The poems of Edmund Waller were at one time famous, and from the time they were written until the middle of the eighteenth century he had the reputation of being England’s best lyric poet. The poems were admired for several reasons: they seemed to recall the poetry of those Greek and Roman writers who were so greatly admired during the Renaissance, and they marked the use of a new poetic diction or vocabulary by English authors. Also, Waller’s poetry represented a turning-away from the obscure (if brilliant) poetry of the Metaphysicals. Instead of difficult words and ideas he used the simplest expression; instead of the broken rhythms of this highly intellectual poetry he popularized the smoothness of the heroic couplet.
Waller’s early poetry was amatory and pastoral. It contains the customary numbers of allusions to Flavia, Chloris, and other fictional ladies of this type of poetry. The poems are written in praise of the woman admired and of the idea of love itself. These works do not attempt to give a direct and literal idea of their subject; instead, they refer to the goddesses of myth and the beauty of nature. Thus the subject of “On Her Coming to London” is never really given the form of an actual person, but is described as Juno, Athena, Aurora, and other famous names of myth. The method of this kind of poem is comparison and exaggeration: after the invocation of these goddesses the poet says of his beloved that she is “one that shall / Compare, perhaps exceed them all.”
The themes of Waller’s love poems are not original, nor is their intention to describe a new way of expressing emotion. They attempt to reinvigorate the lyrics of classical times, and their themes are old and familiar. “To Phyllis” is the kind of carpe diem verse we find in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and like that poem it can be traced at least as far back as Catullus. The whole burden may perhaps be summed up by the first line: “Why should we delay?” Other poems utilize the ancient convention of love as a mortal illness, or a war between man and woman. “Of Love” exemplifies the use of the latter theme; it goes through the whole familiar canon of love’s despair. Love makes the lover
lament, and sigh, and weep,Disordered, tremble, fawn and creep.
The woman is the conventional tyrant of Renaissance love poetry, the lover her equally conventional slave. The struggle is in vain; like the hunted stag, the lover is outmatched by the forces against him.
Much of Waller’s poetry is “occasional,” the kind of writing that commemorates some event. He writes of the sentimental qualities of a riband that a woman has bound around her hair; of a painting which has caused him to fall in love; of a lady he has seen in a garden. In each of these Waller follows the convention of love at first sight. The lover, who is always pictured as the man of great sensibility, immediately responds to the beauty of the person or object he sees before him. His “On the Discovery of A Lady’s Painting” invokes the Pygmalion myth and states that he has been seized by a passion unlike any “mortal flame” simply by seeing the representation of beauty. The most explicit statement of this kind of feeling is expressed in Waller’s “Of Loving at First Sight,” in which the poet conceives of himself as a seaman captured by a tempest and driven to his fate.
Waller did not confine himself solely to lyric poetry. His single best-known poem is about Oliver Cromwell, “A Panegyric to My Lord Protector.” This poem was written in the decade when Cromwell ruled England, and its evident admiration for Cromwell was the cause of...
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