Portrait of Edmund Waller, by John Riley, circa 1685
3 March 1606|
Coleshill, Buckinghamshire, England
|Died||21 October 1687(aged 81)|
|Resting place||St Mary and All Saints Church, Beaconsfield|
|Alma mater||King's College, Cambridge|
Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, Waller entered Parliament at a young age and was at first an active member of the opposition. In 1631 he married a London heiress who died in 1634. Later he became a Royalist during the political turmoil of the 1640s, and in 1643 was leader in a plot to seize London for Charles I. For this he was arrested, but escaped the death penalty by betraying his colleagues and by paying lavish bribes. Instead he was imprisoned, fined, and banished. He made his peace with the Commonwealth government in 1651, returned to England, and was restored to favour at the Restoration.
After the death of his first wife he unsuccessfully courted Lady Dorothy Sidney, the 'Sacharissa' of his poems; he married Mary Bracey as his second wife in 1644. Waller was a precocious poet; he wrote, probably as early as 1625, a complimentary piece on "His Majesty's Escape at St Andere" (Prince Charles's escape from shipwreck at Santander) in heroic couplets, one of the first examples of a form that prevailed in English poetry for some two centuries. His verse, much of it occupied with praise of Sacharissa, Lady Carlisle, and others, is of a polished simplicity; John Dryden repeatedly praised his 'sweetness', describing him as 'the father of our English numbers', and linking his name with John Denham's as poets who brought in the Augustan age. Rejecting the dense intellectual verse of Metaphysical poetry, Waller adopted generalizing statement, easy associative development, and urbane social comment. With his emphasis on definitive phrasing through inversion and balance, he prepared the way for the emergence of the heroic couplet, which by the end of the 17th century was the dominant form of English poetry.
His early poems include "On a Girdle" and "Go, lovely rose"; his later "Instructions to a Painter" (1666, on the Battle of Solebay) and "Of the Last Verses in the Book", containing the famous lines, 'The Soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed, Lets in new light through chinks that time hath made.' His Poems first appeared in 1645, and Divine Poems in 1685. His opus includes poetic tributes to both Oliver Cromwell (1655) and Charles II (1660).
Edmund Waller was born on 3 March 1606 at Stocks Place, Coleshill, Buckinghamshire. He was the eldest son of Robert Waller (1560-1616) and Anne, his wife, daughter of Griffith Hampden.[a] Edmund had familial connections with several prominent Parliamentarian figures; he was first cousin to John Hampden through his mother, second cousin to Oliver Cromwell by marriage, and brother-in-law to the future regicide Colonel Adrian Scrope, after Scrope married Edmund's sister Mary in 1624. On his father's side of the family Waller was related to the Parliamentarian generals Sir Hardress Waller and Sir William Waller.
Waller was baptised in the parish church of Amersham on 9 March 1606, but early in his childhood his father retired from business as a barrister and moved the family from Coleshill to Beaconsfield, in order to manage their extensive estates. By Waller's own account he "was bred under several ill, dull and ignorant schoolmasters, until he went to Mr Dobson at Wycombe, who was a good schoolmaster and had been an Eton scholar". This refers to his time at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, under the tutelage of Gerard Dobson. Waller's father died in 1616, and his mother Ann sent him to Eton between 1618 and 1621, and to the University of Cambridge. He was admitted a fellow-commoner of King's College, Cambridge on 22 March 1620, he left without a degree, before completing his education at Lincoln’s Inn in 1622. The family settled at Hall Barn, Beaconsfield in 1624, and on reaching his majority in 1627 Edmund Waller inherited an estate estimated to be worth up to £3,500 a year.
Early parliamentary career
Waller claimed that he entered parliament for Amersham in 1621, but this is unlikely as the constituency was not re-enfranchised until May 1624 by which time he was already the sitting Member of Parliament for Ilchester after one of the members chose another seat. In 1626 he was elected MP for Chipping Wycombe. He was elected MP for Amersham in 1628 and sat until 1629 when King Charles decided to rule without parliament for eleven years. He made virtually no impact on the records of these parliaments.
