BORN: 1606, Coleshill, Hertfordshire, England
DIED: 1687, Beaconsfield, England
NATIONALITY: British GENRE: Poetry
‘‘The Story of Phoebus and Daphne, Applied’’ (c. 1637)
‘‘Go, Lovely Rose’’ (1645)
A Panegyrick to My Lord Protector, of the present greatness and joynt interest of His Highness, and this nation (1655)
Instructions to a painter, for the drawing of a picture of the state and posture of the English forces at sea (1665)
On the Park at St. James’s (1660)
Edmund Waller. © Michael Nicholson / CORBIS
Edmund Waller is considered a minor poet within the English canon. He is known less for his poetry than his political activism; specifically, the thwarted royalist conspiracy known as ‘‘Waller’s Plot.’’ In terms of his writing, he is best recognized for ‘‘Go, Lovely Rose’’ (1645), which has been widely anthologized as an excellent example of a Cavalier lyric.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Wealth. Waller was born to Robert Waller and Anne Hampden Waller on March 3, 1606, in Coleshill, Hertfordshire, England. His mother was a cousin by marriage to Oliver Cromwell, who would later become Britain’s ruler. Waller’s father died when Waller was twelve, leaving him a significant allowance that made him independently wealthy.
Guided by his formidable mother to adulthood, Waller attended Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, but he never took a degree. He married Anne Banks, a wealthy heiress, on July 5, 1631. She died in 1634 while giving birth to their second child.
Parliamentarian and Middle-Aged Poet. Royalist Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon and a contemporary of the poet, once wrote that Waller was ‘‘nursed in parliaments.’’ Although historians are uncertain about which parliament was his first, Waller himself asserted that he held his initial seat when he was only sixteen. Thus, most researchers surmise that Waller served in 1621 as a member for Agmondesham in the last parliament of King James I. In the parliament of 1624, he represented Ilchester and took a seat in the first parliament of Charles I.
Waller did not begin writing poetry until he was nearly thirty years old. He hired George Morley, who later became the bishop of Winchester, as his tutor. Waller’s poetic talent was first widely noticed in his courtship poems. In addition to love lyrics, Waller also wrote poems to politicians and royalty and poems complimenting friends and private individuals.
Waller’s Plot and Exile from England. While the origins of Waller’s 1643 plot against Parliament remain unclear, scholars have pieced together the actual events of the insurrection, the arrest of Waller and his coconspirators, and Waller’s narrow escape from being executed. Essentially, Waller took the side of King Charles I against Parliament (the king and the parliament were at odds) and attempted to establish London as a stronghold for the king.
According to modern Waller critic George Thorn-Drury, Waller drew up a declaration of the conspirators’ cause, but various indiscretions and leaks from those involved reached authorities in London and brought Waller and Tomkins under scrutiny. The two were arrested on May 31, 1643, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. When brought before the bar of the House of Commons to defend himself before being expelled from Parliament and remanded to a court-martial, Waller betrayed his fellow conspirators in order to attain a lenient ruling. He also appealed to his judges’ interest in not setting too disgraceful and dangerous a precedent in the punishment of one of their own members of Parliament.
In addition, Waller tried to save himself by hypocritically accepting the spiritual help of nonconformist ministers, whose ‘‘ghostly assistance’’ he tried to buy with gifts. The leading members of the house were similarly solicited. What Waller undeniably bought—whether with his pathetic eloquence, his tactics of delay, his friends, or ready cash—was time, and thus eventually his life. After several interrupted preparations for court-martial, on September 23, 1644, a petition from ‘‘Edm. Waller, prisoner in the Tower’’ offered payment of a fine of ten thousand pounds and banishment from the realm. This was the judgment in fact finally handed down on November 4, 1644, giving Waller twenty-eight days from the 6th of November to leave England, not to return lest he incur the punishment both houses of Parliament saw fit.
