Lincoln College

A Rector's Love's Labours Lost

Professor Peter McCullough, Sohmer Fellow and Tutor in English Literature

Another small volume in the Senior Library that is neither famous nor rare, but precious for the personal touches left in it by an early owner, is the sixth edition of Edmund Waller's Poems, printed in London in 1693 in a small (18cm) octavo format. Which is not to say that it is a mean book – on the contrary, the frontispiece sports a fine engraving of the poet (after a portrait by Sir Peter Lely), and the contemporary binding in panelled calf with gilt rolls and cornerpieces, and the delicately speckled page-edges, all speak of a certain elegant refinement.

'The physical book in fact captures perfectly the spirit of the work within it, for Waller was the supreme poet of polite style and refined sentiment in the seventeenth century. His poems were particularly popular after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, but his life and poetic career spanned the whole of the turbulent mid-century. Born in 1606 early in the reign of James I, he died under the second James in 1687. As early as the 1630s Waller was admired at the elegant court of Charles I for his manners and poetry alike, as he was in Parliament for his loyalty to the Crown and skill as an orator. Even though his reputation among royalists was tarnished by informing against his allies when caught in a plot to support the king against London parliamentarians, and by his return from exile to serve Cromwell, he almost effortlessly reassumed court favour under Charles II. (Clarendon acidly observed that throughout his life he was 'not the less esteemed for being very rich'.) But Waller was recognised by all as one of England's greatest lyricists (now usually encountered only in the anthology favourite, 'Go Lovely Rose'). His love poems and panegyrics alike are formal, even at first glance conventional, but they uniquely distil polite emotion and praise, particularly through their polished sound and metre that garnered them praise in terms like 'sweet', 'soft', and 'smooth'.

Waller's biographer, Warren Chernaik (ODNB), pinpoints the decade immediately after the poet's death as the high-water mark of his popularity in the genteel salons of London, and on the lips of many romantic heroines on the London stage. Lincoln's copy of Waller's Poems, published at exactly that time, contains unique, and uniquely touching, evidence of precisely that kind of admiration in important lodgings in Oxford as well. On the verso of the first blank page is an original poem, written in a fine contemporary italic script, signed 'By Mr. F. A. to Mrs. C.O.' Over many years in my classes for undergraduates in the Senior Library, this has been a favourite exhibit to show the way books had lives as gifts, and how readers personalised them not just for themselves but sometimes also for others. For here is a lovely little book of love poetry, prettily bound, that had been delicately dedicated by a gentleman, through the medium of his own poetry, to an admired lady. But when carefully read, Mr F. A.'s poem reveals not only thoughtful engagement with Waller's verse, but also further personal touches relating to it as a gift – touches so personal, in fact, that even after centuries one feels ever so slightly guilty for barging in on a moment of such intimacy that is at once bibliographical, poetical, and personal.

To peek at the poem a bit more closely though, and since it has never been published, we might offer a full transcription here:

Each happy page, each finish't line 
Dos with her matchless graces shine, 
And is with common verse compar'd 
What she is among Beauty's hord. 
The Poet boasts a lofty thought 
In softest numbers smoothly wrought; 
Has all that pleases the severe 
And all that charms a listning ear: 
And such the Nymph is – blest with all; 
That we can sweet or lovely call. 
For never sure was any mind 
Of all that from hea'vens Treasure came, 
Of better make and more refin'd, 
Or lodg'd within a fairer frame. 
Such Angells seem when pleas'd to wear 
Some lovely dress of colour'd Air. 
Oh had she liv'd before the old 
Bard had so many winters told, 
Then, when his youthfull veins ran high 
Enflame'd with love and poetry, 
He onely to this shini[n]g Maid 
The tribute of his verse had paid: 
No meaner face no less a name 
Had fix't his Eys or fed his fame; 
Hir Beautys had employ'd his tongue, 
And Sacarissa dy'd unsung. 
By Mr. F. A. to Mrs. C. O.

