1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dennis

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:509-10.



JOHN DENNIS, the son of a saddler, was born in London, in 1657. He was educated at Harrow and Cambridge; but after having taken his bachelor's degree, was expelled his college, though, it seems, he subsequently procured his admission to Trinity Hall, where he graduated M.A. He then went abroad, and, on his return, the Duke of Marlborough gave him a place in the Custom-house, worth 120 a-year; but this, together with a fortune left him by his uncle, was insufficient to keep him out of pecuniary difficulties; to remedy which, he sold his situation. Lord Halifax, who had endeavoured to dissuade him from the sale of it, insisted that it should be with some reversion to himself for the space of forty years; a term which Dennis outlived. His earliest productions were pieces, both in prose and verse, in favour of the Whigs; and, in particular, he wrote several letters and pamphlets, for the administration of the Earl of Godolphin; in which he inveighed against the French with all the virulence which fear, aided by conceit, could inspire. Carried away by the idea of his own importance, he, in the anticipation of being demanded as a hostage by the French, called upon the Duke of Marlborough, and begged he might not be sacrificed to them, as he had always been their enemy. The duke gravely assured him he should not be given up to the French, adding, "I have been a greater enemy to them than you, and, you see, I am not afraid of being sacrificed." This absurd notion, however, did not forsake him; for, afterwards, whilst on a visit to a friend, who resided near the sea-shore, seeing a ship approach, which his imagination portrayed to him as a French one, he left his friend's house precipitately, declaring that he was in league with that nation to carry him off. Some time after the death of Dryden, our author took it into his head to abuse Pope, out of mere zeal for the fame of the former. Pope, in return, lashed him in The Dunciad, and held him up to further ridicule by publishing, in conjunction with Swift, a sarcastic piece, entitled A Narrative of the Deplorable Frenzy of Mr. John Dennis. Pope, however, was a generous antagonist; for when Dennis, in the latter part of his life, was reduced to indigence, he assisted in procuring a play to be acted for his benefit, and himself wrote the prologue. He died, as his biographer in Cibber's Lives of the Poets observes, after a life exposed to vicissitudes, habituated to disappointments, and embroiled in unsuccessful quarrels, on the 6th of January, 1733. His works are, a comedy, called A Plot and no Plot: three tragedies, respectively entitled, Rinaldo and Armida; Iphigenia; and Asserted Liberty: two plays, altered from Coriolanus, and Merry Wives of Windsor, of Shakspeare; The Spanish Adventurer, a comedy; and The Masque of Orpheus and Eurydice. He also published two volumes of letters, besides several critical essays and poems, chiefly in the Pindaric style. Dennis was a man of parts and a shrewd critic, but his arrogant conceit deservedly covered him with ridicule in his own time; and, in the present age, it is rather the reputation of Pope, which he so vulgarly attacked, than that of his own writings, which rescue him from oblivion. The following ludicrous anecdote is told of him whilst he was at the theatre: — a tragedy being acted in which the machinery of thunder was introduced according to a plan of his own that he had formerly communicated to the managers, he cried out, in a transport of rage, "'Sdeath! that is my thunder! the villains will play my thunder, but not my plays."