Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Waller, Edmund
WALLER, EDMUND (1606–1687), poet, the eldest son of Robert Waller and Anne, daughter of Griffith Hampden, was born on 3 March 1606 at the Manor-house, Coleshill, since 1832 included in Buckinghamshire, but then in Hertfordshire. Like his contemporaries, Sir Hardress Waller [q. v.] and Sir William Waller [q. v.], he was descended from Richard Waller [q. v.] He was baptised on 9 March 1606 at Amersham (Amersham Parish Register), but his father seems early in his life to have sold his property at Coleshill, and to have gone to Beaconsfield, with which place the name of Waller will always be connected. ‘He was bred under several ill, dull, and ignorant schoolmasters, till he went to Mr. Dobson at Wickham, who was a good schoolmaster, and had been an Eaton schollar’ Aubrey, Brief Lives). His father died on 26 Aug. 1616, leaving the care of the future poet's education to his mother, who sent him to Eton, and thence to Cambridge, where he was admitted a fellow-commoner of King's College, 22 March 1620. He had there for his tutor a relative who is said to have been a very learned man, but there is no record of Waller having taken a degree, and on 3 July 1622 he was admitted a member of Lincoln's Inn (Lincoln's Inn Admission Register).
He was, says Clarendon, ‘nursed in parliaments,’ and, according to his own statement, he was but sixteen when he first sat in the house. The inscription on his monument mentions Agmondesham or Amersham as his first constituency; but there is some difficulty with regard to this, as the right of Amersham to return members was in abeyance till the last parliament of James I (12 Feb. 1624), and it has been suggested that Waller was permitted to sit for the borough in the parliament which met on 16 Jan. 1621, without the privilege of taking part in the debates. In the parliament which was dissolved by the death of James I he sat for Ilchester, a seat which he obtained by the resignation of Nathaniel Tomkins, who had married his sister Cecilia; he sat for Chipping Wycombe in the second parliament of Charles I, and represented Amersham in the third and fourth. Waller appears to have first attracted the attention of the court by securing the hand and fortune of Anne, the only daughter and heiress of one John Banks, a citizen and mercer, who died on 9 Sept. 1630. The marriage was celebrated at St. Margaret's, Westminster, 5 July 1631. The lady was at the time a ward of the court of aldermen, and it was only after some difficulty and the payment of a fine out of her portion that the direct influence of the king enabled the poet to purge his offence in having carried off the lady without the consent of her guardians. After his marriage Waller appears to have retired with his wife to his house at Beaconsfield. His father left him a considerable fortune, and this together with the sum, said to have been about 8,000l., which he received with his wife, probably made him, with the exception of Rogers, the richest poet known to English literature. His eldest son, Robert, born at Beaconsfield on 18 May 1633, had Thomas Hobbes for his tutor, and was admitted a member of Lincoln's Inn, 15 June 1648, but does not appear, however, to have reached manhood. Mrs. Waller died in giving birth to a daughter who was baptised on 23 Oct. 1634. After her death the poet is said to have taken George Morley [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Winchester, to live with him, and under his influence to have devoted himself more closely to letters. By him Waller is said by Clarendon to have been introduced to the ‘Club’ which gathered round Lucius Cary, lord Falkland, and it is probable that it was from the members of this society that he received his first recognition as a poet. In or about the end of 1635 his name first became connected with that of the lady whom he has immortalised as Sacharissa [see Spencer, Dorothy, Countess of Sunderland], a name formed, ‘as he used to say pleasantly,’ from saccharum, sugar. The lady appears to have treated his suit with indifference, and the very elaborate letter which he wrote upon the occasion of her marriage affords no evidence of passion on his side, in spite of Aubrey's village gossip to the contrary.