Waller's first marriage, on 15 July 1631, was to Anne Banks, or Bancks, daughter of John Banks, a mercer of London. John Banks had died in 1630, leaving his wealth, some £8,000, to Anne. Anne was a ward of the Court of Aldermen at the time, and Waller was brought before the Star Chamber for the offence of marrying her without the court's permission. He received a heavy fine, but his own fortune was large, and all his life Waller was a wealthy man. After bearing him a son and a daughter at Beaconsfield, Anne Waller died in childbirth in October 1634. It was about this time that the poet was elected into the literary circle, or "Club", of Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland at his house at Great Tew, known as the Great Tew Circle.
In about 1635 he met Lady Dorothy Sidney, eldest daughter of Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, who was then eighteen years of age. He formed a romantic passion her, referring to her in a number of his poems under the name of 'Sacharissa'. He spent much of the next decade courting her, but was rejected. She eventually married Henry Spencer, 1st Earl of Sunderland in 1639. Disappointment is said to have made Waller temporarily insane. However, he wrote a long, graceful and eminently sober letter to the bride's sister on the occasion of the wedding.
Return to Parliament
In April 1640 Waller was again elected MP for Amersham, in the Short Parliament, and made certain speeches which attracted wide attention. He was then elected MP for St Ives in the Long Parliament. Waller had previously supported the party of John Pym, but he now left him for the group of moderates led by Falkland and Edward Hyde. They were "conservative, distrustful of innovation and extreme measures", and opposed the principle of absolute monarchy over the rights of Parliament. Waller was however careful to avoid directly criticising the king. His speeches were much admired, and were separately printed; they are academic exercises very carefully prepared. Hyde, later Lord Clarendon, wrote that Waller spoke "upon all occasions with great sharpness and freedom". His rising profile in Parliament led to him taking charge of the impeachment of judge Sir Francis Crawley over the issue of ship money. Though opposed to absolutism, Waller was concerned over the increasing pressure for parliament to interfere with the Royal prerogative. As tensions between King and Parliament increased, Waller gravitated towards support of the monarch, while urging Parliament to seek an accommodation with the king and so avoid open conflict.
"Waller's Plot" 
By early 1643 Waller had become involved in what was later termed 'Waller's Plot'. Waller remained in Parliament after the outbreak of the English Civil War, still arguing on behalf of the Crown. He and several others, including his brother-in-law, Nathaniel Tomkins, and the wealthy linen draper Richard Chaloner, hoped to capitalize on the strong sentiments for peace in London, as well as the moderate factions in Parliament who were still hopeful of a reconciliation with Charles I. The plot seems to have begun as a plan to utilize passive resistance on the part of London's population in an attempt to force Parliament to seek a negotiated settlement. But it developed into plans for an armed rising, the seizure of key points, and allowing the Royalist army into the city.
Pym denounced the plot in Parliament and Waller was arrested on 31 May 1643. Waller admitted his guilt and made a full confession of "whatever he had said heard, thought or seen, and all that he knew... or suspected of others", and he certainly cut a poor figure compared to his fellow conspirators who were unwilling to betray their principles. Waller was called before the bar of the House in July, and made an abject speech of recantation. He paid several bribes to leading members of the House, and after spending a year and a half in the Tower of London without trial, was fined £10,000 and permitted to go into exile in November 1644. His fellow conspirators were less fortunate, Chaloner and Tomkins were executed on 5 July 1643. The controversy over the plot virtually annihilated the moderate party in Parliament and destroyed any immediate hopes of a peaceful settlement to the war. Those who had leaned towards a negotiated peace were forced to disavow any sympathy for the plotters' aims, and to reaffirm their support for military action.
Waller went into exile in France and Switzerland, taking with him his new wife Mary, née Bressy or Bracey, the daughter of a man settled in Thame, Oxfordshire. The two had married in 1644, during Waller's imprisonment for his part in the plot, and may have even married secretly in the Tower of London. In 1645 Waller's Poems was first published in London, in three different editions; there has been much discussion of the order and respective authority of these issues, but nothing is decidedly known. Many of the lyrics were already set to music by Henry Lawes.In 1646 Waller travelled with John Evelyn in Switzerland and Italy. During the worst period of his exile Waller managed to "keep a table" for the Royalists in Paris, although in order to do so he was obliged to sell his wife's jewels. He remained hopeful of a reconciliation with the Commonwealth government, and, probably through the support of his near-relations Oliver Cromwell and Adrian Scrope, secured the revocation of his sentence of banishment on 27 November 1651 through the Rump Parliament, and returned to England in January 1652.
