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part of his conversation with the great could be remembered with delight. He related, that being present when the Duke of Buckingham talked profanely before King Charles, he said to him, "My lord, I am a great deal older than your grace, and have, I believe, heard more arguments for atheism than ever your grace did; but I have lived long enough to see there is nothing in them; and so I hope your grace will."
He died October 21st, 1687, and was buried at Beaconsfield, with a monument erected by his son's executors, for which Rymer wrote the inscription, and which I hope is now rescued from dilapidation.
He left several children by his second wife, of whom his daughter was married to Dr. Birch. Benjamin, the eldest son, was disinherited, and sent to New Jersey, as wanting common understanding; Edmund, the second son, inherited the estate, and represented Agmondesham in Parliament, but at last turned Quaker; William, the third son, was a merchant in London; Stephen, the fourth, was an eminent doctor of laws, and one of the commissioners for the Union. There is said to have been a fifth, of whom no account has descended.
The character of Waller, both moral and intellectual, has been drawn by Clarendon, to whom he was familiarly known, with nicety, which certainly none to whom he was not known can presume to emulate. It is therefore inserted here, with such remarks as others have supplied; after which nothing remains but a critical examination of his poetry.
"Edmund Waller," says Clarendon, “ was born to a very fair estate, by the parsimony or frugality of a wise father and mother; and he thought it so commendable an advantage, that he resolved to improve it with his utmost care, upon which in his nature he was too much intent; and in order to that, he was so much reserved and retired, that he was scarcely ever heard of, till by his address and dexterity he had gotten a very rich wife in the city, against all the recommendation, and countenance, and authority of the court, which was thoroughly engaged on the behalf of Mr. Crofts, and which used to be successful in that age against any opposition. He had the good fortune to have an alliance and friendship with Dr. Morley, who had assisted and instructed him in the reading many good books, to which his natural parts and promptitude inclined him, especially the poets; and at the age when other men used to give over writing verses (for he was near thirty years when he first engaged himself in that exercise, at least that he was known to do so), he surprised the town with two or three pieces of that kind, as if a tenth Muse had been newly born to cherish drooping poetry. The Doctor at that time brought him into that company which was most celebrated for good conversa
tion, where he was received and esteemed with great applause and respect. 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.
“He had been even nursed in parliaments, where he sat when he was very young; and so when they were resumed again (after a long intermission), he appeared in those assemblies with great advantage: having a graceful way of speaking; and by thinking much on several arguments (which his temper and complexion, that had much of melancholic, inclined him to), he seemed often to speak upon the sudden, when the occasion had only administered the opportunity of saying what he had thoroughly considered, which gave a great lustre to all he said, which yet was rather of delight than weight. There needs no more be said to extol the excellence and power of his wit and pleasantness of his conversation, than that it was of magnitude enough to cover a world of very great faults; that is, so to cover them, that they were not taken notice of to his reproach, viz. a narrowness in his nature to the lowest degree; an abjectness and want of courage to support him in any virtuous undertaking; an insinuation and servile flattery to the height the vainest and most imperious nature could be contented with, that it preserved and won his life from those who were most resolved to take it, and in an occasion in which he ought to have been ambitious to have lost it, and then preserved him again from the reproach and the contempt that was due to him for so preserving it, and for vindicating it at such a price that it had power to reconcile him to those whom he had most offended and provoked; and continued to his age with that rare felicity, that his company was acceptable where his spirit was odious; and he was at least pitied where he was most detested."
Such is the account of Clarendon; on which it may not be improper to make some remarks.
"He was very little known till he had obtained a rich wife in the city."
He obtained a rich wife about the age of three-and-twenty, an age before which few men are conspicuous much to their advantage.
He was known, however, in parliament and at court; and if he spent part of his time in privacy, it is not unreasonable to suppose that he endeavoured the improvement of his mind as well as of his fortune.
That Clarendon might misjudge the motive of his retirement is the more probable, because he has evidently mistaken the commencement of his poetry, which he supposes him not to have attempted before thirty. As his first pieces were perhaps not printed, the suc
cession of his compositions was not known; and Clarendon, who cannot be imagined to have been very studious of poetry, did not rectify his first opinion by consulting Waller's book.
Clarendon observes, that he was introduced to the wits of the age by Dr. Morley; but the writer of his life relates that he was already among them, when, hearing a noise in the street, and inquiring the cause, they found a son of Ben Jonson under an arrest. This was Morley, whom Waller set free at the expense of one hundred pounds, took him into the country as director of his studies, and then procured him admission into the company of the friends of literature. Of this fact Clarendon had a nearer knowledge than the biographer, and is therefore more to be credited.
The account of Waller's parliamentary eloquence is seconded by Burnet; who, though he calls him "the delight of the House," adds, that he was only concerned to say that which should make him be applauded; he never laid the business of the House to heart, being a vain and empty, though a witty man."
