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  Edmund Waller (1606–1687), by David Loggan, 1685 Edmund Waller (1606–1687), by David Loggan, 1685
Waller, Edmund (1606–1687), poet and politician, was born on 3 March 1606 at Stocks Place, Coleshill, Hertfordshire, and baptized on 9 March 1606 at Amersham, Buckinghamshire, the eldest son of Robert Waller (1560–1616) and his wife, Anne (1581–1653), daughter of Griffith Hampden. His father, originally a barrister, retired to the care of his extensive estates in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Bedfordshire, taking up residence in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, early in the poet's life. After attending Eton, he was admitted to King's College, Cambridge, in 1621, not taking a degree, and in 1622 he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn. In 1624 the Waller family purchased Hall Barn, Beaconsfield, which remained the poet's principal residence for the rest of his life.

Family and fortune

At the death of his father in 1616, Waller was heir to an estate estimated at £2100–£2500 a year, and in 1631 he married a wealthy heiress, Anne Banks (c.1609–1634), daughter of a London mercer, John Banks (1571–1630), who brought him an additional £8000. His first wife died in childbirth in October 1634, and he married for a second time, in 1644, during his imprisonment for ‘Waller's plot’. An interesting letter to his cousin Walter Waller suggests that this marriage took place while he was a prisoner in the Tower, and was for a time kept secret. His second wife, Mary Bressy (d. 1677), bore him thirteen children, of whom four sons and seven daughters survived him. His son Robert (b. 1633), from his first marriage, who at one point was tutored by Hobbes and, like his father, was a student at Lincoln's Inn, died young, probably during the 1650s.

At the time of his death Waller had an estate of £40,000. Besides Hall Barn in Beaconsfield, he owned a house in St James's Street, London, and extensive properties elsewhere. Even after paying a fine of £10,000 at the time of his exile, he remained a wealthy man; leaving his mother to manage his estates, he lived comfortably in Rouen and Paris, selling some of his wife's jewels to meet expenses: according to the ‘Life’ in Poems, 1711 (p. xxviii), ‘there was no English Table but Mr. Waller's’ in Paris during this period. Before his period of exile, Waller was one of the richest men in Buckinghamshire: Thorn-Drury says that with the exception of the banker Samuel Rogers ‘the history of English literature can show no richer poet’ (Poems, ed. Thorn-Drury, 1.xxi). Clarendon, who had reason to dislike and distrust Waller, described him as ‘born to a very fair estate’ and ‘resolved to improve it with his utmost care’, commenting tartly on Waller's well-attested social skills: ‘He was a very pleasant discourser, in earnest and in jest, and therefore very grateful to all kind of company, where he was not the less esteemed for being very rich’ (Life of … Clarendon, 1.45).

Waller the courtier

The two main intellectual influences upon the early Waller were his friends George Morley (later bishop of Winchester) and Lucius Cary, Lord Falkland. Waller had paid Morley's debts and in return Morley had, over a period of years beginning in the late 1620s, ‘assisted and instructed him in the reading many good books … especially the poets’ (Life of … Clarendon, 44). Nearly all of Waller's poetry was written after he met Morley, and most of it after Morley had introduced him to the Falkland circle in the 1630s. Falkland's ideas of moderation and tolerance, of humane learning and urbane conversation, exercised a lasting influence over Waller long after Falkland's death during the early stages of the civil war. Other close friends, from a later stage in his life, were Thomas Hobbes and John Evelyn. Many of Waller's poems, and in particular the ‘Panegyrick’ to Cromwell, are strongly influenced by Hobbes, whose De cive Waller proposed to translate at one point. Characteristically, when asked by Aubrey to ‘write some Verses in praise’ of Hobbes, he declined on the grounds of being ‘afrayd of the Churchmen’, though he admitted to Aubrey that he greatly admired the way Hobbes in Leviathan had ‘dispelled the mists of Ignorance, and layd-open their Priest-craft’ (Brief Lives, 156).

