See his poems ed. by G. T. Drury (1893, repr. 1968); A. W. Allison, Toward an Augustan Poetic (1962).
Edmund Waller was the eldest son of Robert Waller of Coleshill, Herts, and Anne Hampden, his wife; thus he was first cousin to John Hampden. He was descended from the Waller family of Groombridge Place, Kent. Early in his childhood his father moved the family to Beaconsfield. Of Waller's early education all we know is his own account that he "was bred under several ill, dull and ignorant schoolmasters, until he went to Mr Dobson at Wycombe, who was a good schoolmaster and had been an Eton scholar." Robert Waller died in 1616, and Anne, a lady of rare force of character, sent him to Eton and to the University of Cambridge. He was admitted a fellow-commoner of King's College, Cambridge on 22 March 1620, he left without a degree.As a member of Parliament during the political turmoil of the 1640s, he was arrested for his part in a plot to establish London as a stronghold of the king; by betraying his colleagues and by lavish bribes, he avoided death. He later wrote poetic tributes to both Oliver Cromwell (1655) and Charles II (1660). Rejecting the dense intellectual verse of Metaphysical poetry, he adopted generalizing statement, easy associative development, and urbane social comment. With his emphasis on definitive phrasing through inversion and balance, he prepared the way for the emergence of the heroic couplet. By the end of the 17th century the heroic couplet was the dominant form of English poetry. Waller's lyrics include the well-known “Go, lovely Rose!”
It is believed that in 1621, at the age of only sixteen, he sat as member for Agmondesham (Amersham) in the last Parliament of James I. Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon says that Waller was "nursed in parliaments." In the parliament of 1624 he represented Ilchester, and in the first parliament of Charles I, Chipping Wycombe.
Waller's first notable action was his surreptitious marriage with a wealthy ward of the Court of Aldermen, in 1631. He was brought before the Star Chamber for this offence, and heavily fined. But his own fortune was large, and all his life Waller was a wealthy man. After bearing him a son and a daughter at Beaconsfield, Mrs Waller died in 1634. It was about this time that the poet was elected into the "Club" of Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland.
In about 1635 he met Lady Dorothy Sidney, eldest daughter of Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, who was then eighteen years of age. He formed a romantic passion for this girl, whom he celebrated under the name of Sacharissa. She rejected him, and married Henry Spencer, 1st Earl of Sunderland in 1639. Disappointment is said to have made Waller temporarily insane. However, he wrote a long, graceful and eminently sober letter to the bride's sister on the occasion of the wedding.
In 1640 Waller was again Member of Parliament for Amersham, and made certain speeches which attracted wide attention; later, in the Long Parliament, he represented St Ives in Cornwall. Waller had hitherto supported the party of John Pym, but he now left him for the group of Falkland and Hyde. His speeches were much admired, and were separately printed; they are academic exercises very carefully prepared. Clarendon says that Waller spoke "upon all occasions with great sharpness and freedom."
An extraordinary and obscure conspiracy against Parliament, in favour of the king, which is known as "Waller's Plot," occupied the spring of 1643, but on 30 May he and his friends were arrested. In the terror of discovery, Waller was accused of testifying against the others. He was called before the bar of the House in July, and made an abject speech of recantation. His life was spared and he was committed to the Tower of London, but, on paying a fine of £10,000, he was released and banished from the realm in November 1643.
He married a second wife, Mary Bracey of Thame, and went over to Calais, afterwards taking up his residence at Rouen. In 1645 the Poems of Waller were first published in London, in three different editions; there has been much discussion of the order and respective authority of these issues, but nothing is decidedly known. Many of the lyrics were already set to music by Henry Lawes.
In 1646 Waller travelled with John Evelyn in Switzerland and Italy. During the worst period of his exile Waller managed to "keep a table" for the Royalists in Paris, although in order to do so he was obliged to sell his wife's jewels.
At the close of 1651 the British House of Commons revoked Waller's sentence of banishment, and he was allowed to return to Beaconsfield, where he lived very quietly until the Restoration. In 1655 he published A Panegyric to my Lord Protector, and was made a Commissioner for Trade a month or two later, he followed this, in 1660, with a poem To the King, upon his Majesty's Happy Return. Being challenged by Charles II to explain why this latter piece was inferior to the eulogy of Cromwell, the poet smartly replied, "Sir, we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction".
Waller entered the House of Commons again in 1661, as MP for Hastings, and Burnet has recorded that for the next quarter of a century "it was no House if Waller was not there". His sympathies were tolerant and kindly, and he constantly defended the Nonconformists.
One famous speech of Waller's was: "Let us look to our Government, fleet and trade, 'tis the best advice the oldest Parliament man among you can give you, and so God bless you."
After the death of his second wife, in 1677, Waller retired to Hall Barn, the house he had designed and owned in Beaconsfield, and though he returned to London, he became more and more attached to the retirement of his woods, "where," he said, "he found the trees as bare and withered as himself." In 1661 he had published his poem, St James' Park; in 1664 he had collected his poetical works; in 1666 appeared his Instructions to a Painter; and in 1685 his Divine Poems. The final collection of his works is dated 1686, but there were further posthumous additions made in 1690.
Waller bought a cottage at Coleshill, where he was born, meaning to die there; "a stag," he said, "when he is hunted, and near spent, always returns home." He actually died, however, at Hall Barn, with his children and his grandchildren about him, on 21 October 1687, and was buried in woollen (in spite of his expressed wish), in the churchyard of Beaconsfield.
Waller's lyrics were at one time admired to excess, but with the exception of "Song"(Go, lovely Rose) and one or two others, they have lost their popularity. He lacked imaginative invention, but resolutely placed himself in the forefront of reaction against the violence and "conceit" into which the baser kind of English poetry was descending.
Waller was regarded by some as the pioneer in introducing the classical couplet into English verse. It is, of course, obvious that Waller could not "introduce" what had been invented, and admirably exemplified, by Geoffrey Chaucer. But those who have pointed to smooth distichs employed by poets earlier than Waller have not given sufficient attention to the fact (exaggerated, doubtless, by critics arguing in the opposite camp) that it was he who earliest made writing in the serried couplet the habit and the fashion. Waller was writing in the regular heroic measure, afterwards carried to so high a perfection by John Dryden and Alexander Pope, perhaps even in 1621.