Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Writers of the Couplet > Edmund Waller
  George Sandys Sir John Denham  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

III. Writers of the Couplet.

§ 4. Edmund Waller.

But, to them, the new age began, not with Sandys, but with Waller; and Waller claimed his own poetical descent from another source. Edmund Waller was born at Coleshill, near Amersham, on 3 March, 1605/6. His earliest known attempt in verse appears to be the poem Of the Danger His Majesty [Being Prince] Escaped in the Road at St. Andere. The danger in question was incurred by prince Charles at Santander in September, 1623, as he was returning from his attempt to secure a Spanish bride; but the compliment which the poem contains to Henrietta Maria is so essential to it, that it was probably written retrospectively after the betrothal of Charles to the French princess. In this early essay, Waller certainly did not attain the complete mastery of the self-contained couplet. In one place, four couplets occur together, each of which needs its neighbour to complete its sense.  15  In another, seven couplets run on in close connection, before an appreciable pause is reached; and, even then, an eighth is needed to bring the included comparison to an effective close.  16    9
  The quantity of Waller’s published verse is small in comparison with its fame. He went from a school at High Wycombe to Eton, and from Eton he entered King’s college, Cambridge, as a fellow commoner, in March, 1619/20. His parliamentary career seems to have begun about a year later, when, probably, he was returned as member for Amersham. He sat for Ilchester in the last parliament of James I, for Chipping Wycombe in the first parliament of Charles I, for Amersham in the third parliament of Charles I and the Short Parliament and for St. Ives in the Long Parliament. He was a prominent and famous speaker in the house of Commons: when the troubles first broke out, he was on the side of the popular leaders, and took part in the opposition to ship-money. But, by 1642, he was gradually drawn closer to the party of the via media; and his parliamentary career was closed, for the time, in 1643, by the discovery of his complicity in the royalist conspiracy which became known as Waller’s plot. He was arrested, and, after a trying interval, in which he certainly attempted to save himself by compromising others, was fined and banished. He spent his exile in France, associating with Hobbes and Evelyn. Pardoned at the end of 1651, he returned to England. Cromwell appointed him a commissioner of trade in 1655; and, after the restoration, he once more entered parliament as member for Hastings. He sat for this constituency till his death in 1687, playing the part of Nestor of the house with no little self-consciousness, and using his voice on behalf of that constitutional liberalism which embodied his convictions.   10
  During this long period, he wrote but little. He married twice, and was already a widower when he first met lady Dorothy Sidney, daughter of Robert, earl of Leicester. The lady became the theme of several addresses celebrating her beauty and her cruelty with charming ease and with no more than conventional warmth. In lines written at Penshurst, amid the accompaniments of listening deer, beeches bowing their heads and gods weeping rain in sympathy with the poet, the love of Astrophel for Stella is invoked to rebuke a colder scion of the house of Sidney. As all nature is compassionate to the sighing swain, so is it obsequious to the obdurate nymph. Her presence harmonises and gives order to the park: the trees form a shady arbour for her when she sits, an avenue when she walks. When she comes to London, the delights of the spring are there of set purpose to welcome her. Waller’s enthusiasm goes so far as to turn verses nominally addressed to others into compliments to lady Dorothy. Her friend, lady Rich, dies: Waller’s elegy is converted into the celebration of the friendship of its subject for Sacharissa. Her father goes abroad: the trees of Penshurst lament his absence, and its deer, grudging to be slain by any hand but his, repine. Not these, nor the regrets of his friends, demand his return so much as the havoc which his daughter is working in the hearts of English youth. It is her portrait which is the occasion of an address to Van Dyck; and the stanzas To a Very Young Lady would not have been written had there not been an elder sister to give them their real point. Such indirect approaches may argue a more sincere passion than we are at liberty to discover in the lines Of the Misreport of her being Painted, and their companions. But, whether Waller was in love with Sacharissa, or whether she was merely a theme for poetical flattery, her