Although Waller held no court office under Charles I and, as a substantial country gentleman, cultivated a degree of independence, he was, as Aubrey says, ‘very much admired at Court’ during the 1630s, and his poems are very much products of a court culture. Thomas Corns has described Waller as a central figure among those poets associated with the court of Charles I whose writings ‘refracted a brilliant image of Charles and his queen in poems of compliment, in song and in masque’ (T. Corns, The Royal Image: Representations of Charles I, 1999, 17). After the Restoration, Waller remained closely associated with the court: ‘no man's conversation’, Aubrey writes, ‘is more esteemed at Court now then his’ (Brief Lives, 309). Waller was pre-eminently an occasional poet, and a poet of compliment: Rochester, in An Allusion to Horace (1675), expresses a view of him widely held at the time:
Waller, by Nature for the Bayes design'd,
With force, and fire, and fancy unconfin'd,
In Panigericks does Excell Mankind:
He best can turne, enforce, and soften things,
To praise great Conqu'rours, or to flatter Kings.
Waller's skills as panegyrist, addressing poems in praise, successively, of Charles I, Cromwell, Charles II, and James II, have frequently led later writers to see him as a Vicar of Bray. Samuel Johnson, for example, writes disapprovingly:
Neither Cromwell nor Charles could value his testimony as the effect of conviction, or receive his praises as effusions of reverence; they could consider them but as the labour of invention and the tribute of dependence … He that has flattery ready for all whom the vicissitudes of the world happen to exalt must be scorned as a prostituted mind that may retain the glitter of wit, but has lost the dignity of virtue. (Johnson, Poets, 1.271)
Yet the view of Waller's poems, in the 1630s and later, as merely offering servile support to the king in verse, underestimates the complexity of the political stance in a number of the poems, tuned precisely to a particular audience, context, and persuasive purpose.

In 1645, shortly after Waller went into exile, the publisher Humphrey Moseley, a committed royalist, issued a collection of Waller's Poems, identifying the author as ‘lately a Member of the Honourable House of Commons’. A series of poems placed at the beginning of the volume are all political statements, with overt persuasive intent. For example, ‘Upon his Majesties Repairing of Pauls’ (1635) seeks to counter puritan attacks on Laudian innovation (the poem tactfully omits all mention of Archbishop Laud) by presenting Charles I as moderate reformer with a
grand design
To frame no new Church but the old refine.
‘To the King on his Navy’ (1636) again turns its elegant praise to a concrete political end, arguing for a maintenance of a strong navy used for pacific aims rather than being involved in the wars of continental Europe. In responding to the pressure of opposing views of royal power and its uses, these poems rely much more on ‘comely grace’ than on the cut and thrust of polemic, presenting ‘a bloodlesse conquest’ as the best of all.

In changing circumstances, Waller's allegiances may have changed over the years, but, it can be argued, his fundamental beliefs remained consistent. The role he habitually assumed both in his poems on state affairs and in parliament was that of a peacemaker, a broker between opposing factions, and his career as a whole can be seen as illustrative of the strengths and weaknesses of the ideology of moderation and compromise.

Waller in parliament

Waller was first elected to parliament in 1624 at the unusually young age of eighteen—Clarendon describes him as having been ‘nursed in parliaments’ (Life of … Clarendon, 1.45). Between 1624 and 1629 he represented Ilchester, Chipping Wycombe, and Amersham in the House of Commons. He was elected to the Short Parliament in 1640, again representing Amersham, and sat for St Ives, Cornwall, in the Long Parliament until his expulsion in 1643. Although after the discovery of ‘Waller's plot’ he was banished and excluded from ever sitting again as a member of parliament, in 1651 he was pardoned and his sentence of banishment was revoked. He was elected to parliament in 1661, representing Hastings. He continued to serve until two years before his death, and Burnet describes how in his later parliamentary career ‘he was the delight of the House, and though old, said the liveliest things of any among them’ (Bishop Burnet's History, 2.83).

When parliament was summoned in 1640 after eleven years of the personal rule of Charles I, Waller played an active role in both the Short and Long parliaments, arguing a position similar to that of Falkland and other moderates: conservative, distrustful of innovation and extreme measures, critical of those advisers to the king ‘who thought to disswade his Majesty from this way of Parliaments’ and of the doctrine that ‘a Monarch can be absolute, and that the King may doe all things ad libidinem’, while avoiding any direct criticism of the king himself. The right to property, the desire of ‘a true hearted Englishman … to leave his … Inheritance as intire to posterity, as he received it from his Ancestors’, is to Waller the keystone of all rights: ‘The propriety of our goods is the mother of courage and nurse of Industry, which makes us valiant in warre and good husbands in peace’ (A Worthy Speech, 1, 2, 4). Waller's speeches, packed with Latin tags and classical allusions, were circulated widely during the 1640s, suggesting that they are as much addressed to a general public audience as to his fellow MPs. Abuses, the result of a ‘misunderstanding betwixt the King and the people’, can and will be corrected, and temporary disunities resolved by an appeal to reason and the public interest:
for let the Commonwealth flourish and then, he that hath the Soveraignty can never want or doe amisse so as he governes not according to the interest of others, but goe the shortest and safest wayes to his owne and the Common good. (ibid., 3, 4)
In the Short Parliament and the early stages of the Long Parliament, Waller was sufficiently trusted by his colleagues to manage the impeachment of the ship-money judge Sir Francis Crawley, and the evil counsellors he inveighs against in speeches in 1640 and 1641 include clerical and lay exponents of absolutism.

