John Dennis

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 11:459-71.

JOHN DENNIS, a poet, a political writer, and a critic, was born in the city of London in 1657. His father was a sadler, and a citizen of reputation; who determining to give him a liberal education, sent him to Harrow-on-the-Hill, where he received his grammatical instruction under Dr. William Horn, a school-master in high esteem for piety and literature. In the eighteen year of his age he was removed to the university of Cambridge, where he was entered of Caius college, January 13, 1675, and continued there till he took his bachelor's degree in 1679; after which he became a member of Trinity-hall, and in 1633, was admitted to the degree of master of arts. It is related, by the author of the Biographia Dramatica, that he was expelled from college, for literally attempting to stab a person in the dark, which has been since confirmed by Dr. Farmer, by an extract from the Gesta book of Caius college: by this it appears that he was expelled March 4, 1680, for assaulting and wounding one Glenham with a sword. This accounts for his removing to Trinity hall.

Not satisfied with obtaining the best education his own country could afford, Mr. Dennis determined to improve his understanding, and increase the extent of his knowledge abroad, and made the tour of France and Italy; in the course of which it is said that his observations on the evil effects arising from despotic government, greatly contributed to strengthen in him those principles -of whiggisin, and that zeal for liberty which he had early imbibed, and which he invariably maintained to the close of his life. On his return to England, such was the opinion entertained of his accomplishments, that he found an easy admission into the company of several of the most distinguished men of the age for genius, wit, and learning, particularly the earls of Pembroke and Mulgrave, Charles Montague, esq. afterwards earl of Halifax, Walter Moyle, esq. Mr. Wycherley, and the celebrated poets Dryden, Congreve, Southern, and Garth. All these thought highly of his talents; but certainly had not the same reason to think well of his discretion; his pride and passion hurrying him into actions which were injurious to his reputation. It is related, that on his first introduction to Charles Montague, esq. he got intoxicated with some very fine wines, to which he had not been accustomed, and becoming impatient of contradiction, suddenly rose, rushed out of the room, and overturned the sideboard of plate and glasses as he went. Next morning, seeing Mr. Moyle, he told him, that he had forgotten every thing which had happened, and desired to know in what manner he went away. "Why," said Moyle, "You went away like the devil, and took one corner of the house with you."

If Dennis was originally designed for any particular profession, he was probably diverted from it by the company be kept, or, having some fortune left him by an uncle, he might determine to devote himself wholly to poetry, politics, and criticism. The greater part of his poems are printed in his select works, published by him, in two volumes, in 1718. The editor of the Biographia Britannica has bestowed much unnecessary criticism on this collection of poems, few of which will bear the test, either of originality, poetic spirit, or elegance, although verses not much superior have unquestionably been admitted into Dr. .Johnson's and other bodies of English poetry. Few readers will now be disposed to make Dennis's poetry the object of their attention. Independently of its other deficiencies, the subjects to which it was devoted were not calculated to confer upon it any lasting degree of popularity. Political, and especially panegyrical poems are only fitted to excite a temporary admiration.

As a dramatic writer, his first performance was a comedy, entitled "A Plot and no Plot, or Jacobite Credulity," acted at the theatre royal in Drury-lane, in 1697, and intended as a satire on the party devoted to king James. In the story, Mr. Dennis justly claims the merit of original invention, and many of the scenes abound with wit; but several of the incidents are very absurd and unnatural. His second dramatic production was "Rinaldo and Armida," a tragedy, acted at Lincoln's-inn Fields, in 1699; the hint of the chief characters is borrowed from Tasso's Gierusalemme. As, however, Mr. Dennis was not satisfied with the -manners of that great Italian, he has taken the liberty to change them, and to form the characters according to what he apprehended to be more agreeable to the subject. The scene lies on a top of a mountain in the Canaries; and the musical entertainments that accompanied the work were composed by Mr. John Eccles, excepting a chorus in the fourth act, which is borrowed from Mr. Henry Purcell's frost scene. Another tragedy, "Iphigenia," was produced by our author in 700, and brought on at the theatre in Little Lincoln's-inn Fields, where it was condemned; but although there are undoubtedly many irregular lines in it, and perhaps some passages savour of turgidity, upon the whole, it is a pathetic and interesting performance. It must not, however, be concealed that Mr. Dennis has derived his chief excellence from Euripides's Iphigenia in Tauris, whence history is taken, and indeed his obligations to Euripides are so numerous, that he ought to have openly acknowledged them. With less merit than "Iphigenia," a comedy of Mr. Dennis's, which was produced by him in 1702, was somewhat more successful at the theatre. The title of it is, "The Comical Gallant, with the Amours of Sir John Falstaff," a very indifferent alteration of Shakspeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor." When it was published, a large essay was added of taste in poetry, and the causes of its degeneracy.

