Edmund Waller's sacred poems;
Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900
Byline: Hillyer, Richard
Publication Date: 01-01-1999
At seventy-nine, Edmund Waller
published the slim volume Divine Poems (1685). Augmented with a summary
statement "Of the Last Verses in the Book," these fruits of his late
rebirth as a sacred poet crowned the final collected edition of his
works printed during his lifetime (1686). But the bulk of this volume
still reflected how worldly concerns had dominated his long career.
"Go, Lovely Rose" (1645) and A Panegyric to My Lord Protector (1655)
are merely the most well known of his many poems praising beautiful
women or powerful men.1
"poetical devotion" a representative failure, Dr. Samuel Johnson
explained that "The ideas of Christian Theology are too simple for
eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestick for ornament; to
recommend them by tropes and figures is to magnify by a concave mirror
the sidereal hemisphere."2 These strictures pay Waller's
sacred verses the highest compliment they have ever received. In
foremost recent explicators see Divine Poems as representing only their
own mediocrity. Jack G. Gilbert considers them evidence "that it was
not possible for Waller in his late seventies
to write such poetry well"; Warren L. Chernaik similarly pronounces
them "indifferent as poetry."3 But these commentators both make an
exception not made by Johnson when they admire "Of the Last Verses."
Gerald Hammond also praises the poem, as exemplifying "the glorious
imprecisions which make the seventeenth-century lyric so distinctive."4
Though Chernaik and Gilbert both attempt to see Waller
whole, neither addresses the apparent paradox that they admire "Of the
Last Verses," but not the "Last Verses" themselves. Hammond leaves
unexplained another apparent paradox: that "Of the Last Verses"
typifies "glorious imprecisions," even though he twice calls attention
to the accuracy of its diction.5 He adds further "imprecisions" of his
own when he thereby introduces his study of "English Poets and Poems,
1616-1660" with a representative text written a quarter of a century
after the Restoration.
My own reading of the poem attempts to
shed new light on it by respecting its chronology and returning it to
its original contexts. Though the poem constitutes "the Last Verses in
the Book," it also testifies on behalf of (and demands to be read in
relation to) those preceding "Last Verses." In addition, and precisely
because "Of the Last Verses" implies so sharp a distinction between Waller's
final poems and those composed during the many years beforehand, we
need to assess how his prior verses compare with his "Last." But, in
retrieving the original context of his devotional poems, we should also
look beyond his own oeuvre. Ambiguities play in and around all of his
late poems as products of a culture both united and divided by a
conflict between mutually sustaining extremes of piety and impiety.
This essay therefore attempts the kind of interpretation recommended by
Richard Strier when he renews the case for a broadly Empsonian model of
reading-one both paying attention to "particular, historically
conditioned indeterminacies" and resisting "any sort of approach to
texts that knows in advance what they must be doing or saying."6
What "Of the Last Verses" must be doing or saying may seem self-evident
from its melodious cadences:
When we for age could neither read nor write,
The subject made us able to indite;
The soul, with nobler resolutions decked,
The body stooping, does herself erect.
No mortal parts are requisite to raise
Her that, unbodied, can her Maker praise.
The seas are quiet when the winds give o'er;
So, calm are we when passions are no more!
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal that emptiness which age descries.
The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become,
As they draw near to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new.7
Sustaining the tranquil mood is a coda appended from Virgil's fifth
eclogue: "Miratur limen Olympi."
no resistance to the siren song of his own questionable assumptions,
Chernaik takes "Of the Last Verses" entirely at face value: "In these
grave and measured lines on the subject of old age, there is nothing of
the playfulness of the earlier poems; grace has been replaced by
sobriety. The poem's aim, simply, is truth; its only persuasion lies in
the force of its convictions and the power of its verse."8 But "Of the
Last Verses" does not so "simply" supplant "grace" with "sobriety";
rather, it achieves a complex "persuasion" by combining "grace" of
expression with a report of "grace" experienced. The poem exemplifies
the type of writing-sophisticated and sophistic-at which Waller
had always excelled. Because he sees such a sharp difference between
"Of the Last Verses" and its secular forerunners, Chernaik attaches
significance to the fact that Waller casts
the poem in a form he had never used before: iambic-pentameter couplets
grouped in six-line stanzas. But couplets of this sort arranged in
stanzas differ only so much from such lines arranged in
verse-paragraphs. Moreover, the iambic-pentameter couplet-quatrains of
A Panegyric set a partial precedent for the stanzas adopted in "Of the
Though written in iambic-tetrameter
couplet-quatrains, "Of English Verse" (1686) may represent even more of
a step in the direction of that comparably titled summary statement.