Exile Revoked. Waller’s poems first found their way into print during his exile. Four editions were published in 1645, including an unauthorized volume published by Thomas Walkley in an attempt to cash in on Waller’s notoriety. By the end of 1649, Waller and his second wife—Mary Bresse from the family of Thame, in Oxfordshire—had settled in Paris, where, in contrast to the poverty and distress of most of the royalist exiles, he reportedly lived comforably. On November 27, 1651, the House of Commons responded to ‘‘the humble petition of Edmond Waller’’ by revoking his sentence of banishment and ordering a pardon to be prepared for him.
Political Poems. By this time, Great Britain had undergone extreme political changes. The English Civil War broke out in 1642 between Charles I, an absolutist believed to have Catholic leanings, and his royalist forces against the rising middle classes, primarily Protestant Puritans, who wanted to make Parliament superior to the monarchy. Charles was tried and executed in 1649, and Cromwell, a Puritan leader, took power as the Protector who ruled the newly created Commonwealth.
Waller ingratiated himself with Cromwell, writing in 1652, the year of his return to England, perhaps his best political poem, A Panegyrick to My Lord Protector (1655). In addition, Waller wrote two other poems voicing views favorable to the Protector’s government, or promoting his success and greatness. Perhaps in recognition of this interest, Waller was appointed one of the commissioners for trade in December 1655. Almost immediately after another worshipful poem in 1658, his ‘‘Lord Protector’’ died. Waller responded with several elegies. Cromwell was succeeded by his son, Richard, who proved inept, and the monarchy was soon restored. In 1660, upon the succession of Charles II (the son of Charles I), Waller submitted his ingratiating To the King, upon His Majesties happy return (1660). Waller also returned to Parliament, serving again during Charles II’s reign.
Final Writing Years. According to the anonymous 1711 ‘‘Account of the Life and Writings,’’ Waller dabbled in writing for the theater, though unsuccessfully. Nevertheless, as his eighteenth-century editor Elijah Fenton puts it, ‘‘He soon relaps’d into poetry’’ and continued to write verse to the end of his life. Toward the end, he focused on spiritual poetry. Waller died at his home at Beaconsfield on October 21, 1687.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Waller's famous contemporaries include:
Rene Descartes (1596-1650): French philosopher and mathematician, he is known as ''The Father of Modern Philosophy" for his profound influences on subsequent generations of thinkers. His treatises include Passions of the Soul (1649).
John Milton (1608-1674): English poet and essayist, he is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667).
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662): French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, Pascal contributed to such fields as fluid studies, the construction of calculators, and the theory of probability. His writings on mathematics include ''Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle'' (1653).
Jan van Riebeeck (1619-1677): This Dutch colonial administrator founded Cape Town, South Africa.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669): A Dutch painter and etcher, he is considered one of the greatest artists in European history. His paintings include Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) and Night Watch (1642).
Works in Literary Context
Unusual Influences. Waller enjoyed many unusual personal influences. For instance, Waller followed a course of study guided by Dr. George Morley, an instructor at Christ Church, Oxford. Waller took Morley to live with him and oversee his reading at Beaconsfield. Morley was a member of the ‘‘college’’ of serious-minded intellectuals collected by Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, at his country house, Great Tew. According to Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon, Waller was heavily influenced by the artistic and political ideas of Morley and his coterie, who rejected the ambiguous poetic style of the metaphysical poets. Morley’s influence may be reflected in Waller’s cultivation of what is determined by scholars as a cool, balanced Augustan classicism in virtually all his poetry. This style is one that intentionally returns to past models of writing.
Besides being informed by his social and intellectual connections, Waller’s writing directly or indirectly reveals particular literary influences. In one of the sixteen Sacharissa poems, for instance, Waller refers specifically to Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590). The Sacharissa of the works is the Lady Dorothy Sidney, whom Waller was courting with the poems. Her uncle was the famous Sir Philip. In two other Sacharissa poems, Waller invokes Sidney’s name and nobility. In the last poem of the series, in mock exasperation and despair, he charges that Sacharissa’s refusal to be moved by his advances of love and poetry should deny her participation in such fine lineage as that of Sir Philip.