In 1704, our author brought out a tragedy, entitled "Liberty asserted," the scene of which is laid at Agnie (which name, he says, for the sake of a better sound, he has altered to Angie) in Canada; and the plot is an imagined one, from the wars carried on among the Indian nations. In the dedication to Anthony Henley, esq. Mr. Dennis owns himself to be indebted to that gentleman for "the happy hint upon which it was formed." This was by far the most successful of all our author's dramatic productions; having been represented many times at Lincoln's-inn Fields with very great applause. This was probably owing, in a considerable degree, not to its own merit, but to the abuse which is plentifully scattered through it upon the French nation, which, during a season of war, was congenial to the feelings of the auditory. Its success, however, produced an odd effect on Dennis's imagination, which was never well regulated. Thinking that the severity of the strokes against the French could never be forgiven, and consequently, that Louis XIV. would not consent to a peace with England, unless he was delivered up a sacrifice to national resentment, he carried this apprehension so far that when the congress for the peace at Utrecht was in agitation, he waited on the duke of Marlborough, who had formerly been his patron, to entreat his interest with the plenipotentiaries, that they should not consent to his being given up. With great gravity the duke informed him, that he was sorry it was out of his power to serve him, as at that time he had no connexion with the ministry, adding, that he fancied his case not to be quite so desperate as he seemed to imagine; for that, indeed, he had taken no care to get himself excepted in the articles of peace; and yet he could not help thinking that he had done the French almost as much damage as even Mr. Dennis. Another instance of our author's terror, arising from his self-importance, is thus related. Having been invited down to a gentleman's house on the coast of Sussex, where he was very kindly entertained, as he was walking one day near the beach, he saw a ship sailing, as he imagined, towards him. Upon this, supposing that he was betrayed, he immediately made the best of his way to London, without even taking leave of his host, whom he believed to have been concerned in the plot against him, and to have decoyed him to his house, with no other view than to give notice to the French, who had fitted out a vessel on purpose to carry him off if he had not luckily discovered their design.

Mr. Dennis's next dramatic attempt was in a comedy, entitled "Gibraltar, or the Spanish Adventure;" and which was performed in 1705, at the theatre royal in Drury-lane; but without success. "Orpheus and Eurydice," a masque, which was produced by our author in 1707, does not appear to have been acted. It is printed in the "Muse's Mercury," for the month of February in that year. In 1709, Mr. Dennis brought upon the stage, at Drury-lane, "Appius and Virginia," a tragedy, which was not very successful; but is remarkable for a circumstance little connected with its literary merit. Dennis, expressly for the use of this play, had invented a new species of thunder, which was approved of by the actors, and is the sort at present used in the theatre. Some nights after his tragedy had been laid aside, Dennis being in the pit at the representation of Macbeth, heard his own thunder made use of; upon which he rose in a violent passion, and exclaimed, with an oath, that it was his thunder. "See," said he, "how these rascals use me! They will not let my play run; and yet they steal my thunder!" Our author's last dramatic production was "Coriolanus, the Invader of his country; or, The Fatal Resentment;" a tragedy, altered from Shakspeare's Coriolanus. After it had been represented three nights, the managers Wilks, Cibber, and Booth, who were not satisfied with the profits derived from it, to the astonishment and indignation of Mr. Dennis, gave out another play for the next evening. Upon this he published his tragedy, with a dedication to the duke of Newcastle, at that time lord chamberlain of his majesty's household, in which he has given full scope to his resentment against the patentees, and especially against Mr. Cibber. The last gentleman, instead of the author's epilogue, had substituted one of his own, which was spoken by Mrs. Oldfield, an additional cause of offence to our poet, who, in an advertisement, has represented it as a wretched medley of impudence and nonsense; and, indeed, it does not appear to be entitled to commendation.

