Everyone who has pondered the vagaries of poetic reputations knows that Edmund Waller is a problem. When he died in 1687, his tomb was graced with a Latin epitaph that declared him "among the poets of his time, easily the first"--and the poets of his time included Milton, Cowley, the Cavaliers, several of the Metaphysicals, and Dryden. This praise was by no means a distortion of his contemporary reputation: as late as 1766 the authors of the Biographia Britannica could still call him "the most celebrated Lyric Poet that ever England produced."(1) To modern critics such estimates seem the result of an affected (or perhaps depraved) poetic taste. Today when Waller is not ignored, he is generally disparaged.(2) Those who would approach him sympathetically remove him from his contemporary context and turn him into a "predecessor," into the poet who showed the way to Dryden and Pope. F. W. Bateson, for example, posited two Wallers, "a minor Renaissance poet and a major Augustan poet."(3) If my intention were to rehabilitate Waller, I would probably follow a similar strategy; but I wish to do something else, to put Waller into an authentic seventeenth-century context that should enable us to grasp both what was new in his poetry and why it should have been praised so highly during his life and for nearly a century after his death.
Waller was, of course, a man of his times; but what were those times? He was born two years before Milton and fifteen before Marvell. When he came to maturity as a writer in the 1630s, England was awash in poetic styles. George Herbert's The Temple and Phineas Fletcher's The Purple Island both appeared in 1633, as did the first edition of Donne's poems. By this time Robert Herrick had published nothing, though his work apparently circulated in manuscript. Comus, performed in 1634, was published in 1637, "Lycidas" in 1638. Metaphysicals, Spenserians, sons of Ben, all flourished simultaneously.
Waller, though, does not fit easily into any of the categories we have constructed for his contemporaries. Although a member of Lord Falkland's Jonsonian circle at Great Tew,(4) he has never seemed a true "son of Ben." Even as a Cavalier poet he is usually given a chair along the wall, away from the main action. But as I shall show, Waller was responding to a powerful contemporary influence that modern critics seem largely insensitive to. Through various poetic mannerisms, Waller attempted to bring English verse closer to a continental standard of wit and sophistication. He was the first, and perhaps the only, English precieux poet.
The term precieux does not conform easily to English notions of poetic practice or poetic vocation; it has a distinctly French aroma. But this alien concept offers the clearest explanation of why Waller often seems so out of place in his own day, for we have failed to recognize how precieux influences operated during the first half of the seventeenth century. Labeling Waller a precieux, of course, runs the risk of damning him, for the concept of preciosite is generally associated nowadays with the affectations of language that Moliere satirized in Les Precieuses ridicules. But a brilliant satire will rarely offer a solid basis for writing literary history. In fact, modern French critics generally agree that the so-called jargon of the precieux salons actually enriched the French language while the stylistic characteristics of the authors provided the foundation for French "classicism."(5) As Daniel Mornet has suggested, the revolution of Boileau, Rapin, and Bouhours had already been fought and won at the hotel de Rambouillet.(6) In order to recognize the precieux qualities of Waller's verse, it is first necessary to understand the nature of the movement in France and its potential influence on the English.
Preciosite was in fact a social rather than a literary movement. During the early decades of the seventeenth century, it represented a flight from the vulgarity of the French court and an attempt to refine both manners and speech.(7) Its central figure was Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet, who regularly entertained a group of French aristocrats in her famous chambre bleue. Within this coterie, politesse became the defining quality of the honnete homme, a person of both elevated character and refined wit who seemed to possess a natural ability to please. Learning was esteemed in women as well as men, so long as it remained well-bred and devoid of pedantry. Grace, wit, and a free but pleasing manner were the touchstones of precieux society.(8)
The relations between the sexes were reconstructed in terms of galanterie, a code of behavior that turned "love" into a mannerly game. All public indications of sexual interest were to be purged of any grossness and converted into elegant conversation. As a result, though, galanterie helped cover over an ambiguity at the heart of preciosite: did these refined behaviors represent a true purification of human feelings, or did they merely mask darker impulses? Some precieuse undoubtedly wished to transcend sexual desire and to raise love to Platonic perfection. For these galanterie was the outward manifestation of one's true inward state. Others, though, were satisfied to view it as a form of public behavior that had no necessary relation to private conduct. Love was one thing in the chambre bleue and quite another in one's private quarters.(9) Precieux society was of course aware of this conflict, if not from their own experiences, then certainly from the prodding of the poets.
The poetry that flourished among the wits of the hotel de Rambouillet was above all the poetry of galanterie. When these poets spoke of love, they idealized the beloved, reducing her in many cases to a set of conventional qualities. They also exercised their wit on such set topics as la belle matineuse, in which the poet elaborates on the confusion into which nature is thrown when a beauty opens her eyes at dawn and outshines the sun. Of these poets Vincent Voiture was by far the most successful. He first achieved notice through his "Sonnet d'Uranie," whose resonant and atmospheric conventionalities set the standard for poesie galante; and he maintained his position at the hotel de Rambouillet by his mastery of vers de societe. As the house poet, he entertained the marquise and her friends with a stream of sonnets, songs, and rondeaux, as well as with amusing commentaries on the trivial events of their lives. At its best, his verse is often tinged with an elegant irony, but he also sometimes indulged in a transparent sexual suggestiveness by which he raised the double entendre to a minor form of art. In his poetry, then, sexuality was sometimes sublimated, sometimes slyly acknowledged.