First, even though the ideal of 'lofty thought / In softest numbers smoothly wrought' is explicitly invoked, we should perhaps draw a veil over how successful our amateur poet was in imitating Waller's skill with metre ('numbers'). (Though to be fair to Mr. F. A., he does not attempt Waller's usual pentameter, opting instead for the slightly easier octosyllabic lines of tetrameter). The first verse paragraph spins out rather nicely the conceit that the dedicatee, as she reads the poem, is a reflection of the virtues contained in the book she holds – so Mrs. C. O. holding the book neatly inverts the traditional iconography of lady-and-mirror as a symbol of female vanity. ('Mrs.' in the period was an abbreviation for 'mistress', and common for unmarried women.) She reflects any and all of the virtuous beauty that 'the Poet' – that is, Waller, in the book she holds – praises. And the particularly lovely couplet that concludes the paragraph with the flourish of an angelic compliment, surely deserves credit for its almost uncanny anticipation of Pope's sylphs from the 1714 Rape of the Lock, whose 'airy Garments flew, / Thin glitt'ring Textures of the filmy Dew.'

The second, final verse paragraph goes in a very different direction, as both argument and tone are shaded slightly by Mr. F. A.'s further extension of allusion to Waller's poetry. The opening exclamation, paraphrased, says that if Mrs C. O. had lived before Waller had become an 'old / Bard', then he would have written only about her: only Mrs. C. O. would have 'employ'd his tongue, / And Sacarissa dy'd unsung.' The last line does what all superior commendatory poems should end by doing – turning attention to the work it commends and prefaces (as in the conclusion to Ben Jonson's for the Shakespeare First Folio: 'look / Not on his picture, but his book'). Mr. F. A. does this by saying that had she lived earlier, Waller would have written about Mrs. C. O., not 'Sacarissa' – that is, the Sacharissa ('sweet one') who was the object and subject of Waller's most famous love poetry, written in the 1630s to express his admiration for Lady Dorothy Sidney (1617-1684), daughter of Robert, second Earl of Leicester. Waller was separated from Sidney both by class and age, she being 11 years his junior, and the relationship, if there ever was one, was only poetical.

But although the dominant conceit of Mr. F. A.'s entire poem is of an extended comparison between Mrs. C. O. as subject and Waller as poet, there hangs over it of course the deliberately playful potential to conflate Waller with Mr. F. A. himself. Only with very close reading can one suppress the inclination to identify 'the Poet' and 'the old / Bard' not with Waller, but with Mr. F. A. Was he suggesting that he presented Mrs. C. O. with Waller's poems not just because they praised female beauty, but also because he, like Waller, was an 'old / Bard', enamored with a young lady, but cut off from her by years and circumstance? To answer that we would need, of course, to know who Mr. F. A. was. And we do.

The fine italic hand in which the poem is written matches exactly – especially in its distinctive capital letter forms and' lower-case 'e' – the hand that wrote the fair copy of the will of Lincoln's Rector Thomas Marshall that is now Bodleian Library MS Wood F.39, fol. 19-20. And that copy was made for the Oxford antiquary Anthony Wood on August 8, 1691 by the then Rector of Lincoln, Fitzherbert Adams - 'Mr. F. A.'

Born in 1652, Adams matriculated from Lincoln in 1669, and proceeded BA and Fellow 1672, MA 1675, BD 1682, and DD and Rector 1685 until his death in 1719. He presided over the College in one of the greatest periods of its earlier history, and was a notable benefactor, particularly to the fabric and decoration of the Chapel, the Old Senior Common Room, and the public rooms of the Rector's Lodgings. He also bequested in his will 'all such of my books in Folio of which there is not some Edition in Lincoln Colledge Library already to be put into the said Colledge Library'; the Donors Book duly records some 100 folio volumes from him, most theology. The little Waller Poems would of course not come under the terms of his gift of folios, nor, probably would such a collection of popular verse have been deemed suitable for a scholarly library – especially as it contained an inscription as personal as the poem to Mrs. C. O. The book probably had to wait some decades before finding its way into the Senior Library – most likely it is the copy only identified as 'Waller's Poems' in the catalogue of the private library of Adams' younger contemporary, Lincoln Fellow and Archivist William Vesey, who also left a sizable number of books to the College (see previous blog post). Fitzherbert Adams lived and died a bachelor. And, when this volume of Waller was published, he was forty-one years old. We may never know who Mrs. C. O. was. Or whether, like Waller's Sacharissa, she was an ideal far out of F.A.'s reach. Or why it seems to have remained in the hands of Lincoln men, rather than Mrs. C. O.'s Did she return it to heartbroken Mr. F. A.? Did he never have the courage to give it to his Sacharissa in the first place? Perhaps when we learn much about the lives of some books we may decide that they should be allowed to keep some of their secrets.

See the SOLO record for this book