Dennis, as already noticed, derived some fortune from an uncle; but that was probably spent in a little time. As he wrote for government when the whigs were in power, and was patronised by lord Halifax, there can be no doubt but that he occasionally received pecuniary gratifications, either from the bounty or through the interest of that nobleman. For his poem on the battle of Blenheim the duke of Marlborough rewarded him with a present of a hundred guineas. But, previously to the writing of that poem, he had experienced his grace's patronage in a much more important instance; for the duke had procured for him the place of a waiter at the Custom-house, worth a hundred and twenty pounds a year. This office he held for six years; during which he managed his affairs with so little discretion, that, in order to discharge some pressing demands, he was obliged to dispose of his waitership. The earl of Halifax, having heard of his design, sent for him, and, in the most friendly manner, expostulated with him, upon the folly and rashness of disposing of his place, by which his lordship told him that he would soon become a beggar. In reply, our author represented the exigencies to which he was reduced, and the importunate nature of the demands that were made upon him. The earl, however, insisted, that, if he must sell his place, he should reserve to himself an annuity out of it for a considerable term of years; such a term as his lordship thought Mr. Dennis was not likely to survive; yet this he did survive, and was exposed in his old age to great poverty. With such a disposition as Mr. Dennis possessed, it is not surprizing that he was often liable to arrests from his creditors. An instance of sir Richard Steele's friendship to him in this respect he is said to have ill-repaid. Sir Richard, if the story be true, once became bail for him, and afterwards was arrested on his account; but, when be heard of it, he only exclaimed, "'Sdeath! why did he not keep out of the way, as I did?" In the latter part of our poet's life, he resided within the verge of the court, for the security of his person, but one Saturday night, he happened to saunter to a public-house, which, in a short time, he discovered to be out of the verge. As he was sitting in an open drinking-room, a man of a suspicious appearance entered, about whom Mr. Dennis imagined there was something that denoted him to be a bailiff. Being seized with a panic, he was afraid that his liberty was now at an end, and sat in the utmost solicitude, but durst not offer to stir, lest he should be seized upon. After an hour or two had passed in this painful anxiety, at last the clock struck twelve; when Mr. Dennis, addressing himself to the suspected person, cried out in an extacy, "Now, sir, bailiff or no bailiff, I don't care a farthing for you — you have no power now." The man was astonished at his behaviour; and, when it was explained to him, was so much affronted with the suspicion, that, had not our author been protected by his age, he would probably have taken personal revenge.

On Mr. Dennis's character as a political writer it is not necessary to enlarge. It is probable that, in this capacity, he may have been the author of several tracts, which are now forgotten, and with regard to which there would be no utility in endeavouring to rescue them from oblivion. In his select works are inserted the. productions of this kind which he himself thought of the most consequence, and the most worthy of preservation. The first of them was published in 1702, and is an answer to a discourse of the famous Henry Sacheverell, called "The Political Union." Dennis's piece is entitled "Priestcraft dangerous to Religion and Government;" and is a defence of low-church principles and toleration. In 1703 he printed "A Proposal for putting a speedy End to the War, by ruining the commerce of the French and Spaniards, and securing our own, without any additional expence to the nation." The scheme was, to form such a junction of the English and Dutch fleets, and such a combination and disposition of a large number of smaller armed vessels, as should effectually carry into execution the purpose intended. Our author has explained his project with sufficient ingenuity; but, like many other projects which voluntary politicians have been so ready to contrive for the public good, it met with no degree of regard. Indeed, the views and measures of the then subsisting ministry were more directed to exertions by land than at sea. In 1711 he produced "An Essay upon Public Spirit; being a Satire, in prose, upon the manners and luxury of the times, the chief sources of our present parties and divisions," a violent and not very judicious declamation against the vices of his own age, in contrast with the virtues of our remote ancestors.

