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It is not easy to think without some contempt on an author, who is growing illustrious in his own opinion by verses, at one time, To a Lady, who can do any Thing but sleep when she pleases; at another, To a Lady, who can sleep when she pleases; now, To a Lady, on her passing through a Crowd of People; then, On a Braid of divers Colours Foren by four Ladies; On a Tree cut in Paper; or, To a Lady, from whom he received the Copy of Verses on the Paper-tree, which for many Years had been missing.
Genius now and then produces a lucky trifle. We still read the Dove of Anacreon, and Sparrow of Catullus; and a writer naturally pleases himself with a performance, which owes nothing to the subject. But compositions merely pretty have the fate of other pretty things, and are quitted in time for something useful; they are flowers fragrant and fair, but of short duration; or they are blossoms to be valued only as they foretell fruits.
Among Waller's little poems are some, which their excellency ought to secure from oblivion; as, To Amoret, comparing the different modes of regard with which he looks on her and Sacharissa ; and the verses On Love, that begin, “ Anger in hasty words or blows."
In others he is not equally successful ; sometimes his thoughts are deficient, and sometimes his expression. Tbe numbers are not always musical; as,
Fair Venus, in thy soft arms
The god of rage confine;
Which only can divert bis fierce design.
Thou the flame,
Kindled in his breast, canst tame,
He seldom indeed fetches an amorous sentiment from the depths of science; his thoughts are for the most part easily understood, and his images such as the superficies of nature readily supplies ; he has a just claim to popularity, because he writes to common degrees of knowledge; and is free at least from philosophical pedantry, unless perhaps the end of a song To the Sun may be excepted, in which he is too much a Copernican. To which may be added the simile of the palm, in the verses, Of a Lady, op her passing through a Crowd ; and a line in a more serious poem on the Restoration, about vipers and treacle, which can only be understood by those, who happen to know the composition of the Theriaca.
His thoughts are sometimes hyperbolical, and his images unnatural :
The plants admire,
Like some well-marshald and obsequious band.
While in the park I sing, the listening deer
To gods appealing, when I reach their bowers,
More deaf than trees, and prouder than the Heaven!
O fertile head! which every year
When mountains heap'd on mountains fail'd. Sometimes, having succeeded in the first part, he makes a feeble conclusion. In the song of Sacharissa's and Amoret's Friendship, the two last stanzas ought to have been omitted. His images of gallantry are not always in the highest degree delicate.
Then shall my love this doubt displace,
And gain such trust, that I may come
But make my constant meals at home. Some applications may be thought too remote and unconsequential; as in the verses on the Lady Dancing:
The Sun in figures such as these
To the sweet strains they advance,
As this nymph's dance
Sometimes a thought, which miglit perhaps fill a distich, is expanded and attenuated till it grows weak and almost evanescent :
Chloris! since first our calm of peace
Was frighted hence, this good we find,
And growing mischiefs make you kind.
Her fruit, and state, while no wind blows,
And the glad earth about her strows
His images are not always distinct; as, in the following passage, he confounds Lore as a person, with love as a passion:
Some other nymphs, with colours faint,
His sallies of casual flattery are sometimes elegant and happy, as that in return for the Silver Pen; and sometimes empty and trifling, as that Upon the Card torn by the Queen. There are a few lines, Written in the Dutchess's Tasso, which he is said by Fenton to have kept a summer under correction. It happened to Waller, as to others, that his success was not always in proportion to his labour.
Of these petty compositions, neither the beauties nor the faults deserve much attention. The amorous verses have this to recommend them, that they are less hyperbolical than those of some other poets. Waller is not always at the last gasp; he does not die of a frown, nor live upon a smile. There is, however, too much love, and too many trifles. Little things are made too important; and the empire of beauty is represented as exerting its influence further than can be allowed by the multiplicity of human passions, and the variety of human wants. Such books, therefore, may be considered as showing the world under a false appearance, and, so far as they obtain credit from the young and unexperienced, as misleading expectation, and misguiding practice.
Of his nobler and more weighty performances, the greater part is panegyrical: for of praise he was very lavish, as is observed by his imitator, lord Lansdowne :
No satyr stalks within the hallow'd ground,
Glory and arms and love are all the sound. In the first poem, on the danger of the prince on the coast of Spain, there is a puerile and ridiculous mention of Arion at the beginning; and the last paragraph, on the cable, is in part ridiculously mean, and in part ridiculously tumid. The poem, however, is such as may be justly praised, without much allowance for the state of our poetry and language at that time.
The two next poems are upon the King's Behaviour at the Death of Buckingham, and upon his Navy. He has, in the first, used the pagan deities with great propriety:
'Twas want of such a precedent as this
Made the old heathens frame their gods amiss. In the poem on the Navy, those lines are very noble which suppose the king's power secure against a second Deluge ; so noble, that it were almost criminal to remark the mistake of centre for surface, or to say, that the empire of the sea would be worth little, if it were not that the waters terminate in land.
The poem upon Sallee has forcible sentiments ; but the conclusion is feeble. That on the Repairs of St. Paul's has something vulgar and obvious; such as the mention of Amphion : and something violent and harshı; as,
So all our minds with his conspire to grace
Of the two last couplets, the first is extravagant, and the second mean,
lovers, by cutting off hope, as gangrenes are cured by lopping the limb,” presents nothing to the mind but disgust and horrour.