Three Styles of Poetry. Waller’s ‘‘essays’’ at verse may be categorized in three main groups: public panegyrics (formal speeches of praise), poems of compliment to private individuals, and love lyrics. First in the early collections and in the esteem of contemporaries are the panegyrics, poems of compliment with a political or larger public aspect. For example, with his ‘‘Of the Danger his Majesty (being Prince) escaped in the road at St. Andero,’’ he turns a minor incident—Charles I’s halted courtship of the Infanta of Spain while Prince of Wales— into a miniature heroic poem of 170 lines. The panegyrics aspire to a higher style—but the plain, urbane language of polished, sophisticated polite discourse is Waller’s characteristic manner in most of his works.
The second type of poem composed by Waller were poems of compliment addressed to nonroyal personages or private friends and include commending verses for publications by other writers. They also include remarks on significant honors or trifling occurrences that befall the recipient; poems occasioned by illnesses; celebrations of marriages and births; funeral elegies; and epistles (or letters) of consolation. Examples include his 1665 ‘‘To His Worthy Friend, Sir Thos. Higgons, upon the Translation of ‘The Venetian Triumph’’’ and Instructions to a painter, for the drawing of a picture of the state and posture of the English forces at sea (1665).
Lastly, the love lyrics embrace various Cavalier songs and the group of poems to ‘‘Sacharissa.’’ This genre of poetry was particular to the seventeenth century Cavaliers—named for royalists during the civil wars who were supporters of King Charles I.
Influence. To the generation of poets that succeeded him, Waller was one of the most important writers of the seventeenth century. Though he is now regarded as a minor poet, he anticipated the Augustan age in attitudes and diction. His versification was an important influence on John Dryden and Alexander Pope, among others.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who have also made dedication or courtship the focus of their poetic efforts.
''Ode I—XI Carpe Diem'' (c. 20 BCE), an ode by Horace. In this work, the poet urges his listener to ''pluck'' or ''seize the day.''
''The Flea'' (1683), a poem by John Donne. One tiny flea connects two lovers, the speaker suggests.
''since feeling is first'' (1926), a poem by e.e. cummings. In this modern seduction poem, the speaker suggests that ''kisses are a better fate than wisdom.''
''Sonnet XVII'' (1960), a poem by Pablo Neruda, from his 100 Love Sonnets. Here, the poet speaks to convince his listener of his love.
''To His Coy Mistress'' (1681), a poem by Andrew Marvell. Often called a seduction poem, the work attempts to convince a young woman to drop her coy stance and give in to the speaker's urgings.
Works in Critical Context
Waller’s critical reputation has varied greatly over the past four centuries. Waller’s contemporaries and the critics of the eighteenth century heaped praises on his poetic gifts, focusing on his political poems and panegyrics. By the eighteenth century, Waller was still highly regarded as a lyric poet, and ‘‘Go, Lovely Rose’’ was being seen as the perfect Cavalier poem. However, by the nineteenth century, his reputation suffered considerably, in part because the occasional nature of his poetry was regarded as unfashionable in this period. By the twentieth century, Waller was chiefly remembered for either his role in the royalist conspiracy or his poem ‘‘Go, Lovely Rose,’’ which had appeared in many anthologies as an example of the ideal Cavalier lyric.
Current scholars and critics admire and comment on the political panegyrics and the poetry of social occasions— the poems that to readers from the Romantic period until recently have seemed the least likely to be revived of all Waller’s literary efforts. In the last thirty years, literary scholars have begun again to discover in Waller a significant transitional figure, and a subtle and skilled minor poet.
