among critics, whose views, as H. M. Richmond has noted, may be colored by the deplorable actions of his personal and political life. Nevertheless, Waller has his defenders among modern scholars, who admire his technical mastery and acknowledge his significant influence on the Augustans and the development of neoclassicism.