Return to England
Waller settled once more at Beaconsfield, and established good relations with Cromwell, to whom in 1655 he published A Panegyric to my Lord Protector, and was made a Commissioner for Trade a month or two later. He wrote several other poems in support of Cromwell and the Protectorate over the next few years, until the Restoration in 1660 re-established the monarchy and brought Charles II back to the throne. Waller commemorated the occasion, and expressed his own support for the new state of affairs, with his 1660 poem To the King, upon his Majesty's Happy Return. Being challenged by the king to explain why this latter piece was inferior to his eulogy of Cromwell, the poet replied, "Sir, we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction". Waller continued to compose verse for the royal family throughout the rest of his life, generally urging a policy of toleration and general amnesty.
Later parliamentary career
Waller was returned to the Cavalier Parliament in 1661 as MP for Hastings, and Gilbert Burnet recorded that for the next quarter of a century "it was no House if Waller was not there". His sympathies were tolerant and kindly, and he constantly defended the Nonconformists. One famous speech of Waller's was: "Let us look to our Government, fleet and trade, 'tis the best advice the oldest Parliament man among you can give you, and so God bless you". He was an active member, making over 180 speeches and being appointed to 209 parliamentary committees between 1661 and 1681. Though close to the court party he was often independent, choosing not to support particular administrations, but allying with different sides in keeping with his belief in the national good. He was a moderate in parliament, often seeking to reconcile opposing political factions. He supported the traditional privileges of parliament, but opposed their extension into areas he felt members had no business interfering with, such as the royal prerogative. Waller was a fervent supporter of religious toleration and the growth of trade, with Warren Chernaik's biography of Waller in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography observing that "whether defending or attacking the government, Waller emphasized the primacy of the national interest, the importance of law, and common sense."
Waller, in keeping with his expressed preferences as a moderator and conciliator, attempted to act as a broker between the factions that developed around the Popish Plot between between 1678 and 1681, but found little success. He opposed the Whigs over the Exclusion Crisis, and appears to have withdrawn from active politics for a time. He did not sit for the three exclusion parliaments (the Habeas Corpus Parliament, Exclusion Bill Parliament and Oxford Parliament). He returned to politics with the accession of James II, being elected to represent Saltash in the Loyal Parliament in 1685. He wrote two poems to the new king, both continuing to urge reconciliation and national unity.
After the death of his second wife, in 1677, Waller retired to Hall Barn, the house he had designed and owned in Beaconsfield, and though he returned to London, he became more and more attached to the retirement of his woods, "where," he said, "he found the trees as bare and withered as himself." His collection Divine Poems was published in 1685, followed by another collection in 1686. Waller bought a cottage at Coleshill, where he was born, meaning to die there; "a stag," he said, "when he is hunted, and near spent, always returns home." He died at Hall Barn however, with his children and his grandchildren about him, on 21 October 1687, and was buried in woollen (in spite of his expressed wish) in the churchyard of St Mary and All Saints Church, Beaconsfield on 26 October. His tomb is now grade II* listed, while he is further memorialised by Edmund Waller Primary School, New Cross, South East London.
Waller's early influences included his friend George Morley, the future Bishop of Winchester. Morley introduced Waller to Viscount Falkland's intellectual circle and helped Waller in the selection and study of books. Falkland's circle, with its emphasis on moderation and tolerance, was a long-lasting influence on Waller's poetry, and his career in politics. Later friends included Thomas Hobbes, who tutored some of Waller's children, and John Evelyn. Waller's later poems were strongly influenced by Hobbes, whose Leviathan he admired, and whose De Cive he at one point proposed to translate. Waller was a central figure at the court of Charles I, many of his poems being finely written for a court audience, and he continued to write occasional and complimentary poems for following monarchs, as well as the Protectorate leaders such as Cromwell. Samuel Johnson criticised him for his radical shifts in support of ruling parties during the periods of monarchy, commonwealth and Restoration, in which Waller appears as a character not unlike the Vicar of Bray, but even Waller's panegyric works were finely tuned and intended to be politically persuasive. While his stance towards ruling parties changed, he maintained an internal consistency, often assuming the role of a peacemaker and mediator both in his poems and in politics.