But where in 1640 he could attack ‘the Prelates Innovations’ in urging absolutist counsels, Waller's speech of July 1641, urging reform rather than abolition of episcopal church government, sees the danger of ‘great Innovation’ and disrespect for law and tradition as coming from below, rather than above: ‘the Roman Story tels us, that when the people began to flock about the Senate, and were more curious to direct and know what was done, then to obey, that Common-wealth soon came to ruine’. In this speech, unsuccessfully urging caution on his colleagues, Waller appeals to class solidarity in depicting law and property as under siege by mob pressure, in the form of petitions:
I look upon Episcopacy, as a Counter-scar[p], or outwork, which if it be taken by this assault of the people, and withall this Mysterie once revealed, that we must deny them nothing when they aske it thus in troopes, we may in the next place, have as hard a taske to defend our propriety, as we have lately had to recover it from the prerogative. (Speech Concerning Episcopacie, 4–5)
In the months that followed, Waller and his allies among the constitutional moderates were more and more forced to choose sides, as partisan bitterness increased in the House of Commons, and by October 1641 Waller was listed in a letter by Sir Edward Nicholas to the king as prominent among the ‘Champions in maynten'nce of your Prerogative’ (Poems, ed. Thorn-Drury, 1.xxxvi). As late as July 1642, according to D'Ewes, Waller was urging ‘an accommodation to be had with his majesty and that a civil war might be avoided’, though the ‘fiery spirits’ in the house would not hear of it (V. Snow and A. Steele Young, eds., Private Journals of the Long Parliament, 1992, 264).

Waller's plot

The most discreditable episode in Waller's life, and one which has blackened his later reputation, is the fiasco of ‘Waller's plot’. Here the ideology of moderation and compromise shows itself in the worst possible light. After the outbreak of the civil war Waller remained in parliament with the king's approval, speaking ‘with great sharpness and freedom … as the boldest champion the Crown had in both Houses’ (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 3.38–9). He was thus in a position to capitalize on the strong sentiment for peace that had grown up in the City of London and in those parliamentary moderates who still hoped for a reconciliation with the king. In its original form, ‘Waller's plot’ seems to have entailed some form of passive resistance by citizens of London, backed by members of both houses, to urge a negotiated settlement upon parliament. One of the plotters, Richard Chaloner, a wealthy linen draper, described its inception as follows:
It came from Mr. Waller under this notion, that if we could make a moderate party here in London, to stand betwixt the gappe, and in the gappe, to unite the King and the Parliament, it would be a very acceptable work, for now the three Kingdomes lay a bleeding, and unlesse that were done there was no hopes to unite them. (Challenor, 4)
But the peace plan quickly turned to war: in its final form, the plot apparently called for an armed rising and seizure of the key points of the City in order to let the king's army in. When Pym, in a highly dramatic speech, revealed the alleged plot to the House of Commons, he placed particular emphasis on the contrast between the ‘pretences’ of peace and the actuality of ‘blood and violence’—‘such a combustion, as to have your swords imbrued in one anothers bloud’ (Discovery, sigs. A2, A3). Even if Waller cannot be held fully responsible for the plot's final form—in his speech before the House of Commons pleading for his life, he claimed to have ‘utterly rejected … the Propositions of letting in part of the Kings Army’ (Mr Waller's Speech, 3)—the readiness with which the plot and one of its chief actors were diverted from their course is an index to their fundamental weakness.

Pym and his allies in parliament used the plot as a pretext to annihilate the moderates, destroying any possibility of peace. Members of the House of Commons who had spoken up for a negotiated settlement in the previous months were hard pressed to clear themselves of charges of complicity in the plot. The peace party, which comprised a majority in the House of Lords and a large minority in the House of Commons, was in a moment reduced to impotence. Moreover, a covenant was imposed upon the parliament, the City, and the army, by which all signatories declared their innocence of the plot and vowed support of ‘the Forces raised by the Two Houses of Parliament … for the defence of the true Protestant Religion and Libertie of the Subject, against the Forces raised by the King’ (Sacred Vow and Covenant, 1643, 2).