Of his insinuation and flattery it is not unreasonable to believe that the truth is told. Ascham, in his elegant description of those whom in modern language we term wits, says, that they are open flatterers and privy mockers. Waller showed a little of both, when, upon sight of the Duchess of Newcastle's verses on the death of a stag, he declared that he would give all his own compositions to have written them; and being charged with the exorbitance of his adulation, answered, that "nothing was too much to be given, that a lady might be saved from the disgrace of such a vile performance." This, however, was no very mischievous or very unusual deviation from truth: had his hypocrisy been confined to such transactions, he might have been forgiven, though not praised; for who forbears to flatter an author or a lady?
Of the laxity of his political principles, and the weakness of his resolution, he experienced the natural effect, by losing the esteem of every party. From Cromwell he had only his recal; and from Charles II., who delighted in his company, he obtained only the pardon of his relation Hampden, and the safety of Hampden's son.
As far as conjecture can be made from the whole of his writing and his conduct, he was habitually and deliberately a friend to monarchy. His deviation towards democracy proceeded from his connection with Hampden, for whose sake he prosecuted Crawley with great bitterness; and the invective which he pronounced on that occasion was so popular, that twenty thousand copies are said by his biographer to have been sold in one day.
It is confessed that his faults still left him many friends, at least
many companions. His convivial power of pleasing is universally acknowledged; but those who conversed with him intimately found him not only passionate, especially in his old age, but resentful, so that the interposition of friends was sometimes necessary.
His wit and his poetry naturally connected him with the polite writers of his time: he was joined with Lord Buckhurst in the translation of Corneille's Pompey; and is said to have added his help to that of Cowley in the original draught of the Rehearsal.
The care of his fortune, which Clarendon imputes to him in a degree little less than criminal, was either not constant or not successful; for, having inherited a patrimony of 3500l. a year in the time of James I., and augmented it at least by one wealthy marriage, he left, about the time of the Revolution, an income of not more than twelve or thirteen hundred; which, when the different value of money is reckoned, will be found perhaps not more than a fourth part of what he once possessed.
Of this diminution, part was the consequence of the gifts which he was forced to scatter, and the fine which he was condemned to pay at the detection of his plot; and if his estate, as is related in his life, was sequestered, he had probably contracted debts when he lived in exile; for we are told that at Paris he lived in splendour, and was the only Englishman, except the Lord St. Alban's, that kept a table.
His unlucky plot compelled him to sell a thousand a year; of the waste of the rest there is no account, except that he is confessed by his biographer to have been a bad economist. He seems to have deviated from the common practice; to have been a hoarder in his first years, and a squanderer in his last.
Of his course of studies or choice of books, nothing is known more than that he professed himself unable to read Chapman's translation of Homer without rapture. His opinion concerning the duty of a poet is contained in his declaration, that "he would blot from his works any line that did not contain some motive to virtue."
The characters by which Waller intended to distinguish his writing are sprightliness and dignity; in his smallest pieces he endeavours to be gay, in the larger to be great. Of his airy and light productions the chief source is gallantry, that attentive reverence of female excellence which has descended to us from the Gothic ages. As his poems are commonly occasional, and his addresses personal, he was not so liberally supplied with grand as with soft images; for beauty is more easily found than magnanimity.
The delicacy which he cultivated restrains him to a certain nicety and caution, even when he writes upon the slightest matter. He has therefore, in his whole volume, nothing burlesque, and seldom
any thing ludicrous or familiar. He seems always to do his best, though his subjects are often unworthy of his care.
It is not easy to think without some contempt on an author who is growing illustrious in his own opinion by verses, at one time, “To a Lady who can do any thing but sleep when she pleases;" at another, To a Lady who can sleep when she pleases;" now, “To a Lady on her passing through a crowd of people;" then, “On a braid of divers colours woven by four Ladies ;""On a tree cut in paper;" or, "To a Lady from whom he received the copy of verses on the paper-tree, which for many years had been missing."
Genius now and then produces a lucky trifle. We still read the Dove of Anacreon, and Sparrow of Catullus; and a writer naturally pleases himself with a performance which owes nothing to the subject. But compositions merely pretty have the fate of other pretty things, and are quitted in time for something useful; they are flowers fragrant and fair, but of short duration; or they are blossoms to be valued only as they foretell fruits.
Among Waller's little poems are some which their excellency ought to secure from oblivion; as, To Amoret, comparing the different modes of regard with which he looks on her and Sacharissa; and the verses On Love, that begin "Anger in hasty words or blows."
In others he is not equally successful; sometimes his thoughts are deficient, and sometimes his expression.
The numbers are not always musical; as,
"Fair Venus, in thy soft arms
The god of rage confine;
For thy whispers are the charms
Which only can divert his fierce design.
What though he frown, and to tumult do incline?
Kindled in his breast canst tame
With that snow which unmelted lies on thine."
He seldom indeed fetches an amorous sentiment from the depths of science; his thoughts are for the most part easily understood, and his images such as the superficies of nature readily supplies; he has a just claim to popularity, because he writes to common degrees of knowledge; and is free at least from philosophical pedantry, unless perhaps the end of a song To the Sun may be excepted, in which he is too much a Copernican. To which may be added the simile of the psalm in the verses on her passing through a crowd ;" and a line in a more serious poem on the Restoration, about vipers and treacle, which can only be understood by those who happen to know the composition of the Theriaca.