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. …