When Waller was questioned in prison after his arrest on 31 May 1643, he confessed his own guilt and implicated others freely. He was, as Clarendon put it, ‘so confounded with fear and apprehension that he confessed whatsoever he had said, heard, thought, or seen, all that he knew of himself, and all that he suspected of others, without concealing any person, of what degree or quality soever’ (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 3.44). In accusing such figures as the earls of Portland and Northumberland of complicity in the plot, Waller hoped to save his own life by shifting the blame on others whom the House of Commons and the army would be unable, because of their rank, to punish. Apparently Waller agreed to co-operate fully with his captors; in a petition to the house the following year, he speaks of ‘the free and ingenuous confession and discoveries made upon promised favour’ (Sixth Report, HMC, 28). But his behaviour after his arrest caused his reputation to plummet: Clarendon accuses him of ‘abjectness and want of courage’ in seeking to preserve his life ‘in an occasion when in which he ought to have been ambitious to have lost it’ (Life of … Clarendon, 1.45).

Waller managed to have his trial put off until the furore had died down, and then was allowed to appear before the house. Aubrey claims that during his imprisonment the poet ‘bribed the whole House, which was the first time a house of Commons was ever bribed’ (Brief Lives, 309), while Clarendon and the author of the ‘Life’ in Poems (1711), more modestly, make the bribes selective, directed to ‘some leading Members’ of the house and influential puritan clergymen. When he appeared before the house in July 1643, his air of ‘despairing dejectedness’, ‘all clothed in mourning’, impressed his viewers: ‘divers of the House seeing his sad and dejected condition at the barre whom they had formerly heard speake in publique with so much applause could not forbeare shedding of teares’ (D'Ewes, MS diary). Clarendon, whose account of the incident is generally hostile to Waller, pays tribute to his oratorical skills as ‘a man … very powerful in language, and who, by what he spoke and in the manner of speaking it, exceedingly captivated the good-will and benevolence of his hearers; which is the highest part of an orator’: ‘so that, in truth, he does as much owe the keeping his head to that oration as Catiline did the loss of his to those of Tully’ (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 3.52). After remaining a year and a half in prison without trial, Waller was fined £10,000 and permitted to go into exile in November 1644. Although he had saved his life, he had managed by his conduct to alienate all parties.

Protectorate and Restoration

As early as 1645, near the beginning of his period of exile, Waller was described by his friend Hobbes as ‘meditating how you may to your Contentment and wthout blame passe the seas’ and return to England, making peace with the new regime, and on 27 November 1651 the House of Commons revoked his sentence of banishment (Wikelund, ‘Hobbes’, 266). In January 1652 he returned to England, and before long was on terms of familiarity with his kinsman Cromwell (Waller was Cromwell's second cousin by marriage, John Hampden's first cousin, and brother-in-law to Adrian Scrope, the regicide, who may have been instrumental in securing his pardon). Cromwell appointed Waller a commissioner of trade in 1655. Waller's ‘Panegyrick to my Lord Protector’ (1655) is an argument for the legitimacy of Cromwell's protectorate, seeking to demonstrate to former royalists ‘the present Greatness and joynt Interest of His Highness, and this Nation’. Using arguments closely akin to those of Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), ‘to set before men's eyes the mutual relation between protection and obedience’ (Leviathan, review and conclusion), the ‘Panegyrick’ presents Cromwell as de facto monarch, a restorer of order rather than a feared agent of destruction:
Your drooping Countrey torn with Civill Hate,
Restor'd by you, is made a Glorious State.
In elegant quatrains, the poem deploys a series of classical and biblical analogies to present England as ‘the seat of Empire’ and Cromwell as a new Augustus:
As the vext world to finde repose at last
It self into Augustus Arms did cast;
So England now, doth with like toyle opprest
Her weary head upon your bosome rest.
The ‘Panegyrick’ thus concerns itself with the most important political issue of the 1650s, the settlement of the state, the transformation of the rule of the sword into the rule of law.