Both retrospective surveys generalize from Waller's
own experience and illustrate his penchant for locating the silver
lining in any cloud. "Of the Last Verses" explains how he was reborn as
a poet when providential "grace" compensated for an old age that left
him unable to "read" or "write." "Of English Verse" regrets the
necessary obsolescence of love poems he had written in an unstable
language, but gloats that they had lasted long enough to win sexual
favors from the women to whom they were addressed.9 "Of English Verse"
may knowingly derive consolation where there had been no loss: by the
time he published it, Waller had seen himself
acclaimed as a classic author stabilizing his native language. He also
gains far more than he loses when "Of the Last Verses" situates him on
the "threshold" between two "worlds." Whereas the poem's Virgilian coda
stresses the rapture of an unprecedented proximity to heaven, his own
version of this trope takes pleasure in the possession of "both worlds"
at once. Moreover, he now has his cake and eats it too not because of
any struggle involving penitence and prayer. Though his second stanza
raises the issue of his misspent years, it does so not to beg pardon
for faults committed but to celebrate the serenity and wisdom of old
age-a stroke of providential good fortune acquired without effort.
Because "chinks that time has made" bring enlightenment to "The soul's
dark cottage," becoming morally regenerate merely requires a longevity
he could now take for granted in his own case.
The lines just quoted recycle a trope from Waller's
"A La Malade" (1645), which assures Amoret that
And as pale sickness does invade
Your frailer part, the breaches made
In that fair lodging, still more clear
Make the bright guest, your soul, appear.
(1:85-6, lines 21-4)
The opening couplet from "Of the Last Verses" further confirms how the Waller of yore haunted his final days.
pours new wine in old bottles when he begins by rhyming "write" and
"indite." His "Song" (1645) claims that inspiration is ultimately a
form of dictation:
Peace, babbling Muse!
I dare not sing what you indite;
Her eyes refuse
To read the passion which they write.
(1:124, lines 1-4)
epigram "Of a Lady Who Writ in Praise of Mira" (1645) similarly argues
that the author in question has no muse but herself. Mira's mirror thus
dictates her inspiration:
While she pretends to make the graces known
Of matchless Mira, she reveals her own;
And when she would another's praise indite,
Is by her glass instructed how to write.
(2:2, lines 1-4)
epistle "To a Lady, from Whom He Received a Silver Pen" (1645) declares
that this pen, transferred from her possession to his, has not before
been wielded to such good effect. In the composition of these grateful
verses, "'tis forced to confess / That your great self did n'er indite,
/ Nor that, to one more noble, write" (1:109, lines 22-4). All four
examples of elegant variation for the sake of the same rhyme reveal how
Waller was not only a formulaic versifier but
also a formulaic thinker. In each instance, he asserts a distinction
where there appears to be no difference. Whether we call it writing or
inditing, the activity in question is not the same in all cases: some
texts are generated by their authors, others by their subjects. At
issue therefore is the agent responsible. "Song" and "Of the Last
Verses" portray Waller as an author
disclaiming responsibility for the lines he has written. In both cases,
his trope of modesty nonetheless doubles the credit he receives: we do
not believe his disclaimer, but are charmed by such urbane
self-deprecation. "Song" sees no need to discuss whether its ostensible
author should be taking dictation from another source (such as the
spiritual "grace" enabling "Of the Last Verses"). This omission is
unsurprising: the poem is a typical lyric in its quasi-pagan disregard
for Christian doctrine. In contrast, "Of the Last Verses" acknowledges
the gulf theoretically dividing secular and sacred subjects. But this
sacred poem never takes responsibility for its author's former
reluctance to take responsibility for writing secular verses.
self-criticism as "Of the Last Verses" incorporates seems too muted to
count as censure and too generalized to qualify as a personal apology.