A cousin of John Hampden, and by marriage a connection of Cromwell, Waller's sympathies appear, in the early stages of the conflict between the king and the commons, to have been enlisted on the popular side. But he was at heart a courtier, and had in reality no very deep political convictions. He had a natural dislike to innovations, and, as he himself afterwards said, he looked upon things with ‘a carnal eye,’ and only desired to be allowed to enjoy his considerable wealth and popularity in peace. He was extremely vain, and he saw in the House of Commons a convenient theatre for the exercise of his remarkable eloquence. On 22 April 1640 he made his first great speech, on the question of supply. This has been characterised by Johnson as ‘one of those noisy speeches which disaffection and discontent regularly dictate; a speech filled with hyperbolical complaints of imaginary grievances.’ He expressed throughout the utmost respect for the person and character of the king, and the complaints were no more hyperbolical than the grievances were imaginary.
In the Long parliament which met on 3 Nov. 1640 Waller was returned for St. Ives. In the attack on the Earl of Strafford he abandoned the party of Pym, and in the debate upon the ecclesiastical petitions, February 1641, he gave further evidence of his sympathy with the moderate party. He spoke against the abolition of episcopacy in terms which have been praised by Johnson as cool, firm, and reasonable; though, in fact, the tone of his speech is absolutely consistent with that which he had delivered upon the question of supply. Both are characterised by the same dislike of innovation which was, as far as circumstances allowed, the one permanent article of his political creed.
Waller's relationship to Hampden probably suggested him as a suitable person to carry up to the House of Lords the articles of impeachment against Sir Francis Crawley [q. v.] His speech in presenting the charge was delivered at a conference of both houses in the painted chamber on 6 July 1641. It was filled with classical and biblical quotations, and can hardly be considered a success as a piece of oratory; it was, however, immensely popular among the poet's contemporaries, and twenty thousand copies of it are said to have been sold in one day. There is no record at length of Waller's speeches made during the remainder of the first half of his parliamentary career, but his occasional interferences in the debates were in the interests of the king and his supporters. Clarendon's charge that he returned to the house after the raising of the royal standard in the character of a spy for the king is distinctly contradicted by his own statement communicated by his son-in-law, Dr. Birch, to the writer of the ‘Life’ prefixed to the edition of his poems of 1711; and in any case it cannot be correct as to date, for he was certainly in his place in the commons on 9 July, when he opposed the proposition that parliament should raise an army of ten thousand men. He is said to have sent the king a thousand broad pieces. He was impatient, as he said, of the inconvenience of the war, and no doubt desired its termination by the success of the king rather than that of the other side. Failing this, he was in favour of negotiation; and when, on 29 Oct. 1642, the lords made a proposition to this end, he urged the commons to join them.
In February 1643 he was one of the commissioners appointed to treat with the king. His gracious reception by Charles at Oxford is thought to have confirmed him in the royal interest, but it is probable that the king was merely acknowledging his open services in the House of Commons. There can, however, be little doubt that it was during the poet's stay at Oxford that the design afterwards known as ‘Waller's plot’ was conceived. He was probably speaking the truth when he said of the enterprise that he ‘made not this business but found it;’ but on his return he became the channel through which the adherents of the king at Oxford communicated with those who were thought likely to be well disposed towards them in London. The object of the plot was to secure the city for the king; it was intended to seize upon the defences, the magazines, and the Tower, from which the Earl of Bath was to be liberated by the conspirators and made their general. They proposed to secure the two children of the king and some of his principal opponents, while Charles himself, having been warned of the day, and, if possible, of the hour of the rising, was to be with a force of three thousand men within fifteen miles of the walls.
