EDMUND WALLER (1606-1687), English poet, was the eldest son of Robert Waller of Coleshill (then in Herts, now in Buckinghamshire) and Anne Hampden, his wife. He was first cousin to the celebrated patriot John Hampden. He was born on the 9th of March 1606, and baptized in the parish church of Amersham. Early in his childhood his father sold his house at Coleshill and migrated to Beaconsfield. Of Waller's early education all we know is his own account that he "was bred. under several ill, dull and ignorant schoolmasters, till he went to Mr Dobson at Wickham, who was a good schoolmaster and had been an Eton scholar." His father died in 1616, and the future poet's mother, a lady of rare force of character, sent him to Eton and to Cambridge. He was admitted a fellow-commoner of King's College on the 22nd of March 1620. He left without a degree, and it is believed that in 1621, at the age of only sixteen, he sat as member for Agmondesham (Amersham) in the last parliament of James I. Clarendon says that Waller was "nursed in parliaments." In that of 1624 he represented Ilchester, and in the first of Charles I. Chipping Wycombe. The first act by which Waller distinguished himself, however, was his surreptitious marriage with a wealthy ward of the Court of Aldermen, in 1631. He was brought before the Star Chamber for this offence, and heavily fined. But his own fortune was large, and all his life Waller was a wealthy man. After bearing him a son and a daughter at Beaconsfield, Mrs Waller died in 1634. It was about. this time that the poet was elected into Falkland's "Club." It is supposed that about 1635 he met Lady Dorothy Sidney,. eldest daughter of the earl of Leicester, who was then eighteen years of age. He formed a romantic passion for this girl, whom he celebrated under the name of Sacharissa. She rejected him, and married Lord Spencer in 1639. Disappointment, it is said, rendered Waller for a time insane, but this may well be doubted. He wrote, at all events, a long, graceful and eminently sober letter on the occasion of the wedding to the bride's sister. In 1640 Waller was once more M.P. for Amersham, and made certain speeches which attracted wide attention; later, in the Long Parliament, he represented St Ives. Waller had hitherto supported the party of Pym, but he now left him for the group of Falkland and Hyde. His speeches were much admired, and were separately printed; they are academic exercises very carefully prepared. Clarendon says that Waller spoke "upon all occasions with great sharpness and freedom." An extraordinary and obscure conspiracy against Parliament, in favour of the king, which is known as "Waller's Plot," occupied the spring of 1643, but on the 30th of May he and his friends were arrested. In. the terror of discovery, Waller was accused of displaying a very mean poltroonery, and of confessing "whatever he had said, heard, thought or seen, and all that he knew.. or suspected of others." He certainly cut a poor figure by the side of those of his companions who died for their opinions. Waller was called before the bar of the House in July, and made an abject speech of recantation. His life was spared and he was committed to the Tower, whence, on paying a fine of £10,000, he was released and banished the realm in November 1643. He married a second wife, Mary Bracey of Thame, and went over to Calais, afterwards taking up his residence at Rouen. In 1645 the Poems of Waller were first published in London, in three different editions; there has been much discussion of the order and respective authority of these issues, but nothing is decidedly known. Many of the lyrics were already set to music by Henry Lawes. In 1646 Waller travelled with Evelyn in Switzerland and Italy. During the worst period of the exile Waller managed to "keep a table" for the Royalists in Paris, although in order to do so he was obliged to sell his wife's jewels. At the close of 1651 the House of Commons revoked Waller's sentence of banishment, and he was allowed to return to Beaconsfield, where he lived very quietly until the Restoration.
In 1655 he published A Panegyric to my Lord Protector, and was made a Commissioner for Trade a month or two later. He followed this up, in 1660, by a poem To the King, upon his Majesty's Happy Return. Being challenged by Charles II. to explain why this latter piece was inferior to the eulogy of Cromwell, the poet smartly replied, "Sir, we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction." He entered the House of Commons again in 1661, as M.P. for Hastings, and Burnet has recorded that for the next quarter of a century "it was no House if Waller was not there." His sympathies were tolerant and kindly, and he constantly defended the Nonconformists. One famous speech of Waller's was: "Let. us look to our Government, fleet and trade, 'tis the best advice the oldest Parliament man among you can give you, and so God bless you." After the death of his second wife, in 1677, Waller retired to his house called Hall Barn at Beaconsfield, and though he returned to London, he became more and more attached to the retirement of his woods, "where," he said, "he found the trees as bare and withered as himself." In 1661 he had published his poem, St James' Park; in 1664 he had collected his poetical works; in 1666 appeared his Instructions to a Painter; and in 1685 his Divine Poems. The final collection of his works is dated 1686, but there were further posthumous additions made in 1690. Waller bought a cottage at Coleshill, where he was born, meaning to die there; "a stag," he said, "when he is hunted, and near spent, always returns home." He actually died, however, at Hall Barn, with his children and his grandchildren about him, on the 21st of October 1687, and was buried in woollen (in spite of his expressed wish), in the churchyard of Beaconsfield.
Waller's lyrics were at one time admired to excess, but with the exception of "Go, lovely Rose" and one or two others, they have greatly lost their charm. He was almost destitute of imaginative invention, and his fancy was plain and trite. But he resolutely placed himself in the forefront of reaction against the violence and "conceit" into which the baser kind of English poetry was descending. A great deal of discussion, some of it absurdly violent in tone, has been expended on the question how far Waller was or was not the pioneer in introducing the classical couplet into English verse. It is, of course, obvious that Waller could not "introduce" what had been invented, and admirably exemplified, by Chaucer. But those who have pointed to smooth distichs employed by poets earlier than Waller have not given sufficient attention to the fact (exaggerated, doubtless, by critics arguing in the opposite camp) that it was he who earliest made writing in the serried couplet the habit and the fashion. Waller was writing in the regular heroic measure, afterwards carried to so high a perfection by Dryden and Pope, as early as 1623 (if not, as has been supposed, even in 1621).
The only critical edition of Waller's Poetical Works is that edited, with a careful biography, by G. Thorn-Drury, in 1893. (E. G.)
- Please bookmark this page (add it to your favorites)
- If you wish to link to this page, you can do so by referring to the URL address below.
This page was last modified 29-SEP-18
Copyright © 2018 ITA all rights reserved.