The poem's articulation from the viewpoint of a "royal 'we"' is readily
apparent from its opening couplet, which describes Waller's
immediate circumstances, not anybody else's. But the poem thereafter
mingles such statements with explicit generalizations about the human
condition, imperceptibly shifting its emphasis from Waller's
situation to everyman's. We soon lose sight of such considerations as
whether he should be deemed culpable for the tardiness of his rebirth
as a sacred poet, distracted by the universal applicability of the
sentiment "Clouds of affection from our younger eyes / Conceal that
emptiness which age descries." Waller thus
acquires the insights of a Lear without any suffering or remorse. "Of
the Last Verses" further deflects attention from any thoughts about Waller's
moral weakness by deriving so much solace from his physical weakness
that decrepitude itself becomes a source of moral strength: "Stronger
by weakness, wiser men become, / As they draw near to their eternal
home." Because of their ambiguous syntax, these words mean that men,
stronger by weakness, become wiser and that wiser men [know how to]
become stronger by weakness. 10
Another version of the "Stronger by weakness" paradox appears in a
letter by Waller
quoted in the introduction to the edition followed in these pages.
Ruefully acknowledging that the trees on his Beaconsfield estate appear
to him "as bare & withered as himselfe," Waller
then breaks into verse to register "this difference":
That shortly they shall flourish and wax green,
But I still old and withered must be seen,
Yet if vain thoughts fall, like their leaves, away,
The nobler part improves with that decay.
The analogy holds good until the very end, where the emphasis switches
to the likeness between Waller
and trees, which makes an optimistic conclusion possible, but only by
attributing a similar function to foliage and "vain thoughts." The
possession of such "vain thoughts" may have seemed natural to Waller;
and his "nobler part" would certainly have gained by their loss. But he
would have been a better tree (according to his own moral perspective)
if he had been unlike any tree in nature: bare of foliage from first to
last. "Of the Last Verses" implies that the doffing of "vain thoughts"
has its own appropriate season. That season is always late, never
belated, because a natural "decay" must occur before moral improvement
can. Both texts from Waller's twilight years
therefore confirm that, like the fifth-century sophist Protagoras of
Abdera, he knew how "To make the weaker cause the stronger."11
to Hammond, "Of the Last Verses" both "recognizes the triviality and
childishness" of its author's earlier poems and at the same time
"offers a powerful defense of their existence," because "`Stronger by
weakness' works two ways, justifying the wisdom of age which can look
backward at life and forward to death so clearly, and explaining that
such a vision could have been achieved only by continuous pursuit of
the fleeting things which made up his life and were the material for
his poems."'2 In contrast, I stress the rhetorical deviousness of the
"Stronger by weakness" paradox. In lieu of a "powerful defense," it
offers one of several ways in which Waller
shrugs off any culpability for having been reborn no sooner.
Powerful as Waller's
designated swan song, "Of the Last Verses" becomes still more
persuasive when read as his final utterance. "The last verses my dear
ffather made" appears on one transcript of the poem (2:219, n. 144).
But John Aubrey seems to identify a still later swan song when he
reports that Waller "made some verses of his
owne dyeing, but a fortnight, or little more, before his decease."13
own flesh and blood must be considered a credible authority. Moreover,
many commentators dismiss his friend Aubrey as a trivial gossip. But if
Aubrey's casual approach sometimes leads to confusion, it also records
valuable information that a more disciplined writer might have tidied
out of existence. Though his open-mindedness can approach gullibility,
it means that he does not censor rumors and traditions whose survival
he helped to ensure. His deficiencies as an anecdotalist are readily
apparent; but the candor with which he himself condemns at least some
of those same failings also makes him trustworthy. Both his strengths
and his weaknesses dictate that he should be read with care.
In this case, Aubrey receives support from another source. The
anonymous biography prefacing the 1711 edition of Waller's
poems, explaining that "He intended to crown all his Labours with the
Poem Of the Last Verses in the Book," adds that "this was not his last
Poem, for at Fourscore and Two, in 1687, he wrote Two Canto's Of the
Fear of God, which never yet appear'd in Print."14 On the Fear of God
concludes with a palinode acknowledging that its author had achieved
better poetry earlier in his career:
Wrestling with death, these lines I did indite;
No other theme could give my soul delight.
O that my youth had thus employed my pen!
Or that I now could write as well as then!
But 'tis of grace, if sickness, age, and pain,
Are felt as throes, when we are born again;
Timely they come to wean us from this earth,
As pangs that wait upon a second birth.
