Sir John Denham

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:321-23.

SIR JOHN DENHAM (1615-1668) was the son of the chief baron of exchequer in Ireland, but was educated at Oxford, then the chief resort of all the poetical and high-spirited cavaliers. Denham was wild and dissolute in his youth, and squandered away great part of his patrimony at the gaming-table. He was made governor of Farnham castle by Charles I.; and after the monarch had been delivered into the hands of the army, his secret correspondence was partly carried on by Denham, who was furnished with nine several ciphers for the purpose. Charles had a respect for literature, as well as the arts; and Milton records of him that he made Shakspeare's plays the closet-companion of his solitude. It would appear, however, that the king wished to keep poetry apart from state affairs; for he told Denham, on seeing one of his pieces, "that when men are young, and have little else to do, they may vent the overflowings of their fancy in that way; but when they are thought fit for more serious employments, if they still persisted in that course, it looked as if they minded not the way to any better." The poet stood corrected and bridled in his muse. In 1648 Denham conveyed the Duke of York to France, and resided in that country some time. His estate was sold by the Long Parliament; but the Restoration revived his fallen dignity and fortunes. He was made surveyor of the king's buildings, and a knight of the bath. In domestic life the poet does not seem to have been happy. He had freed himself from his early excesses and follies, but an unfortunate marriage darkened his closing years, which were unhappily visited by insanity. He recovered, to receive the congratulations of Butler, his fellow-poet, and to commemorate the death of Cowley, in one of his happiest effusions.

Cooper's Hill, the poem by which Denham is now best known, consists of between three and four hundred lines, written in the heroic couplet. The descriptions are interspersed with sentimental digressions, suggested by the objects around — the river Thames, a ruined abbey, Windsor forest, and the field of Runnymede. The view from Cooper's Hill is rich and luxuriant, but the muse of Denham was more reflective than descriptive. Dr Johnson assigns to this poet the praise of being "the author of a species of composition that may be denominated local poetry, of which the fundamental subject is some particular landscape, to be poetically described, with the addition of such embellishments as may be supplied by historical retrospection or incidental meditation." Ben Jonson's fine poem on Penshurst may dispute the palm of originality on this point with the "Cooper's Hill," but Jonson could not have written with such correctness, or with such intense and pointed expression, as Denham. The versification of this poet is generally smooth and flowing, but he had no pretensions to the genius of Cowley, or to the depth and delicacy of feeling possessed by the old dramatists, or the poets of the Elizabethan period. He reasoned fluently in verse, without glaring faults of style, and hence obtained the approbation of Dr Johnson far above his deserts. Denham could not, like his contemporary, Chamberlayne, have described the beauty of a summer morning—

The morning hath not lost her virgin blush,
Nor step, but mine, soil'd the earth's tinsell'd robe.
How full of heaven this solitude appears,
This healthful comfort of the happy swain;
Who from his bard but peaceful bed roused up,
In's morning exercise saluted is
By a full quire of feather'd choristers,
Wedding their notes to the enamour'd air!
Here nature in her unaffected dress
Plaited with valleys, and emboss'd with hills
Enchas'd with silver streams, and fring'd with woods,
Sits lovely in her native russet.

Chamberlayne is comparatively unknown, and has never been included in any edition of the poets, yet every reader of taste or sensibility must feel that the above picture far transcends the cold sketches of Denham, and is imbued with a poetical spirit to which he was a stranger. "That Sir John Denham began a reformation in our verse," says Southey, "is one of the most groundless assertions that ever obtained belief in literature. More thought and more skill had been exercised before his time in the construction of English metre than he ever bestowed on the subject, and by men of far greater attainments, and far higher powers. To improve, indeed, either upon the versification or the diction of our great writers was impossible; it was impossible to exceed them in the knowledge or in the practice of their art, but it was easy to avoid the more obvious faults of inferior authors: and in this way he succeeded, just so far as not to be included in 'The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease;' nor consigned to oblivion with the 'persons of quality' who contributed their vapid effusions to the miscellanies of those days. His proper place is among those of his contemporaries and successors who called themselves wits, and have since been entitled poets by the courtesy of England." Denham, nevertheless, deserves a place in English literature, though not that high one which has heretofore been assigned to him. The traveller who crosses the Alps or Pyrenees finds pleasure in the contrast afforded by level plains and calm streams, and so Denham's correctness pleases, after the wild imaginations and irregular harmony of the greater masters of the lyre who preceded him. In reading him, we feel that we are descending into a different scene — the romance is over, and we must be content with smoothness, regularity, and order [extended excerpts from Cooper's Hill omitted].

Denham had just and enlightened notions of the duty of a translator. "It is not his business alone," he says, "to translate language into language, but poesy into poesy; and poesy is so subtle a spirit, that, in pouring out of one language into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the translation, there will remain nothing but a caput mortuum; there being certain graces and happinesses peculiar to every language, which give life and energy to the words." Hence, in his poetical address to Sir Richard Fanshawe, on his translation of "Pastor Fido," our poet says—

That senile path thou nobly dost decline
Of tracing word by word, and line by line.
Those are the labour'd births of slavish brains,
Not the effect of poetry, but pains.
Cheap vulgar arts, whose narrowness affords
No flight for thoughts, but poorly sticks at words.
A new and nobler way thou dost pursue,
To make translations and translators too.
They but preserve the ashes, thou the flame,
True to his sense, but truer to his fame.

The two last lines are very happily conceived and expressed. Denham wrote a tragedy, the Sophy, which is but a tame commonplace plot of Turkish jealousy, treachery, and murder. Occasionally, there is a vigorous thought or line, as when the envious king asks Haly—

Have not I performed actions
As great, and with as great a moderation?

The other replies—

Ay, sir, but that's forgotten;
Actions of the last age are like almanacs of the last year.

This sentiment was too truly felt by many of the cavaliers in the days of Charles II. We subjoin part of Denham's elegy on the death of Cowley, in which it will be seen that the poet forgot that Shakspeare was buried on the banks of his native Avon, not in Westminster Abbey, and that both he and Fletcher died long ere time had "blasted their bays."