In order to establish the conventional characteristics of precieux verse, let us begin with Voiture's "Sonnot d'Uranie":
Il faut finir mesjours en l'amour d'Uranie, L'absence ni le temps ne m'en scauroient guerir, Et je ne voy plus rien qui me put secourir, Ni qui sceust r'appeler ma liberte bannie. Des long-temps je connois sa rigueur infinie, Mais pensant aux beautez pour qui je dois perir, Je benis mon martyre, et content de mourir, Je n'ose murmurer contre sa tyrannie. Quelquesfois ma raison, par de foibles discours, M'incite a la revolte, et me promet secours, Mais lors qu'a mon besoin je me veux servir d'elle; Apres beaucoup de peine, et d'efforts impuissans, Elle dit qu'Uranie est seule aymable et belle, Et m'y r'engage plus que ne font tous mes sens.(10)
The poem is an elegant and sonorous evocation of Petrarchan despair. Like many other precieux poems, it calls into being a special world governed by idealized rules of love, reminiscent of chivalric dedication and constancy. The most interesting stylistic quality is Voiture's reliance on general terms or ideas that emphasize states of being, to the almost complete neglect of specific actions. We learn, for instance, that neither absence nor time can cure the lover, that his liberty is lost, that the lady's sternness is unbounded, that he blesses his suffering, and that reason is impotent against such love. Even the ingenious conclusion of the poem arises from a realignment of the relations between reason, love, and the senses--after seeking a way to help the lover escape his plight, reason recognizes the lady's perfection and binds him to her more strongly than his senses ever did. Voiture has reduced the conventional situation of the frustrated lover to its essential qualities and then has manipulated those qualities rather than probed authentic feelings. This is the source of much of the charm, as well as much of the superficiality, of precieux verse.
Voiture is above all a manipulator of conventional diction. When he writes of love, we repeatedly encounter eyes, suns, arrows, flames, roses, smiles, grace, and pain. Yet his deployment of these ready-made terms is often ingenious. The following stanza offers a fine example of his technique.
Ses yeux, le Paradis des ames, Pleins de ris, d'attraits, et de flames, Faisoient de la nuit un beau jour: Astres de divines puissances, De qui l'empire de l'Amour Prend ses meilleures influences.(11)
The language is drawn from the standard diction of poesie galante, but Voiture has found new ways to employ it. The lady's eyes, full of the expected smiles, charms, and flames, are first a paradise where her lovers' souls can dwell blissfully. And in typical precieux fashion, those eyes turn night to day. But Voiture suddenly changes them into stars that, in astrological terms, give Love his "influence." The diction is conventional, but the conceit is new. Such a poet is like a chess master who, with a limited stock of pieces, can make an almost infinite number of moves.
In a wide-ranging study of the social and literary characteristics of preciosite, Roger Lathuillere isolated several additional stylistic qualities in Voiture that deserve consideration, for they constitute some of the exact qualities that we will later encounter in Waller. For example, Voiture favored the plural form of nouns that denote feelings: tristesses, depits, desespoirs. As Lathuillere notes, the plural allows the reader to ponder the richness or complexity of the abstract idea without its being divided up into its constituent parts or having its various manifestations enumerated.(12) Words that represent female attractiveness--attraits, appas, charmes, graces--generally appear in the plural as well, maintaining the abstract perfection of the beloved. In addition we find Voiture's poetry saturated with hyperbole: a lady is likely to be la plus aimable, her eyes or hands incomparables, her mouth sans pareille.(13) A lover's suffering is sure to be infinie, and the lady's beauty will strike him a merveilles. Finally, especially in the letters for which he was renowned, Voiture frequently employed noun phrases to characterize a situation or state of being: tendresse d'ame, grandeur de courage. Such phrases allowed him to shift the emphasis in the direction of the true precieux sensibility, away from the thing itself and towards the state of feeling associated with it. Phrases of this sort were typical of precieux language generally, and they constitute one of the authentic aspects of its "affectation." Along with the use of hyperbole, they also mark one of the primary intersections of the speech of the salons and the literary practice of the day.(14)
But there was another Voiture, a poet with a slyer wit who teased his audience with off-color remarks. For instance, the "Stances sur sa maistresse rencontree en habit de garcon, un soir de Carnaval" purports to tell of Voiture's sudden passion for a young boy that he encountered during carnival. The "boy," "plus beau que celuy de Cythere," is of course a young woman in disguise. Voiture takes the opportunity, though, to play delightfully with the homosexual implications of this passion.
si le but de cette pensee, A ma conscience offensee, J'en ay desja le chastiment; Car le feu qui brusla Gomore, Ne fut jamais si vehement, Que celuy-la qui me devore. Mais je ne croy pas que l'on blasme L'amoureuse ardeur dont m'enflame Le bel oeil de ce jouvenceau, Ni qu'aimer d'une amour extreme Ce que Nature a fait de beau, Soit un peche contre elle-mesme.(15)
The flame that burns within the lover is more fierce than that which destroyed Gomorrah. And how can an appreciation of Nature's beauty be unnatural? But Voiture soon begins to exploit the more conventional comic possibilities of the encounter. When the "boy" does not show up the next day, the disappointed Voiture concludes,
... sous l'habit d'un garqon Il portoit le coeur d'une femme.
Lacking his true love, he consoles himself with loving a young woman who resembles the boy. But even then Voiture has one more trick in store. The boy, he says, has stolen his heart, and he suspects that the girl is an accomplice, a receiver of stolen goods. The poem ends with an address to the god Amour:
La mauvaise me tient ravie Mon ame, mon coeur, et ma vie, Car chez elle se vient sauver Le voleur de cette depouille; Mais j'espere tout retrouver, Si tu [i.e., Amour] permets que je la fouille.(16)
He might get back his ravished soul if Love would only allow him to frisk her. So much for the prudery of the hotel de Rambouillet.