(2:139-44, canto 2, lines 47-54)
1711 biography dissents, attributing On the Fear of God not to
declining skill but to unavoidable haste: "Sickness and Death followed
so close, that Mr. Waller had no time to
revise and polish it, as otherwise he might perhaps have done in some
Places.,15 Chernaik dissents too. In a generalization covering both "Of
the Last Verses" and the palinode just quoted, he seems to suggest that
Waller could still "write as well as then":
"The best of the passages in the Divine Poems deal with the paradox of
the poet's `second birth' in old age."16
I would stress the
resemblance between these two rebirths on another dimension: though
"'tis of grace" is the more laconic phrasing, the designated swan song
is just as glib as the palinode in presenting such "grace" as a
panacea. But the two rebirths also differ. Though Waller's
palinode acknowledges that good intentions do not always pave the road
to Helicon, he fails to say whether he more regrets the present
diminishment of his talent or the former misuse of it. Both regrets
occupy half a couplet each, thus seeming equivalent. In contrast, "Of
the Last Verses" pointedly lacks any counterpart to the lament "O that
my youth had thus employed my pen!" Moreover, On the Fear of God shows
the poet "Wrestling," not being as "quiet" as the "seas" in "Of the
Last Verses." The difference between the two poems thus creates rival
impressions of Waller's state of mind on his
deathbed. Unlike "Of the Last Verses," his palinode suggests that he
had been scared sacred.
Divine Love (ca. 1680) rejects fear as a motive for faith: "The fear of
hell, or aiming to be blessed, / Savours too much of private interest"
(2:11930, canto 2, lines 1-2). But there is a right kind of fear, as
this same poem acknowledges: speaking of God, Waller
notes that "His fear to guard us from ourselves we need" (canto 1, line
43). On the Fear of God recognizes and seeks to counter one obvious
objection: "Though the word fear some men may ill endure, / 'Tis such a
fear as only makes secure" (canto 1, lines 3-4). Moreover, "Where that
fear is, there's nothing to be feared" (line 13). But this same poem
also concedes that fearing hell, however much it "Savours . . . of
private interest," is merely the obverse of fearing God: "Tranquillity
and peace this fear does give; / Hell gapes for those that do without
it live" (lines 15-6). Thus, living without fear of God makes hell a
thing to be feared, giving good reason to fear God-not least when
"Wrestling with death."
The prominence of fear in Waller's
unheroic couplets and its tendency to become entangled with "private
interest" may reflect the influence of his friend Thomas Hobbes. Like
Hobbes, Waller faced the problem that "the
word fear some men may ill endure." Like Hobbes, Waller
insisted that fear had a paradoxical role in guaranteeing security:
"'Tis such a fear as only makes secure." Like Hobbes, Walter saw no
option but to confess God's terrifying power: "Hell gapes." According
to Leviathan (1651), "it is a part of Rationall Worship, to speak
Considerately of God; for it argues a Fear of him, and Fear, is a
confession of his Power."17 Other passages from Waller's
sacred poems likewise suggest that he was not "Wrestling with death"
alone. Rejecting Epicurus's notion that the gods "unconcerned let all
below them slide, / As fortune does, or human wisdom, guide," Of Divine
Love explains how
Religion thus removed, the sacred yoke,
And band of all society, is broke.
What use of oaths, of promise, or of test,
Where men regard no God but interest?
(canto 1, lines 25-30)
these lines also reproach Hobbes for arguing that social contracts
based on rational self-interest create the "band of all society."
Waller himself had presented Hobbes's
perspective in the Panegyric he wrote for Oliver Cromwell:
While with a strong and yet a gentle hand,
You bridle faction, and our hearts command,
Protect us from ourselves, and from the foe,
Make us unite, and make us conquer too;
Let partial spirits still aloud complain,
Think themselves injured that they cannot reign
And own no liberty but where they may
Without control upon their fellows prey.
