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Toward an Augustan Poetic

Toward an Augustan Poetic: Edmund Waller's "Reform" of English Poetry

Copyright Date: 1962
Pages: 112
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  • Book Info
    Toward an Augustan Poetic
    Book Description:

    The almost universal adulation given Edmund Waller in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries -- an adulation which, often as not, attached to his reform of poetry -- has been commonly accepted with little question of the grounds on which it is based. In this essay Alexander Ward Allison presents for the first time a specific analysis of the changes from Jacobean modes which Waller made, suggesting in the course of his analysis that the seventeenth century saw not a dissociation of sensibility, but rather a new fusion, of which Waller is a type.

    By a careful and detailed reading of the poems, Mr. Allison shows how Waller, writing in the genre of occasional verse, replaced the rational, ethical, direct Jacobean mode with a tone of geniality and personal detachment supported by an easy association of ideas and images. The same examination reveals how Waller elevated his diction and how, under the influence of Fairfax, he continued the "sweet" tradition of Spenser in his smoothly modulated metric.

    That to neoclassical poets Waller constituted a paragon is evident from their sometimes excessive praise; that he is one indeed is demonstrated by Allison with a style which enjoys an Augustan nicety.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6195-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Alexander W. Allison
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-3)

    HE WAS, said theBiographia Britannicain 1766, “the most celebrated Lyric Poet that ever England produced.”¹ And if this seems a curious statement to have been made about Edmund Waller, a still greater curiosity is that it was probably true.

    The sources of his celebrity were not solely literary. He was esteemed for the charm of his address and the wit and good sense of his conversation—for a cluster of personal and social gifts not unlike those which Richard Brinsley Sheridan exhibited in a more robust form a century later. And to these he added the virtue of...

    (pp. 4-23)

    THE BODY of poems on which Waller’s reputation rested consisted very largely of occasional and complimentary verse—a type increasingly important in English literary history after 1600. To establish his contribution to neoclassical poetics, then, one might well begin by defining the changes he wrought in such poetry.

    The genre of occasional and complimentary verse, if it can be called that, was given currency by the poets who exerted a commanding influence on the early decades of the Seventeenth Century, Ben Jonson and John Donne. And like most of the genres in which these poets wrote, it had classical precedents....

    (pp. 24-46)

    THERE IS general consent, now as in 1700, that the language of English poetry should simultaneously fulfill our expectations of our tongue as it is spoken and be set apart from the most ordinary discourse. But there also existed then a rather general consensus that felicitous combinations of familiar words alone could not sustain the style of serious poetry. Neoclassical poets might rejoice in lines and phrases which were at once natural and noble. Dryden was pleased that for “Open the door,” there existed the alternative “Set wide the palace gates.”¹ But most poets and critics of the period also...

    (pp. 47-61)

    LIKE MOST POETS whose careers began during the Jacobean period, Waller was conscious of witty and “conceited” precedents and often emulous of them. He had, nevertheless, no constant grasp on the traditional uses of conceit. And he anticipated poets of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century in that he was careful to display judgment as well as wit: he was as sensitive to differences as to resemblances between things apparently unlike.

    “A simile, to be perfect,” wrote Dr. Johnson, summarizing the traditional uses of that poetic instrument, “must both illustrate and ennoble the subject; must shew it to the understanding in...

    (pp. 62-88)

    AUGUSTAN POETS attributed an inevitable rightness to the pentameter couplet as they themselves wrote it. They were confident that the reforms initiated by Edmund Waller had brought English prosody at once to its highest pitch of refinement and into a final accord with Nature. And they believed that these reforms had introduced a genuine novelty: that no proper harmonies had existed in English poetry before Waller began to essay.

    These beliefs were all based on facts, though less securely than was then supposed. Poets of the neoclassical period were careful of the major verse conventions, meter and rhyme. And they...

    (pp. 89-92)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 93-98)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 99-101)