Some of his most successful poems in this vein contain no obvious or direct sexual references, but hint at an earthier meaning while employing the language of the higher love. Perhaps his best known poem of this sort is the rondeau "Ou vous scavez." The speaker is in love with a lady who gives him no sign of whether she returns his feelings. As a result he sighs and cries without relief. The modest nature of what he asks of her is expressed in the poem's conclusion:
Je n'attens pas tout le contentement Qu'on peut donner aux peines d'un Amant, Et qui pourroit me tirer de martyre, A si grand bien mon courage n'aspire; Mais laissez-moy vous toucher seulement Off vous scavez.(17)
The speaker seems to resign any claim to sexual fulfillment until the very close, when he asks that he be allowed to touch her, "you know where." But even this request is ambiguous, for the lines play off a precieux formula that Voiture had used in other poems, toucher le coeur.(18) The ambiguity is piquant, the poem thoroughly urbane.
Finally, there is Voiture the witty raconteur of the tribulations of aristocratic life. When a lady's carriage is overturned and her skirt thrown over her head, he relates how he was "pris par le derriere"--that is, taken both "by surprise" and by her normally concealed beauties.(19) Even the queen was not exempt from his wit. When Anne of Austria encountered him in a garden and asked what he was thinking, he supposedly burst forth extempore with the "Stances a la reine," which offer this embarrassing speculation:
Je pensois ... Ce que dans l'Eclat ou vous etes, Vous feriez si dans ce moment Vous avisiez en cette place Venir le Duc de Bouquinken, Et lequel seroit en disgrace De luy ou du Pere Vincent.(20)
Pere Vincent was, of course, Vincent de Paul, the queen's confessor. Voiture was not afraid to tease the queen with both a quip about her tendre for the Duke of Buckingham and a playful reference to her subsequent piety. He acts like a highly sophisticated court jester, free to poke fun at the honnetes gens, and thus allowing them to show their own gracious superiority to witty ridicule.
From the late 1620s through the 1640s, Voiture set the standard for precieux verse, and the poems we have examined allow us to isolate certain mannerisms that were fundamental not only to his work but to that of his rivals as well. First, the verse is highly conventional as the poet regularly employs such stock images as the lady's eyes and love's flames. The poet demonstrates his invention not by creating new images, but by his skillful manipulation of these common elements. In addition, the reader encounters a number of verbal affectations that reflect authentic precieux usage, including the use of plural nouns to signify both states of feeling and the attributes of female beauty. Finally, behind all such poetry lies the artificial world of precieux love. In this world, feelings are exalted over actions, and an idealized romantic passion substitutes for the grosser impulses of sexual desire. The lover is always languishing for a lady who is a composite of perfections. Even when the poet introduces a sexual innuendo, that artificial world lingers in the background as the basis for his ironic play. The sophisticated double entendre that closes Voiture's poem "Ou vous scavez" relies on our knowledge of a precieux formula for much of its wit, and a more outrageous poem like that on the lady thrown from her carriage derives its humor from the contrast between the scene Voiture describes and the poetic world within which it is set.(21) Precieux society had established itself as a haven from the world's vulgarity, and the conception of love that lay behind Voiture's poetry represented one of that society's cherished myths. But Voiture's audience prided themselves on their sophistication as well, and they tolerated his wry, sometimes irreverent wit so long as urbanity and charm overshadowed any vulgarity.
By the 1630s England too had come under precieux influences. Henrietta Maria's arrival in 1625 with her haughty French retinue had stirred up considerable anti-French sentiment, but over time she encouraged French manners and affectations at the English court, including a revival of interest in "Platonic love," which for a time had a considerable vogue in the Cavalier lyric.(22) The young princess's closest confidante was Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle, who sought to recreate the atmosphere of a Parisian salon at the gatherings she hosted in her "chamber," as she called her reception room. Voiture himself had played at galanterie with the Countess during his brief visit to England in 1633.(23) About this time Waller was admitted to this society as a gentleman-poet. He wrote several poems in praise of Lady Carlisle, including one on her "chamber,"(24) and he was soon courting her niece, Lady Dorothy Sidney, and addressing the "Sacharissa" poems to her. Nevertheless, Waller's character as a precieux does not depend on such circumstantial connections; the diction and manner of his verse offer the true witness.
More than any of his contemporaries, Waller employs the poetic mannerisms that Roger Lathuillere isolated as typical of Voiture and of preciosite generally. In the work of no other Cavalier are we as likely to find "graces" and "beauties," "delights" and "loves." Ladies' eyes shine from nearly every page, and we hear just as often of the lover's flame.(25) In addition to these superficial mannerisms, we find Waller pursuing the sort of topical vers de societe in which Voiture excelled. For instance, in one of the Sacharissa poems, "Of Her Passing Through a Crowd of People," Waller takes an apparently real occurrence and turns it to the amusement of his social circle.
So in this throng bright Sacharissa fared, Oppressed by those who strove to be her guard; As ships, though never so obsequious, fall Foul in a tempest on their admiral. A greater favour this disorder brought Unto her servants than their awful thought Durst entertain, when thus compelled they pressed The yielding marble of her snowy breast. While love insults, disguised in the cloud, And welcome force, of that unruly crowd.(26)
He exploits the incident for its prurient possibilities, achieving a mildly amusing depiction of Lady Dorothy's unfortunate experience of vulgar society. Voiture, one suspects, would have sustained and elaborated the fantasy in ways that Waller does not, but Waller is clearly playing the same game.(27)
Waller's most clever poem in this vein is certainly "The Fall," which plays on a presumably real episode in which a couple tripped while out for a walk and ended up together on the ground. The title, of course, suggests the original "fall," and the poem's conclusion is rife with sexual innuendo:
Then blush not, fair! or on him frown, Or wonder how you both came down; But touch him, and he'll tremble straight, How could he then support your weight? How could the youth, alas! but bend, When his whole heaven upon him leaned? If aught by him amiss were done, 'Twas that he let you rise so soon.(28)
As in Voiture, the language itself suggests an artificial world built on romantic exaggeration: the lady's mere touch is overpowering to the youth, and she constitutes "his whole heaven." But several lines admit double meanings that play ironically off the poem's surface, and the implications of the final couplet are unmistakable.
