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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 harsh, as,
“ So all our minds with his conspire to grace
The Gentiles' great Apostle, and deface
The creeping ivy from his injured side.”
His praise of the queen is too much exaggerated; and the thought, that she “saves lovers by cutting off hope, as gangrenes are cured by lopping the limb,” presents nothing to the mind but disgust and horror.
Of The Battle of the Summer Islands, it seems not easy to say whether it is intended to raise terror or merriment. The beginning is too splendid for jest, and the conclusion too light for seriousness. The versification is studied, the scenes are diligently displayed, and the images artfully amplified ; but as it ends neither in joy nor 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 gracefal, 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 phạnix, 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,
And now together are to ashes turn'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 his 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 holy 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 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 model, and he might have studied with advantage the poem of Davies, * which, though merely philosophical, yet seldom leaves the ear ungratified.
But he was rather smooth than strong; of the full resounding line, which Pope attributes to Dryden, he has given very few examples. The critical decision has given the praise of strength to Denham, and of sweetness to Waller.
His excellence of versification has some abatements. He uses the expletive do very frequently; and though he lived to see it almost universally ejected, was not more careful to avoid it in his last compositions than in his first. Praise had given him confidence ; and finding the world satisfied, he satisfied himself.
His rhymes are sometimes weak words : so is found to make the rhyme twice in ten lines, and occurs often as a rhyme through his book.
His double rhymes in heroic verse have been censured by Mrs. Phillips, who was his rival in the tran
of Corneille's Pompey ; and more faults might be found, were not the inquiry below attention.
He sometimes uses the obsolete termination of verbs, as “waxeth,” "affecteth;” and sometimes retains the final syllable of the preterite,
* Sir John Davies, intituled “Nosce teipsum. This Oracle expounded in two elegies ; 1. Of Humane Knowledge ; 2. Of the Soule of Man and the Immortalitie thereof, 1599.” R.
“amazed,” “supposed,”—of which I know not whether it is not to the detriment of our language that we have totally rejected them.
Of triplets he is sparing, but he did not wholly forbear them ; of an Alexandrine he has given no example.
The general character of his poetry is elegance and gaiety. He is never pathetic, and very rarely sublime. He seems neither to have had a mind much elevated by nature nor amplified by learning. His thoughts are such as a liberal conversation and large acquaintance with life would easily supply. They had, however, then perhaps that grace of novelty which they are now often supposed to want by those who, having already found them in later books, do not know or inquire who produced them first. This treatment is unjust. Let not the original author lose by his imitators.
Praise, however, should be due before it is given. The author of Waller's Life ascribes to him the first practice of what Erythræus and some late critics call alliteration, of using in the same verse many words beginning with the same letter. But this knack, whatever be its value, was so frequent among early writers, that Gascoigne, a writer of the sixteenth century, warns the young poet against affecting it; Shakespeare, in the Midsummer Night's Dream, is supposed to ridicule it; and in another play the sonnet of Holofernes fully displays it.
He borrows too many of his sentiments and illustrations from the old mythology, for which it is vain to plead the example of ancient poets; the deities which they introduced so frequently were considered as realities, so far as to be received by the imagination, whatever sober reason might even then determine. But of these images time has tarnished the splendour. A fiction, not only detected but despised, can never afford a solid basis to any position, though sometimes it may furnish a transient allusion or slight illustration. No modern monarch can be much exalted by hearing that, as Hercules had his club, he has his navy.
But of the praise of Waller, though much may be taken away, much will remain; for it cannot be denied that he added something to our elegance of diction, and something to our propriety of thought; and to him may be applied what Tasso said, with equal spirit and justice, of himself and Guarini, when, having perused the Pastor Fido, he cried out, “ If he had not read Aminta, he had not excelled it.”
END OF VOL. I.
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