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A Short Biographical Sketch of EDMUND WALLER (1606 to 1687)

by John W. Cousin

WALLER, EDMUND (1606-1687). —Poet, b. at Coleshill, Herts, and ed. at Eton and Camb., 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. In 1631 he added to his fortune by marrying Anne Banks, a London heiress, who d. in 1634, and he then paid assiduous but unsuccessful court to Lady Dorothea Sidney, to whom, under the name of Sacharissa, he addressed much of his best poetry. Though probably really a Royalist in his sympathies, W. supported the popular cause in Parliament, and in 1641 conducted the case against Sir Francis Crawley for his opinion in favour of the legality of ship-money. His speech, which was printed, had an enormous circulation and brought him great fame. Two 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 whose death nevertheless he wrote a new poem entitled, On the Death of the late Usurper, O.C. On the Restoration the accommodating poet was ready with a congratulatory address to Charles II., who, pointing out its inferiority as a poem to that addressed to Cromwell, elicited the famous reply, "Poets, Sire, succeed better in fiction than in truth." The poem, however, whatever its demerits, succeeded in its prime object, and the poet became a favourite at Court, and sat in Parliament until his death. In addition to his lighter pieces, on which his fame chiefly rests, W. 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 m. a second time and had five sons and eight daughters.