Also like Voiture, Waller can manipulate conventional precieux materials with great skill. In "The Self-Banished," a lover addresses a lady who does not return his love. He tells her that he avoids her presence because all contact increases both his love and his pain. At the center of the poem stands an ingenious reworking of a standard precieux trope: instead of comparing the lady's beauty to the sun, he compares his condition to a sun-induced fever.
Who in the spring, from the new sun, Already has a fever got, Too late begins those shafts to shun, Which Phoebus through his veins has shot; Too late he would the pain assuage, And to thick shadows does retire; About with him he bears the rage, And in his tainted blood the fire.(29)
In this passage, the "rage" and "fire" in the "tainted blood" are properly the physical effects of heat stroke; only by implicit comparison do they become the symptoms of frustrated love.
But despite such similarities, I do not wish to suggest that Waller is a mere English copy of Voiture, for the two can differ markedly. Waller in fact often displays a greater reticence and decorum, that is, often seems more typically precieux by our normal understanding of the term, than Voiture. And in his lyric poems Waller can achieve a unique poetic voice through the very quality that modern critics dislike in him--the restraint of his manner. He addresses a number of the topics current among his English contemporaries, and in his handling of these, we can best see how precieux mannerism shapes his verse.
Several of Waller's best known poems are wooing poems in the carpe diem tradition. To the modern taste, which posits Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" as the standard, Waller's poems seem slight and unsatisfying. But if we engage them as precieux adaptations of the theme, we find both subtlety and delicacy. The most perfect of his poems in this vein is undoubtedly "Go, Lovely Rose!"
Go, lovely Rose! Tell her that wastes her time and me That now she knows, When I resemble her to thee, How sweet and fair she seems to be. Tell her that's young, And shuns to have her graces spied, That hadst thou sprung In deserts, where no men abide, Thou must have uncommended died. Small is the worth Of beauty from the light retired; Bid her come forth, Suffer herself to be desired, And not blush so to be admired. Then die! that she The common fate of all things rare May read in thee; How small a part of time they share That are so wondrous sweet and fair!(30)
The poem is well mannered and elegant, suffused with galanterie; but for many modern readers, its good manners obscure its erotic implications and destroy its impact. It has, for instance, no overt call to indulge one's sexual desires. But the art of the precieux is one of presentation. To begin with, the speaker addresses the rose, not the lady;(31) thus all of the poem's aims are achieved by indirection. The speaker is a pining lover, the lady "sweet and fair," an idealized object of precieux devotion. In the splendid zeugma of the first stanza, "Tell her that wastes her time and me," Waller merges the carpe diem theme (wasting time) with the lover's typical complaint (wasting me). This young lady, though, is shy rather than coy; she "shuns to have her graces spied." (In "graces" we have, of course, one of those generalized plurals typical of Voiture.) Waller tinges his description of the lady with a mild irony in the lover's plea that she "suffer herself to be desired"; this reluctant girl must be coaxed to permit what others of her sex so clearly seek.
Waller has damped the eroticism of the situation with his understated language. The fate of the rose, if it were to bloom in a desert, would be to live and die "uncommended"; her would-be lovers, well-bred and polite, "admire" her. (This last word, though, had more force in Waller's day than it does in ours; it still carried its root meaning of "to wonder at.") The poem's quiet manner, though, is interrupted, just for a second, at the start of the final stanza: "Then die!" This command marks the intrusion of harsh reality into the world of wondering lovers and blushing girls. Waller soon retreats to the cover of precieux diction, closing with the hyperbolic description "so wondrous sweet and fair"; but he has made his point, the swift passing of beauty in all its forms.
To modern readers, the manner of the poem is itself a fault: it smells too much of galanterie. But within the precieux context, the introduction of the carpe diem theme is both original and surprising. Preciosite is by its nature reticent and restrained, carpe diem direct and sensual. In Voiture we had already seen idealized love compromised by sexual suggestion, but here the handling is more discreet. Waller's lover makes no vulgar suggestion, not even a double entendre. Let the rose die, that is enough; everything else is inferred from the tradition. In addition, we must never forget that such poems are not attempts to seduce but to impress; their audience does not consist of bashful young ladies but the members of a coterie knowledgeable of both the world and letters. Such artifice may not be to the modern taste, but we should not mistake its nature or its ends.
Waller elaborates the carpe diem theme in a more complex manner in "To a Lady in a Garden":
Sees not my love how time resumes The glory which he lent these flowers? Though none should taste of their perfumes, Yet must they live but some few hours; Time what we forbear devours!(32)
The language here seems formal and artificial, especially because of the Latinate word "resumes" in the first line and the poetic diction of"glory" in the next. But if we can bring ourselves to look past this formality, a quality not the least distasteful to the precieux sensibility, we find subtle development. By the 1630s, "glory" had not yet become empty diction; here it still had a conceptual freshness--a sort of heavenly splendor transferred to the beauty of the flowers.(33) Time, we are told, has "resumed" (taken back) the beauty which it had only lent in the first place. The next image, "tasting" the flowers' "perfumes," has a delicate, sensual suggestiveness that contrasts sharply with the stanza's final word, "devours," making it seem shocking. In addition, the Latin verb "sumo," the root of "resumes," was often used for taking up food; "resumes" and "devours" thus resonate with the idea of time feeding on life.
The second stanza turns to myth and history to illustrate its argument, but it adds a curious twist to its lessons:
Had Helen, or the Egyptian Queen, Been ne'er so thrifty of their graces, Those beauties must at length have been The spoil of age, which finds out faces In the most retired places.
Indeed, neither Helen nor Cleopatra had been "thrifty of their graces," but we discover that virtuous restraint would have made no difference in the end. Beauty will inevitably be "the spoil of age" as that implacable searcher carries off its booty, no matter how carefully it had been hidden. I must also note that the phrase "the spoil of age" is a brilliant encapsulation of beauty's fate, almost Horatian in its conciseness and evocative power.
