Apart from the attention of specialists, Edmund Waller (1606-1687) is one of the lost voices of English poetry – not that all trace of his work has vanished; two or three of his lyrics are usually to be found in the main anthologies – but his verse has been marginalised compared with the fame and admiration it once enjoyed, a casualty of changing taste and fashion.
Waller’s reputation and popularity as a poet were high during the eighteenth century; he had, after all, helped pave the way for the Augustan style. In 1766 the Biographia Britannica described him, somewhat extravagantly, as ‘…the most celebrated Lyric Poet that England ever produced’. None of Waller’s poems mentioned in Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets is now likely to be read by anyone other than students of seventeenth- century verse. Johnson’s appreciation of Waller in that essay is, it must be admitted, somewhat restrained. He cites the latter’s main virtue as that ‘…he added something to our elegance of diction, and something to our propriety of thought…’ It is fairly clear that Johnson’s overall judgement was influenced, to Waller’s detriment, by political and moral considerations.
Dryden was more generous, stating that ‘Mr. Waller reformed our numbers’ and ‘Unless he had written, none of us could write’. Dryden linked him with Sir John Denham in the transition from the comparatively rugged verse of the Metaphysical poets to the smooth Neo-classicism of the Augustans. For Dryden, Waller’s verse embodied ‘sweetness and correctness’ and Pope doffed his cap to him as a master.
So who was Edmund Waller? He was the eldest son of a wealthy and well- connected landowner at Coleshill, then in Hertfordshire. His father died while Edmund was still a child, leaving him an income of three thousand five hundred pounds a year, which at that time was an enormous sum.He was educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge and entered Parliament while still in his teens. There he gained a lasting reputation for wit and eloquence. He married a wealthy heiress who died soon afterwards, leaving him an even wealthier widower in his mid-twenties, eager to look elsewhere.
He became enamoured of Lady Dorothy Sidney, daughter of the Earl of Leicester, and wrote many love poems in which he addressed her as Sacharissa. The lady, however, did not reciprocate his feelings and his poems were the only fruit of his longing. He subsequently married one Mary Bracey in 1644 with whom he fathered eight daughters and five sons.
In politics he was credited with practising even-handed moderation. From the start he showed a talent for having his bread buttered on both sides, treading a delicate path between the Royalists and their Parliamentary opponents. This, however, did not succeed in keeping him out of trouble. He unwisely became involved in a plot to secure London for the Royalist cause and, when the plot was discovered, was arraigned before Parliament. The outcome does not reflect well on Waller’s honour for it seems that he not only freely confessed his own offence but informed on his fellow conspirators as well.
Being related to Oliver Cromwell on his mother’s side may have helped when he appealed for clemency. He escaped a death sentence for treason but was heavily fined and banished from the country. He settled in Paris in 1643 where his fortune, already depleted by the fine, was further diminished by his living lavishly, eventually reducing him to having to sell his wife’s jewels to maintain their lifestyle. In 1651 he was allowed to return to England where he again served in Parliament and was much favoured at the Restoration. Surrounded by his family, he died in his bed in his eighty-second year.
In poetry, as in politics, Waller was something of a Vicar of Bray. He was much praised for his panegyrics, which he always wrote with an eye as to who was in power. The two most notable are A Panegyric to My Lord Protector (1654), regarded, as late as 1950, by F. W. Bateson as ‘one of the finest political poems in English’, and To the King, Upon His Majesty’s Happy Return (1660). Waller’s turn of wit is well illustrated by his reply when Charles the Second asked why his poem on Cromwell was better than his poem on the King: ‘Sir, we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction.’
Among the very few poems which have survived the eclipse of Waller’s reputation is one which deserves to be read into the indefinite future. It is usually known by its first line Go, lovely rose. It was first published in 1645 but is believed to have been circulating in manuscript for some twenty years prior to that. This dating makes it virtually certain that it is one of the many Sacharissa lyrics written during his unsuccessful courtship of Lady Dorothy Sidney.
Go, lovely Rose –
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee
How sweet and fair she seems to be.
Tell her that’s young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
That hadst thou sprung
In deserts where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.
Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retired:
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.
Then die – that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!
In considering this poem there seems little call for detailed explication, its achievement being fairly self-evident. One can, of course, take note of the skill and care with which it is structured. Each of the four stanzas follows the rhyme scheme a,b,a,b,b. and each follows the metrical stresses-per-line scheme of 2,4,2,4,4. Much of the poem’s impact and effect is achieved through the discipline of arranging its language within the demands of that structure.
The first stanza makes it clear, mainly by implication, that the poet is in love with a lady who does not reciprocate his feelings and that by sending her a rose, and comparing her with it (‘resembling her’) he hopes she will realise, first, how much he appreciates her beauty and, second, (to arouse her pity) that her refusal of him is wasting him away.
