Edmund Waller by John Riley

Edmund Waller (1606-1887). Portait by John Riley (1646-1691), circa 1685. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Edmund Waller, FRS (3 March 1606 - 21 October 1687) was an English poet,[1] and a politician who sat in the House of Commons at various times between 1624 and 1679.



Waller, born at Coleshill, Herts, and educated at Eton and Cambridge, belonged to an old and wealthy family, and in early childhood inherited the estate of Beaconsfield, Bucks, worth £3500 a year. He was related to John Hampden, and was distantly connected with Oliver Cromwell, his own family, however, being staunch Royalists. He studied law at Lincoln's Inn, and at the age of 16 became a member of Parliament, in which he sat for various constituencies for the greater part of his life, and in which his wit and vivacity, as well as his powers of adapting his principles to the times, enabled him to take a prominent part. Though probably really a Royalist in his sympathies, Waller supported the popular cause in Parliament, and in 1641 conducted the case against Sir Francis Crawley for his opinion in favor of the legality of ship-money. His speech, which was printed, had an enormous circulation and brought him great fame. 2 years later, however, he was detected in a plot for seizing London for the King, was expelled from the House, fined £10,000, and banished. On this occasion he showed cowardice and treachery, humiliating himself in the most abject manner, and betraying all his associates. He went to the Continent, living chiefly in France and Switzerland, and showing hospitality to Royalist exiles. Returning by permission in 1652 he addressed some laudatory verses, among the best he wrote, to Cromwell, on the Restoration the accommodating poet was ready with a congratulatory address to Charles II. The poet became a favorite at Court, and sat in Parliament until his death. In addition to his lighter pieces, on which his fame chiefly rests, Waller wrote an epic, The Summer Islands (Bermudas), and a sacred poem, Divine Love. His short poems, such as "On a Girdle," often show fancy and grace of expression, but are frequently frigid and artificial, and exhibit absolute indifference to the charms of Nature. As a man, though agreeable and witty, he was time-serving, selfish, and cowardly. Clarendon has left a very unflattering "character" of him. He married a 2nd time and had 5 sons and 8 daughters.[2]

Youth Edit

Waller was the eldest son of Anne (Hampden) and Robert Waller of Coleshill (then in Herts, now in Buckinghamshire), 1st cousin to the celebrated patriot John Hampden. He was born on 9 March 1606, and baptized in the parish church of Amersham. Early in his childhood his father sold his house at Coleshill and migrated to Beaconsfield.[3]

Of Waller's early education all we know is his own account that 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 Eton scholar." His father died in 1616, and the future poet's mother, a lady of rare force of character, sent him to Eton and then to Cambridge.[3]

He was admitted a fellow-commoner of King's College, Cambridge on 22 of March 1620. He left without a degree.[3]


It is believed that in 1621, at the age of only 16, he sat as member for Agmondesham (Amersham) in the last parliament of James I. Clarendon says that Waller was "nursed in parliaments." In that of 1624 he represented Ilchester, and in the 1st of Charles I, Chipping Wycombe.[3]

The 1st act by which Waller distinguished himself, however, was his surreptitious marriage with a wealthy ward of the Court of Aldermen, in 1631 He was brought before the Star Chamber for this offence, and heavily fined. 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, Mrs. Waller died in 1634, It was about this time that the poet was elected into Falkland's "Club."[3]

It is supposed that about 1635 he met Lady Dorothy Sidney, eldest daughter of the earl of Leicester, who was then 18. He formed a romantic passion for this girl, whom he celebrated under the name of "Sacharissa." She rejected him, and married Lord Spencer in 1639. Disappointment, it is said, rendered Waller for a time insane, but this may well be doubted. He wrote, at all events, a long, graceful and eminently sober letter on the occasion of the wedding to the bride's sister.[3]

In 1640 Waller was once more M.P. for Amersham, and made certain speeches which attracted wide attention, later, in the Long Padiament, he represented St. Ives. Waller had hitherto supported the party of Pym, but he now left him for the group of Falkland and Hyde. His speeches were much admired, and were separately printed; they are academic exercises very carefully prepared. Clarendon says that Walker spoke "upon all occasions with great sharpness and freedom."[3]