In the third stanza Waller employs another set of conventions frequently associated with carpe diem, the seasons, but he uses them with great ingenuity:
Should some malignant planet bring A barren drought, or ceaseless shower, Upon the autumn or the spring, And spare us neither fruit nor flower; Winter would not stay an hour.
In this stanza a life is likened to a year, ending in a desolate winter; but Waller disguises this archetypal pattern by focusing on the potential destructiveness of weather. Harsh weather holds an important place in the history of carpe diem; Horace had used it as a symbol of life's rigors and thus as a spur to conviviality.(34) Waller, though, calls attention to these malignant forces largely to undercut them. Do not think, he counsels the lady, that suffering privations now will bring some future reward; your misery will not forestall the onset of winter.
The poem concludes with an understatement that is typical of Waller at his best:
Could the resolve of love's neglect Preserve you from the violation Of coming years, then more respect Were due to so divine a fashion, Nor would I indulge my passion.
The language is again subtle. In the phrase "the resolve of love's neglect," Waller shifts the emphasis from sexual activity itself to the lady's determination to avoid it. (The phrase, of course, constitutes one of the precieux verbal mannerisms pointed out by Lathuillere.) But this "resolve" will not prevent her "violation"--a powerful and unexpected word, especially when put in such a context of reticence and delicacy. Finally, the speaker adopts a mildly ironic tone when he refers to the lady's chastity as "so divine a fashion"; his cavalier disdain points up the fact that in a poem like this, chastity is not a virtue but an obstruction.
This poem is a skillful adaptation of precieux conventions to the carpe diem theme. It works by the inversion of one of the fundamental principles of precieux poetry that I described above. Here it is not the idealized world of precieux love that lies behind the poem, but the franker, more sexually charged world of carpe diem. The surface of the poem, though, is all precieux mannerliness. The lover betrays none of the aggressiveness typical of the suitors in such poems; he is reserved, a gentleman throughout. Even in the poem's close he makes his point by indirection: if indeed the lady could avoid being violated by time, he would restrain his own desires. But we know that the first is impossible, so restraint is foolish. The speaker's galanterie merely disguises baser impulses. Seduction is his goal, but he clothes it in a mode of address that is delicate, gentlemanly, unoffending. Waller has purged the most frankly sexual genre of all its vulgarity.
In "The Bud" Waller demonstrates that restraint and good manners did not necessarily prevent the precieux poet from indulging in the sensuous:
Lately on yonder swelling bush, Big with many a coming rose, This early bud began to blush, And did but half itself disclose; I plucked it, though no better grown, And now you see how full 'tis blown. Still as I did the leaves inspire, With such a purple light they shone, As if they had been made of fire, And spreading so, would flame anon. All that was meant by air or sun, To the young flower, my breath has done. If our loose breath so much can do, What may the same in forms of love, Of purest love, and music too, When Flavia it aspires to move? When that, which lifeless buds persuades To wax more soft, her youth invades?(35)
Everything in the first two stanzas is sensuous: the swelling bush, the blush of the rosebud, the warm breath that induces it to open, the flame of the spreading petals. In the final stanza, though, Waller appears to dissipate his energies as he strains to relate these wonderful images to the power of poetry: the speaker is a poet, and he will shape that powerful, warm breath into the forms "of purest love" to "move" Flavia. At this point, of course, we recognize the sudden introduction of the artificial world of precieux love, which, at least for modern readers, breaks the spell of the earlier images. Nevertheless, the intrusion of this material points out once again some of the ambiguities implicit in preciosite. How is the sensuousness of the early part of the poem to be reconciled with the reference to "purest love" towards the end? Those images contain nothing explicitly sexual, but their implications are clear. Might a true precieux reader simply find these elements compatible? In the final couplet, though, Waller calls these difficulties directly to our attention:
When that, which lifeless buds persuades To wax more soft, her youth invades?
It appears to be nothing more than his persuasive and cajoling breath that will "invade" Flavia's youth, but the verb suggests something more.
This poem is not, in my opinion, totally successful. The images of the first two stanzas are too evocative to be counterbalanced by the unsupported reference to "purest love." And the sudden transition by which "breath" shifts from its literal sense to a figurative use as poetry seems weak and contrived in comparison with the earlier images. But an awareness of precieux ambiguities offers the most satisfactory way to reconcile the poem's final stanza with its original direction.
The tension between purified and sensual conceptions of love is at the heart of Waller's poem "From a Child." In these verses, a young boy addresses a lady who had recently "wrapped" his head, apparently after some sort of injury. The boy uses the language of love in addressing the lady--"The early love your brighter eyes produce"--and these expressions make her uncomfortable:
The sound of love makes your soft heart afraid, And guard itself, though but a child invade, And innocently at your white breast throw A dart as white, a ball of new fall'n snow.(36)
The same language that expresses sexual attraction is here supposedly capable of bearing innocent meanings. And if the purest love is not sexual, why should not the lady's eyes have the same effect on a boy as on a man? Is not the child capable of experiencing both beauty and love? Perhaps. But only in a precieux atmosphere would such ideas even be entertained.
These ambiguities become much more piquant in Waller's "To a Very Young Lady," for that poem stands in a tradition of verse, from Anacreon down to the Renaissance, on young women as the objects of sexual desire. As Warren Chernaik has shown, the ancients focused on an older man's desire for a young girl; but, he adds, "more often than not, English poets reinterpret the tradition to desexualize the relationship, placing greater emphasis on praise and on admonition and eliminating the idea of seduction."(37) In Waller's case, though, his precieux mannerisms can actually complicate our response.
