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OF SIR JOHN DENHAM very little is known but what is related of him by Wood, or by himself. He was born at Dublin in 1615; the only son of Sir John Denham, of Little Horseley, in Essex, then chief baron of the Exchequer in Ireland, and of Eleanor, daughter of Sir Garret More, baron of Mellefont.
Two years afterwards, his father, being made one of the barons of the Exchequer in England, brought him away from his native country, and educated him in London.
In 1631 he was sent to Oxford, where he was considered "as a dreaming young man, given more to dice and cards than study:" and therefore gave no prognostics of his future eminence; nor was suspected to conceal, under sluggishness and laxitý, a genius born to improve the literature of his
When he was, three years afterwards, removed to Lincoln's Inn, he prosecuted the common law with sufficient appearance of application; yet did not lose his propensity to cards and dice; but was very often plundered by gamesters.
Being severely reproved for this folly, he professed, and perhaps believed, himself reclaimed; and, to testify the sincerity of his repentance, wrote and published “An Essay upon Gaming."
He seems to have divided his studies between law and poetry: for, in 1636, he translated the second book of the Æneid.
Two years after, his father died; and then, notwithstanding his resolutions and professions, he returned again to the vice of gaming, and lost several thousand pounds that had been left him.
In 1642, he published “The Sophy." This seems to have given him his first hold of the public attention; for Waller remarked, “That he broke out like the Irish rebellion, threescore thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or in the least suspected it;" an observation which could have had no propriety, had his poetical abilities been known before.
He was after that pricked for sheriff of Surry, and made governor of Farnham Castle for the King; but he soon resigned that charge, and retreated to Oxford, where, in 1643, he published“Cooper's Hill.”
This poem had such reputation as to excite the common artifice by which envy degrades excellence. — A report was spread, that the performance was not his own, but that he had bought it of a vicar for forty pounds. The same attempt was made to rob Addison of Cato, and Pope of his Essay on Criticism.
In 1647, the distresses of the royal family required him to engage in more dangerous employments. He was entrusted by the Queen with a message to the King: and, by whatever means, so far softened the ferocity of Hugh Péters, that by his intercession admission was procured. Of the King's condescension he has given an account in the dedication of his works.
He was afterwards employed in carrying on the King's correspondence; and, as he says, discharged this office with great safety to the royalists: and, being accidentally discovered by the adverse party's knowledge of Mr. Cowley's hand, he escaped happily both for himself and his friends.
He was yet engaged in a greater undertaking. In April, 1648, he conveyed James the duke of York from London into France, and delivered him there to the Queen and Prince of Wales. This year he published his translation of "Cato Major.”
He now resided in France as one of the followers of the exiled King; and, to divert the melancholy of their condition, was sometimes enjoined by his masters to write occasional verses; one of which amusements was probably his ode or song upon the Embassy to Poland, by which he and Lord Crofts procured a contribution of ten thousand pounds from the Scotch that wandered over that kingdom. Poland was at that time very much frequented by itinerant traders, who, in a country of very little commerce and of great extent, where every man resided on his own estate, contributed very much to the accomodation of life, by bringing to every man's house those little necessaries which it was very inconvenient to want, Johnson's Lives. I.
and very troublesome to fetch. I have formerly read, without much reflection, of the multitude of Scotchmen that travelled with their wares in Poland; and that their numbers were not small, the success of this negociation gives sufficient evidence.
About this time, what estate the war and the gamesters had left him, was sold, by order of the parliament; and when, in 1652, he returned to England, he was entertained by the Earl of Pembroke.
Of the next years of his life there is no account. At the Restoration he obtained that which many missed – the reward of his loyalty; being made surveyor of the King's buildings, and dignified with the order of the Bath. He seems now to have learned some attention to money; for Wood says, that he got by this place seven thousand pounds.
After the Restoration, he wrote the poem on Prudence and Justice, and perhaps some of his other pieces: and as he appears, whenever any serious question comes before him, to have been a man of piety, he consecrated his poetical powers to religion, and made a metrical version of the Psalms of David. In this attempt he has failed; but in sacred poetry who has succeeded ?
It might be hoped that the favour of his master, and esteem of the public, would now make him happy. But human felicity is short and uncertain; a second marriage brought upon him so much disquiet, as for a time disordered his understanding; and Butler lampooned him for his lunacy. I know not whether the malignant lines were then made public, nor what provocation incited Butler to do that which no provocation can excuse.
His frenzy lasted not long; and he seems to have regained his full force of mind; for he wrote afterwards his excellent poem upon the death of Cowley, whom he was not long to survive; for on the 19th of March, 1668, he was buried by his side.
Denham is deservedly considered as one of the fathers of English poetry. “Denham and Waller," says Prior, bimproved our versification, and Dryden perfected it.” He has given specimens of various composition, descriptive, ludicrous, didactic, and sublime.
He appears to have had, in common with almost all mankind, the ambition of being upon proper occasion a merry fellow, and in common with most of them to have been by
nature, or by early habits, debarred from it. Nothing is less exhilarating than the ludicrousness of Denham; he does not fail for want of efforts: he is familiar, he is gross; but he is never merry, unless the “Speech against Peace in the close Committee” be excepted. For grave burlesque, however, his imitation of Davenant shews him to be well qualified.
Of his more elevated occasional poems, there is perhaps none that does not deserve commendation. In the verses to Fletcher, we have an image that has since been often adopted:
But whither am I stray'd ? I need not raise
Must have their brothers, sons, and kindred slain.
Poets are sultans, if they had their will;
For every author would his brother kill.
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne. But this is not the best of his little pieces: it is excelled by his poem to Fanshaw, and his elegy on-Cowley.
His praise of Fanshaw's version of Guarini contains a very sprightly and judicious character of a good translator:
That servile path thou nobly dost decline,
True to his sense, but truer to his fame. The excellence of these lines is greater, as the truth which they contain was not at that time generally known.
His poem on the death of Cowley was his last, and, among his shorter works, his best performance: the numbers are musical, and the thoughts are just.
"Cooper's Hill" is the work that confers upon him the rank and dignity of an original author. He seems to have been, at least among us, the author of a species of composition that may be denominated local poetry, of which the fundamental subject is some particular landscape, to be poetically described, with the addition of such embellishments as may be supplied by historical retrospection or incidental meditation.
To trace a new scheme of poetry, has in itself a very high claim to praise, and its praise is yet more when it is apparently copied by Garth and Pope; after whose names little will be gained by an enumeration of smaller poets, that have left scarcely a corner of the island not dignified either by rhyme or blank verse.
"Cooper's Hill," if it be maliciously inspected, will not be found without its faults. The digressions are too long, the morality too frequent, and the sentiments sometimes such as will not bear a rigorous inquiry.
The four verses, which, since Dryden has commended them, almost every writer for a century past has imitated, are generally known:
O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
Strong without rage, without o'erflowing full. The lines are in themselves not perfect: for most of the words, thus artfully opposed, are to be understood simply on one side of the comparison, and metaphorically on the other; and if there be any language that does not express intellectual operations by material images, into that language they cannot be translated. But so much meaning is comprised in so few words; the particulars of resemblance are so perspicaciously collected, and every mode of excellence separated from its adjacent fault by so nice a line of limitation; the different parts of the sentence are so accurately adjusted; and the flow of the last couplet is so smooth and sweet; that the passage, however celebrated, has not been praised above its merit. It has beauty peculiar to itself, and must be numbered among those felicities which cannot be produced at will by wit and labour, but must arise unexpectedly in some hour propitious to poetry.