An eminent poet of the 17th century, was the only son of Sir John Denham, knight, of Little Horsley in Essex, and some time baron of the Exchequer in Ireland, and one of the lords justices of that kingdom. He was born in Dublin, in the year 1615; but was brought over from thence very young, on his father's being made one of the barons of the Exchequer in England 1617.
He received his education, in grammar learning, in London; and in Michaelmas term 1631 he was entered a gentleman commoner in Trinity College, Oxford, being then 16 years of age; where, as Wood expresses it, "being looked upon as a flow dreaming young man, and more addicted to gaming than study, they could never imagine he could ever enrich the world with the issue of his brain, as he afterwards did."
He remained three years at the university, and having been examined at the public schools, for the degree of bachelor of arts, he entered himself in Lincoln's-Inn, where he was generally thought to apply himself pretty closely to the study of the common law. But notwithstanding his application to study, and all the efforts he was capable of making, such was his propensity to gaming, that he was often stript of all his money; and his father severely chiding him, and threatning to abandon him if he did not reform, he wrote a little essay against that vice, and presented it to his father, to convince him of his resolution against it. But no sooner did his father die, than being unrestrained by paternal authority, he reaffirmed the practice, and soon squandered away several thousand pounds.
In the latter end of the year 1641 he published a tragedy called the Sophy, which was greatly admired, and gave Mr. Waller occasion to say of our author, "That he broke out like the Irish rebellion, threescore thousand strong, when no body was aware, nor in the least expected it." Soon after this he was pricked for high sheriff for the county of Surry, and made governor of Farnham-Castle for the King; but not being well skilled in military affairs, he soon quitted that post; and retired to his Majesty at Oxford, where he published an excellent poem called Cooper's-hill, often reprinted before and since the restoration, with considerable alterations; it has been universally admired by all good judges, and was translated into Latin verse, by Mr. Moses Pengry of Oxford.
Mr. Dryden speaking of this piece, in his dedication of his Rival Ladies, says, that it is a poem, which, for the Majesty of the stile, will ever be the exact standard of good writing, and the noble author of an essay on human life, bestows upon it the most lavish encomium. But of all the evidences in its favour, none is of greater authority, or more beautiful, than the following of Mr. Pope, in his Windsor Forest.
Ye sacred nine, that all my soul possess,
Whose raptures fire me, and whose visions bless;
Bear me, O bear me, to sequester'd scenes,
The bow'ry mazes, and surrounding greens;
To Thames's bank which fragrant breezes fill,
Or where the muses sport on Cooper's-hill.
(On Cooper's hill eternal wreaths shall grow,
While lasts the mountain, or while Thames shall flow.)
I seem thro' consecrated walks to rove,
I hear soft music die along the grove,
Led by the sound, I roam from shade to shade,
By god-like poets venerable made:
Here his last lays majestic Denham sung,
There the last numbers flow'd from Cowley's tongue.
In the year 1647 he was entrusted by the Queen with a message to the King, then in the hands of the army, and employed in other affairs relating to his Majesty. In his dedication of his poems to Charles II. he observes, that after the delivery of the person of his royal father into the hands of the army, he undertook for the Queen-mother, to get access to his Majesty, which he did by means of Hugh Peters; and upon this occasion, the King discoursed with him without reserve upon the state of his affairs. At his departure from Hampton-court, says he, "The King commanded me to stay privately in London, to send to him and receive from him all his letters, from and to all his correspondents, at home and abroad, and I was furnished with nine several cyphers in order to it. Which I trust I performed with great safety to the persons with whom we corresponded; but about nine months after being discovered by their knowledge of Mr. Cowley's hand, I happily escaped both for myself and those who held correspondence with me."
In April 1648 he conveyed away James duke of York, then under the tuition of Algernon earl of Northumberland, from St. James's, and carried him into France, to the prince of Wales and Queen-mother. This circumstance is related by Wood, but Clarendon, who is a higher authority, says, that the duke went off with colonel Bamfield only, who contrived the means of his escape. Not long after, he was sent embassador to the King of Poland, in conjunction with lord Crofts, to whom he addresses a poem written on their journey; from whence he brought ten thousand pounds for his Majesty, by the decimation of his Scottish subjects there.
About the year 1652, he returned into England, and was well received by the earl of Pembroke at Wilton, and continued with that nobleman about a year; for his own fortune by the expence he was at during the civil war, and his unconquerable itch of gaming was quite exhausted. From that year to the restoration, there are no accounts of our author; but as soon as his Majesty returned, he entered upon the office of surveyor of his Majesty's buildings, in the room of Inigo Tones, deceased; and at the coronation of King Charles II. was created a knight of the Bath. Upon some discontent arising from his second marriage he lost his senses, but soon recovering from that disorder, he continued in great esteem at court for his poetical writings. In the dedication of his poems to King Charles II. he tells its that he had been discouraged by King Charles I. from writing verses.
"One morning (says he) when I was waiting upon the King at Causham, smiling upon me, he said he could tell me some news of myself, which was that he had seen some verses of mine the evening before (being those to Sir Robert Fanshaw) and asking me when I made them, I told him two or three years since; he was pleased to say, that having never seen them before, he was afraid I had written them since my return into England; and though he liked them well he would advise me to write no more: alledging, that when men are young, and having little else to do, they might vent the over-flowings of their fancy that way, but when they were thought fit for more serious employments, if they still persisted in that course, it would look as if they minded not the way to any, better; whereupon I stood corrected as long as I had the honour to wait upon him." This is a strong instance of his duty to the King; but no great compliment to his Majesty's taste: nor was the public much obliged to the Monarch for this admonition to our author.