influence over his heart or his verse, or both, was transient. His professed fidelity to Sacharissa did not hinder him from joining the train of poets who celebrated the attractions of Lucy, countess of Carlisle. If he is ready to carve his passion on the beeches of Penshurst for one whose every movement those trees obey, the woods of England are equally admirers of lady Carlisle, and “every tree that’s worthy of the wound” bears her name on its bark. Lady Isabella Thynne, and an unidentified Mrs. Arden, received tributes from him, which might be made the foundation, with equal justice, of a tradition of passionate love. Sentimentality may please itself with reading the name of Sacharissa between the lines of Behold the brand of beauty tossed, or Go, lovely Rose!; but Celia, Flavia, Chloris, or Amoret (who, indeed, is once used as a foil to Sacharissa) may quite as justly claim insertion. Love, indeed, with Waller, as with most of his contemporaries, was the ever fertile theme of verse, on which his art demanded that ceaseless variations should be played. He had much of the old skill in execution, but never reached the climax at which art took on itself the very semblance of genuine passion.   11
  When his poems were first printed, in 1645, Waller himself was an exile, and Sacharissa a widow. She had married Henry, lord Spencer of Wormleighton, in 1639: her husband, created earl of Sunderland, fell at Newbury. The editions of 1645, for which Waller was in no way responsible, contained his love-poems, with a number of occasional verses, and the miniature epic called The Battle of the Summer Islands. These poems embrace a number of experiments in lyric metres as well as in the couplet. Very few gallant addresses, and even fewer variations from the couplet form, are to be found in the verses written by Waller after his exile. These, in the main, are complimentary and of historical interest, with the exception of Divine Poems, which were published in the year before his death. Waller’s most enduring work belongs to this later period: the Panegyric to my Lord Protector, the verses Upon a Late Storm, and of the Death of His Highness ensuing in the same, the Instructions to a Painter, commemorating the battle of Sole bay, and the lines Of the Last Verses in the Book, which contain the famous passage “the soul’s dark cottage, battered and decayed,” are more sustained examples of Waller’s poetical gift than any of the pieces published in 1645. Yet, it was upon the earlier pieces that his celebrity as the inaugurator of a new age was founded. Of their contents, something has been said. It is probable that the political misfortunes of the poet, and the early widowhood of Sacharissa, helped to give the poems their vogue. The fame of Waller, however, rested on something less ephemeral. It can hardly be said it was won by exclusive devotion to the work of keeping the couplet within fixed bounds. At no time was he especially careful to limit the construction of his sentences to two lines. The lines On the Statue of King Charles I at Charing Cross, written in or after 1674, consist of six couplets: the first three are inseparable, and the next two, joined without a break, contain an antithesis without which the former three could not stand alone. This, however, is an extreme instance; and the habit of expanding a symmetrical sentence over two couplets was Waller’s more natural practice. Instances of it may be found, among the earlier poems, in The Battle of the Summer Islands; and, among his maturer work, the Panegyric to Cromwell is written in compact stanzas of two couplets each.   12
  This method of grouping couplets, with the habit of concentrating the force of a passage in a succinct concluding distich, afforded a noticeable contrast to the paragraphic manner in which the minor Jacobean and Caroline poets handled this form of verse. But felicitous examples of grouping and of single pointed couplets may be found in Drayton and Sandys; and Waller’s reputation cannot have been due to these devices alone. Aubrey, referring to Waller as “one of the first refiners of our English language and poetrey,” tells the story of him that, “when he was a brisque young sparke, and first studyed poetry, ‘Methought,’ said he, ‘I never sawe a good copie of English verses; they want smoothness; then I began to essay.” 17  The lines of Sir John Beaumont already mentioned demand for English poetry simplicity of rime and simplicity of language. The avoidance of “fetter’d staves” is a consequence, rather than a necessary accompaniment, of these requirements. Towards these ends, Waller’s conscious efforts, probably, were directed from the beginning: the simplification of the couplet could hardly fail to be a result of their successful attainment. He said, in Dryden’s hearing, that he took Fairfax as his model. 