Poems, 1645, 1664, 1686, 1690, 1693
“A Panegyrick to My Lord Protector,” 1655
“A Poem on St. James’ Park as Lately Improved by His Majesty,” 1661
“Instructions to a Painter,” 1666
Divine Poems, 1685
The Second Part of Mr. Waller’s Poems, 1690
Pompey the Great, pb. 1664 (translation of Pierre Corneille)
The Maid’s Tragedy, pb. 1690 (adaptation of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher)
The Workes of Edmund Waller in This Parliament, 1645
Debates of the House of Commons from the Year 1667 to the Year 1694, 1763 (10 volumes; with others)
The Works of Edmund Waller, Esq., in Verse and Prose, 1729 (Elijah Fenton, editor)
Edmund Waller was an innovative seventeenth century English poet. As a youth, he had several years of private instruction, as did most of the literary figures of his time. Thereafter he was sent to Eton and to Cambridge. Waller was married in 1631, after having served for several years as a member of Parliament. A son and a daughter were born before his wife’s death in 1634. After she died Waller retired to Beaconfield, where he lived the life of a wealthy country gentleman. He wrote at this time some of the poems that were to make him famous, especially those love poems to a married woman he called Sacharissa (who was indifferent to his verse).
In Parliament once again, Waller distinguished himself as a speaker. He became known as a moderate, and was therefore out of place, as his surroundings were becoming increasingly revolutionary. After attempting to conciliate the king and the House of Commons, Waller tried to arrange to liberate the former. As a result he was placed under arrest and then banished to France. He spent the next six years in France and Italy; during this time, he married his second wife, and his poems were published in England, purportedly without his permission. In 1651 Waller received a pardon from Parliament, and in 1652 he returned to England. He soon reached accommodation with Oliver Cromwell’s regime; in 1655 he published his famous “A Panegyrick to My Lord Protector,” and was appointed a commissioner of trade. When the monarchy was later restored he managed to dispel a reputation for ingratiating himself with Cromwell, and he became popular with Cromwell’s enemies. He was among the first to welcome the newly arrived Charles II, with a poem titled “Upon His Majesty’s Happy Return.” He continued his service in Parliament and distinguished himself in the cause of religious toleration for Catholics and Protestant dissenters. At court he was a literary model for the younger men who admired his poetry.
Soon after Waller’s second wife died in 1677, he retired to the woods and gardens of his home at Hall Barn. In these last years he apparently underwent a religious conversion; rejecting his earlier works, he returned to meditations on spiritual themes. He died at Hall Barn on October 21, 1687, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, at the age of eighty-one.
Waller’s work consisted of short lyrical poems, for the most part on love. He was an important innovator, giving to the couplet the form, smoothness, and precision that later poets were to admire and imitate. He can be thought of as one of the best of the seventeenth century poetic craftsmen. His poems are not read much today, yet Waller’s technical work had great influence; he endowed the poets of the eighteenth century with the couplet, which became their favorite mode of verse. He endowed them, too, with a diction and an attitude toward poetry that dominated literary life for a considerable time after his death. Classicism in English poetry is attributable not only to the Roman verse that serves as its models but also to men like Waller and Sir John Denham, who tried to replace the poetry of the early seventeenth century. Under their influence poetry became less intellectual and more lyrical. In essence, Waller brought back harmonics to English verse and laid the groundwork for poets as distinguished as John Dryden and Alexander Pope.