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These are the most material circ.u.mstances in the life of Mr. Waller, a man whose wit and parts drew the admiration of the world upon him when he was living, and has secured him the applause of posterity. As a statesman, lord Clarendon is of opinion, he wanted steadiness, and even insinuates, that he was deficient in point of honour; the earl at least construes his timidity, and apparent cowardice, in a way not very advantageous to him.
All men have honoured him as the great refiner of English poetry, who restored numbers to the delicacy they had lost, and joined to melifluent cadence the charms of sense. But as Mr. Waller is unexceptionally the first who brought in a new turn of verse, and gave to rhime all the graces of which it was capable, it would be injurious to his fame, not to present the reader with the opinions of some of the greatest men concerning him, by which he will be better able to understand his particular excellencies, and will see his beauties in full glow before him. To begin with Mr. Dryden, who, in his dedication to the Rival Ladies, addressed to the earl of Orrery, thus characterizes Waller.
‘The excellency and dignity of rhime were never fully known till Mr.
Waller sought it: He first made writing easily an art; first shewed us to conclude the sense most commonly in distichs, which in the verses of those before him, runs on for so many lines together, that the reader is out of breath to overtake it.’
Voltaire, in his letters concerning the English nation, speaking of British poets, thus mentions Waller. ‘Our author was much talked of in France. He had much the same reputation in London that Voiture had in Paris; and in my opinion deserved it better. Voiture was born in an age that was just emerging from barbarity; an age that was still rude and ignorant; the people of which aimed at wit, tho’ they had not the least pretensions to it, and sought for points and conceits instead of sentiments. Bristol stones are more easily found than diamonds.
Voiture born with an easy and frivolous genius, was the first who shone in this Aurora of French literature. Had he come into the world after those great genius’s, who spread such glory over the age of Lewis XIV, he would either have been unknown, would have been despised, or would have corrected his stile. Waller, tho’ better than Voiture, was not yet a finished poet. The graces breathe in such of Waller’s works as are wrote in a tender strain; but then they are languid thro’ negligence, and often disfigured with false thoughts.
The English had not at this time attained the art of correct writing; but his serious compositions exhibit a strength and vigour, which could not have been expected from the softness and effeminacy of his other pieces.’
The anonymous author of the preface to the second part of our author’s poems, printed in the year 1690, has given his character at large, and tells us; ‘That Waller is a name that carries every thing in it that is either great, or graceful in poetry. He was indeed the parent of English verse, and the first who shewed us our tongue had beauty and numbers in it. The tongue came into his hands like a rough diamond; he polished it first, and to that degree, that artists since have admired the workmanship without pretending to mend it. He undoubtedly stands first in the list of refiners; and for ought I know the last too; for I question whether in Charles II’s reign; the English did not come to its full perfection, and whether it had not had its Augustan age, as well as the Latin.’ Thus far this anonymous author. If I may be permitted to give my opinion in so delicate a point as the reputation of Waller, I shall take the liberty to observe, that had he, in place of preceding, succeeded those great wits who flourished in the reign of Charles II, he could never have rose to such great reputation, nor would have deserved it: No small honour is due to him for the harmony which he introduced, but upon that chiefly does his reputation stand.
He certainly is sometimes languid; he was rather a tender than a violent lover; he has not that force of thinking, that amazing reach of genius for which Dryden is renowned, and had it been his lot to have appeared in the reign of Queen Anne, I imagine, he would not have been ranked above the second cla.s.s of poets. But be this as it may, poetry owes him the highest obligations for refining it, and every succeeding genius will be ready to acknowledge, that by copying Waller’s strains, they have improved their own, and the more they follow him, the more they please.
Mr. Waller altered the Maid’s Tragedy from Fletcher, and translated the first Act of the Tragedy of Pompey from the French of Corneille.
Mrs. Katharine Philips, in a letter to Sir Charles Cotterell, ascribes the translation of the first act to our author; and observes, that Sir Edward Filmer did one, Sir Charles Sidley another, lord Buckhurst another; but who the fifth, says she, I cannot learn.
Mrs. Philips then proceeds to give a criticism on this performance of Waller’s, shews some faults, and points out some beauties, with a spirit and candour peculiar to her.
The best edition of our author’s works is that published by Mr.
Fenton, London 1730, containing poems, speeches, letters, &c. In this edition is added the preface to the first edition of Mr. Waller’s poems after the restoration, printed in the year 1664.
As a specimen of Mr. Waller’s poetry, we shall give a transcript of his Panegyric upon Oliver Cromwell.
A Panegyric to my Lord PROTECTOR, of the present greatness and joint interest of his Highness and this Nation.
In the YEAR 1654.
While with a strong, and yet a gentle hand You bridle faction, and our hearts command, Protect us from our selves, and from the foe, Make us unite, and make us conquer too;
Let partial spirits still aloud complain, Think themselves injur’d that they cannot reign, And own no liberty, but where they may Without controul upon their fellows prey.