Waller's Plot and exileEdit

An extraordinary and obscure conspiracy against Parliament, in favour of the king, which is known as "Waller's Plot," occupied the spring of 1643, but on 30 May he and his friends were arrested. In the terror of discovery. Waller was accused of displaying a very mean poltroonery, and of confessing "whatever he had said, heard, thought or seen, and all that he knew or suspected of others." He certainly cut a poor figure by the side of those of his companions who died for their opinions.[3]

Waller was called before the bar of the House in July, and made an abject speech of recantation. His life was spared and he was committed to the Tower, from which, on paying a fine of £10,000, he was released and banished from the realm in November 1643. He married a 2nd wife, Mary Bracey of Thame, and went over to Calais, afterwards taking up his residence at Rouen.[3]

In 1645 the Poems of Waller were 1st published in London, in 3 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.[3]

In 1646 Waller traveled with Evelyn in Switzerland and Italy. During the worst period of the exile Waller managed to " keep a table" for the Royalists in Paris, although in order to do so he was obliged to sell his while's jewels.[3]

Return to EnglandEdit

At the close of 1651 the House of Commons revoked Walker's sentence of banishment, and he was allowed to return to Beaconsfield, where he lived very quietly until the Restoration.[3]

In 1655 he published A Panegyric to my Lord Protector, and was made a Commissioner for Trade a month or so later. He followed this up, in 1660, by a poem To the King, upon his Majesty's Happy Return. Being challenged by Charles II. to explain why this latter piece was inferior to the eulogy of Cromwell, the poet smartly replied, "Sir, we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction."[3]

He entered the House of Commons again in 1661, as MP for Hastings, and Burnet has 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.[3] One famous speech o! 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."[4]

Last yearsEdit

After the death of his 2nd wife, in 1677, Waller retired to his house called Hall Barn at 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."[4]

In 1661 he had published his poem, St James' Park; in 1664 he had collected his poetical works; in 1666 appeared his Instructions to a Painter; and in 1685 his Divine Poems. The final collection of his works is dated 1686, but there were further posthumous additions made in 1690.[4]

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 actually died, however, at Hall Barn, with his children and his grandchildren about him, on the 21st of October 1657, and was buried in woollen (in spite of his expressed wish), in the churchyard of Beaconsfield.[4]


Waller's lyrics were at one time admired to excess, but with the exception of "Go, lovely Rose " and a few others, they have greatly lost their charm. He was almost destitute of imaginative invention, and his fancy was plain and trite. But he resolutely placed himself in the forefront of reaction against the violence and "conceit" into which the baser kind of English poetry was descending.[4]

Waller is best known as a pioneer of the heroic couplet (or iambic distich), which he was employing as early as 1621. Although the verse form dates back to The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, it was Waller's "adoption of smooth, regular versification" (says, for example, the Encyclopædia Britannica) that "prepared the way for the heroic couplet’s emergence by the end of the century as the dominant form of poetic expression." "Mr. Waller reformed our numbers,” said John Dryden, a master of the verse form.[1]. Alexander Pope, another master of the heroic couplet, was also an admirer of Waller's work.[5]

A great deal of discussion, some of it absurdly violent in tone, has been expended on the question how far Waller was or was not the pioneer in introducing the classical couplet into English verse. It is, of course, obvious that Waller could not "introduce" what had been invented, and admirably exemplified, by Chaucer. But those who have pointed to smooth distichs employed by poets earlier than Waller have not given sufficient attention to the fact (exaggerated, doubtless, by critics arguing in the opposite camp) that it was he who earliest made writing in the heroic verse the habit and the fashion. Waller was writing in the regular heroic measure, afterwards carried to so high a perfection by Dryden and Pope, as early as 1623 (if not, as has been supposed, even in 1621).[4]

Critical introductionEdit

by Edmund Gosse

The reputation of Waller has suffered greater fluctuation of fortune than that of any other English poet. In his youth, he was outshone by the last great Elizabethans, his contemporaries; during the Civil Wars he gradually rose to be considered 2nd only to Cowley. After the Restoration, and when that writer was in his grave, Waller found himself still more popular, and when he died, at a very great age, the wits and critics, with Thomas Rymer at their head, exalted him to the 1st place in the English Parnassus. Until the end of the century it was tacitly admitted that Waller was the greatest English poet.