(2:10-7, lines 1-8)
Of Divine Love adopts the perspective of an ecclesiastical
establishment so vehemently opposed to the perceived atheism of one
espousing "no God but interest" that Hobbes found himself at risk of
being prosecuted for heresy in 1666,1667,1674, and 1675.18
As Aubrey informs us, such notoriety did not prevent Waller
from maintaining an interest in Hobbes's ideas that lasted at least
until the end of that friend's life (December 1679). Waller
asked about Hobbes's reaction to Spinoza's Tractatus
Theologico-Politicus (1670), though it was Aubrey who heard how Hobbes
felt "cut thorough. . . a barre's length, for he durst not write so
boldly." Apparently Waller acknowledged
limits to his own boldness, refusing Aubrey's request for "some verses
in praise of" Hobbes because "he was afrayd of the churchmen." Waller
then held fast on this point, both despite and because of Hobbes's main
contribution: "what was chiefly to be taken notice of in his elogie was
that he, being but one, and a private person, pulled-downe all the
churches, dispelled the mists of ignorance, and layd-open their
I agree with Gilbert when he seems to interpret Waller's
refusal to write in praise of Hobbes as virtually a tribute in its own
right: "The basis of Waller's
caution-fear-was certainly one Hobbes would have accepted."20 Because
Hobbes claimed that he and fear had been born twins together, Waller
was being witty himself by invoking fear as his reason for not writing
in praise of one so facetiously fearful." Even more wittily, Waller
both refused Aubrey's request for a tribute and in the same breath paid
it, and again in a manner "Hobbes would have accepted." Waller's
summary of Hobbes's achievements sounds like something Hobbes himself
might have said. Its aggressive anticlericalism and disdain for
scholastic theology are perfectly compatible with the minimalist
Christianity that Hobbes professed. But, in Hobbes's own highly
sardonic manner, it also sails very close to implying that Christianity
itself is merely superstition perpetuated by a tyrannous ecclesiastical
establishment. Hobbes claimed that he wished to extract the essentials
of faith from encrustations added by theologians he deplored both for
their inadequacies as philosophers and for their selfinterested
regulation of intellectual freedom. Many readers have nonetheless
refused to see his minimalist Christianity as anything but
windowdressing for his "real" (that is, atheistical) views.22
enthusiasm for the debunking of "priest-craft" and other such
hypocrisies may reveal a "Hobbist" perspective rather than a
"Hobbesian" one. It resembles the outlook of those post-Restoration
court wits who made a virtue of shocking conventional opinion by
joining various strands of libertinism to features of Hobbes's
philosophy that they interpreted in a manner probably not intended by
their author.23 Waller nonetheless distanced
himself from such notorious "Hobbists" as George Villiers, second duke
of Buckingham. According to the 1711 biography, Waller
on his deathbed recollected for the benefit of his assembled family how
he had once rebuked Buckingham for having "talked profanely before King
Charles," together with his reasons for doing so: "I have heard more
Arguments for Atheism than ever Your Grace did, but I have livd long
enough to see there is nothing in them, and so I hope Your Grace
will."24 Unfortunately, Waller does not
explain how he came to hear so many "Arguments for Atheism," or from
whose lips he heard them. He certainly did not hear them from the pious
women who influenced him during his final years.
According to Aubrey, "Waller
sayd to Eliz. Countess of Thanet, That Poetrie was abused, when 'twas
turned to any other way, than hymnes."25 Whereas Thanet may simply have
been a fitting audience for the announcement of so pious a conviction,
Katherine Boyle, Viscountess Ranelagh, played a more active role in Waller's
rebirth as a sacred poet. Of Divine Love was the first fruit of his new
vocation; according to Aubrey, it originated towards the "later end of
Aug. 1680," at her "instance and request."26 Waller's
Of Divine Poesy (1682) also shows him adopting Ranelagh's criteria as
his own: "Poets we prize, when in their verse we find / Some great
employment of a worthy mind" (2:131-5, canto 1, lines 1-2).
twenty years earlier, in a letter to her brother (the physicist who
formulated "Boyle's Law"), Ranelagh had explained why she herself could
not "prize" Waller: "I know his calling as a
poet gives him license to say as great things as he can, without
intending they should signify any more, than that he said them, or have
any higher end, than to make him admired by those, whose admirations
are so volatile, as to be raised by a sound of words."27 Ranelagh's
moral pressure proved insufficient to make Waller
change his ways. He did not feel the full justice of her criticisms
until he found himself as "old and withered" as the autumnal trees
described in the letter quoted earlier. Addressed to her, that letter
confirms the depth of their friendship; it also shows the depth of the
sophistry for which she had earlier chastised him.28 But if some
combination of Ranelagh's censures and his own advancing years got Waller
started as a sacred poet, his friend Anne Wharton kept him going. Of
Divine Poesy bears the subtitle "Occasioned upon Sight of the 53rd
Chapter of Isaiah Turned into Verse by Mrs. Wharton." Both "Of the
Paraphrase on the Lord's Prayer, Written by Mrs. Wharton" and "Some
Reflections of His upon the Several Petitions in the Same Prayer"
further reveal Waller's indebtedness to her
Breaking the monopoly of pious women, another midwife attending Waller's
rebirth as a sacred poet was a man of unclassifiable morality-his
friend John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester. Dead about seven months
after Hobbes, or shortly before Ranelagh prodded Of Divine Love into
existence, Rochester was able to exert a posthumous influence because Waller regarded him as far more than just Wharton's
uncle. In "Of an Elegy Made by Mrs. Wharton on the Earl of Rochester"
(ca. 1680), Waller
links subject and elegist because "lines so like his own" manifest "his
fair soul, that lives in you" (2:89, lines 5, 15). As both Waller
and Wharton must have known, Isaiah 53 had prompted a critical
breakthrough in the philosophical heart searching that led to
Rochester's deathbed conversion. When Waller's
Of Divine Poesy drew inspiration from Wharton's paraphrase of that
chapter, both poets were extending a chain reaction that began when
Rochester heard it read to him by Robert Parsons, the eventual author
of his funeral sermon. As Parsons recalled, Rochester then "declar'd
that the mysteries of the Passion appeared so clear and plain to him,
as ever any thing did that was represented in a Glass."29
Rochester's notoriety as the greatest sinner of his age may explain why
the sacred poet appears to keep him at arm's length, as reincarnated in
Wharton. But whatever prophylactic function this distancing may have
served, the connection Waller himself makes
between Wharton and her uncle only makes sense in light of Rochester's
posthumous reputation as the greatest reformed sinner of his age.
