Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

WALLER.

The celebrated Waller has been much spoken of in France; he has been praised by La Fontaine, St. Évremond, and Bayle, who, however, knew little of him beyond his name.

He had pretty nearly the same reputation in London as Voiture enjoyed in Paris, but I believe that he more deserved it. Voiture existed at a time when we were first emerging from literary ignorance, and when wit was aimed at, but scarcely attained. Turns of expression were sought for instead of thoughts, and false stones were more easily discovered than genuine diamonds. Voiture, who possessed an easy and trifling turn of mind, was the first who shone in this aurora of French literature. Had he come after the great men who have thrown so much lustre on the age of Louis XIV., he would have been forced to have had something more than mere wit, which was enough for the hotel de Rambouillet, but not enough for posterity. Boileau praises him, but it was in his first satires, and before his taste was formed. He was young, and of that age in which men judge rather by reputation than from themselves; and, besides, Boileau was often unjust in his praise as well as his censure. He praised Segrais, whom nobody read; insulted Quinault, who everybody repeated by heart; and said nothing of La Fontaine.

Waller, although superior to Voiture, was not perfect. His poems of gallantry are very graceful, but they are frequently languid from negligence, and they are often disfigured by conceits. In his days, the English had not learned to write correctly. His serious pieces are replete with vigor, and exhibit none of the softness of his gallant effusions. He composed a monody on the death of Cromwell, which, with several faults, passes for a masterpiece; and it was in reference to this eulogy that Waller made the reply to Charles II., which is inserted in “Bayle’s Dictionary.” The king — to whom Waller, after the manner of kings and poets, presented a poem stuffed with panegyric — told him that he had written more finely on Cromwell. Waller immediately replied: “Sire, we poets always succeed better in fiction than in truth.” This reply was not so sincere as that of the Dutch ambassador, who, when the same king complained to him that his masters had less regard for him than for Cromwell, replied: “Ah, sire! that Cromwell was quite another thing.” There are courtiers in England, as elsewhere, and Waller was one of them; but after their death, I consider men only by their works; all the rest is annihilated. I simply observe that Waller, born to an estate of the annual value of sixty thousand livres, had never the silly pride or carelessness to neglect his talent. The earls of Dorset and Roscommon, the two dukes of Buckingham, the earl of Halifax, and a great many others, have not thought it below them to become celebrated poets and illustrious writers; and their works do them more honor than their titles. They have cultivated letters as if their fortunes depended on their success, and have rendered literature respectable in the eyes of the people, who in all things require leaders from among the great — who, however, have less influence of this kind in England than in any other place in the world.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25