Of Sir John Denham, little is accurately known. He was born in Dublin in 1615, and was the only son of Sir John Denham, of Little Horsely, in Essex, some time chief baron of the Exchequer in Ireland. He was brought to England in his infancy, and after receiving a classical education, was entered a gentleman commoner of Trinity College, Oxford, where he was considered as "a dreaming young man, given more to cards and dice than study." At Lincoln's Inn, to which he removed, he seems to have had the same propensity to gaming; but being menaced by his father, he wrote against that detestable vice, without, however, discontinuing its practice.
The tragedy of Sophy, which appeared in 1641, gained him some credit; and two years after, having removed to Oxford, he produced his incomparable Cooper's Hill, which fixed his poetic reputation on a solid basis. It is the original model of descriptive poetry, a species of composition that must please as long as nature, which it delineates, is admired and adored.
During the civil wars, Sir John Denham was a decided loyalist, and was employed in many hazardous and confidential trusts, which he discharged with zeal and address. He resided some time in France, in the train of exiled royalty, and occasionally amused the melancholy of his master and attendants by his poetic effusions.
He returned to England in 1652, and his estate being sold by order of parliament, he was glad to accept the hospitality of the earl of Pembroke at Wilton. On the restoration, he was made surveyor of the king's buildings, and dignified with the order of the Bath.
Basking now in the sunshine of court favour, he amused his leisure hours by writing verses, and a second time entered into the bonds of wedlock. But the lady on whom he had fixed his affections, by her ill temper, too often clouded his domestic happiness; and this preyed so strongly on his mind, that he lost the use of his reason. This alienation of mind, however, was only temporary; and it appears that he afterwards enjoyed his faculties entire; for subsequent to this dreadful visitation of Providence, he produced his excellent poem on the death of Cowley, whom he did not long survive.
He died in March 1668, at his office near White hall, which himself had built, and was interred in Westminster Abbey near Chaucer, Spenser, and Cowley, the last of whom was his intimate friend.
The reputation of Denham, at this period, rests chiefly on his Cooper's Hill. If in his youth he was addicted to the follies and indiscretions incident to that period of life, in his maturer years he seems to have; relinquished every vice, to have done honour to religion and virtue, and to have closed his days with pious composure, amidst the supports of Christian hope and faith.