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And the exquisite compliment :
“Poet and Saint ! to thee alone are given
Of the Love Poems we may say with Johnson that they are “such as might have been written for penance by a hermit, or for hire by a philosophical rhymer who had only heard of another sex.” He did not “look into his own heart and write" (as Sidney bids the poet do), but composed his amatory lyrics as exercises in verseas part of the obligation which rested on every man who sought admission to the poetic brotherhood. “Poets," he says, “are scarce thought Freemen of the Company without paying some duties and obliging themselves to be true to Love.” One can easily understand what will be the result when a man writes love poems in this spirit! They abound with frigid and unpleasant conceits; far-fetched images; the misapplied ingenuities of a vexatious pedantry. What they do not contain is a spark of true passion—a flash of real and genuine feeling. It is in the “ Pindarique Odes” I think that Cowley is seen at his best; for by common consent “The Davideis” has long ago been given over to oblivion; and in the “ Ode to Mrs. Hobbs” and the “Ode on the Royal Society” he writes with an elevation, a fervour, and even a simplicity which constrain us to cry—0 si sic omnia! In some of his less ambitious efforts he is also seen to great advantage, and they help us to understand the influence he exercised over his contemporaries. Cowley, in fact, is just one of those poets who shine most in our Anthologies, where their gold is presented
without their dross. In his wide poetical garden weeds are profusely mingled with flowers; but of these flowers there are enough to make up a posy which, for bloom and colour, shall please the most fastidious. In our Anthologies we can forget the metaphysics, the artificialities, the “conceits," and the “mixed wit” which Johnson and Addison have so severely and justly condemned; those grave pervading errors which have heaped the dust of forgetfulness on the poetry of a man who possessed not a few of the essential qualities of a true poet. Cowley was unfortunate in his age; he came too late, and too soon. The prodigal strength and exuberant vigour of the Elizabethans were almost exhausted, and as yet the fine taste and critical judgment of Dryden and Pope had not begun to assert their influence. How well he could write when he threw off his self-imposed fetters may be seen in those verses on Solitude which we extract from his admirable “Discourses by way of Essays," in which ripe thought and calm, clear judgment are expressed in a manly and dignified prose :
“Hail ,old patrician trees, so great and good!
Hail, ye plebeian underwood !
Where the poetic birds rejoice,
Pay with their grateful voice.
Ye country houses and retreat,
Which all the happy gods so love,
Here Nature does a house for me erect,
Nature the wisest architect,
Who those fond artists does despise
Yet the dead timber prize.
Here let me careless and unthoughtful lying,
Hear the soft winds above me flying,
With all their wanton boughs dispute,
Nor be myself too mute. ...
Who loves not his own company!
He'll feel the weight of 't many a day
To help to bear 't away.
Which blest remained till man did find
Even his own helper's company.
The serpent made up three. . .
Dost like a burning-glass unite,
Dost multiply the feeble heat,
And noble fires beget.
The monster London laugh at me,
I should at thee too, foolish city,
But thy estate I pity.
And all the fools that crowd thee so,
Even thou who dost thy millions boast,
A solitude almost." One of the fairest spots in Kent is that Penshurst which the poets have endowed with a lasting fame; and few of the old Kentish manor-houses are better worth a visit than Penshurst Place, the Home of the Sidneys. If the reader should obtain admission to it, he will, of course, direct his particular attention to the Gallery, which contains some good specimens of the great masters, and a few portraits of historical interest. Among the latter he will observe two of Lady Dorothea Sidney,
daughter of the Earl of Leicester. One, by Vandyke, represents her in her lovely youth, attired as a shepherdess, with long golden curls crowning the virgin beauty of her brow. The other, by Hoskins, shows her in her married womanhood, when she seems to have lost none of her personal attractions. This noble lady, in 1639, married the Earl of Sunderland; but in English literature she is known by the name of Saccharissa (“the sweetest”), given to her in his polished verses by her poet-lover, Edmund Waller. An avenue of beeches at Penshurst is still called “ Saccharissa's Walk.”
Edmund Waller occupies a niche among our English poets, not so much on account of his lyrical praises of this old-world beauty, as on account of his share in the development of our versification. Dryden, in the dedication to his drama of “The Rival Ladies,” speaking of rhyme, observes that “the excellence and dignity of it were never fully known till Mr. Waller taught it; he first made writing easily an art: first showed us to conclude the sense most commonly in distichs, which in the verse of those before him runs on for so many lines together that the reader is out of breath to overtake it." Elijah Fenton also speaks of him as the
“Maker and model of melodious verse ; ”
and this exaggerated praise was repeated by Voltaire, who affirmed that he had created the art of liquid numbers. The French wit might be forgiven for not knowing much of our earlier literature ; but Dryden and Fenton ought to have known--and, indeed, Dryden did know—that melodious verse and excellent rhyme had been written long before Waller wrote. The share of credit really due to him is that he introduced the French fashion of writing couplets; those heroic distichs which Denham and Dryden adopted, and Pope, Johnson, Goldsmith, and others, down to Byron, esteemed so highly.
Waller's principal merit is the polish of his verses. They are sweet, accurate, and fluent; but never glow with passion or break into lyrical music. There is such an uniform elegance about them that they cloy and weary the reader, who longs with a singular impatience for some interruption to this elaborate monotony. Even in his love-songs there is not the slightest warmth-no evidence of manly feeling-no sign and token of the trustfulness and fervour and tenderness of love. Waller's suit was unsuccessful; but it does not seem that he felt very deeply the disappointment to his hopes. The truth is, that he thought a great deal more of himself than of the lady, and while he sang was chiefly anxious about the figure he should make in the eyes of posterity. Would Saccharissa do for him what Laura had done for Petrarch? That was what he really cared about; in his case the last thing to be feared was a broken heart. Perhaps the Lady Dorothy saw this as clearly as we see it; and it may account for her dismissal of the sweet singer and insincere lover.
Waller's poetical work is easily summed up: besides his love-songs, he wrote a long epical poem on the Summer's Islands; * a vigorous “ Panegyric upon Oliver Cromwell ; ” some feeble stanzas on the “ Death of the late usurper, O.C.;” and, towards the close of his career, six dreary cantos “Of Divine Life.” He is now best remembered by his graceful lyric, “Go, lovely Rose ; ”.
* Evidently in Byron's mind when he wrote “ The Island.”