A collection of Waller's poems, entitled Poems, was published during his exile in 1645. Most are in the traditional classical style then popular, and include "Of the Lady who can Sleep when she Pleases", "Of her Passing through a Crowd of People", "On the Friendship betwixt Sacharissa and Amoret", "To a Lady from whom he Receiv'd a Silver Pen", and "In Answer of Sir John Suckling's Verses". Cherniak describes his love poems as tending to be "relatively formal, decorous, and impersonal". Other love poems by Waller include "To Flavia", "Go Lovely Rose", "To a Lady in Retirement", "On a Girdle", and "The Story of Phoebus and Daphne Apply'd".
Waller became famous for his 'Panegyricks', at first written in support of Cromwell, and later for succeeding monarchs after the Restoration. He followed Cromwell's panegyric with the pro-Protectorate "Upon the Present War with Spain, and the First Victory Obtained at Sea" (1658–9), and other flattering works. His "To the King, upon his Majesties Happy Return" in 1660 established his pro-monarchical sympathies, followed by works addressed to the king or other members of the royal family, including "On St James's Park as Lately Improved by his Majesty", "Upon her Majesties New Buildings at Somerset-House", "Of the Lady Mary, Princess of Orange", and "A Presage of the Ruine of the Turkish Empire, Presented to his Majestie on his Birth-Day". His longest and most ambitious work of this type, "Instructions to a painter, for the drawing of the posture and progress of his majesties forces at sea, under the command of his highness-royal; together with the battel and victory obtained over the Dutch" appeared in 1666, commemorating the Battle of Lowestoft of the previous year, and heaping praise on James, Duke of York. Waller's style and habit of effusively commemorating great events by praising court and royalty led to a backlash of parodies and refutations, including by the likes of Andrew Marvell in his "Last Instructions to a Painter".
By the 1680s Waller was in ill-health, reflected in his later works and the 1685 publication of Divine Poems, which includes the poem "Of the Last Verses in the Book".
Waller's poems were widely read during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with four separate editions being published in 1645, followed by new collected editions in 1664, 1668, 1682, and 1686. The interest continued after his death, with two volumes of previously uncollected writings, "The Maid's Tragedy Altered" and "The Second Part of Mr Waller's Poems" published in 1690. Gerard Langbaine considered his writings as "fit to serve as a Standard, for all succeeding poems" and Francis Atterbury called him "the Parent of English Verse, and the first that shew'd us our Tongue had Beauty and Numbers in it". Waller's popularity endured in the Restoration period, his style of writing, described as "sweet", "soft" and "smooth", lending itself to being set to music. John Dryden was an enthusiastic admirer, but by the nineteenth century his work was out of favour and his reputation declined, though a minor revival began in the late twentieth century.
In the opinion of Edmund Gosse, who wrote Waller's biography in the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1911), Waller's lyrics were at one time admired to excess, but with the exception of "Song" (Go, lovely Rose) and one or two others, they have lost their popularity. He lacked imaginative invention, but resolutely placed himself in the forefront of reaction against the violence and "conceit" into which the baser kind of English poetry was descending. Waller was regarded by some as the pioneer in introducing the classical couplet into English verse, despite its earlier use by Geoffrey Chaucer. But though smooth distichs were employed by poets before Waller, Gosse credits him with being the first to make writing in the serried couplet the habit and the fashion. Waller was writing in the regular heroic measure, (the classical school of poetry) afterwards developed by John Dryden and Alexander Pope as early as 1623 (if not, as has been supposed even in 1621).
Waller, along with his contemporary John Denham, were labelled the "Sons of British Poetry". Waller is briefly mentioned in Harold Bloom's work on literary criticism The Anxiety of Influence. In it, Bloom refers to David Hume's judgement of Waller being "saved only because Horace was so distant," as an underestimation because "Waller is dead. Horace is alive."