The juster sense of Addison and of Pope curtailed these extravagant honours, while leaving to Waller the praise of unrivalled sweetness. In the hands of Gray, Johnson, and Cowper, Waller sank gradually back into the rank and file of poets, while the critics of the beginning of our century went further still, and denied him all lyrical merit. Of late even his historical position has been assailed, and there is perhaps no famous writer at the present moment so little read or considered as Waller. But the scale has certainly descended too far on the side of dispraise, and it is time to insist on the part filled by this poet in the progress of our literature.

It was Dryden who, with his usual nice discrimination, first observed the quality in which Waller differed from all the writers of his time. In the preface to The Rival Ladies, 1664, that great critic remarks: "the excellence and dignity of rhyme were never fully known till Mr. Waller taught it; he first made writing easily an art, first showed us to conclude the sense, most commonly, in distichs, which in the verse of those before him runs on for so many lines together, that the reader is out of breath to overtake it." Half a century later, Voltaire paraphrased and enlarged this criticism of Dryden’s in language which has become more famous, but which is far from being so pithy or so exact. It is not true, as Voltaire would teach us, that sweetness of versification, the art of liquid numbers, was invented by Waller, but it is true, as Dryden noted, that Waller was the first English poet to adopt the French fashion of writing in couplets, instead of enjambments.

He seems to have been born as neat a poet as he died; his complimentary piece, called "His Majesty’s Escape at St. Andrews", has the full character of Augustan verse, and was written as early as 1623.... From this piece, through Denham, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Darwin, the chain of heroic distich-writing passes unbroken down to "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers", a progress of nearly two hundred years.

It was long before Waller gained a single imitator, and the old system of enjambments continued in fashion until the Restoration, with its tide of thought setting from France, swept it away. The Pharonnida of Chamberlayne, 1659, and the Thealma and Clearchus of Chalkhill, 1683, were the last heroic poems in the old style, and Waller, who had for years written alone in the French manner, lived to see his experiment universally adopted. If we consider this fact, and moreover the satisfaction with which the new mechanic art of rhyming was regarded, we shall not wonder at the immense reputation of Waller. It is, moreover, only fair to note that he persevered twenty years in his new versification before he gained his first disciple, Denham.

Waller continued to polish his verses, and to add to them, for nearly sixty years, yet they remained a slender collection to the last. If we except his absurd dramatic efforts, a travesty of the Maid’s Tragedy in rhyme, and a certain share in the holiday task, set by Orinda to the wits, of translating a play by Corneille, the body of his poems does not much exceed five thousand lines. In his youth he wrote a florid epic about the Bermudas, which he proposed to visit, but did not; this is The Battle of the Summer’s Islands; towards the close of his life he composed six very serious cantos "Of Divine Love", in the didactic manner afterwards to become so fashionable. Of the remainder of his verse, half is occupied with love-ditties addressed to Sacharissa, the poetic name under which, between the years 1629 and 1639 he courted Lady Dorothy Sidney, who finally married the Earl of Sunderland.

Waller married and was left a widower very early in life; he was a man of fortune, a country gentleman, and a member of parliament, staunch on the royalist side, at least at that time, and some of his biographers have wondered that he did not secure the hand of Lady Dorothy. But the reader who studies the Sacharissa poems will doubt whether he was really very anxious to do so; the love-making is extremely elegant and ingenious, but without passion, and the ambition to be remembered through Sacharissa as Petrarch through Laura is a little too obvious. But Waller’s love-verses, though frigid, are more manly than those of Cowley, and if they do not take the heart by storm, they beleaguer it with great strategic art, and an infinite show of patience.

The ingenuity of Waller is entirely distinct from that "metaphysical" wit for which his contemporaries were famous. He does not strive to dazzle and bewilder the mind with paradox, like Donne, or to deck out one poor thought in gaudy raiment of conceits, like the school of Donne. He is scholastic in a politer sense; he balances his thoughts, as he does his syllables, and in him first we detect that see-saw of phraseology, now up, now down, which was to become the crowning sin of the classic poetry. His powers of antithesis, though trifling in comparison with those of Dryden and Pope, and in his own last days equalled by such inferior writers as Roscommon and Aphra Behn, were the wonder of his earlier contemporaries, and chiefly led to his great reputation for wit.

Charles I, among whose faults neglect of polite letters has never been included, early became aware of the polished style of Waller, and welcomed him to Whitehall that he might secure his poetical services. The poet proved only too easy a courtier, and his poems, as published in his own lifetime, display a singularly cynical indifference to political rectitude, for a "Panegyric upon Oliver Cromwell" immediately precedes a piece on the "Death of the late usurper O.C." He appears, however, to have conceived a sincere regard for Cromwell, and even in calling him a usurper, he cannot refrain from eulogy.