The second stanza points out that the lady, like the rose, is now in the full bloom of youth and yet, unlike the rose, she shrinks from having her beauty admired, at least by this particular suitor. Even as the lady is acknowledging its beauty, the rose is asked to remind her that, had it grown in a man-less desert, its beauty could never have been admired by her or anyone else.
The third stanza clarifies what was implied in the second: that beauty must be noticed and appreciated to have any value. The rose is asked, by example, to persuade the lady to allow her beauty to be desired (by the poet, of course) and not to be bashful.
In the final stanza the rose should then die, so reminding the lady of how brief life is, for both her and the rose; how the beauty of both must inevitably perish and how she is wasting her precious time by not ‘seizing the day’ and accepting the poet’s love for her.
This poem possesses many merits but originality of theme is not one of them. It is a carpe diem poem of which hundreds have been written from Classical times (or possibly earlier) onwards. The Latin phrase, from an ode by Horace, is usually translated as seize the day, meaning make the most of your present opportunities while you can or you will probably regret it. It usually juxtaposes the brevity of life with the unavoidability of death. At some point during the Roman period the rose became a symbol of beauty amid the transitory nature of human existence. At a later stage the rose also began to represent virginity and its death the loss of virginity.
The carpe diem theme has often, though not exclusively, been applied, as in Waller’s case, to a man’s hitherto unsuccessful courtship of a woman. It has been made familiar to readers of verse in English by such poems as Robert Herrick’s To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time and the final stanza of his Corinna’s Going a-Maying; it is also present in Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. However, the most obvious example is Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress.
Waller and Marvell were contemporaries, though Waller was sixteen years older than Marvell (1621-1678) and outlived the younger man by nine years. They had several things in common apart from being poets. They were not equals in social rank or wealth but they were both Cambridge graduates and both served as Members of Parliament. Both were well-travelled and largely avoided the civil war by being absent abroad.
Politically, Marvell is, of course, mainly identified with Cromwell’s cause. He was, after all, a friend of Milton, had been tutor to the Parliamentary General Fairfax’s daughter Mary and served as Latin Secretary to the Parliamentary government. However, like Waller, he had Royalist friends and appears to have mixed easily in both camps. With many poems being circulated in manuscript at the time, it seems unlikely that the two poets were wholly ignorant of each other’s work.
So here we have two highly-regarded poems on the carpe diem theme. Neither poem has been precisely dated but they were both written around the middle of the seventeenth century and both purport to plead with a coy lady to ‘make much of time’ by abandoning her modesty and yielding to love’s pleasures while they are there to be enjoyed.
And yet how different the two poems are! Marvell’s has been widely and justly praised for its excellent phrasing and balanced control, for its judicious wit and graceful argument. It is all this, and more. It is a brilliant example of Metaphysical poetry. But it is a poem emanating primarily from, and appealing to, the intelligence. It purports to be a love poem but unlike, for example, Donne’s lyric beginning Sweetest love, I do not go, which is equally Metaphysical, it is not intended for the heart. It nourishes the mind but not the whole sensibility.
The final nine lines of To His Coy Mistress have nothing in them about two people coming together in affection; they are concluding an argument in the Metaphysical fashion. It is all cleverly done but it lacks the tone and feel of real people having feelings about each other. Other than his having been Tutor to General Fairfax’s daughter, Marvell is not known to have had much involvement with female company and there is no reliable evidence of his ever having paid court to any woman. The claim by his housekeeper, Mary Palmer, to have been his wife has been thoroughly discredited as a bogus attempt to gain financial advantage at his death and no marriage certificate in their names has ever been discovered. Rumour has it that some of his contemporaries were doubtful about his being heterosexual at all. It is therefore difficult to believe that for Marvell there ever was a real coy mistress; it is more likely that he invented her for the sake of writing the poem.
Waller’s poem is altogether different. One has only to read through it to realise that when he wrote it he clearly had a real woman very much in his mind and heart. For him, the rose is a metaphor for the loveliness of its recipient. The words are chosen and arranged so that readers can experience for themselves the loveliness he feels. The poem goes on to fulfil the carpe diem theme of how in time the bloom of youth must fade and with it lost opportunity, but one can feel in the final stanza Waller’s personal sense of waste and loss, a feeling absent from To His Coy Mistress.
Although Waller’s verse in general was moving inexorably towards the Augustan future, Go, lovely rose seems to hark back to a mode and style before the Metaphysicals. Marvell’s poem, by contrast, is very much in the latter mould. His is, as much as anything, an intellectual achievement; Waller’s is a love poem. Despite their sharing the same theme, the respective poems are fulfilling different purposes. Happily, both poems are likely to endure as long as poetry in English survives.