The publication of the ‘Panegyrick’ prompted a number of satiric poems, anti-panegyrics, by royalists and republicans who sought to refute Waller's arguments for accepting the legitimacy of the Cromwellian regime (see Norbrook, 311–16). In ‘Upon the Present War with Spain, and the First Victory Obtained at Sea’ (1658–9), a much-elaborated heroic poem about a naval victory in 1656, Waller concludes by explicitly urging Cromwell to accept the title of king, arguing that the state can be ‘fixt’ by ‘making him a Crown’ and ‘a Royal Scepter, made of Spanish Gold’. It has been suggested that the publication of a broadside version of Waller's poem in 1658 was part of a ‘concerted propaganda campaign’ to counter republican and royalist objections to a proposal to offer a crown to Cromwell (Stocker and Raylor, 134–7). These schemes came to nothing, and though Waller continues to praise Cromwell in a poem the following year as one who ‘gave us peace and empire’, bringing the nation glory in ‘conquering abroad’, the occasion of that poem was the lord protector's sudden death, and Waller makes no predictions about the future.

In addressing lines ‘To the King, upon his Majesties Happy Return’ (1660), Waller faced a particularly delicate task, as one of the many Englishmen who had gone over to the support of Cromwell's regime. He solves his problem by praising the returning Charles II for possessing those virtues which serve his own purpose best, by implication urging upon the king a policy of toleration and general amnesty, forgiveness for the ‘Frailty’ of others. In the years after the Restoration, Waller at frequent intervals commemorated particular occasions with a panegyric addressed to one or another member of the royal family: ‘On St James's Park as Lately Improved by his Majesty’, ‘Upon her Majesties New Buildings at Somerset-House’, ‘Of the Lady Mary, Princess of Orange’, ‘A Presage of the Ruine of the Turkish Empire, Presented to his Majestie on his Birth-Day’. In such poems, the tendency toward idealization, already marked in his poems of the 1630s, is even more pronounced. Waller provides an implicit defence of his practice in a poem of 1680 which defines ‘the use of poetry’ in traditional ethical terms:
Well sounding verses are the Charm we use,
Heroick thoughts, and vertue to infuse.
Yet the ‘great Acts’ singled out for praise, here as in Waller's poems addressed to Cromwell, are open to conflicting interpretations. The longest and most ambitious of his heroic panegyrics, Instructions to a painter, for the drawing of the posture and progress of his majesties forces at sea, under the command of his highness-royal; together with the battel and victory obtained over the Dutch (1666), turns the inconclusive battle of Lowestoft into a second Actium and the duke of York into a peerless hero of romance. As earlier with the ‘Panegyrick to my Lord Protector’, Waller's poem gave rise to a whole series of parodies and refutations, portraying similar events in unflattering terms, as exemplifying cowardice and greed. Marvell's Last Instructions to a Painter, written a year later, is representative of these anti-court satires in the way it makes the events it describes indicative not of England's glory but of England's shame.

Throughout the reign of Charles II, Waller played an active role in parliament, and the stance he habitually assumed there was more independent of the court than in such poems as Instructions to a painter or ‘On St James's Park’. Over 180 speeches by him are recorded in Grey's Debates, and he was appointed to 209 parliamentary committees between 1661 and 1681 (HoP, Commons, 1660–90, 3.654). Although allied to the court by his position on the council of trade and plantations, as well as by personal ties, he was found a good part of the time in the parliamentary opposition. Party organization lists drawn up in the 1670s show him now a seeming ally of one side, now of the other. His allegiance, as under Cromwell's protectorate, was not to a particular ruler or administration, but to his idea of the nation, as expressed, for example, in a speech of 1675 critical of Charles II and his ministers: ‘We believed, when the King was called back, that the Law was come again … No Government can be more advantageous to him than this. 'Tis a monarchy. The King governs by Law’ (Grey, 3.302). In the bitterness between the parliament and the king over such issues as the king's declarations of indulgence in 1662 and 1672, the Third Anglo-Dutch War, and the crown's management of finances, he endeavoured to reconcile the opposing parties. While he jealously guarded parliament's privileges, the poet repeatedly cautioned the House of Commons against the dangers of meddling where they had no right and of attempting to eat into the king's prerogative.

Waller was a steadfast proponent of religious toleration in a house bent on persecution of papists and dissenters, arguing that severe laws would have an effect opposite to that intended: ‘the people of England are a generous people, and pity sufferers … He would not have the Church of England, like the elder brother of the Ottoman family, strangle all the younger brothers’ (Grey, 1.128). Throughout his parliamentary career, he was concerned with the growth of trade, arguing that ‘the riches and strength of all nations is proportionable to their trade’ (Memoirs of Sir John Reresby, 2nd edn, 1991, 99). Again and again on the floor of parliament he urged the example of other nations and of history to argue against the narrow, tight-fisted provincialism of many of his colleagues: ‘At Paris there are many bridges—at Venice hundreds—We are still obstructing public things’ (Grey, 1.415). Whether defending or attacking the government, Waller emphasized the primacy of the national interest, the importance of law, and common sense.