An attempt has been made to distinguish Waller's plot from another design, said to have been set on foot about the same time by Sir Nicholas Crisp [q. v.] The latter is credited with having intended to capture London by force of arms, while the poet's idea was merely to render the continuance of the war impossible by raising up in the city a peace party strong enough to defy the house. Though Waller himself would no doubt have preferred that there should be no resort to arms, there was but one plot. A commission of array, dated 16 March, and having attached to it the great seal, was brought to London by Lady d'Aubigny. She arrived on 19 May, having travelled from Oxford in company with Alexander Hampden, who came to demand from the parliament an answer to the king's message of 12 April. The commission was directed to Sir Nicholas Crisp and others, and eventually reached the hands of Richard Chaloner, a wealthy linendraper. Waller himself was answerable for introducing to the plot this man Chaloner, and also his own brother-in-law, Nathaniel Tomkins. The poet at this time lived at the lower end of Holborn, near Hatton House, while Tomkins's house was at the Holborn end of Fetter Lane. Meetings were held from time to time at one or other of these places, and reports made upon the disposition of the people of the various parishes in which the conspirators lived. One Hassell, a king's messenger, and Alexander Hampden were continually carrying messages between the conspirators and Falkland in Oxford; and on 29 May matters were considered to be in such a satisfactory state that the first of these was sent off to Oxford and returned with a verbal answer begging the conspirators to hasten the execution of their enterprise.
The discovery of the plot has been assigned to various causes: a letter written by the Earl of Dover to his wife had fallen into the hands of the committee, and Lord Denbigh had also told them of hints he had received; but it was probably upon the information of one Roe, a clerk of Tomkins, who had been bribed by the Earl of Manchester and Lord Saye, that Waller, Chaloner, Tomkins, and others were on 31 May arrested.
The character of Waller has suffered severely by reason of his conduct immediately after his arrest. Promises were no doubt made to him, and, in the hope of saving his life, he disclosed all that he knew about the design. He charged the Earl of Northumberland, the Earl of Portland, and Lord Conway with complicity in it; the first of these made light of the charge, and upon being confronted with his accuser was immediately set at liberty. The two other peers, after being detained in custody until 31 July, were then admitted to bail and heard no more of the matter, although no one who has read the letter which the poet wrote to Portland (Sandford, Illustrations', p. 563) can have any doubt of the latter's guilt. Chaloner and Tomkins were tried on 3 July by a court presided over by the Earl of Manchester, and, having been convicted and sentenced to death, were two days afterwards hanged in front of their own doors. The trial of Waller was postponed, but this is to be attributed rather to the disinclination of the house to proceed by martial law against one of its own members than to any consideration for the prisoner himself. Clarendon's suggestion that the delay was allowed ‘out of Christian compassion that he might recover his understanding’ can have little weight in face of the fact that on 4 July, on being brought to the bar of the house to say what he could for himself before he was expelled from it, the poet was able to deliver a speech which, in the opinion even of Clarendon himself, was the means of saving his life. On 14 July he was by resolution declared incapable of ever sitting as a member of parliament again. In or about September he was removed to the Tower, where he lay until the beginning of November in the following year. On 15 May 1644 a petition from him was read in the house—this was probably a request that he might be permitted to put his affairs in order—and on 23 Sept. came another, begging the house to hold his life precious and to accept a fine of 10,000l. out of his estate. Before his last petition was read an intimation had no doubt been given to Waller that his life was safe. Cromwell is said to have interested himself on his behalf, and large sums are reported to have been expended in bribery. There are, however, no traces among the papers in the possession of his family of any extensive dealing with his estate except for the purpose of raising the amount of his fine after his safety was assured. On 4 Nov. ‘An Ordinance of Lords and Commons for the fining and banishment of Edmond Waller, Esquire,’ was agreed to in the House of Lords. This declared that whereas it had been intended that Waller should be tried by court-martial, it had, upon further consideration, been ‘thought convenient’ that he should be fined 10,000l. and banished the realm. Twenty-eight days from 6 Nov. were allowed him within which to remove elsewhere.
It seems likely that before his departure he married, as his second wife, Mary Bracey, of the family of that name, of Thame in Oxfordshire. He spent the time of his exile at various places in France, having among his companions or correspondents John Evelyn and Thomas Hobbes. His mother looked after his affairs in England and sent him supplies, which enabled him to be mentioned with Lord Jermyn as the only persons among the exiles able ‘to keep a table’ in Paris. On 27 Nov. 1651 the House of Commons, after hearing a petition from him, revoked his sentence of banishment and ordered a pardon under the great seal to be prepared for him. Here, again, the influence of Cromwell, moved by the intercession of Colonel Adrian Scrope [q. v.], who had married Waller's sister Mary, is said to have been at work. Nothing, beyond his appointment as one of the commissioners for trade in December 1655, is known of the poet's life between the date of his return and the Restoration, when, in spite of his previous vacillations, he resumed his political career.