Fueled in part by the comprehensive account of his final hours written
by Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, Rochester's fame as a penitent
parodied his lines "To the Postboy," making him the readiest way to
heaven. The double standard prevailing in late-seventeenth-century
England meant that men behaving badly for most of their lives could
renounce their past actions at the last moment and thereby salvage
their reputation entirely. Only they could consciously or unconsciously
exploit the "prodigal son" paradox that tardily-reformed reprobates win
more approval than life-long believers, for they alone had the option
of deviating in the first place.30 In contrast, women had to be pious
in all things (including their writing), and so perfectly that even a
single instance of guilt by association could damage their reputations.
Praised by Waller as Rochester reincarnate,
Wharton drew Burnet's censures merely for having won the friendship of
the notoriously immodest Aphra Behn. It apparently made no difference
that this friendship originated in the two women's shared admiration
for RochesterWharton's uncle and Burnet's most famous spiritual
charge.31 Whereas Wharton therefore had no choice in her subject matter
if she wished to remain free of scandal, Waller
could voluntarily embrace a sacred muse after a lifetime of courting
Amaryllis in the open. Though he chose to acknowledge Wharton as a role
model during his rebirth as a sacred poet, the more significant
precedent for this self-renewal was therefore the deathbed conversion
of his fellow-prodigal Rochester-a man quite different, but a man
Just as Waller in his
letter to Ranelagh drew an analogy between himself and autumnal trees,
Rochester, in writing to Henry Savile (July 1678), acknowledged his
rapidly failing health by quoting "a good old ballad": "he who lives
not wise and sober / Falls with the leaf still in October."33 Whereas
Rochester's fall (save for its imperfect timing as an event occurring
in July) served as an instruction in proverbial wisdom, Waller's
fall seemed to vindicate his letter's self-serving analogy by being
perfectly timed. As the 1711 biography notes, "he departed this Life in
Autumn" (specifically, in October), "having often said he should die at
that Time of the Year."34 This difference between the two poets partly
reflects two contrasting understandings of Hobbes's ideas. Whereas the
short-lived Rochester drank himself into ill health, if not to death,
the long-lived Waller ended his days as a
teetotaler. Rochester's self-destructive excesses were part and parcel
of a "Hobbist" outlook. In contrast, Waller's
conduct seemed to illustrate the merits of an idea attributed to Hobbes
by one of his critics, Bishop John Bramhall, who censured him because
"he maketh the only end of all the laws of nature to be the long
conservation of a man's life and members."35 Waller
at the time of Hobbes's death seems to have been of two minds about the
validity of that philosopher's ideas. In contrast, Rochester offered an
apparently straightforward repudiation in what he admitted to Parsons:
"that absurd and foolish Philosophy, which the world so much admired,
propagated by the late Mr. Hobbs, and others, had undone him, and many
more, of the best parts in the Nation."36
intensity with which Rochester pursued a profligate existence has been
seen as the strongest argument both for and against accepting the
accuracy and sincerity of the deathbed pieties attributed to him.