18  Fairfax, in his Godfrey of Bulloigne, invariably concluded his eight-lined stanza with a couplet, which, by no means always isolated from the rest of the stanza, led, at any rate, to a full stop. This, of itself, might not have much effect on couplets pure and simple; but it is certain that Fairfax’s comparative plainness and perspicuity of language affected Waller’s style, and helped to give it the purity desiderated by Beaumont. But, to account fully for Waller’s smoothness of rhythm and simplicity of diction, we must recognise that the spirit of reaction from “ragged rime” and involved language was very general. It is to be found, for example, in Suckling and Carew. In neither was it fully developed, for both were still under the spell of the fantastic verse of their day, and Suckling, in particular, was too much the amateur to effect a revolution in English poetry. Waller, on the other hand, stood apart from the characteristic fashions of his time. He had no taste for elaborate and fantastic metaphors. His invention was small. Not many of the images of nature were present to him; but he was able to make creditable use of those of which he was conscious. He chose highly conventional subjects for his verse, old artificial themes which allowed scope for graceful classical allusions. Aiming at a pointed fluency of style, he avoided rough rimes, and lines loaded with sounding words. And so, without setting an unalterable limit to the couplet, he played a noticeable part in lightening its contents, and bringing it one step further in the direction of systematic coherence and conciseness. There is in Sandys’s translations abundance of proof of the value of antithesis in restraining the couplet within due bounds. Waller, in his constant endeavour after smoothness, did not take full advantage of the force which antithesis may give to a line. His work in English versification was to make his contemporaries familiar with a rimed couplet in which each line was marked by regular beats and by an observance of caesura; in which heavy stress on the first syllable of a foot, all redundant syllables and elisions were the rarest exceptions; in which, finally, the flow of the verse from couplet to couplet was unbroken by the intrusion of spondaic words or striking, but unmusical, rimes.   13
  To a generation accustomed to a poetical style whose brightness was often concealed by the smoke which enveloped it, the consistent clearness and brightness of Waller’s verse must have compensated for its want of that splendour which was frequent, but intermittent, in the writers of the fantastic school. If his polished simplicity was not employed consciously in making the sense and contents of a couplet conterminous, it was bound to exercise an influence in that direction. On his own confession, he did not compose easily; 19  and he seems to have followed up his rare moments of inspiration by a sedulous application of the file to their results. His verse is often, if not always, polished into a state of monotonous elegance. Apart from a phrase here and there, as in the lines on “the soul’s dark cottage,” there is little which, out of the evenness of his execution, stands forth as a triumph of poetic imagination. The sentiment of the famous lyric Go, lovely Rose! fortunate in its opening line, is not above the meritoriously commonplace. His experiments outside the couplet, in many cases, miss that even melody which he usually achieved. There are lines in Puerperium, the poem written, probably, to celebrate the birth of Henry, duke of Gloucester, in 1640, and in Behold the brand of Beauty, which it needs some discernment to scan correctly; and, in the opening quatrain of To Amoret,
Amoret! the Milky Way
Framed of many nameless stars!
The smooth stream where none can say
He this drop to that prefers!
the third line is an example of a halting accentuation of which, in his couplets, Waller was careful not to be guilty. It was by avoiding the characteristic faults of contemporary English verse, its force which sometimes degenerated into clumsiness, its eloquence which could sink at a moment’s notice into garrulity, that Waller achieved his fame, and not by any original experiment of his own. In the imagination and the language of men like Sandys, there was still much of “the former age.” The generation which hailed Waller as an innovator and inventor failed to find in Sandys or Drayton the sense of relief which Waller gave.

Note 15. Ll. 61–68. [ back ]
Note 16. Ll. 89–104. [ back ]
Note 17. Aubrey, Brief Lives, vol. II, p. 275. [ back ]
Note 18. Dryden, Pref. to Fables, u.s. [ back ]
Note 19. Aubrey, u.s. [ back ]

  George Sandys Sir John Denham  

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