Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Waller’s Influence on Style
By Francis Atterbury (1662–1732)
 
From Preface to Waller’s Poems

THE [ENGLISH] tongue came into Waller’s hands like a rough diamond: he polished it first; and to that degree, that all artists since him have admired the workmanship without pretending to mend it. Suckling and Carew, I must confess, wrote some few things smoothly enough; but as all they did in this kind was not very considerable, so it was a little later than the earliest pieces of Mr. Waller. He undoubtedly stands first in the list of refiners; and, for aught I know, last too: for I question whether in Charles the Second’s reign English did not come to its full perfection; and whether it has not had its Augustean age, as well as the Latin. It seems to be already mixed with foreign languages as far as its purity will bear, and, as chemists say of their menstruums, to be quite sated with the infusion. But posterity will best judge of this. In the meantime, it is a surprising reflection that between what Spencer wrote last, and Waller first, there should not be much above twenty years’ distance: and yet the one’s language, like the money of that time, is as current now as ever; whilst the other’s words are like old coins, one must go to an antiquary to understand their true meaning and value. Such advances may a great genius make, when it undertakes anything in earnest!
  1
  Some painters will hit the chief lines and master-strokes of a face so truly that through all the differences of age the picture shall still bear a resemblance. This art was Mr. Waller’s: he sought out, in this flowing tongue of ours, what parts would last, and be of standing use and ornament; and this he did so successfully, that his language is now as fresh as it was at first setting out. Were we to judge barely by the wording we could not know what was wrote at twenty, and what at fourscore. He complains, indeed, of a tide of words that comes in upon the English poet, and overflows whatever he builds; but this was less his case than any man’s that ever wrote, and the mischief of it is, this very complaint will last long enough to confute itself; for, though English be mouldering stone, as he tells us there, yet he has certainly picked the best out of a bad quarry.  2
  We are no less beholden to him for the new turn of verse which he brought in, and the improvement he made in our numbers. Before his time, men rhymed indeed, and that was all: as for the harmony of measure, and that dance of words which good ears are so much pleased with, they knew nothing of it. Their poetry then was made up almost entirely of monosyllables; which, when they come together in any cluster, are certainly the most harsh untunable things in the world. If any man doubts of this, let him read ten lines in Donne, and he will be quickly convinced. Besides, their verses ran all into one another; and hung together, throughout a whole copy, like the hooked atoms that compose a body in Descartes. There was no distinction of parts, no regular stops, nothing for the ear to rest upon; but, as soon as the copy began, down it went, like a larum, incessantly, and the reader was sure to be out of breath before he got to the end of it. So that really verse in those days was but downright prose tagged with rhymes. Mr. Waller removed all these faults, brought in more polysyllables and smoother measures, bound up his thoughts better, and in a cadence more agreeable to the nature of the verse he wrote in; so that wherever the natural stops of that were, he contrived the little breakings of his sense so as to fall in with them. And for that reason, since the stress of our verse lies commonly upon the last syllable, you will hardly ever find him using a word of no force there. I would say, if I were not afraid the reader would think me too nice, that he commonly closes with verbs, in which we know the life of language consists.  3
  Among other improvements, we may reckon that of his rhymes, which are always good, and very often the better for being new. He had a fine ear and knew how quickly that sense was cloyed by the same round of chiming words still returning upon it. It is a decided case by the great master of writing, Quæ sunt ampla et pulchra, diu placere possunt; quæ lepida, et concinna 1 (amongst which rhyme must, whether it will or no, take its place), cito satietate afficiunt aurium sensum fastidiosissimum. This he understood very well; and therefore, to take off the danger of a surfeit that way, strove to please by variety and new sounds. Had he carried this observation, among others, as far as it would go, it must, methinks, have shown him the incurable fault of this jingling kind of poetry; and have led his later judgment to blank verse. But he continued an obstinate lover of rhyme to the very last; it was a mistress that never appeared unhandsome in his eyes, and was courted by him long after Sacharissa was forsaken. He had raised it, and brought it to that perfection we now enjoy it in; and the poet’s temper (which has always a little vanity in it) would not suffer him ever to slight a thing he had taken so much pains to adorn. My Lord Roscommon was more impartial; no man ever rhymed truer and evener than he, yet he is so just as to confess that it is but a trifle, and to wish the tyrant dethroned and blank verse set up in its room. There is a third person, 2 the living glory of our English poetry, who has disclaimed the use of it upon the stage, though no man ever employed it there so happily as he. It was the strength of his genius that first brought it into credit in plays, and it is the force of his example that has thrown it out again. In other kinds of writing it continues still, and will do so till some excellent spirit arises that has leisure enough and resolution to break the charm and free us from the troublesome bondage of rhyming, as Mr. Milton very well calls it, and has proved it as well by what he has wrote in another way. But this is a thought for times at some distance, the present age is a little too warlike; it may perhaps furnish out matter for a good poem in the next, but it will hardly encourage one now: without prophesying, a man may easily know what sort of laurels are like to be in request.  4
 
Note 1. Quæ sunt ampla et pulchra, etc.  Things that are majestic and beautiful can long please; but things that are spruce and neat quickly pall upon the dainty sense of hearing. [back]
Note 2. Mr. Dryden. [back]
 
 
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