In the first stanza of "To a Very Young Lady," the speaker laments his coming "so untimely forth"; he is distraught that time has separated him "From that which I was born to love."(38) The second stanza addresses the young lady directly in an interesting manipulation of precieux conventions:
Yet, fairest blossom! do not slight That age which you may know so soon; The rosy morn resigns her light, And milder glory, to the noon; And then what wonders shall you do, Whose dawning beauty warms us so?
Waller contrasts dawn to day in order to depict the growing power of beauty in a young woman, but he makes this young lady's "dawning beauty" preternatural, for her sunrise offers not only rosy light but warmth as well. The poem concludes with language and argument typical of the precieux manner. "Hope" awaits the coming of summer,
For with a full hand that [i.e., summer] does bring All that was promised by the spring.
The seasons are here used to reproduce the argument of the previous stanza: the summer, like the noon of day, will bring her beauty to its fullness. But what are we to make of the "love" and "warmth" referred to in the first two stanzas? Is this Chernaik's desexualized praise of a young woman, or do these words hint at something more?
A great deal, I would argue, depends on who is reading the poem, especially because a poem like this would have had several distinct audiences. The poem was originally addressed to Lucy Sidney, Sacharissa's younger sister; and Waller would certainly have represented it as an elegant compliment in the chaste precieux manner. It praised the young lady's beauty in terms of flowers, suns, and rosy dawns. The speaker laments his fate, and his love (especially because the girl is so young) is idealized and pure. For many a precieuse the poem must have seemed to reconcile the traditional language of love with purified feelings. But what of those who knew the ancient tradition of poems on the sexual readiness of young girls? For these readers, two odes of Horace would have provided an important context. In Odes, 1.23, Horace addresses a young girl whom he compares to a fearful fawn; he is not a tiger, he tells her, so she need not fear him. He urges her to leave her mother, for she is ready for a man. In the second, Odes, 2.5, Horace tells a friend to temper his desire for a young girl; she is not yet ready for a husband, he says, but wait a while and "she will seek you." In each case the young girl's sexual maturity is the precise issue. Waller has offered this class of readers both a source of titillation and a cultural contrast. Horace writes frankly of sexual desires, Waller of love and beauty. Have modern refinements in manners really changed men? Does Waller look on a maturing girl with different eyes than Horace did, or does the language of social compliment merely disguise sexual attraction? Waller does not ask these questions outright, but they form a part of the literary and social contexts of the poem. "To a Very Young Lady," then, provides another example of how precieux mannerisms can invite more complicated responses than their conventional surface suggests.
Preciosite, though, inhibited Waller from making full use of the classical tradition. In his poem "Of Sylvia," for instance, a lover celebrates his escape from love's bondage:
Our sighs are heard; just Heaven declares The sense it has of lover's cares; She that so far the rest outshined, Sylvia the fair, while she was kind, As if her frowns impaired her brow, Seems only not unhandsome now. So when the sky makes us endure A storm, itself becomes obscure.(39)
Waller here offers us a variation on the precieux comparison of a lady's eyes to the sun: this lady's frowns have dimmed her shining beauty, allowing the speaker to break free. But Waller is playing another game as well; the opening verse echoes a very different poem, Horace's Odes, 4. 13:
Audivere Lyce di mea vota: dii Audivere Lyce. fis anus, et tamen Vis formosa videri.(40)
[The gods have heard my prayers, Lyce; the gods, Lyce, have heard. You have become an old woman, and you still wish to seem beautiful.]
Horace exults in revenge. Lyce, who had rejected him long before, has become ridiculous and disgusting. The poem is as cruel as it is brilliant. But Waller's precieux mannerliness bars him from undisguised cruelty. In fact, his poem is not cruel at all. Sylvia, who once outshone all others, "seems only not unhandsome now." This description is a delicate compound of humor, elegance, and wit. Waller grants his speaker a kind of stagy hauteur as he brings the lady down, but not too far down, with his delicately modulated litotes.
But Waller has no place to go with his Horatian allusion, and so he must conceive an entirely new situation for the second stanza. The speaker has a new love, Flavia, but he will not tell her his feelings. He fears that she too will have her beauty dimmed if he should disclose his passion; as a selfless lover, he will not subject her to this trial.
Better a thousand such as I, Their grief untold, should pine and die, Than her bright morning, overcast With sullen clouds, should be defaced.
Waller here has created an artificial world where a considerate lover would rather "pine and die" than put his lady to the test, but he treats this world with an ironic detachment. He stands outside it and makes us smile at the lover's reasoning. Thus a poem that begins with an echo of Horace's cruel exultation ends as a playful exercise in precieux love.
Let me offer a final example from Voiture in order to show how Waller often differs from his French predecessor. Voiture too plays with the idea of a lover's selfless devotion in the rondeau "Pour vous servir":
Pour vous servir, j'ay pu me desgager D'une autre amour, et desire changer Un logement qui pourroit me suffire, Et sans prevoir si mon sort seroit pire, Je n'ay point eu regret de desloger. En quatre jours j'ay sceu demesnager, Dessous vos loix j'ay voulu me ranger, Et quitterois derechef un empire Pour vous servir. Mais si cela ne vous peut obliger, Je changeray sans beaucoup m'affliger, Car j'ay le coeur tout fait comme de cire, Doux et traitable, et s'il faut vous le dire, Je suis volage, inconstant et leger Pour vous servir.(41)
This is indeed an obliging lover. To serve his new love, he quit his old, even though she was quite satisfactory. But if his actions do not gratify her, he will gladly change again, for he is tractable and will even be inconstant--to serve her. The tone here is wonderfully arch as Voiture's roguish conclusion actually mocks the conventions of precieux love. This is the same poet who in the "Sonnet d'Uranie" treats this artificial world without a hint of irony. Herein lies a difference between the two writers. Waller is rarely so totally serious about precieux love or so obviously mocking. For him preciosite is a manner. His carpe diem poems play with all the traditional arguments of that genre, but he couches those arguments in more decorous language. And in the poems that conjure up a world in which lovers play by precieux rules, he rarely mocks those rules outright, although he sometimes allows us to look upon that world with an amused detachment. He merely hints to us that this is not the world of real love, even if it is a world that many of his contemporaries, in both France and England, wanted to will into existence. And his poetry is perhaps most interesting when it calls to our attention the uneasy relationship between precieux love and sexual desire.