Above the waves as Neptune shew’d his face To chide the winds, and save the Trojan race; So has your Highness, rais’d above the rest, Storms of Ambition tossing us represt.
Your drooping country, torn with civil hate, Restor’d by you, is made a glorious state; The feat of empire, where the Irish come, And the unwilling Scotch, to fetch their doom.
The sea’s our own, and now all nations greet, With bending sails, each vessel of our fleet.
Your pow’r extends as far as winds can blow, Or swelling sails upon the globe may go.
Heav’n, that hath plac’d this island to give law, To balance Europe, and her states to awe, In this conjunction doth on Britain smile; The greatest leader, and the greatest isle.
Whether this portion of the world were rent By the rude ocean from the Continent, Or thus created, it was sure design’d To be the sacred refuge of mankind.
Hither th’ oppressed shall henceforth resort Justice to crave, and succour at your court; And then your Highness, not for our’s alone, But for the world’s Protector shall be known.
Fame swifter than your winged navy flies Thro’ ev’ry land that near the ocean lies, Sounding your name, and telling dreadful News To all that piracy and rapine use.
With such a chief the meanest nation blest, Might hope to lift her head above the rest: What may be thought impossible to do By us, embraced by the seas, and you?
Lords of the world’s great waste, the ocean, we Whole forests send to reign upon the sea, And ev’ry coast may trouble or relieve; But none can visit us without your leave.
Angels and we have this prerogative, That none can at our happy seats arrive; While we descend at pleasure to invade The bad with vengeance, and the good to aid.
Our little world, the image of the great, Like that, amidst the boundless ocean set, Of her own growth hath all that nature craves, And all that’s rare, as tribute from the waves.
As aegypt does not on the clouds rely, But to the Nile owes more than to the sky; So what our Earth and what our heav’n denies, Our ever-constant friend the sea, supplies.
The taste of hot Arabia’s spice we know, Free from the scorching sun that makes it grow; Without the worm in Persian silks we shine, And without planting drink of ev’ry vine.
To dig for wealth we weary not our limbs.
Gold (tho’ the heaviest Metal) hither swims: Our’s is the harvest where the Indians mow, We plough the deep, and reap what others sow.
Things of the n.o.blest kind our own soil breeds; Stout are our men, and warlike are our steeds; Rome (tho’ her eagle thro’ the world had flown) Cou’d never make this island all her own.
Here the third Edward, and the Black Prince too, France conq’ring Henry flourish’d, and now you; For whom we staid, as did the Grecian state, Till Alexander came to urge their fate.
When for more world’s the Macedonian cry’d, He wist not Thetys in her lap did hide Another yet, a word reserv’d for you, To make more great than that he did subdue.
He safely might old troops to battle lead Against th’ unwarlike Persian, and the Mede; Whose hasty flight did from a bloodless field, More spoils than honour to the visitor yield.
A race unconquer’d, by their clime made bold, The Caledonians arm’d with want and cold, Have, by a fate indulgent to your fame, Been from all ages kept for you to tame.
Whom the old Roman wall so ill confin’d, With a new chain of garrisons you bind: Here foreign gold no more shall make them come, Our English Iron holds them fast at home.
They that henceforth must be content to know No warmer region than their hills of snow, May blame the sun, but must extol your grace, Which in our senate hath allow’d them place.
Preferr’d by conquest, happily o’erthrown, Falling they rise, to be with us made one: So kind dictators made, when they came home, Their vanquish’d foes free citizens of Rome.
Like favour find the Irish, with like fate Advanc’d to be a portion of our state: While by your valour, and your bounteous mind, Nations, divided by the sea, are join’d.
Holland, to gain your friendship, is content To be our out-guard on the continent: She from her fellow-provinces wou’d go, Rather than hazard to have you her foe.
In our late fight, when cannons did diffuse (Preventing posts) the terror and the news; Our neighbour princes trembled at their roar: But our conjunction makes them tremble more.
Your never-failing sword made war to cease, And now you heal us with the acts of peace Our minds with bounty and with awe engage, Invite affection, and restrain our rage.
Less pleasure take brave minds in battles won, Than in restoring such as are undone: Tygers have courage, and the rugged bear, But man alone can whom he conquers, spare.
To pardon willing; and to punish, loath; You strike with one hand, but you heal with both.
Lifting up all that prostrate lye, you grieve You cannot make the dead again to live.
When fate or error had our Age mis-led, And o’er this nation such confusion spread; The only cure which cou’d from heav’n come down, Was so much pow’r and piety in one.
One whose extraction’s from an ancient line, Gives hope again that well-born men may shine: The meanest in your nature mild and good, The n.o.ble rest secured in your blood.
Oft have we wonder’d, how you hid in peace A mind proportion’d to such things as these; How such a ruling sp’rit you cou’d restrain, And practise first over your self to reign.
Your private life did a just pattern give How fathers, husbands, pious sons shou’d live; Born to command, your princely virtues slept Like humble David’s while the flock he kept:
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