1691 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Denham

Gerard Langbaine, in Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691) 125-29.



A Poet of the first Form, whose Virtue and Memory will ever be as dear to all Lovers of Poetry, as his Person was to Majesty it self; I mean, King Charles the First, and Second.

He was the only Son of Sir John Denham of little Horesly in Essex, but Born at Dublin in Ireland. His Father being at the time of his Nativity a Judge of that Kingdome, and Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer. But before the Foggy Air of that Climate, could influence, or any way adulterate his Mind, he was brought from thence his Father being prefer'd to be One of the Barons of the Exchequer in England. At Sixteen years of Age, in the Year 1631. he was taken from School, and sent to the University of Oxford, where he became a member of Trinity Colledge. In this Society he spent some years; after he was remov'd again to London, and follow'd the Study of the Civil Law.

The Civil War breaking out, this Honourable Person exerted his Loyalty so far, that upon the voluntary offer of his Service, he was intrusted by the Queen, to deliver a Message to his Majesty, "Who at the time (viz. in 1647) was in the hands of the Army. By Hugh Peter's Assistance he got admittance to the King, who was then at Causham, and having deliver'd his Instructions, his Majesty was pleased to discourse very freely with him of the whole state of Affairs; and at his departure from Hampton-Court, he was pleas'd to command him to stay privately in London, to send to him, and to receive from him all his Letters from and to all his Correspondents at Home and Abroad; and he was further furnisht with Nine Cyphers in order to it; which Trust he performed with great safety to the Persons with whom he corresponded; but about Nine Months after, being discover'd by their knowledge of Mr. Cowley's Hand, he happily escap'd beyond-Sea both for himself, and those that held Correspondence with him. He got safe to His Majesty King Charles the Second, and during his attendance on the King in Holland and France, His Majesty was pleas'd sometimes to give him Arguments, to divert and putt off the evil Hours of their Banishment, which (as he modestly expresses himself) now and then fell not short of His Majesty's Expectation."

At His Majesty's departure from St. Germains to Jersey, he was pleas'd without any solicitation, to confer upon Sir John, the office of Surveyor General of all His Majesties Royal Buildings; and at his Coronation, created him Knight of the Bath. This Honor he enjoy'd Eight years, and then surrender'd up his Honor with his Soul, on the Tenth day of March in the Year 1668. at his House near White-hall, and was Buried the Twenty-third Instant at Westminster, amongst those Noble Poets, Chaucer, Spencer, and Cowley.

After this Abridgement of his Life, I am next to give you a Summary of his Works. They consist of Poems, part of which are Translations; as The Destruction of Troy, and Essay on the Second Book of Virgil's Aeneis, The Passion of Dido for Aeneas, being the later part of the Fourth Book; Sarpedon's Speech to Glaucus, being part of the Twelfth Book of Homer, Two Pieces from the Italian of Mancini, upon the two first Cardinal Virtues, Prudence, and Justice, &c. Others, are his own Productions, amongst which are his Coopers Hill is most commended; A Poem, which (in the Opinion of Mr. Dryden, who is without contradiction a very able Judge in Poetry) for the Majesty of the Stile, is, and ever will be, the exact Standard of good Writing. His Verses on Sir William Fanshaw's Translation of Il Pastor Fido, and his Preface to the Destruction of Troy, shew sufficiently his Judgment, and his Translations themselves his Genius, for Performances of that nature: and admitting it true, that few Versions deserve praise; yet His are to be excepted from the general Rule. His Elegy on Mr. Cowley, (part of which we have transcribed already in the Account of that great Man, will make his Name famous to eternalise his Name, but a Pen equal to his, (if any such were to be found) to perform the like Friendly office to his Manes.

He has writ but one Play, but by that Specimen we may judge of his ability in Dramatick, as well as Epick Poesy; this Play being generally commended. 'Tis call'd The Sophy, a Tragedy, acted at the Private-house in Black-friar's with good applause: 'Twas first printed in quarto Lond. 1642. but since publisht with his Poems and Translations; all which are dedicated to King Charles the Second. The last Edition being printed in octavo Lond. 1671. For the Plot of this Play, it is the same with that of Baron's Mirza, (which Story you may find in Herberts Travels) tho' differently handled by each Poet: and tho' it has been objected by Mr. Baron, that our Author kills Abbas in this Tragedy, who really surviv'd some years after the Murther of his Son; it may be answer'd, That he did only Poetical Justice, and took no other Liberty than what is allow'd by Horace:

Pictoribus atque Poetis
Quidlibet audendi semper fuit aequa Potestas.