In concluding, I would like to offer a few suggestions why a precieux poet should have been lionized for more than a century as England's greatest writer of lyric verse. First, the precieux manner, with its conscious attempt to eschew all vulgarity, fulfills the demands of social propriety, a concept that achieved general acceptance after the Restoration when Dryden and others insisted that literature must be as well bred as its aristocratic audience. Waller, though, had already been writing to these standards during the 1630s, long before the concept had become critical dogma. There is no cause for surprise, though. Dryden and his contemporaries derived their idea of social propriety from the attitudes then prevailing in France, and those attitudes themselves had descended, with some modification, from the salon culture that first gave rise to preciosite.(42) As a result, although Waller wrote to a particular contemporary taste, he inadvertantly satisfied one of the most important demands of a subsequent generation of poets and critics.
Second, several qualities of Waller's verse fulfilled a now unfashionable way of thinking about lyric poetry. For some of Waller's contemporaries, as well as for many people living well into the eighteenth century, lyric verse required, above all, elegance and delicacy of both diction and sound. Horace was the great model. Waller's precieux language satisfied the demands of diction, and the "sweetness" and smoothness for which he was renowned contributed greatly to his reputation for musical excellence. Although this is not the place for a full examination of Waller's sweetness, let me simply note that in the seventeenth century the term generally signified a richness of vowel sounds. The Romance languages, as part of their inheritance from Latin, were thought to abound in it while the Germanic languages were deemed deficient.(43) Among Waller's verbal affectations we find a preference for words derived from Latin or French roots ("resume, "resemble," "uncommended, "inspire") where his predecessors would have preferred simpler, more concrete verbs. Waller certainly chose these words as much for their sound as their sense; and to Dryden's generation, they contributed to sweetening the sound of English and bringing it closer to a continental standard of verbal music.
In addition, Waller de-emphasized rhythmic stress in his lyric verse. His tone often seems intimate, and this intimacy can impart a softness and subtlety to his rhythms. In a poem like "Go, Lovely Rose" or "To a Lady in a Garden," the muted tone actually results in an illusion of natural speech.(44) The rhythmic pulse of the iambic line often seems diminished, and the phrasal accents within the line are allowed to assert themselves. By way of contrast, consider the beginning of Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to make much of Time":
Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may, Old Time is still a flying: And this same flower that smiles to day, To morrow will be dying.(45)
Even though these lines are regular, by Restoration standards they have little musical subtlety; the verse sounds heavier, the rhythms more monotonous than Waller's. After the initial trochee ("Gather"), the lines thump regularly along, emphasizing their Englishness. We can focus the contrast between the two poets by singling out similar phonetic elements. The long vowels at the end of Herrick's first line take a strong accent--"while ye may." In "Go, Lovely Rose," Waller uses virtually the same sounds, but with very different effect:
Tell her that wastes her time and me (2) And shuns to have her graces spied (7)
Each of these lines seems too delicate to bear Herrick's heavy stresses; they call for a softer, more natural articulation. The rhythm of the first is complicated by the zeugma: no sensitive reader will place equal, staccato stresses on wastes, time, and me. And the second, though a perfectly regular tetrameter line, reads best with only three accents:
And SHUNS to have her GRACES SPIED.
The accents seem to accommodate themselves to the phrases rather than emphasizing their regular positions with the line. An insensitive reader can accent Waller's lines as aggressively as Herrick's, but the more intimate tone of Waller's poem seems to demand more subtlety. This delicacy of sound, I wish to suggest, became an English analogue for the lyric beauty that many of Waller's contemporaries associated with Horace.
As long as these criteria dominated literary taste, Waller remained a figure of the first rank. David Hume, whose taste ran to French literature rather than to English, always treated Waller as the preeminent English lyric poet. But Samuel Johnson, who required more from poetry than precieux mannerisms expressed in vowel-rich English, found little of value in Waller's verse. Nevertheless, once we have established the appropriate contexts for understanding Waller's work--first, the precieux character of his verse and then the way those qualities fit into the prevailing taste of a subsequent generation--both Waller's place in his own day and his subsequent reputation cease to be a problem.
(1.) Both the Latin epitaph and the tribute from the Biographia are quoted in Thorn Drury's introduction to The Poems of Edmund Waller (London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1893), p. lxix.
(2.) The best known estimation of Waller's work is that of Douglas Bush: "No poetical reputation of the seventeenth century has been so completely and irreparably eclipsed as that of Edmund Waller.... For us he remains a fluent trifler, the rhymer of a court gazette": English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 175, 177.
(3.) English Poetry: A Critical Introduction, 2nd. ed. (London: Longmans, 1971), 117.
(4.) John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. Oliver Dick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972): 154, 360. Waller, like Falkland, contributed to Jonsonus Virbius (1638), the collection of elegies commemorating Ben Jonson's death.
(5.) Ferdinand Brunot gives an excellent, brief analysis of precieux language in the Histoire de la langue francaise, 13 vols. (Paris: Armand Colin, 1966), vol. 3, pt. 1, pp. 66-74. For broader treatments of precieux language and literary style, see Daniel Mornet, Histoire de la litterature francaise classique, 4th ed. (Paris: Armand Colin, 1950), 25-45; and Roger Lathuillere, La Preciosite: Etude historique et linguistique (Geneva: Droz, 1966), throughout, but especially pp. 30-39.
(6.) Histoire, p. 44.
