Lives of English Poets

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  LIVES OF THE ENGLISH POETS: WALLER, MILTON, COWLEYContents:IntroductionWaller MiltonCowleyINTRODUCTION.Samuel Johnson, born at Lichfield in the year 1709, on the 7th of September Old Style, 18th New Style, was sixty-eight years old when he agreed with the booksellers to write his “Lives of the English Poets.” “I am engaged,” he said, “to write little Lives, and little Prefaces, to a littleedition of the English Poets.” His conscience was also a little hurt by the fact that the bargainwas made on Easter Eve. In 1777 his memorandum, set down among prayers and meditations,was “29 March, Easter Eve, I treated with booksellers on a bargain, but the time was not long.”The history of the book as told to Boswell by Edward Dilly, one of the contracting booksellers,was this. An edition of Poets printed by the Martins in Edinburgh, and sold by Bell in London,was regarded by the London publishers as an interference with the honorary copyright which booksellers then respected among themselves. They said also that it was inaccurately printedand its type was small. A few booksellers agreed, therefore, among themselves to call a meetingof proprietors of honorary or actual copyright in the various Poets. In Poets who had died before1660 they had no trade interest at all. About forty of the most respectable booksellers in Londonaccepted the invitation to this meeting. They determined to proceed immediately with an elegantand uniform edition of Poets in whose works they were interested, and they deputed three of their number, William Strahan, Thomas Davies, and Cadell, to wait on Johnson, asking him towrite the series of prefatory Lives, and name his own terms. Johnson agreed at once, andsuggested as his price two hundred guineas, when, as Malone says, the booksellers would readilyhave given him a thousand. He then contemplated only “little Lives.” His energetic pleasure inthe work expanded his Preface beyond the limits of the first design; but when it was observed toJohnson that he was underpaid by the booksellers, his reply was, “No, sir; it was not that theygave me too little, but that I gave them too much.” He gave them, in fact, his masterpiece. Hiskeen interest in Literature as the soul of life, his sympathetic insight into human nature, enabledhim to put all that was best in himself into these studies of the lives of men for whom he cared,and of the books that he was glad to speak his mind about in his own shrewd independent way.Boswell was somewhat disappointed at finding that the selection of the Poets in this series would  2 not be Johnson’s, but that he was to furnish a Preface and Life to any Poet the booksellers pleased. “I asked him,” writes Boswell, “if he would do this to any dunce’s works, if they shouldask him. JOHNSON. “Yes, sir; and  say he was a dunce.”The meeting of booksellers, happy in the support of Johnson’s intellectual power, appointed alsoa committee to engage the best engravers, and another committee to give directions about paper and printing. They made out at once a list of the Poets they meant to give, “many of which,”said Dilly, “are within the time of the Act of Queen Anne, which Martin and Bell cannot give, asthey have no property in them. The proprietors are almost all the booksellers in London, of consequence.”In 1780 the booksellers published, in separate form, four volumes of Johnson’s “Prefaces,Biographical and Critical, to the most Eminent of the English Poets.” The completion followedin 1781. “Sometime in March,” Johnson writes in that year, “I finished the Lives of the Poets.”The series of books to which they actually served as prefaces extended to sixty volumes. Whenhis work was done, Johnson then being in his seventy-second year, the booksellers added £100 tothe price first asked. Johnson’s own life was then near its close. He died on the 13th of December, 1784, aged seventy-five.Of the Lives in this collection, Johnson himself liked best his Life of Cowley, for thethoroughness with which he had examined in it the style of what he called the metaphysicalPoets. In his Life of Milton, the sense of Milton’s genius is not less evident than the differencein point of view which made it difficult for Johnson to know Milton thoroughly. They knoweach other now. For Johnson sought as steadily as Milton to do all as “in his great Taskmaster’seye.”H. M.WALLER.Edmund Waller was born on the third of March, 1605, at Coleshill, in Hertfordshire. His father was Robert Waller, Esquire, of Agmondesham, in Buckinghamshire, whose family wassrcinally a branch of the Kentish Wallers; and his mother was the daughter of John Hampden,of Hampden, in the same county, and sister to Hampden, the zealot of rebellion.His father died while he was yet an infant, but left him a yearly income of three thousand fivehundred pounds; which, rating together the value of money and the customs of life, we mayreckon more than equivalent to ten thousand at the present time.He was educated, by the care of his mother, at Eton; and removed afterwards to King’s College,in Cambridge. He was sent to Parliament in his eighteenth, if not in his sixteenth year, andfrequented the court of James the First, where he heard a very remarkable conversation, which  3 the writer of the Life prefixed to his Works, who seems to have been well informed of facts,though he may sometimes err in chronology, has delivered as indubitably certain:“He found Dr. Andrews, Bishop of Winchester, and Dr. Neale, Bishop of Durham, standing behind his Majesty’s chair; and there happened something extraordinary,” continues this writer,“in the conversation those prelates had with the king, on which Mr. Waller did often reflect. HisMajesty asked the bishops, ‘My Lords, cannot I take my subject’s money, when I want it,without all this formality of Parliament?’ The Bishop of Durham readily answered, ‘God forbid,Sir, but you should: you are the breath of our nostrils.’ Whereupon the king turned and said tothe Bishop of Winchester, ‘Well, my Lord, what say you?’ ‘Sir,’ replied the bishop, ‘I have noskill to judge of Parliamentary cases. The king answered, ‘No put-offs, my Lord; answer me presently.’ ‘Then, Sir,’ said he, ‘I think it is lawful for you to take my brother Neale’s money;for he offers it.’ Mr. Waller said the company was pleased with this answer, and the wit of itseemed to affect the king; for a certain lord coming in soon after, his Majesty cried out, ‘Oh, mylord, they say you lig with my Lady.’ ‘No, Sir,’ says his lordship in confusion; ‘but I like her company, because she has so much wit.’ ‘Why, then,’ says the king, ‘do you not lig with myLord of Winchester there?’”Waller’s political and poetical life began nearly together. In his eighteenth year he wrote the poem that appears first in his works, on “The Prince’s Escape at St. Andero:” a piece which justifies the observation made by one of his editors, that he attained, by a felicity like instinct, astyle which perhaps will never be obsolete; and that “were we to judge only by the wording, wecould not know what was wrote at twenty, and what at’ fourscore.” His versification was, in hisfirst essay, such as it appears in his last performance. By the perusal of Fairfax’s translation of Tasso, to which, as Dryden relates, he confessed himself indebted for the smoothness of hisnumbers, and by his own nicety of observation, he had already formed such a system of metricalharmony as he never afterwards much needed, or much endeavoured, to improve. Denhamcorrected his numbers by experience, and gained ground gradually upon the ruggedness of hisage; but what was acquired by Denham was inherited by Waller.The next poem, of which the subject seems to fix the time, is supposed by Mr. Fenton to be the“Address to the Queen,” which he considers as congratulating her arrival, in Waller’s twentiethyear. He is apparently mistaken; for the mention of the nation’s obligations to her frequent pregnancy proves that it was written when she had brought many children. We have therefore nodate of any other poetical production before that which the murder of the Duke of Buckinghamoccasioned; the steadiness with which the king received the news in the chapel deserved indeedto be rescued from oblivion. Neither of these pieces that seem to carry their own dates could have been the sudden effusion of fancy. In the verses on the prince’s escape, the prediction of his marriage with the Princess of France must have been written after the event; in the other, the promises of the king’s kindness tothe descendants of Buckingham, which could not be properly praised till it had appeared by itseffects, show that time was taken for revision and improvement. It is not known that they were published till they appeared long afterwards with other poems.Waller was not one of those idolaters of praise who cultivate their minds at the expense of their   4 fortunes. Rich as he was by inheritance, he took care early to grow richer, by marrying Mrs.Banks, a great heiress in the city, whom the interest of the court was employed to obtain for Mr.Crofts. Having brought him a son, who died young, and a daughter, who was afterwards marriedto Mr. Dormer, of Oxfordshire, she died in childbed, and left him a widower of about five-and-twenty, gay and wealthy, to please himself with another marriage.Being too young to resist beauty, and probably too vain to think himself resistible, he fixed hisheart, perhaps half-fondly and half-ambitiously, upon the Lady Dorothea Sidney, eldest daughter of the Earl of Leicester, whom he courted by all the poetry in which Sacharissa is celebrated; thename is derived from the Latin appellation of “sugar,” and implies, if it means anything, aspiritless mildness, and dull good-nature, such as excites rather tenderness and esteem, and suchas, though always treated with kindness, is never honoured or admired.Yet he describes Sacharissa as a sublime predominating beauty, of lofty charms, and imperiousinfluence, on whom he looks with amazement rather than fondness, whose chains he wishes,though in vain, to break, and whose presence is “wine” that “inflames to madness.”His acquaintance with this high-born dame gave wit no opportunity of boasting its influence; shewas not to be subdued by the powers of verse, but rejected his addresses, it is said, with disdain,and drove him away to solace his disappointment with Amoret or Phillis. She married in 1639the Earl of Sunderland, who died at Newbury in the king’s cause; and, in her old age, meetingsomewhere with Waller, asked him, when he would again write such verses upon her; “Whenyou are as young, Madam,” said he, “and as handsome as you were then.”In this part of his life it was that he was known to Clarendon, among the rest of the men whowere eminent in that age for genius and literature; but known so little to his advantage, that theywho read his character will not much condemn Sacharissa, that she did not descend from her rank to his embraces, nor think every excellence comprised in wit.The lady was, indeed, inexorable; but his uncommon comprised in wit, qualifications, thoughthey had no power upon her, recommended him to the scholars and statesmen; and undoubtedlymany beauties of that time, however they might receive his love, were proud of his praises. Whothey were, whom he dignifies with poetical names, cannot now be known. Amoret, according toMr. Fenton, was the Lady Sophia Murray. Perhaps by traditions preserved in families more may be discovered.From the verses written at Penshurst, it has been collected that he diverted his disappointment bya voyage; and his biographers, from his poem on the Whales, think it not improbable that hevisited the Bermudas; but it seems much more likely that he should amuse himself with formingan imaginary scene, than that so important an incident, as a visit to America, should have beenleft floating in conjectural probability.From his twenty-eighth to his thirty-fifth year, he wrote his pieces on the Reduction of Sallee; onthe Reparation of St. Paul’s; to the King on his Navy; the Panegyric on the Queen Mother; thetwo poems to the Earl of Northumberland; and perhaps others, of which the time cannot bediscovered.
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