During the agitation over the Popish Plot, Waller characteristically sought to act as broker between opposing factions, yet found his attempts in the House of Commons to ‘persuade them to Union among themselves, agreement with the Lords & a better understanding with his Majty’ did not meet with success: ‘I thinke both the Weather & the House at this tyme too hot for mee’ (BL, Egerton MS 922). Initially sympathetic to the whigs, he later opposed their attempts to exclude the duke of York from the succession. Waller did not serve in the three Exclusion parliaments of 1679–81, and it may be that at the height of the crisis he prudently chose to withdraw from active politics. When James II ascended the throne, he greeted him with two poems, both of which are thinly disguised pleas to the new king to pursue a policy of reconciliation and national unity. According to the ‘Life’ in Poems (1711), his private opinion was that ‘the King would be left like a Whale upon the Strand’ (p. xxxvi).

Death and reputation

Waller suffered from ill health in his last years, and his Divine Poems (1685) are explicitly the product of old age and physical decline. His poem ‘Of the Last Verses in the Book’ includes the memorable lines,
The Soul's dark Cottage, batter'd and decay'd
Lets in new Light thro' chinks that time has made.
He died at his house in St James's Street, London, on 21 October 1687, and was buried five days later in Beaconsfield.

Waller's oldest surviving son, also Edmund Waller (1652–1699), was an active whig, closely associated with republicans during the later years of the reign of Charles II, served as MP for Amersham after 1689, and became a Quaker towards the end of his life. The poet's favourite daughter, Margaret (1648–1690), who remained unmarried, served as her father's amanuensis, and many manuscripts survive in her hand (and possibly also in the hand of her sister Elizabeth) among the Waller family papers (Beal, 548–51). The younger Edmund Waller is not mentioned in his father's will, which names his brother Stephen (1654–1706) as executor, and leaves £1000 apiece to Stephen and to his sisters Margaret, Mary, Elizabeth, Anne, Cicely, and Octavia, with the residue of the estate to be divided equally among them, and leaves smaller sums to Benjamin (of unsound mind, and left in the care of his sister Margaret) and Dorothy, a dwarf; a codicil leaves an equal £1000 share in the estate to another son, William. Evidently there was ill feeling between the brothers Edmund and Stephen after their father's death, since in 1688 Edmund sued Stephen and his sisters to recover money allegedly owed him by his father and to gain access to the London house left to Stephen in their father's will (private information).

In the editions of his poems published in 1645 at the time of his exile, Waller is presented as primarily a lyric poet: the title-page of Poems (1645), incidentally signalling Waller's association with the court of Charles I, includes the statement that ‘All the Lyrick Poems in this Booke were set by Mr. Henry Lawes, Gent. of the Kings Chappell, and one of his Majesties Private Musick.’ Settings of sixteen Waller poems can be found in a manuscript by Lawes dating from the 1630s (BL, Add. MS 53723), and six of them appear in Lawes's Ayres and Dialogues (1653). Waller's poems appear to have circulated widely in scribal manuscript collections, several of which are still extant (‘this parcell of exquisit Poems, have pass'd up and downe through many hands amongst persons of the best quallity’, according to the ‘advertisement to the Reader’ in Poems, 1645). In a dedicatory epistle he casually dismisses these poems as ‘the diversions of … youth’, and their characteristic titles maintain the fiction of being by-products of a courtier's life, attuned to particular occasions: ‘Of the Lady who can Sleep when she Pleases’, ‘Of her Passing through a Crowd of People’, ‘On the Friendship betwixt Sacharissa and Amoret’, ‘To a Lady from whom he Receiv'd a Silver Pen’, ‘In Answer of Sir John Suckling's Verses’. Waller is a highly traditional poet, who consistently chose to work in themes and forms that other writers had cultivated before him, and adhered to the classical ideal of the poet as craftsman:
Our lines reform'd, and not compos'd in haste,
Polisht like Marble, would like Marble last.
(Prologue to The Maid's Tragedy Altered, 1690)
Waller's love poems tend to be relatively formal, decorous, and impersonal, as compared to the colloquial tone and jaunty cynicism of his fellow Caroline poet Suckling. His advice in one poem (‘To Flavia’) is to ‘dissemble well’: unobtrusive wit, poise, and attention to nuance characterize such lyrics as ‘Go Lovely Rose’, ‘To a Lady in Retirement’, and ‘On a Girdle’. His poetical courtship of Lady Dorothy Sidney, daughter of the earl of Leicester, as ‘Sacharissa’ is tactful rather than passionate, and the same graceful and elegant praise can be found in a congratulatory letter on her marriage in 1639 (Poems, ed. Thorn-Drury, 1.xxviii–xxx) as in the poems for which she provided the occasion. As ‘The Story of Phoebus and Daphne Apply'd’ wittily suggests, even if the poet loves ‘in vain’, he is more than amply compensated by the applause of his coterie audience: ‘He catcht at love, and fill'd his arm with bayes’.