Of the Battle of the Summer Islands, it seems not easy to say, whether it is intended to raise terrour or merriment. The beginning is too splendid for jest, and the conclusion too light for seriousuess. The versification is studied, the scenes are diligently displayed, and the images artfully amplified; but, as it ends neither in joy or sorrow, it will scarcely be read a second time.
The Panegyric upon Cromwell has obtained from the public a very liberal dividend of praise, which however cannot be said to have been unjustly lavished; for such a series of verses had rarely appeared before in the English language. Of the lines, some are grand, some are graceful, and all are musical. There is now and then a feeble verse, or a trifling thought; but its great fault is the choice of its hero.
The poem of The War with Spain begins with lines more vigorous and striking than Waller is accustomed to produce. The succeeding parts are variegated with better passages and worse. There is something too far-fetched in the comparison of the Spaniards drawing the English on, by saluting St. Lucar with cannon, to lambs awakening the lion by bleating. The fate of the marquis and his lady, who were burnt in their ship, would have moved more, had the poet not made him die like the phoenix, because he had spices about him, nor expressed their affection and their end by a conceit at once false and vulgar:
Alive, in equal flames of love they burn'd,
The verses to Charles, on his Return, were doubtless intended to counterbalance the Panegyric on Cromwell. If it has been thought inferior to that with which it is naturally compared, the cause of its deficience has been already remarked.
The remaining pieces it is not necessary to examine singly. They must be supposed to have faults and beauties of the same kind with the rest. The Sacred Poems, however, deserve particular regard; they were the work of Waller's declining life, of those hours in which he looked upon the fame and the folly of the time past with the sentiments which his great predecessor Petrarch bequeathed to posterity, upon his review of that love and poetry, which have given him immortality.
That natural jealousy, which makes every man unwilling to allow much excellence in another, always produces a disposition to believe, that the mind grows old with the body; and that he, whom we are now forced to confess superior, is hastening daily to a level with ourselves. By delighting to think this of the living, we learn to think it of the dead; and Fenton, with all his kindness for Waller, has the luck to mark the exact time when his genius passed the zenith, which he places at his fifty-fifth year: This is to allot the mind but a small portion. Intellectual decay is doubtless not uncommon; but it seems not to be universal. Newton was in his eighty-fifth year improving his chronology, a few days before his death; and Waller appears not, in my opinion, to have lost at eighty-two any part of bis poetical power.
His Sacred Poems do not please like some of his other works; but before the fatal fifty-five, had he written on the same subjects, his success would hardly have been better.
It has been the frequent lamentation of good men, that verse has been too little applied to the purposes of worship, and many attempts have been made to animate
devotion by pious poetry. That they have very seldom attained their end is sufficiently known, and it may not be improper to inquire why they have miscarried.
Let no pious ear be offended if I advance, in opposition to many authorities, that poetical devotion cannot often please. The doctrines of religion may indeed be defended in a didactic poem; and he, who has the happy power of arguing in verse, will not lose it because his subject is sacred. A poet may describe the beauty and the grandeur of nature, the flowers of the spring, and the harvests of autumn, the vicissitudes of the tide, and the revolutions of the sky, and praise the Maker for his works, in lines which no reader shall lay aside. The subject of the disputation is not piety, but the motives to piety; that of the description is not God, but the works of God.
Contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man, admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator, and plead the merits of his Redeemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer.
The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights. The topics of devotion are few, and being few are universally known; but, few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression.
Poetry pleases by exhibiting an idea more grateful to the mind than things themselves afford. This effect proceeds from the display of those parts of nature which attract, and the concealment of those which repel, the imagination: but religion must be shown as it is; suppression and addition equally corrupt it; and such as it is, it is known already.
From poetry the reader justly expects, and from good poetry always obtains, the enlargement of his comprehension and elevation of his fancy; but this is rarely to be hoped by Christians from metrical devotion. Whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in the name of the Supreme Being. Omnipotence cannot be exalted; infinity cannot be amplified; perfection cannot be improved.
The employments of pious meditation are faith, thanksgiving, repentance, and supplication. Faith, invariably uniform, cannot be invested by fancy with decorations. Thanksgiving, the most joyful of all boly effusions, yet addressed to a being without passions, is confined to a few modes, and is to be felt rather than expressed. Repentance, trembling in the presence of the judge, is not at leisure for cadences and epithets. Supplication of man to man may diffuse itself through many topics of persuasion; but supplication to God can only cry for mercy.
Of sentiments purely religious, it will be found, that the most simple expression is the most sublime. Poetry loses its lustre and its power, because it is applied to the decoration of something more excellent than itself. All that pious verse can do, is to help the memory and delight the ear, and for these purposes it may be very useful; but it supplies nothing to the mind. The ideas of Christian theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestic for ornament; to recommend them by tropes and figures, is to magnify by a concave mirror the sidereal hemisphere.
As much of Waller's reputation was owing to the softness and smoothness of his numbers, it is proper to consider those minute particulars to which a versifier must attend.
He certainly very much excelled in smoothness most of the writers, who were living when his poetry commenced. The poets of Elizabeth had attained an art of modulation, which was afterwards neglected or forgotten. Fairfax was acknowledged by him as his