Then courts of kings were held in high renown, Ere made the common brothels of the town. There, virgins honourable vows received, But chaste as maids in monasteries lived. The king himself, to nuptial ties a slave, No bad example to his poets gave: And they, not bad, but in a vicious age, Had not, to please the prince, debauch’d the stage.
John Dryden, “The Wife of Bath her Tale”

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Impressions of Waller's panegyrics

Waller’s republicanism is problematic. He dresses Cromwell in royal purple, as if determined to cling to the traditional forms of heroics in reality as in poetry:
- ‘Panegyric’ is full of monarchical language, sometimes applied toCromwell and sometimes to the England he will create: the oppressedpetitioning Cromwell (29-30), England receiving the tribute of other nations’ toil (61-64), England as a lion obedient only to Cromwell (165), etc.
- ‘Liberty’ is defined as the relief of surrendering responsibility tothe “strong and yet a gentle hand” of a higher power, not the lack of interference that some fools believe it (‘Panegyric’ 1-8). The same idea recurs later, with feminised England resting in Cromwell’s arms as the world in the arms of Augustus - hardly a model republican hero (169-172)! The prominent placing and repetition of the word “One!” (124-125) emphasises (unintentionally?) the literal meaning of monarchy, while Cromwell’s “ancient line” in the same verse suggests the hereditary privilege that might fit him for it.
- Replaces the traditional populus>nobility/church>monarch>God figure with Europe>England>Cromwell>?. God not really visible, except insofar as Cromwell is occasionally given divine attributes. Wistful reference to restitution of the “well-born man” (‘Panegyric’ 126) perhaps reveals audience. He seems to write for the traditionalists doubting republicanism, himself included: he paints Cromwell in the royal image to reassure, creating a world in which nothing has really changed.
- His subsequent panegyric to Charles then feels less a change of heart than a relief, more comfortable and natural than his verses in praise of Cromwell.
His writing contains an exceptional number of surely unintentional ironies, usually at his own expense:
- Augustus isn’t a republican hero, and you extol him, while reproving Brutus for regicide? And Cromwell saves us from the evil results of regicide (‘Panegyric’ 151-156)?
- Charles might not appreciate being celebrated for his skill in raping women then accidentally killing them (‘To the King’, 33-36). Simile should really be complimentary on both levels.
- Holland is not “content” to bow before England (‘Panegyric’ 101-104), and will shortly assert this – particularly re. “bending sails”(Panegyric’ 18).
- “Man alone can, whom he conquers, spare” (‘Panegyric’ 116), unless the man is Charles I.
- You know, the sea is not traditionally described as “constant” (‘Panegyric’ 56). If Romeo had tried to swear by that instead of the moon, he would have met with exactly the same rebuke. And the sea proves inconstant in ‘To the King’ - she, having“revolted”, “trembles to think she did your foes obey” (16-17). This may be intended as an oblique apology or grovel for all that earlier panegyric for the other side, but it highlights the irony of the earlier “constancy” of the sea – and the poet.
- Quality he seems to admire most in a monarch(ical figure) is military might, which is equated with sovereignty. Despite the length of his panegyric to Cromwell, he praises little but that, other virtues being mentioned fleetingly if at all. Similarly Charles is introduced in terms that define his greatness by his power to cause injury (‘To the King’ 3-4). Cf. Dryden (eg, AM 22-25), for whom valour and piety (and beauty) are necessary corollaries to military might. With Charles more than Cromwell, Waller invokes the possibility of his power turning on his subjects, thus granting him the magnanimity of restraint. It is the traditional tension between wrath and mercy (Froissart’s Edward III and the burghers of Calais, Arthur to Rome’s
emissaries, Chaucer’s Theseus to Palamoun and Arcite), but without the necessary mediæval corollary of largesse.


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