Edmund Waller -“The Story of Phoebus and Daphne Applied”, “Song” (“Go, lovely rose!”)

Edmund Waller was one of those writers from the category “everybody read them back then, nobody reads them now”. Already in the 18th century Dr Johnson took exception to the ease with which Waller wrote poems both in praise of Cromwell and Charles II, while later centuries found his poetry too cold and formal. The NAEL selects two poems Waller wrote in praise of Dorothy Sidney, the grand-daughter of Robert Sidney, the patron of Jonson (celebrated in “To Penshurst”) and grand-niece of Sir Philip Sidney. Dorothy (“Sacharissa” in Waller’s poems) was a famous beauty, but don’t google her if you want to keep this belief, because in the portrait she looks exactly the same like all the other 17th -c. ladies – heavy-lidded eyes, lots of tight curls, nice decolletage. Which is not a charge against the 17th century specifically, because I guess when you leaf through photos of contemporary actresses and models, you’ll notice similar sameness, just of  a different sort. Anyway, Dorothy married another guy (actually two, in succession), Waller married another woman (actually two, in even closer succession) and what is left of the unfulfilled love affair is a collection of poems to her.

“The Story of Phoebus and Daphne” uses the myth of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne and her transformation into a laurel tree to help the poet make sense of his own love. He assumes the nickname of “Thyrsis” (being too modest to call himself Apollo, I guess), but he says he sang as beautifully as Apollo, trying to woo the shy maiden. The pursuit leads him through “craggy mountains” and “flowery meads”, but still Daphne won’t listen. But the one good thing is that everybody else praises his song, so like Apollo, he reached at a girl and instead got a handful of laurel leaves, the traditional crown of poetic achievement.

In “Song” the poet uses the rose as his messenger. First he asks her to tell the beloved that the comparisons to her serve the purpose of showing “how sweet and fair she seems to be”. Even though the lady is young and does not want to attract admirers, the rose should point out to her that if she grew in a desert, nobody could admire her and so all her beauty would be for nought. The final deed of the rose is to die, to make the girl realise how fleeting all beauty and youth are.

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