Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900 01-01-1999
Edmund Waller's sacred poems
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
Judging Waller's "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 contrast, Waller's 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."
Offering 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 Last Verses."
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.
He 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)
His 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)
His 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.
Such 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
According 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
Waller's 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)
The 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.
Of 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)
Indirectly, 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)
But 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 priest-craft."19
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
But Waller's 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).
Some 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 example.
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 Waller 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 nonetheless.32
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
The passionate 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 him.
' 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.
4 Gerald Hammond, Fleeting Things.: English Poets and Poems, 1616-1660 (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), p. 3. 5 Hammond. o. 4.
6 Richard Strier, Resistant Structures Particularity, Radicalism, and Renaissance Texts (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995), pp. 66, 2.
' 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.
10 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.
13 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.
19 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. . 27.
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 were members.
23 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.)
27 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 s."
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.
3 Rochester, The Letters of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. Jeremy Treglown (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), p. 202. 34Poems, &c., p. lviii.
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.
39 quote lines 56-8 from Rochester, The Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. Keith Walker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984).
Richard 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