Sacharissa Poems. In more recent years, his so-called Sacharissa poems, those written to his poetic mistress, have gained the attention of critics. The Sacharissa poems, many critics argue, reveal a major problem in Waller’s poetic achievement. The very politeness, the persistent optimism and unfailing pleasantness that we are told characterized his conversation and social manner ultimately weaken the picture of the world he presents in his verse. Comparing these poems of Waller with the work of French poet Vincent Voiture, Thomas Kaminski in Philological Quarterly wrote, ‘‘Waller in fact often displays a greater reticence and decorum, that is, often seems more typically precieux by our normal understanding of the term, than Voiture. And in his lyric poems Waller can achieve a unique poetic voice through the very quality that modern critics dislike in him—the restraint of his manner.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Investigate a significant historical event in Waller’s time, such as Waller’s Plot; the death of Oliver Cromwell, the ‘‘Lord Protector’’; or the English civil wars (1642-1651). Find expressions and descriptions of the chosen event in Waller’s poetry. What is the poet’s general tone or attitude? What does his tone suggest about his political involvement? Put your conclusions in the form of a paper.
2. Consider a poem by Waller that discusses a woman’s individual feminine traits (a poem such as ‘‘Go, Lovely Rose’’) for a presentation. Identify the gender characteristics, listing as many as you find. How do the descriptions inform readers of what was important to a ‘‘feminine’’ woman of the seventeenth century? What roles for women are suggested? What could be considered feminine values?
3. The practice of patronage in the arts has been common for centuries. In Waller’s time, many poets’ lives depended upon finding patrons to finance their poetry. Explore this practice further, first by finding examples of other writers, poets, and artists who relied on it in Great Britain, then by considering the practice as it existed in other cultures and periods— such as with the National Endowment for the Arts today. Write a paper with your findings.
4. You may be an artist or writer who will be considering funding soon, or you may imagine you will be. Come up with a ‘‘service’’ or offering and then consider a patron capable of supporting your art. (Oprah Winfrey, for example, is famous for taking solicitations for her donations). Write a ‘‘dedication’’ that will win your potential patron’s favor.
5. Consider one of Waller’s poems of courtship (such as ‘‘The Story of Phoebus and Daphne, Applied’’) and compare it with a contemporary song of seduction (such as Marvin Gaye’s ‘‘Let’s Get It On’’). What elements make each a successful or convincing plea? Create a presentation with your findings.
6. While one of the genres Waller wrote in was Cavalier poetry, he is not considered among the most famous of Cavalier poets—generally, his writing is eclipsed by that of Thomas Carew, Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson, Richard Lovelace, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir John Suckling, and Henry Vaughn. Research the elements of a Cavalier lyric and compare Waller’s with one or more of the better-known poets of the seventeenth century in a paper.
Fenton, Elijah, ed. The Works of Edmund Waller, Esqr. in Verse and Prose. London: Jacob Tonson, 1729.
Steele, James Arthur. ‘‘A Biography of Edmund Waller.’’ PhD diss., University of London, 1965.
Thorn-Drury, George. Introduction to The Poems of Edmund Waller. 2 vols. London: A. H. Bullen, 1901.
Aldington, Richard. ‘‘Notes on Waller’s Poems.’’ Living Age 312 (January 21, 1922): 179-81.
Kaminski, Thomas. ‘‘Edmund Waller: English Precieux.’’ Philological Quarterly 79, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 19-43.
Korshin, Paul J. ‘‘The Evolution of Neoclassical Poetics: Cleveland, Denham, and Waller as Poetic Theorists.’’ Eighteenth-Century Studies 2 (December 1968): 102-37.
Larson, Charles. ‘‘The Somerset House Poems of Cowley and Waller.’’ Papers on Language and Literature 10 (Spring 1974): 126-35.
‘‘The Cavalier Poets.’’ Luminarium. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/cavintro.htm. Last updated on June 29, 2006.
‘‘Edmund Waller (1606-1687).’’ The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=4586. Last updated on October 28, 2000.
‘‘Edmund Waller, 1606-1687.’’ Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/w#a4510.
‘‘Selected Poetry of Edmund Waller (1606-1687).’’ Representative Poetry Online (RPO). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poet/341.html.