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LIFE OF EDMUND WALLER.
It is too true, after all, that the lives of poets are not, in general, very interesting. Could we, indeed, trace the private workings of their souls, and read the pages of their mental and moral development, no biographies could be richer in instruction, and even entertainment, than those of our greater bards. The inner life of every true poet must be poetical. But in proportion to the romance of their souls' story, is often the commonplace of their outward career. There have been poets, however, whose lives are quite as readable and as instructive as their poetry, and have even shed a reflex and powerful interest on their writings. The interest of such lives has, in general, proceeded either from the extraordinary misfortunes of the bard, or from his extremely bad morals, or from his strange personal idiosyncrasy, or from his being involved in the political or religious conflicts of his age. The life of Milton, for instance, is rendered intensely interesting from his connexion with the public affairs of his critical and solemn era. The life of Johnson is made readable from his peculiar conformation of body, his bear-like manners, his oddities, and his early struggles. You devour the life of Gifford, not because he was a poet, but because he was a shoemaker; and that of Byron, more on account of his vices, his peerage, and his domestic unhappiness, than for the sake of his poetry. And in Waller, too, you feel some supplemental interest, because he united what are usually thought the incompatible characters of a poet and a political plotter, and very nearly reached the altitudes of the gallows as well as those of Parnassus.
The 3d March 1605 was the date, and Coleshill, in Hertfordshire, the place, of the birth of our poet. He was of an ancient and honourable family originally from Kent, some members of which were distinguished for their wealth and others for the valour with which, at Agincourt and elsewhere, they fought the battles of their country. Robert Waller, the poet's father, inherited from Edmund, his father, the lands of Beaconsfield, in Bucks, and other territory in Hertfordshire. These had been in 1548–9 left by Francis Waller, in default of issue by his own wife, to his brothers Thomas and Edmund, but Thomas dying, Edmund inherited the whole. Robert, on receiving his estates, quitted the profession of the law, to which he had attached himself, and spent the rest of his life chiefly at Beaconsfield, employed in the manly business and healthy amusements of a country gentleman. He died in August 1616, and left a widow and a son—the son, Edmund, being eleven years of age. It was at Beaconsfield, we need hardly remind
. our readers, that a far greater Edmund–Edmund Burke—spent many of his days. It was there that he composed his latest
and noblest works, the “Reflections on the French Revolution," and the “Letters on a Regicide Peace;" and there he surrendered to the Creator one of the subtlest, strongest, brightest, and best of human souls. Shortly after Burke's death, the house of Beaconsfield was burnt down, and no trace of it is now, we believe, extant.
Mrs Waller's brother, William, was the father of John Hampden. His wife, Elizabeth Cromwell, the aunt of the great Oliver, was, however, and continued to the end, a violent Royalist; and Cromwell, although he treated both her and her son with kindness, and on the terms of their relationship, was so provoked at hearing that she carried on a secret correspondence with the Stewart party, that he confined her under a very strict watch in the house of her daughter, Mrs Price, whose husband was on the side of the Parliament. It is exceedingly probable that from the mother's milk” of early prejudice was derived that spirit of partisanship which distinguished alike the writings and the life of the poet. It is possible, too, that contact with men so far above
him in moral heroism and rugged mental force as Cromwell and Hampden, instead of exciting emulation, led to envy, and that his divergence from their political path sprung more from personal feeling than from principle.
He was educated, first, at the grammar school of Market, Wickham; then at Eton; and, in fine, at King's College, Cambridge. Accounts vary as to his proficiency-one Bigge, who had been his school-fellow at Wickham, told Aubrey that he never expected Waller to have become such an eminent poet, and that he used to write his exercises for him. Others, on the contrary, have alleged that it was the fame of his scholarship which led to his election for Agmondesham, a borough in Bucks, when he was only sixteen years of age. This story, so far as his premature learning goes, seems rather apocryphal; but certain it is, that when scarcely eighteen, he had become M.P. for the above-mentioned borough. The parliament in which he found himself, was one of those subservient and cringing assemblies which James I. was wont to summon to sit till they had voted the supplies, and then contemptuously to dismiss. It met in November 1621, and after passing a resolution in support of their privileges, which James tore out of the Journals with his own hand, and granting the usual supplies, was dissolved on the 6th of January 1622. Waller was probably as silent and servile as any of his neighbours. He began, however, to feel his way as a courtier, and overheard some curious and not very canonical talk of James with his lords and bishops, the record of which reminds
of some of the richer scenes of the "Fortunes of Nigel.” The next parliament was not called till 1624, when Waller was not elected. The electors of Agmondesham, who had, meantime, obtained fuller privileges, chose two matured members to represent them, and the precocious boy lost his seat.
Waller's "political and poetical life began nearly together.” It was in his eighteenth year that he wrote his first poetical piece—that on the escape of Prince Charles from a tempest on
— his return from Spain. It is a tissue of smooth and musical mediocrity. It shews a kind of stunted prematurity. The
perfection which is attained by a single effort is generally a poor and tame one. This poem of Waller's, like several of his others, has all that merit which arises from the absence of fault, and all that fault which arises from the absence of meritof high poetic merit, we mean, for in music it is equal to any of his poems. Much has been said about the model which he followed in his versification, the majority of critics tracing in it an imitation of Fairfax's Tasso. The fact seems to be that Waller, with a good ear, had a very limited theory of
He worshipped smoothness, and sought it at every hazard. He preferred the Jacob of a soft flowing commonplace to the rough hairy Esau of a strong originality, cumbered with its own weight and richness. We think that this excessive love of the soft, and horror at the rude, materially weakened his genius. The true theory of versification lies in variety, and in accommodation to the necessities and fluctuations of the thought. The “Paradise Lost," written in Waller's rhyme, would have been as ridiculous as Waller's love to Saccharissa expressed in Milton's blank verse.
The school before Waller were too rugged, but surely there is a medium between the roughness of Donne, and the honied monotony of the author of the “Summer Islands." The practice of running the lines into one another, severely condemned by Johnson, and systematically shunned by Waller, has often been practised with success by poets far greater than either—such as Shelley and Coleridge. It is remarkable that Dryden, while he praised, did not copy our poet's manner, but gave himself freer scope. Pope, on the other hand, pushed his love of uniform tinkle and unmitigated softness to excess, and transferred this kind of luscious verse from small poems, where it is often a merit, to large ones, where it is a mistake. In his “Iliad,” for instance, the fierce ire of Achilles, the dignified resentment of Agamemnon, the dull courage of Ajax, the chivalrous sentiment of Hector, the glowing energy of Diomede, the veteran wisdom of Nestor, the grief of Andromache, the love of Helen, the jealousy of Juno, and the godlike majesty of Jupiter, are all expressed in the same sweet and monotonous melody-a verse called “heroic,"