The last political production of Mr. Dennis appeared in the beginning of king George the First's reign, and is entitled, " Priestcraft distinguished from Christianity;" but this, perhaps, may rather be considered as a theological than a political work, and was principally intended to expose those high claims of churchmen, and those arbitrary principles of government, which were hostile to the interests of the house of Hanover.

We are now to consider Mr. Dennis in his critical capacity, in which he so frequently exerted himself that he came to be called the Critic, by way of distinction. For sustaining this character he was not ill qualified by his knowledge, learning, and judgment. He maintained it likewise with reputation for some time; but at length he displayed this talent with so little judgment or delicacy, and against men of such eminence and superiority, that they succeeded in reducing him to a low degree of estimation with the public. His first criticism was entitled "Observations on Blackmore's Prince Arthur;" the third edition of which poem was printed in 1696, and which might afford sufficient scope for a variety strictures; but that in this instance he was more mild than usual, is probable, from his afterwards corresponding with sir Richard Blackmore on very friendly terms. In 1696 or 1697, he published "Letters upon several occasions," written partly by himself, and partly by Mr. Dryden, Mr. Wycherley, Mr. Moyle, and Mr. Congreve. The subjects of them are in some degree miscellaneous; but chiefly critical; and, among other things, they contain Mr. Congreve's Observations concerning Humour in Comedy. A very high opinion of our author was at this time entertained by Dryden and Congreve. In 1701 he gave to the public a critical discourse, entitled "The Advancement and Reformation of modern Poetry," divided into two parts; the design of the first of which is to shew, that the principal reason why the ancients excelled the moderns in the higher species of poetry was, because they mixed religion with it. In the second, Mr. Dennis endeavours to prove, that by joining poetry with the religion revealed to us in sacred writ, the modern poets might equal the ancient. Whether he has entirely succeeded in the positions he maintains, may, perhaps, be doubtful; but he has supported them with some ingenuity and ability.

In the beginning of 1704 our author distinguished himself as an antagonist of the famous Jeremy Collier. That gentleman had made his first attack upon the stage in 1698; and, upon occasion of the great storm which happened on the 27th of November 1703, renewed his attack, in a pamphlet entitled "A Dissuasive from the Play-house; written by way of letter to a Person of Quality." The design of this piece was to represent the tempest as a judgment upon the nation for the enormities of the theatre. On this Dennis wrote "The Person of Quality's Answer to Mr. Collier's Letter: containing a Defence of a regulated Stage," in which he had the prudence to confine himself to the vindication of a theatre under proper regulations; freely giving up the licentiousness and profaneness by which it had formerly been so greatly dishonoured, and which rendered the greater part of Collier's writings unanswerable.

In 1706 our author published "An Essay on the Operas, after the Italian manner, which are about to be established on the English Stage; with some reflections on the damage which they may bring to the public." His opinions here had been adopted by the most eminent writers of the time, who had some cause for resentment in the cold reception that had been given to the English drama. Our author declares, however, in his preface, that his treatise is only levelled against those operas which are entirely musical; since those which are dramatical may be partly defended by the examples of the ancients. — Another of Mr. Dennis's critical publications, but of what date we are not able to ascertain, is preserved in his select works, "The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry," a sequel to the sentiments which he had maintained in his "Advancement and Reformation of modern Poetry." Here he again insists upon the immense scope which religion affords for poetic excellence. Under the word religion he includes the whole system of supernatural machinery, the introduction of superior beings, and all the noble fictions, sentiments, addresses, and images, that may be derived from the knowledge of revelation. In the beginning of 1711 our author produced another tract, which added farther to his reputation as a critic; his three "Letters on the Genius and Writings of Shakspeare," in which he has drawn the poetical character of our immortal dramatist with sagacity and judgment; and has strongly supported the opinion of Shakspeare's learning, which has since more decisively been maintained by Dr. Farmer.