(7.) Brunot (p. 66) defines la preciosite as "la recherche de l'elegance et de la distinction dans les moeurs, les manieres, le style et le langage."
(8.) This discussion of precieux attitudes is greatly indebted to Domna Stanton, The Aristocrat as Art (Columbia U. Press, 1980), especially pp. 25-30, 119-46.
(9.) For the code of galanterie, see Stanton, pp. 135-39. The women who dominated the salons held a great variety of opinions about sex, many of them distinctly feminist: see Carolyn Lougee, Le Paradis des Femmes (Princeton U. Press, 1976), 21-26.
(10.) Vincent Voiture, Poesies, 2 vols., ed. Henri Lafay (Paris: Didier, 1971), 1: 67-68.
(11.) "Stances sur sa maistresse rencontree en habit de garcon, un soir de Carnaval," Poesies, 1:35-36.
(12.) La Preciosite, p. 391.
(13.) All of these descriptions can be found in a single poem, the "Stances/t la reine": Poesies, 1:63-64.
(14.) Lathuillere, pp. 394-95.
(15.) Poesies, 1:33-34.
(16.) Poesies, 1:39.
(17.) Poesies, 2:141.
(18.) Voiture uses the phrase "toucher le coeur" in his "Stances escrites sur des tabletes," Poesies, 1: 24. The rondeau on "Ou vous scavez" was so well known that in 1710 a young Alexander Pope wrote a travesty of it, much more obviously vulgar than Voiture's original: see Pope s Minor Poems, ed. Norman Ault and John Butt, vol. 6 of the Twickenham Edition (London: Methuen, 1954): 61.
(19.) Poesies, 1:52-53.
(20.) Poesies, 1:61.
(21.) For instance, this poem, the "Stances sur une Dame, dont la juppe fut retroussee en versant dans un carrosse, a la campagne," contains an amusing parody of la belle matineuse, here the brightness of the lady's derriere outshines the sun, which would retreat out of confusion and embarrassment but for fear of exposing his own backside. See Poesies, 1:54.
(22.) For precieux influences in England, see J. B. Fletcher, "Precieuses at the Court of Charles I," Journal of Comparative Literature 1 (1903): 121-53; and Alfred H. Upham, The French Influence in English Literature from the Accession of Elizabeth to the Restoration (Columbia U. Press, 1908; rpt. NY: Octagon, 1965), 308-64.
(23.) Emile Magne, Voiture et l'hotel de Rambouillet, 4th ed., 2 vols. (Paris: Emile-Paul, 1929), 1:220-21. For Voiture's opinion of the Countess, see his letter written from Dover to a Mr. Gordon, dated December 4, 1633: Les Oeuvres de Monsieur de Voiture, 3rd ed. (Paris: Courbe, 1652), 174-76.
(24.) See Poems, pp. 26, 296. This affected use of the word "chamber" was probably intended to echo the chambre bleue of the marquise de Rambouillet.
(25.) The following poems all use such conventional images as "eyes," "suns," "flames," and "roses" in the typical precieux manner: "A la Malade" (Poems, p. 85), "Of Mrs. Arden" (p. 91), "Chloris and Hylas" (p. 114), "An Apology for Having Loved Before" (p. 120), "To Chloris" (p. 122), "Stay, Phoebus, Stay" (p. 123), and "To Flavia" (p. 125). None of these poems resembles the others very greatly. Like Voiture, Waller was quite skilled in manipulating these conventional elements.
(26.) Poems, p. 51, lines 5-14.
(27.) We cannot know to what extent Waller might have been directly influenced by Voiture's writings, for Voiture's works were not published until 1649, the year after his death. Voiture's verse, though, circulated widely in manuscript during his lifetime, and there can be little doubt that such materials found their way to England. In addition, a general similarity between Waller and Voiture had been noted in the eighteenth century by Voltaire, who compared the two writers, to Waller's overall advantage, in the twenty-first letter of his Lettres philosophiques (1734).
(28.) Poems, p. 96, lines 19-26.
(29.) Poems, p. 101.
(30.) Poems, p. 128.
(31.) As numerous critics have pointed out, the beginning of the poem echoes the "I, felix rosa" of Martial, Epigrams, 7.89; but Martial's poem is not in the carpe diem tradition. For an excellent discussion of the dying rose from Ausonius to Waller, see H. M. Richmond, The School of Love, (Princeton U. Press, 1964): 59-63.
(32.) Poems, p.113.
(33.) In Waller's day, "glory," as a visual image, might suggest the magnificent pomp of courts, the presumed splendor of heaven, or the effulgent brightness of the sun (OED). Waller's transference of a characteristic of the sun to the flowers and then by extension to the lady's beauty is typically precieux.
(34.) See Epode 13 and Odes, 1.9.
(35.) Poems, p. 98.
(36.) Poems, p. 94.
(37.) The Poetry of Limitation: A Study of Edmund Waller (Yale U. Press, 1968), 101.
(38.) Poems, p. 57.
(39.) Poems, p. 97.
(40.) Q. Horatius Flaccus, ed. Lambinus, 4th ed. (Paris, 1604), 298.
(41.) Poesies, 2:157
(42.) See my essay "Rehabilitating `Augustanism': On the Roots of `Polite Letters' in England," Eighteenth Century Life 20 (November 1996): 49-65.
(43.) Dryden elaborates on the "sweetness" of classical as well as modern languages in numerous essays: see especially the Preface to Albion and Albanius, in The Works of John Dryden, 20 vols., ed. H. T. Swenenberg, Jr., et al. (U. of California Press, 1956--), 15:6-7; and the Dedication to the Aeneis, Works, 5:318-20.
(44.) Warren Chernaik (Poetry of Limitation, p. 219) appears to have had these same effects in mind when he suggested that `Waller's `smoothness' is partly an evenness of tone."
(45.) The Poems of Robert Herrick, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford U. Press, 1965), 84.…