Waller and Etherege: Materially Meant
EDMUND WALLER’S VERSE, ACCORDING TO BRUCE KING, “WAS THE start of Neo-Classicism in English poetry.”1 Gentle George Etherege is generally credited with initiating the comedy of elegant manners and conversation. Both are associated, then, with correctness, elegance, wit, polish. Yet these traits seem at the expense of what made Jacobean poetry and drama so explosive: baroque expression, excess, excrescence. Nevertheless, amidst all his regularity, Waller can write a poem of baroque wit. And amidst all his elegance, Etherege can include an action at once both outrageously vulgar and of the utmost significance. And in both instances, Waller and Etherege mean materially.
Also in 1664, an annus mirabilis for Restoration poetry, was published a corrected edition of Waller’s Poems. It includes a revised version of the delightfully pagan love lyric, “The Fall.”2 The controlling rhetorical purpose of the poem is to apologize for a fall, a sexual tumble in the grass. An observer, an advocate for the young man, after narrating in the third person, speaks directly to the young woman in the first person then the second: “So… Met the first patterns of our race” “How could he then support your weight” “’Twas that he let you rise so soon” (18, 22, 26; emphasis added).
Jack G. Gilbert argues that, like his greater neoclassical followers after him, Waller applies the tropes of epic to the contemporary, citing this poem as a perfect example.3 “An ordinary event in a courtship acquires, gracefully, cosmic proportions” (43). While Gilbert seems to me right about the application of epic, I