Although the edition of 1664 describes Waller's poems as ‘Written only to please himself, and such particular persons to whom they were directed’ (sig. A3), his poems were widely read during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At least four separate editions were published in 1645, and during his lifetime there were further collected editions, each containing new poems, in 1664, 1668, 1682, and 1686. Two posthumous volumes of previously uncollected writings, The Maid's Tragedy Altered and The Second Part of Mr Waller's Poems, were published in 1690. Waller's reputation as a poet was at its highest during this period, when Gerard Langbaine described his writings as ‘fit to serve as a Standard, for all succeeding poems’ (An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, 1691, 507) and his editor Francis Atterbury could speak of him as ‘the Parent of English Verse, and the first that shew'd us our Tongue had Beauty and Numbers in it’ (Second Part, sig. A3).

As a poet Waller is to an unusual degree poised precisely between two ages: F. W. Bateson describes him as ‘a minor Renaissance poet and a major Augustan poet’ (English Poetry: a Critical Introduction, 1966, 117). During Waller's lifetime and afterwards, the terms regularly used to describe his poems were ‘sweet’, ‘soft’, and ‘smooth’: these characteristics helped make his poems particularly suited for musical setting, and helped ensure his continuing popularity in Restoration salons. Etherege's Dorimant and Congreve's Mirabell both quote Waller at every available opportunity. What Augustan poets and critics singled out for praise in Waller was his technical skill in ‘numbers’ or versification and in the control of diction. Dryden, who greatly admired Waller and consistently treated him as mentor and precursor, claimed that ‘the well-placing of words, for the sweetness of pronunciation, was not known till Mr. Waller introduced it’ (Of Dramatic Poesy and other Essays, 2 vols., 1962, 1.175). In paying tribute to Waller, Dryden, like Atterbury, particularly emphasizes his role in showing later writers ‘the excellence and dignity’ of rhyme: ‘he first made writing easily an art; first showed us to conclude the sense most commonly in distichs’ (ibid., 1.7). When neo-classical canons of correctness fell out of fashion in the nineteenth century, Waller's poetic reputation plummeted, and it has never fully recovered. Where the inscription on his monument in Beaconsfield reads ‘inter poetas sui temporis facile princeps’ (‘easily the prince of poets in his time’), Douglas Bush in 1945 could confidently proclaim that ‘there is little attraction in Waller … a fluent trifler’ and that ‘no poetical reputation of the seventeenth century has been so completely and irreparably eclipsed’ (English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1945, 166–7). A renewed interest in court culture and in the intersection of literature and history toward the end of the twentieth century has led to a modest Waller revival, notably in studies by Chernaik, Norbrook, Hammond, and Corns.

There is no twentieth-century edition of Waller (other than George Thorn-Drury's edition of 1905, long out of print), and no modern biography. In 2000 a biography by John Safford and a critical edition by Michael Parker and Timothy Raylor were in preparation. Useful biographical materials can be found in the ‘Life’ prefixed to the 1711 Poems, in the ‘Observations on some of Mr Waller's poems’ in the fine edition prepared by Elijah Fenton in 1729 (The Works of Edmund Waller, Esq., in Verse and Prose), and in Thorn-Drury's introduction. An indispensable guide to the extensive Waller archives (some in the possession of Waller's descendants) can be found in Peter Beal, Index of English Literary Manuscripts, volume 2, 1625–1700, part 2 (1993).