In May 1661 he was elected for Hastings, and remained a member of the house down to the time of his death. The only matter of importance in which he was directly engaged was the impeachment of Clarendon; but, as far as his public utterances went, the second half of his parliamentary career was in every way creditable to him. He spoke with great courage against the dangers of a military despotism, and his voice was constantly raised in appeals for toleration for dissenters and more particularly for the quakers.
In spite of his usually temperate habits—he was a water-drinker—Waller was a great favourite at the courts both of Charles II and James II. But after the death (April 1677) of his second wife he seems to have spent most of his time upon his estate at Beaconsfield. He died at his house, Hall Barn, on 21 Oct. 1687, and was buried in the churchyard of the parish, where an elaborate monument marks his resting-place. Verses to his memory by various hands appeared in the following year, and an obelisk, still in existence, was subsequently erected over his grave. Waller is described by Aubrey as having been of above middle height and of a dark complexion with prominent eyes. Numerous portraits of him are in existence, of which undoubtedly the best is that by Cornelis Janssens (in the possession of the family); that in the National Portrait Gallery, London, is by Riley, to whom Rymer addressed verses ‘On painting Mr. Waller's Portrait.’ The Duke of Buccleuch has a miniature of him by Cooper, and there is in the British Museum a chalk-and-pencil portrait of him by Sir Peter Lely. A full-length portrait by Van Dyck belonged in 1868 to Sir Henry Bedingfield, bart. (Cat. Third Loan Exhib. No. 690).
It is certain that the poems of Edmund Waller had been in circulation in manuscript some considerable time before their first publication. His lines on the escape of Charles (then Prince of Wales) from drowning, near Santander, though subsequently retouched, were probably written in or about the time of the event which they celebrate; but it was not until 1645 that the first edition of his poems was published. In spite of this, his reputation was already so well established that Denham wrote of him in ‘Cooper's Hill’ (1642) as ‘the best of poets,’ and it is probable that no writer, in proportion to his merits, ever received such ample recognition from his contemporaries. Waller will always live as the author of ‘Go, lovely rose,’ the lines ‘On a Girdle,’ and ‘Of the Last Verses in the Book;’ but it is difficult at this distance of time to realise the justice of the description of him upon his monument as ‘inter poetas sui temporis facile princeps.’ He no doubt owed a very large portion of his popularity to his social position, his personal charm of manner, and his remarkable eloquence. His poems made no great demand upon the understanding of his audience, who were no doubt struck by their appropriateness to the occasions which had called them forth. He had no spontaneity, and very little imagination, and if he has been highly praised for his ‘smoothness’ and his success in the use of the couplet, this was probably because his contemporaries had lost sight of others who had preceded and surpassed him. He was deficient in critical instinct, or designedly indifferent to the performances of any but those who were manifestly his inferiors. He wrote many complimentary verses, but praised no writer of the first class. He was a subscriber to the fourth edition of ‘Paradise Lost,’ but, according to the Duke of Buckingham, his opinion of that work was that it was distinguished only by its length.
Waller's first published lines appeared in ‘Rex Redux’ in 1633. These were followed by verses before Sandys's ‘Paraphrase of the Psalms,’ and in ‘Ionsonus Virbius’ in 1638. In 1645 three editions of his collected poems were issued. That ‘printed for Thomas Walkley’ (licensed on 30 Dec. 1644) is the first of these; the edition ‘printed by I. N. for Hu. Mosley,’ the second; and that ‘printed by T. W. for Humphrey Mosley,’ the third. The third edition consists merely of the sheets of the unsold copies of the first, bound up with the additional matter contained in the second. No other edition appeared until that of 1664, which is declared to be the first published with the approbation of the author; in spite of this statement, the next edition (1668) is called the third. Others followed in 1682 and 1686, and in 1690 there appeared ‘The Second Part of Mr. Waller's Poems,’ &c., with a preface by Francis Atterbury. An edition containing a number of engraved portraits and a life of the poet was published in 1711, and in 1729 came Fenton's monumental quarto.