But King Charles II. being of an humour more sprightly than his father, was a professed enconrager of poetry, and in his time a race of wits sprung up, unequalled by those of any other reign.
This monarch was particularly delighted with the poetry of our author, especially when he had the happiness to wait upon him, in Holland and Flanders; and he was pleased sometimes to give him arguments to write upon, and divert the evil hours of their banishment, which now and then, Sir John tells us, he acquitted himself not much short of his Majesty's expecation.
In the year 1688 Sir John Denham died, at his office in Whitehall, and was interred in Westminster-Abbey, near the tombs of Chaucer, Spenser, and Cowley.
Our author's works are,
1. Cooper's-hill, of which we have already taken some notice.
2. The Destruction of Troy, an Essay on the second book of Virgil's Aeneis, written 1636.
3. On the Earl of Strafford's Trial and Death.
4. On my Lord Crofts's journey into Poland.
5. On Mr. Thomas Killegrew's return from Venice; and Mr. William Murrey's from Scotland.
6. To Sir John Mennis, being invited from Calais to Bologne to eat a pig.
7. Natura Naturata.
8. Sarpedon's Speech to Glaucus, in the twelfth book of Homer.
9. Out of an Epigram of Martial.
to, Friendship and single Life, against Love and Marriage.
11. On Mr. Abraham Cowley's Death and Burial.
12. A Speech against Peace at the Close Committee.
13. To the Five Members of the honourable House of Commons: The humble Petition of the poets.
14. A Western Wonder.
15. A Second Western Wonder.
16. News from Colchester; or, a proper new Ballad, of certain carnal Passages betwixt a Quaker and a Colt, at Horsley in Essex.
17. A Song.
18. On Mr. John Fletcher's Works.
19. To Sir Richard Fanshaw, on his translation of Pastor Fido.
20. A Dialogue between Sir John Pooley, and Mr. Thomas Killegrew.
21. An occasional Imitation of a modern Author, upon a Game at Chefs.
22. The Passion of Dido for Aeneas.
23. Of Prudence, of Justice.
24. The Progress of Learning.
25. Cato Major of old Age, a Poem: It is taken from the Latin of Tully, though much alter'd from the original, not only by the change of the stile, but by addition and subtraction. Our author tells us, that intending to translate this piece into prose (where translation ought to be strict) finding the matter very proper for verse, he took the liberty to leave out what was only necessary, to that age and place, and to take or add what was proper to this present age and occasion, by laying the scene clearer and in fewer words, according to the stile and ear of the times.
26. The Sophy, a Tragedy; the above pieces have been several times printed together, in one volume in 12mo. under the Title of Poems and Translations; with the Sophy, a Tragedy, written by Sir John Denham.
Besides these, Wood mentions a Panegyric on his excellency general Monk 1659, in one sheet quarto. Though Denham's name is not to it, it is generally ascribed to him. A Prologue to his Majesty, at the first play represented at the Cock-pit in White-hall, being part of that noble entertainment, which their majesties received, November 19, 1660, from his grace the duke of Albemarle. A new Version of the Psalms of David. The True Presbyterian, without Disguise; or, a Character of a Presbyterian's Ways and Actions, London 1680, in half a sheet in folio. In the year 1666 there were printed by stealth, in octavo, certain Poems, intitled Directions to a Painter, in four copies or parts, each dedicated to king Charles the IId. They were very satyrically written against several persons engaged in the Dutch war, in 1661. At the end of them was a piece entitled Clarendon's Housewarming; and after that his Epitaph, both containing bitter reflexions against that earl. Sir John Denham's name is to these pieces, but they were generally thought to be written by Andrew Marvel, Esq; a Merry Droll in Charles the IId's Parliaments, but so very honest, that when a minister once called at his lodgings, to tamper with him about his vote, he found him in mean apartments up two pair of stairs, and though be as obliged to fend out that very morning to borrow a guinea, yet he was not to be corrupted by the minister, but denied him his vote. The printer of these poems being discovered, he was sentenced to stand in the pillory for the same.
We have met with no authors who have given any account of the moral character of Sir John Denham, and as none have mentioned his virtues, so we find no vice imputed to him but that of gaming; to which it appears he was immoderately addicted. If we may judge from his works, he was a good-natur'd van, an easy companion, and in the day of danger and tumult, of unshaken loyalty to the suffering interest of his sovereign. His character as a poet is well known, he has the fairest testimonies in his favour, the voice of the world, and the sanction of the critics; Dryden and Pope praise him, and when these are mentioned, other authorities are superfluous.
We shall select as a specimen of Sir John Denham's Poetry, his Elegy on his much loved and admired friend Mr. Abraham Cowley.
Old mother Wit and nature gave
Shakespear, and Fletcher all they have;
In Spencer and in Johnson art,
Of slower nature, got the start.
But both in him so equal are,
None knows which bears the happiest share.
To him no author was unknown,
Yet what he wrote was all his own:
He melted not the antient gold,
Nor, with Ben Johnson, did make bold,
To plunder all the Roman stores
Of poets and of orators.
Horace's wit, and Virgil's state,
He did not steal, but emulate;
And he would like to them appear,
Their garb, but not their cloaths did wear.
He not from Rome alone but Greece,
Like Johnson, brought the golden fleece.
And a stiff gale, (as Flaccus sings)
The Theban Swan extends his wings,
When thro' th' aethereal clouds he flies,
To the same pitch our swan doth rise:
Old Pindar's flights by him new-reach'd,
When on that gale, his wings are stretch'd,