It was this elogium that gave occasion to the reply (taken notice of in Bayle’s Dictionary), which Waller made to King Charles II. This king, to whom Waller had a little before (as is usual with bards and monarchs) presented a copy of verses embroidered with praises, reproached the poet for not writing with so much energy and fire as when he had applauded the Usurper (meaning Oliver). “Sir,” replied Waller to the king, “we poets succeed better in fiction than in truth.” This answer was not so sincere as that which a Dutch ambassador made, who, when the same monarch complained that his masters paid less regard to him than they had done to Cromwell. “Ah, sir!” says the Ambassador, “Oliver was quite another man—” It is not my intent to give a commentary on Waller’s character, nor on that of any other person; for I consider men after their death in no other light than as they were writers, and wholly disregard everything else. I shall only observe that Waller, though born in a court, and to an estate of five or six thousand pounds sterling a year, was never so proud or so indolent as to lay aside the happy talent which Nature had indulged him. The Earls of Dorset and Roscommon, the two Dukes of Buckingham, the Lord Halifax, and so many other noblemen, did not think the reputation they obtained of very great poets and illustrious writers, any way derogatory to their quality. They are more glorious for their works than for their titles. These cultivated the polite arts with as much assiduity as though they had been their whole dependence.
They also have made learning appear venerable in the eyes of the vulgar, who have need to be led in all things by the great; and who, nevertheless, fashion their manners less after those of the nobility (in England I mean) than in any other country in the world.
I intended to treat of Mr. Prior, one of the most amiable English poets, whom you saw Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary at Paris in 1712. I also designed to have given you some idea of the Lord Roscommon’s and the Lord Dorset’s muse; but I find that to do this I should be obliged to write a large volume, and that, after much pains and trouble, you would have but an imperfect idea of all those works. Poetry is a kind of music in which a man should have some knowledge before he pretends to judge of it. When I give you a translation of some passages from those foreign poets, I only prick down, and that imperfectly, their music; but then I cannot express the taste of their harmony.