»  Edmund Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose"

 

Go, Lovely Rose

by Edmund Waller, 1606-1687

 

•  Background

Waller was a 17th-century English country gentleman, a rentier and Member of Parliament, who lived through all the momentous events of the middle of that century, of which the most memorable were the Civil War between king and parliament through the 1640s, climaxing with the trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649. Waller seems to have been a royalist by inclination, but got along well enough with the parliamentarians until 1643, when he was involved in a plot against them. He escaped with his life by ratting on all his friends, but had to leave the country for several years. He was allowed back at last by Oliver Cromwell, to whom he was related through his mother's family. Waller repaid Cromwell with a gushing panegyric poem. Then, after the monarchy was restored in 1660, Waller wrote equally gushing verses in praise of Charles II.

Waller's attachments to women are described drily in Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets:

Rich as he was by inheritance, he took care early to grow richer, by marrying Mrs. Banks, a great heiress in the city … Having brought him a son, who died young, and a daughter, who was afterwards married to Mr. Dormer, of Oxfordshire, she died in childbed, and left him a widower of about five-and-twenty, gay and wealthy, to please himself with another marriage.

Being too young to resist beauty, and probably too vain to think himself resistible, he fixed his heart, perhaps half fondly and half ambitiously, upon the lady Dorothea Sidney, eldest daughter of the Earl of Leicester … His acquaintance with this high-born dame gave wit no opportunity of boasting its influence; she was not to be subdued by the powers of verse, but rejected his addresses, it is said, with disdain … She married in 1639 the Earl of Sunderland, who died at Newbury in the king's cause; and, in her old age, meeting somewhere with Waller, asked him, when he would again write such verses upon her. "When you are as young, Madam," said he, "and as handsome as you were then."

When he had lost all hope of [her], he looked round him for an easier conquest, and gained a lady of the family of Bresse, or Breaux … It has not been discovered that his wife was won by his poetry; nor is anything told of her, but that she brought him many children. He doubtless praised some whom he would have been afraid to marry, and perhaps married one whom he would have been ashamed to praise. Many qualities contribute to domestic happiness, upon which poetry has no colours to bestow; and many airs and sallies may delight imagination, which he who flatters them never can approve. There are charms made only for distant admiration. No spectacle is nobler than a blaze.

"Go, Lovely Rose" was written in the poet's youth, probably in the late 1620s. It was published in his first collection of poems in 1645. It is a perfect little lyric poem, which stands out the more for having been written when English poetry was going through something of a dry spell, when it seems that little could grow in the tremendous shadow of John Milton.

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•  Text of the poem

    Go, lovely Rose —
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
    That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.

    Tell her that's young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
    That hadst thou sprung
In deserts where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.

    Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retired:
    Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.

    Then die — that she
The common fate of all things rare
    May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!