Few poets have acted a busier part in life, and gone through greater varieties of fortune, than Davenant. He was born, in the February of 1605-6, at Oxford, where his father kept an inn. The father was a man of melancholy temperament, the mother handsome and lively; and, as Shakespeare used to put up at the house on his journeys between Stratford and London, Davenant is said to have affected the reputation of being Shakespeare's son. If he really did this, there was a levity, or rather a want of feeling, in the boast, for which social pleasantry, and the spirits which are induced by wine, afford but little excuse.
He was entered at Lincoln College; then became page to the Duchess of Richmond, and was afterwards taken into the family of Sir Fulk Greville Lord Brooke, the friend of Sir Philip Sydney, and one of the profoundest thinkers that ever clothed his thoughts in verse. Davenant was still young when his patron was murdered. He then began to write for the stage, and on Ben Jonson's death was made Poet Laureate, to the disappointment of a very able competitor, Thomas May, a man so honourably known by his translation of Lucan, and his supplement to that poet, that it were to be wished he were remembered for nothing else. At this time it appears that Davenant's opinions were loose, and his life dissolute. When the troubles came on, he was engaged in that scheme concerning the army, in which Goring first displayed the thorough profligacy of his character. Davenant was one of the persons arrested, and it is not known how he obtained his liberty. He went to France, and came back with stores for Newcastle's army, and was made by that generous and truly noble person lieutenant-general of his ordnance. He behaved becomingly as a soldier; and at the siege of Gloucester was knighted by the king. Upon the fatal turn of the king's affairs after that siege, he again took shelter in France, and there became ostensibly a convert to the Romish belief. The real state of his mind, which is plainly indicated in his writings, was an uneasy scepticism from which he was not delivered by prostrating his understanding to the pretended infallibility of a corrupt and superstitious church. This change obtained for him the favour of the ill-fated and ill-advised Henrietta Maria, and when Charles had thrown himself into the hands of the Scots, that Queen sent Sir William over for the purpose of persuading her husband to yield to the parliament in all that they required concerning the church establishment: Davenant offered some arguments of his own in support of advice which could have proceeded from none but an enemy to the church of England; but Charles, who never discovered any weakness upon that subject, being one on which his heart and his understanding were in accord, rebuked him as he deserved, and forbade him ever again appear in his presence.
Having returned to Paris, he there composed two books of Gondibert in the Louvre, where he was living with the queen's unworthy favourite Lord Jermyn. Henrietta next despatched him for Virginia, in charge of a colony of artificers. Before they had cleared the French coast they were captured by a parliamentary ship, and Davenant was sent close prisoner to Cowes Castle, where he quietly pursued his poem, and carried it to the middle of the third division, thus completing half his design: he then broke it off under the expectation of being hanged in the ensuing week. "It is high time to strike sail," said he, in the postscript which he addressed to the reader, "and cast anchor (though I have run but half my course), when at the helm I am threatened with death, who, though he can visit us but once, seems troublesome; and even in the innocent may beget such a gravity as diverts the music of verse. And I beseech thee (if thou art so civil as to be pleased with what is written) not to take it ill that I run not on till my last gasp. For though I intended in this poem to strip Nature naked, and clothe her again in the perfect shape of Virtue, yet even in so worthy a design I shall ask leave to desist, when I am interrupted by so great an experiment as dying."
His life indeed was in imminent danger; but through the interference of two aldermen of York, to whom he had rendered some services, when they were prisoners, and through Milton's influence and Whitelocke's he was saved, and after two years' imprisonment in the Tower obtained his liberty. Through Whitelocke's favour also he was allowed to open a kind of theatre at Rutland House, though the Puritans had prohibited all dramatic representations. Under pretext of presenting an opera, he evaded the prohibition, and ventured at length to represent plays of his own writing. By this means be supported himself till the Restoration, and then it is believed that Milton was spared at his intercession, in return for his own preservation.
From this time Davenant took an active part in dramatic affairs, being the first person who introduced scenic decorations on our stage: they had formerly been employed in court masques, but had been considered too expensive for the public theatres. His plays, which are numerous, form the link between the old English drama, and that more artificial but baser species which prevailed while Dryden gave the law in taste. His last work was his worst, it was an alteration of the Tempest, executed in conjunction with Dryden; and marvellous indeed it is that two men of such great and indubitable genius should have combined to debase, and vulgarise, and pollute such a poem as the Tempest: but, to the scandal of the English stage, it is their Tempest, and not Shakespeare's, which is to this day represented.
It is to be wished that the time which Davenant bestowed upon the theatre had been devoted to the completion of Gondibert. The story and structure of that poem are completely original; and though the former is languid, and the latter fancifully artificial, there are few poems in our language which exhibit equal proofs of a vigorous mind. The versification is formed upon that of Sir John Davies and upon one of Donne's smaller pieces: in the habit, if not the train, of reflection, we may trace the poet to the school of his patron Lord Brooke: and the attentive reader may perceive that, on the most important subjects, Davenant's feelings were, unhappily, in sympathy with those of his friend Hobbes.