Warren Chernaik

Sources  

The poems of Edmund Waller, ed. G. Thorn-Drury, 2 vols. (1905) · P. Beal and others, Index of English literary manuscripts, ed. P. J. Croft and others, [4 vols. in 11 pts] (1980–), vol. 2, pt 2 · ‘Life’, E. Waller, Poems &c. written upon several occasions and to several persons, 8th edn (1711) · The life of Edward, earl of Clarendon … written by himself, 2 vols. (1857) · Clarendon, Hist. rebellion · Aubrey's Brief lives, ed. O. L. Dick (1949); repr. (1962) · S. Johnson, Lives of the English poets, ed. G. B. Hill [new edn], 3 vols. (1905) · Bishop Burnet's History · A. Grey, ed., Debates of the House of Commons, from the year 1667 to the year 1694, 10 vols. (1763) · W. Chernaik, The poetry of limitation: a study of Edmund Waller (1968) · D. Norbrook, Writing the English republic: poetry, rhetoric and politics, 1627–1660 (1999) · private information (2004) [John Safford] · E. Waller, Poems (1645) · The second part of Mr Waller's poems (1690) · Fifth report, HMC, 4 (1876) · Sixth report, HMC, 5 (1877–8) · HoP, Commons, 1660–90 · P. Hardacre, ‘A letter from Edmund Waller to Thomas Hobbes’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 11 (1947–8), 431–3 · P. Wikelund, ‘Edmund Waller's fitt of versifying’, Philological Quarterly, 49 (1970), 68–91 · P. R. Wikelund, ‘“Thus I passe my time in this place”; an unpublished letter of Thomas Hobbes’, English Language Notes, 6 (1968–9), 263–8 · M. Stocker and T. Raylor, ‘A new Marvell manuscript: Cromwellian patronage and politics’, English Literary Renaissance, 20 (1990), 106–62 · The works of Edmund Waller, esq., in verse and prose: published by Mr Fenton (1729) · Mr Waller [E. Waller], A worthy speech (1641) [Thomason tract E 198(11)] · A speech made by Master Waller … concerning episcopacie (1641) [Thomason tract E 198(30)] · Mr Wallers speech … being brought to the barre (1643) [Thomason tract E 60(11)] · Mr Challenor: his confession and speech made upon the ladder before his execution (1643) [Thomason tract E 59(7)] · A discovery of the great plot for the utter ruine of the city of London … as it was at large made known by John Pym esq. on Thursday, being the eighth of June, 1643 (1643) [Thomason tract E 105(21)] · S. D'Ewes, parliamentary diary, BL, Harley MS 165 · Henry Lawes, settings of poems by Waller, BL, Add. MS 53723 · letters from Waller to Jane Middleton, BL, Egerton MS 922 · T. Corns, ‘The poetry of the Caroline court’, British Academy Warton Lecture on English Poetry, 1997 · G. Hammond, Fleeting things: English poets and poems, 1616–1660 (1990) · Venn, Alum. Cant. · T. Raylor, ‘Moseley, Walkley, and the 1645 editions of Waller’, The Library, 7th ser., 2 (2001), 236–65

Archives  

Morgan L., Latin notebook · priv. coll., family papers |  BL, corresp. with John Evelyn, JEA 16 · BL, Sir Simonds D'Ewes, parliamentary diary, Harley MS 165 · BL, Henry Lawes MS, Add. MS 53723 · BL, letters to Jane Middleton, Egerton MS 922


Likenesses  

C. Johnson, oils, 1629 (aged twenty-three), priv. coll. · P. Oliver, miniature, c.1635, Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire · A. Van Dyck, oils, c.1638 (possibly of Waller); photograph, NPG · attrib. I. Fuller, oils, c.1640–1650, Rousham House, Oxfordshire · P. Lely, oils, c.1665, priv. coll.; on loan to Plymouth Art Gallery, Clarendon collection · J. Riley, oils, 1682, priv. coll.; copies at NPG, Hall Barn, Buckinghamshire · P. Vanderbank, engraving, c.1682 (aged seventy-six; after J. Riley, 1682), BM, NPG; repro. in E. Waller, Poems (1682) · P. Vanderbank, line engraving, c.1682 (aged twenty-three; after portrait by C. Johnson, 1629), BM, NPG · G. Kneller, oils, 1684, priv. coll. · D. Loggan, graphite on vellum drawing, 1685, NPG [see illus.] · G. White, graphite on vellum drawing, c.1710, BM · G. Vertue, line engraving, 1727 (after G. Kneller), BM, NPG · M. Rysbrack, marble bust, 1728, Hall Barn, Buckinghamshire · W. Bromley, line engraving (aged twenty-three; after C. Johnson), BM, NPG; repro. in B. W. Procter, Effiges poeticae (1824) · oils (after J. Riley, c.1685), NPG

Wealth at death  

£40,000: estimate by John Safford, based on will and various financial transactions involving Waller