According to the first point of view, he was not acting out of
character when he so strenuously repented, but remaining true to
himself as a man of extremes in every direction.37 Parsons conjectures
that under different circumstances Rochester might have penned "as
excellent an Idea of Divine Poetry, under the Gospel, useful to the
teaching of Virtue, especially in this generation, as his profane
Verses have been to destroy
it"; after all, he had demonstrated
his innately "diligent and industrious" disposition when misapplying
his gifts in "Panegyricks upon Vice."38 Rochester did not live long
enough to vindicate these dizzying paradoxes. In contrast, the aged Waller
maintained his life-long lack of conviction when his spiritual rebirth
produced in "Of the Last Verses" a single poem that ranks with the best
of his secular writings-one demonstrating not the "diligent and
industrious" qualities that Parsons detected in Rochester's
"Panegyricks upon Vice," but the mastery of calculated rhetoric that
Rochester himself detected in Waller's
panegyrics upon heads of state.
According to An Allusion to Horace, The 10th Satyr of the 1st. Book, Waller
"In Panegericks does Excell Mankind," for "He best can turn, enforce,
and soften things, /To praise great Conqu'rours, or to flatter
Kings."39 Because the monarchs in question (Charles I and II) had
achieved no conquests, Waller's compliments
to their heroism necessarily took the form of flattery; only the
conqueror Cromwell had earned those same compliments as praise.
Rochester here seems to poke fun at Waller,
as well as to express his characteristic disenchantment with monarchs.
In addition, by combining and distinguishing two pairs of terms
("Conqu'rours," "Kings," "To praise," "to flatter"), Rochester
illustrates the phrasal patterning that Waller
helped establish as a normative feature of the Augustan couplet. But
Rochester's words have a still broader application. I began this essay
by linking Waller's panegyrics and love
lyrics as worldly poems of praise. Whereas his "Last Verses" lack any
kind of art in feebly asserting the importance of being earnest, "Of
the Last Verses" transcends those pious rhymes by exhibiting his
particular brand of art-as defined by Rochester and seen in poems not
confined to the panegyric genre. Fittingly the designated swan song of
its author's career, "Of the Last Verses" represents a return to his
best form because its masterful calibrations do indeed make the weaker
cause the stronger. It self-flatteringly turns the calamities of old
age into assets, softens any opprobrium due to him for so long delaying
his moral and poetic regeneration, and enforces the conviction
(expressed by himself, experienced by us) that grace has newly enabled
' I date Edmund Waller's
poems by year of first publication, unless approximate dates of
composition can be established.
2 Dr. Samuel Johnson, "Edmund Waller," Lives of the English Poets, ed. George
Birbeck Hill, 3 vols. (New York: Octagon, 1967), 1:291, 292-3. 3 Jack
G. Gilbert, Edmund Waller(Boston:
Twayne, 1979), p. 35; Warren L. Chernaik, The Poetry of Limitation:A
Study of Edmund Waller(New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), p
88, n. 55.
Gerald Hammond, Fleeting Things.: English Poets and Poems, 1616-1660
(Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), p. 3. 5 Hammond. o. 4.
Richard Strier, Resistant Structures Particularity, Radicalism, and
Renaissance Texts (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995), pp. 66,
' Waller, "Of the Last Verses," in The Poems
of Fdmund Waller,
ed. G. Thorn Drury, 2 vols. (1893; rprt. New York: Dutton, 1904),
2:144, lines 1-18. Subsequent references are to this edition and will
be cited parenthetically in the text by line numbers, giving inclusive
page numbers on first reference to the poem. 8Chernaik, p. 87.
9 For a fuller account of this poem, see my essay "Better Read than
Dead: Waller's `Of English Verse,"'
Restoration 14, 1 (Spring 1990): 33-43.
I therefore disagree with the punctuation offered in Ben Jonson and the
Cavalier Poets, ed. Hugh Maclean (New York: Norton, 1974): "Stronger by
weakness, wiser, men become" (p. 251). Even though it has the sanction
of Waller's 1686 edition, I similarly
disagree with the punctuation offered in The Penguin Book of
Restoration Verse, ed. Harold Love (1968; rprt. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1979): "Lets in new Light thro chinks that time has made / Stronger by
weakness" (p. 87).
II Kathleen Freeman, trans., Ancilla to the
Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in
Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker"(1948; rprt. Cambridge MA: Harvard
Univ. Press, 1983), p. 126.
12 Hammond, pp. 2-3.
John Aubrey, 'Brief Lives,' Chiefly of Contemporaries, Set Down by John
Aubrey, between 1669 61696, ed. Andrew Clark, 2 vols. (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1898), 2:279.