The following are the principal of Waller's poems, which were separately published: 1. ‘A Panegyric to my Lord Protector,’ 1655, 4to and fol. 2. ‘The Passion of Dido for Æneas,’ by Waller and Sidney Godolphin, 1658, 8vo; reprinted, 1679. 3. ‘Upon the Late Storme and of the Death of His Highnesse Ensuing the Same,’ a small fol. broadside; these lines were reprinted (1659, 4to) with others by Dryden and Sprat on the same subject, and (1682, 4to) as ‘Three Poems upon the Death of the Late Usurper, Oliver Cromwell.’ 4. ‘To the King upon His Majesty's Happy Return,’ 1660, fol. 5. ‘To my Lady Morton,’ &c., 1661, broadside. 6. ‘A Poem on St. James's Park,’ 1661, fol.; with this were included the lines ‘Of a War with Spain,’ &c., which had first appeared in Carrington's ‘Life of Cromwell,’ 1659. 7. ‘Upon Her Majesty's New Buildings at Somerset House,’ 1665, broadside. 8. ‘Instructions to a Painter,’ 1666, fol. 9. ‘Of the Lady Mary,’ 1677, broadside. 10. ‘Divine Poems,’ 1685, 8vo.[Letters and papers in possession of the family; Life prefixed to Waller's Poems, ed. 1711; Biographia Brit.; Aubrey's Brief Lives; Clarendon's Hist. of the Rebellion, 1826, iv. 57, 61, 71, 74, 79, 205; Clarendon's Life, 1827, i. 42, 53; Gardiner's Hist. of the Great Civil War; Evelyn's Memoirs, 1818, i. 204–5, 230–8, 244–8, 254, 397, ii. 280; Pepys's Diary, 13 May 1664, 22 May 1665, 23 June, 14 Nov. 1666, 19 Nov. 1667; Lipscomb's Buckinghamshire, vol. i. p. xix, ii. 139, iii. 159, 161, 180–3, 199, 205, 599, 643; Life by Percival Stockdale, prefixed to Waller's Poems, ed. 1772; Notes to Fenton's edition, 1729; Johnson's Lives of the Poets; Seward's Anecdotes, ii. 152; Letters from Orinda to Poliarchus, 1709; Grey's Debates, i. 13, 33, 37, 354–5, vi. 143, 232; Masson's Life of Milton, passim; Godwin's Commonwealth, iii. 333–9; Sanford's Studies and Illustrations of the Great Rebellion, pp. 560–3; Sir John Northcote's Notebook, p. 85; Cunningham's London Past and Present, ed. Wheatley, i. 229, ii. 303, 468, iii. 4; Journals of the Houses of Lords and Commons; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 390, 567, iii. 46–7, 516, 808, 824, iv. 344, 379, 381, 467, 552–9, 621, 727, 739; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. i. 165, vi. 293, 374, 423, xii. 6, 2nd ser. v. 2, vi. 164, ix. 421, xi. 163, 504, xii. 201, 3rd ser. i. 366, vi. 289, vii. 435, viii. 106, 410, ix. 192, xi. 334, 4th ser. iii. 1, 204, 222, 312, 444, iv. 19, 5th ser. i. 405, iii. 49, ix. 286, 333, xi. 186, 275, 7th ser. xi. 266, 338, 8th ser. iii. 146, vi. 165, 271, 316, vii. 37, 178, xi. 287; MSS. in the British Museum—Hunter's Chorus Vatum, Addit. 17018 f. 213, 18911 f. 137, 22602 ff. 15 b, 16, 30262 f. 88, 33940 f. 182, Egerton, 669; in the Bodleian—Montagu MS. d. 1, f. 47.]