The poetry of Waller can never again be popular, even with students. It is hard, dry, and insignificant, it fails to touch the heart, and requires laborious attention to be understood, not because it is obscure, but because the argument lies outside the track of human interest. From this condemnation all the world exempts the celebrated song to a Rose, and the careful reader will also exempt a few little pieces scarcely inferior to this in sincerity and simplicity. English poetry is studded with the names of those who have possessed imagination and warmth of fancy, but who have failed to survive, in popular estimation, through their lack of style. Waller, on the other hand, is a signal example of the converse law, that a writer cannot subsist on style alone. The decay of reputation seems in the latter case to be less rapid, but it is in the end more fatal, for it is beyond the hope of reparation.[6]


3 of Waller's poems ("On a Girdle," "Go, lovely Rose," and "Old Age") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[7]

Edmund Waller Primary School is in New Cross, South East London.



  • Poems. London: Moseley, 1645.
    • Poems, 1645: Together with poems from Bodleian MS Dond. 55 (facsimile edition). Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1971.
  • Upon the Late Storme: And of the death of His Highnesse ensuing the same. London: H.H., 1658.
  • Poems, &c.: Written on several occasions, and to several persons. London: Henry Herringman, 1664; 8th edition, London: Jacob Tonson, 1711; Dublin: G. Risk, G. Ewing & W. Smith, 1727.
  • Poetical Works. (2 volumes), London: C. Cooke, 1770; Edinburgh: Apollo Press by the Martins, 1777.
  • The Poems. London: Rivington & Marshall, 1790.
  • The Poems of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham (edited by Wentworth Dillon Roscommon). Chiswick, UK: Press of C. Whittingham, 1822.
  • The Poems of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham (edited by George Gilfillan). Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1857.
  • Poetical Works (edited by Robert Bell). London: J.W. Parker, 1854.
  • The Poems (edited by George Thorn Drury). London: Lawrence & Bullen / New York: Scribner, 1893. Volume I, Volume II
  • Songs and Verses. South Harting, Sussex, UK: Pear Tree Press, 1902.


  • An Honorable and Learned Speech Made by Mr. Waller in Parliament: Against the prelates innovations, false doctrin and discipline, reproveing the perswation of some clergie-men to His Majestie of inconveniencies : vvho themselves instead of tilling the ground are become sowers of tares : vvith a motion for the fundamentall and vitall liberties of this nation which it was wont to have. London: Richard Smithers, 1641.

Collected editionsEdit

  • The Works of Edmund Waller, Esq., in Verse and Prose. London: J. Tonson, 1729;
    • (with Life by Percival Stockdale). London: T. Davies, 1772.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[8]

Poems by Edmund WallerEdit



Edmund Waller How small a part of time they share, That are so wondro....

Edmund Waller How small a part of time they share, That are so wondro.....

  1. Go, Lovely Rose
  2. Old Age

See alsoEdit


  • Theophilus Cibber, The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland: To the time of Dean Swift (Volume II). London: R. Griffiths, 1753, pp. 240–264.
  • PD-icon.svg Gosse, Edmund (1911). "Waller, Edmund". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 282-283. . Wikisource, Web, Mar. 15, 2018.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Edmund Waller, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web, Dec. 27, 2012.
  2. John William Cousin, "Waller, Edmund," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 392-393. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 15, 2018.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 Gosse, Britannica 1911, 282.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Gosse, Britannica 1911, 283.
  5. Edmund Waller 1606-1687. Poetry Foundation, Web, Dec. 27, 2012.
  6. from Edmund W. Gosse, "[ Critical Introduction: Edmund Waller (1606–1687) ]," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 11, 2016.
  7. Alphabetical list of authors: Shelley, Percy Bysshe to Yeats, William Butler, Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 19, 2012.
  8. Search results = au:Edmund Waller, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. Web, Feb. 14, 2016.

External linksEdit

Audio / video
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. (view article). (view authors).
This page uses content from Wikinfo . The original article was at Wikinfo:Edmund Waller.
The list of authors can be seen in the (view authors). page history. The text of this Wikinfo article is available under the GNU Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.