'4 Waller, Poems, ic.... the Eighth Edition
(London: Jacob Tonson, 1711), pp. li, liv-v. (Waller
was actually eighty-one when he died.) '5Poems, dEc., p. lv. t6
Chernaik, p. 88.
'1 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (1968; rprt.
Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1975), p. 404.
18 On the threats to Hobbes, I follow Richard Tuck, Hobbes (New York:
Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 33-4.
Aubrey, 1:357-8. For a discussion of the Spinoza remark, see A. P.
Martinich, The Two Gods of "Leviathan"" Thomas Hobbes on Religion and
Politics (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 33953. 20Gilbert.
21 Hobbes made this claim in his Latin-verse
autobiography. An anonymous contemporary translation of this poem,
together with other biographical materials, can conveniently be found
in Hobbes, Human Nature and De Corpore Politico, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin
(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994). In this text, the relevant
passage can be found on p. 254.
22 Paul J. Johnson, "Hobbes's
Anglican Doctrine of Salvation," in Thomas Hobbes in His Time, ed.
Ralph Ross, Herbert W. Scheider, and Theodore Waldman (Minneapolis:
Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1974), pp. 102-25, compares Hobbes's
minimalist faith with the theological views entertained by the Great
Tew Circle of the 1630s, of which both Hobbes and Waller
Differentiating "Hobbesian" from "Hobbist," I follow the examples of
scholars who have attempted to distinguish in some way between a purer
and less pure representation of Hobbes's ideas. See for instance
Charles H. Hinnant, Thomas Hobbes (Boston: Twayne, 1977), pp. 146-7.
"Libertinism" is itself a protean concept, of course. 24 Poems,
&c., p. Iv.
25Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. Oliver Lawson Dick
(1949; rprt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 361. (This is the only
occasion on which I quote from this edition of Aubrey.)
Quoted by Chernaik, p. 68, who dates the letter to 1660. Antonia Fraser
(The Weaker Vessel [New York: Knopf, 19841, p.133), dates this letter
to "about 1658" in her character sketch of the Viscountess Ranelagh.
zs Ranelagh and Waller
went back a long way, if Hugh Trevor-Roper is correct that she belonged
to the group described in his essay "The Great Tew Circle," in his
collection Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans: Seventeenth-Century
Essays (1987; rprt. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,1988), pp.166-230,
especially 171 n. 29 Robert Parsons, A Sermon Preached at the Funeral
of the Rt Honorable John Earl of Rochester (Oxford: Richard Davis and
Thomas Bowman,1680), p. 24. In quoting this text, I regularize "long
3o On the paradox of the prodigal son, I follow Larry
Carver, "Rascal before the Lord: Rochester's Religious Rhetoric," in
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: Critical Essays, ed. David M. Vieth
(New York: Garland,1988), pp. 89-112, especially 112 n. 23. 31 On Anne
Wharton I follow Kissing the Rod An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century
Women's Verse, ed. Germaine Greer, Susan Hastings, Jeslyn Medoff, and
Melinda Sansone (1988; rprt. New York: Noonday,1989), pp. 286-93.
32 Marianne Thormahlen (Rochester. The Poems in Context [Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press,1993], pp.109, 220-1), twice makes Waller's sacred poems apart of the context she
seeks to supply. She sees Waller
as a straightforwardly pious poet who therefore serves as a convenient
foil revealing the complexity of Rochester's attitudes. I take the
opposite point of view, arguing that Rochester's case gives us a richer
understanding of Waller's sacred persona.
Rochester, The Letters of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. Jeremy
Treglown (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), p. 202. 34Poems, &c., p.
35 Quoted in Johann P. Sommerville, Thomas Hobbes:
Political Ideas in Historical Context (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 49.
3 Parsons, p. 26.
37Jeremy Lamb (So Idle a Rogue: The Life and
Death of Lord Rochester [London: Allison and Busby, 1993], pp. 37-8)
portrays his subject as an alcoholic too ill in the end to have known
his own mind. Treglown, in the introduction to his edition of the
letters, makes much of the peer pressure exerted on Rochester. Carver
argues that Rochester had always been deeply Christian.
38Parsons, pp. 7, 9.
quote lines 56-8 from Rochester, The Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of
Rochester, ed. Keith Walker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984).
Hillyer teaches English literature at Wayne State University (Detroit)
and world literature at Lawrence Technological University (Southfield).
He is at work on a study entitled Hobbesian Cavalier.A Portrait of Edmund Waller.
Copyright Studies in English Literature c/o Rice University Winter 1999