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The English poets of the sixteenth century, though characterised by an exuberant richness of imagination, and great strength of thought, are, generally speaking, with the exception of Spenser, remarkably deficient in graceful construction and harmonious versification. The language had not then been sufficiently purified and chastened to admit of elegant composition, but proved so harsh and unpliable, even in the hands of the greatest masters of the divine art, that however much we may admire the vigour and originality of their ideas, the verse which expressed them sounds rough and unpleasing to the ear. In the present day scarcely any work of these writers can be perfectly comprehended as to the exact meaning of many passages, without a glossary being constantly at hand, as well as the aid of some laborious and patient commentator to explain the text. It was not that these writers were wanting in genius or taste, but that the barbarisms of the age in which they lived formed insurmountable obstacles in preventing them from attaining a pure and correct style. The seventeenth century accomplished a perceptible improvement in the language, as regards chasteness and refinement of expression, so that before the Augustan age of English literature had closed, both verse and prose were written in a style so elegant and graceful, that the works then produced have rarely in subsequent times been rivalled or surpassed. We know of no compositions in recent annals, which excel the L'Allegro and Penseroso of Milton, the Essays of Temple and Addison, the Fables of Dryden, and the Epistles of Pope, in reference to correctness of diction, variety of modulation, and perfection of harmony. As a conspicuous labourer among those who contributed to effect this reformation in the English language, the subject of the following memoir deserves honourable mention.
Edmund Waller was born at Coleshill in Hertfordshire, on the 3rd of May, 1605, his father occupying the position of a country gentleman, and possessing large estates in Buckinghamshire, as well as the enjoyment of a considerable fortune. The mother of the poet being a sister of the celebrated Hampden, this circumstance shaped in some degree the political conduct of her son, amidst the disastrous troubles which ensued.
Waller having had the misfortune while an infant to lose his father by a sudden illness, the patrimonial estate passed into his hands at a very early age; and as this inheritance produced an income of nearly four thousand pounds a year, his position naturally proved favourable and commanding for his entrance into public life. After receiving a rudimentary education at Eton, he was removed to King's College, Cambridge, and from thence, at the age of seventeen, he passed directly into the House of Commons as the member for Amersham, in Bucks, a borough adjoining his landed property, and probably in some degree
under the family influence as well. He represented this town in the third and fourth Parliaments of James the First, and it is recorded that soon after his adinission to the House, he spoke upon several occasions with considerable Auency and vigour. One of his biographers, in mentioning the circumstance of Waller's appearance at the court of this monarch, has reported a remarkable conversation that occurred when the poet was present. Andrews, Bishop of Winchester, and Neale, Bishop of Durham, standing behind the King's chair, his majesty thus addressed them: “My Lords, cannot I take my subject's money when I want it, without all this formality of Parliament ?” The Bishop of Durham answered, “God forbid but that you should, you are the breath of our nostrils.” Whereupon the king turned round, and said to the Bishop of Winchester, “What say you.”—“Sir," replied the Bishop, “I have no skill to judge of Parliamentary cases.”—The King answered, “No put offs, my Lord, answer me presently.”—“Then, Sir,” said he, “I think it is lawful for you to take my brother Neale's money, since he offers it.”
No sooner had Waller taken his seat in Parliament, than he aspired to attract the observation of the court, by the publication of a poem, upon the escape of Prince Charles, at St. Andero; and so favourably were the verses received, that after this successful debut every one appears to have regarded him as entitled to assume the laurels of Parnassus, by an indisputable right. The versification of this fragment is exceedingly correct, and proves that the writer had already acquired, or rather invented, that peculiar smoothness of his numbers, which has ever since formed his principal claim to poetic fame. Pope designated him as the predecessor of Dryden, in the art of giving melody to verse
“ Britain to soft refinements less a foe,
The long majestic march, and energy divine.” In a conversation with Aubrey, Waller once observed that it was the idea of remedying the harshness of English poetry which first induced him to turn his attention to versification. “Methought,” said he, “when I was a brisk young sparke, I never saw a good copie of English verses, they wanted smoothnesse; so I began to essay; I could not versify always when I wished, but when the fitt came on I could do it easily.” The metrical harmony of Waller's numbers does not appear to have improved by practice. His first pieces display as great a felicity of execution as his last, for as one of his biographers justly remarks, “Where we to judge only by the wording, we could not tell what he wrote at twenty, and what at fourscore.”
Waller, like many of his brother poets of the Caroline era, was not free from the cardinal vice of dragging mythological concerts into his verse, and comparing every hero, whose panegyric he undertook, with halfa-dozen celebrities of fiction, from the fabulous and mythic tales of the profane writers. Nothing can be more tame or feeble, than a succession of these extravagant and fantastical parallels, which so far from
giving a sublimity or elevation to the subject, generally produce quite the contrary effect. Cowley, Cleveland, Donne, Denham, and indeed all his contemporaries, are full of this affectation for classical allusion to the ancient world-a topic, which, when so repeatedly introduced, and so incessantly presented, degenerates into a pedantry of the most vulgar and offensive character. To speak of a soldier, without referring to Mars, or to praise a beauty, without resembling her to Venus, would have been impossible ; indeed, lauguage was not considered poetry, until studded with these mystic celebrities of the pagan philosophy, and groaning under the weight of heathen gods. Waller, perhaps, imbibed this taste for the ancient writers, from the intimate acquaintance he preserved with Morley, afterwards Bishop of Winchester, who, when young, and without preferment in the church, had been a constant inmate of the poet's house, and almost a dependent upon his bounty. But whatever might have been the accident which directed his curiosity to the main sources of classical knowledge, it is certain that he always showed himself both by his writings as well as his conversation, remarkably familiar with the works of ancient literature, and that he quoted them upon many occasions with great felicity and discernment.
Having established a double fame by the display of his poetical and political accomplishments, Waller next distinguished himself in the realms of fashion, by carrying off a rich heiress, and thus defeating a rival whose pretensions to the lady had been seconded