Family and issue
Waller married his first wife, Anne Banks, on 15 July 1631. She died in childbirth, and was buried on 23 October 1634, leaving a son, Robert, and a daughter, named either Elizabeth or Anne. Robert was tutored for a time by his father's friend, Thomas Hobbes, and later studied at Lincoln's Inn, like his father, but died sometime in the 1650s.
Edmund Waller married Mary Bracey in 1644, whose father was resident in Thame.[b] Mary and Edmund had thirteen children together. Among them were his son Edmund, MP for Amersham and Stephen, a doctor of law and Commissioner for the Union.
- George Gilfillan, (ed, 1857), Poetical Works of Edmund Waller & Sir John Denham.
- G. Thorn-Drury (ed, 1893) Poetical Works A critical edition with a careful biography.
a. ^ Edmund's father Robert was the son of Edmund Waller (1536-1603), who was in turn the son of Robert Waller (1517–53), a scion of the Waller family of Groombridge Place, Kent. A branch of this family settled firstly at Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, and in the 17th century moved to Virginia, where they became prominent in early Virginia affairs. Prominent members of this branch include Benjamin Waller, Littleton Waller Tazewell and Edwin Waller.
b. ^ His descendant Rachel Waller, considering the Breux family's connections with Barbados, wrote in 1939 that: "this probably gave rise to the assumption that she was not of pure European blood. In support of this theory, we may compare the portrait of the poet with those of his descendants. In these latter, the long face and aquiline lineaments of the poet have given way to round blunt features and curly black hair."
- Gosse 1911, p. 282.
- "Waller, Edmund (1606-1687), of Hall Barn, Beaconsfield, Bucks.; later of St. James's Street, Westminster". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 28 March 2017.
- Chernaik, Warren. "Waller, Edmund". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/28556. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- "Waller, Edmund (WLR621E)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Kyle & Sgroi 2010.
- Roberts 2003, p. 7.
- Gosse 1911, p. 283.
- Greenwood 1999, p. 128.
- Baldwin 1892, p. [page needed].
- Gilfillan 1857, p. [page needed].
- The Family of Dormer in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Oxoniensia, vol. 11-12 (1946-7), pp. 90–101, by Michael Maclagan
- Poems, &c. written upon several occasions, and to several persons, By Edmund Waller, with An Account of the life and writings of Edmund Waller, printed for Jacob Tonson, in the Strand, 1722
- The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
- Gilfillan 1857.
- Crozier 1908, p. 37.
- Notes on Past Days, by Cecil and Rachel De Salis, Henley-on-Thames, 1939, page 5
- Baldwin, James, ed. (May 2012), Six Centuries of English Poetry, kindle ebook, ASIN B004TREH7W Check date values in:
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- Cibber, Theophilus (1753), The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland: to the time of Dean Swift, II, London: R. Griffiths, pp. 240–264
- Crozier, William Armstrong, ed. (1908), Virginia heraldica: being a registry of Virginia gentry entitled to coat armor, with genealogical notes of the families, Virginia county records, 5, The Genealogical Association, p. 37
- Greenwood, Douglas (1999), Who's Buried where in England (Third ed.), Constable, p. 128, ISBN 0-09-479310-7
- Gilfillan, George, ed. (1857), "introduction", Poetical Works of Edmund Waller & Sir John Denham, kindle ebook, ASIN B0084BSUYA
- Kyle, Chris; Sgroi, Rosemary (2010), "Waller, Edmund (1606-1687), of Hall Barn, Beaconsfield, Bucks.; later of St. James's Street, Westminster", in Thrush, Andrew; Ferris, John P., The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, Cambridge University Press
- Roberts, Keith (2003), First Newbury 1643: The Turning Point (illustrated ed.), Osprey Publishing, p. 7, ISBN 9781841763330
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Gosse, Edmund (1911). "Waller, Edmund". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 282–283.
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- "Waller, Edmund". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Works by Edmund Waller at Project Gutenberg
- Full text of Poetical Works of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham from Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Edmund Waller at Internet Archive
- Works by Edmund Waller at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)