Thus far Mr. Dennis pursued his critical inquiries without giving any peculiar offence. He might, indeed, occasionally deliver with freedom his sentiments concerning the writings of his contemporaries, and in some few instances might express himself with severity. But still he did not run into such excesses as to bring on any material personal controversy, until in 1711, soon after the commencement of the Spectator, he entered into a contest with Addison, Steele, and Pope. He imagined himself to be attacked so early as in the second or third number of that paper; and was particularly displeased with the thirty-ninth and fortieth numbers, in which a doctrine was advanced, with regard to poetical justice, very different from what he had always maintained. Accordingly, he addressed a letter to the Spectator on the subject, at the conclusion of which he says, "Thus — I have discussed the business of poetical justice, and shewn it to be the foundation of all tragedy; and therefore, whatever persons, whether ancient or modern, have written dialogues which they call tragedies, where this justice is not observed, those persons have entertained and amused the world with romantic lamentable tales, instead of just tragedies, and of lawful fables." That our critic was extremely anxious in support of this point, is apparent from several other part of his works. He has particularly insisted upon it in a letter to sir Richard Blackmore on the moral and conclusion of an epic poem; and has certainly conducted his argument with great ingenuity. Another opportunity which the Spectator afforded Mr. Dennis for the exercise of his critical skill, was by the illustrations in the seventieth and seventy-fourth numbers of the ballad of Chevy Chase, though the subject was scarcely important enough to deserve an elaborate discussion of nearly thirty pages. A farther attack upon the Spectator was particularly levelled at sir Richard Steele. That gentleman, it is said, had promised our critic to take some opportunity of mentioning his works in public with advantage, and thereby of promoting his reputation. It however unfortunately happened, that Mr. Addison, who perhaps knew nothing of sir Richard's engagement, quoted, in his paper upon Laughter, the two following lines, which he calls humourous and well-expressed from Mr. Dennis's translation of a satire of Boileau's:

Thus one fool bus his tongue out at another,
And shakes his empty noddle at his brother.

Mistaking this quotation for the performance of sir Richard Steele's promise, our author published a letter to the Spectator full of resentment, and which strongly marks the irritability of his disposition. What particularly displeased him was, that some far superior specimen was not exhibited of his poetic excellence; and he pointed out a passage in his poem on the Battle of Ramillies, which he thinks might have been preferred to the forementioned couplet.

Mr. Dennis's contest with the Spectator was speedily followed by his more unfortunate attack upon Mr. Pope; occasioned by the publication of the "Essay on Criticism." In that essay were some lines, which our author considered s having a reference to himself, and wrote a pamphlet, of which Dr. Johnson says, that it is such as rage might be expected to dictate. In a few instances his strictures were just; but in general his desire to do mischief was greater than his power. The only extenuation of the personal abuse he threw out against Mr. Pope was his conviction of that gentleman's having given the first offence. "Thus," observes Dr. Johnson, " began the hostility between Pope and Dennis, which, though suspended for a short time, never was appeased. Pope seems, at first, to have attacked him wantonly; but, though he always professed to despise him, he discovers, by mentioning him very often, that he felt his force or his venom." Dennis afterwards criticized several of Mr. Pope's other poems; but without success; and that he should upon that account have a place assigned to him in the "Dunciad," is no more than what might have been expected. He took his revenge, such as it was, by writing against the "Rape of the Lock," remarking that the machinery is superfluous; and that, by all the bustle of preternatural operation, the main event is neither hastened nor retarded; but the "Rape of the Lock" was not to be thus assailed, and Dennis never discharged his critical artillery with less effect. What, indeed, could be more ridiculous, than his pretending to find a latent meaning in the incidents of this inimitable poem, and therefore accusing Pope of being an enemy to his king and country? This, however, produced a piece of exquisite humour, "The Key to the Lock."

In 1713, Mr. Addison's Cato was produced upon the stage with a degree of applause, which, we believe, was never before given to any dramatic composition. But though the play was acted in the cause of whiggism, and Dennis himself was so zealous a whig, he could not bear the success with which it was attended. That in this he was actuated by personal animosity, cannot be denied; since it is acknowledged by himself, in a letter to the duke of Buckingham, that the motive which induced him to write his remarks upon Cato was, his having been attacked in several numbers of the Spectator. His principle of action we condemn; but the abilities with which he has executed his purpose are unquestionable. "He found," says Dr. Johnson, "and shewed many faults: he shewed them, indeed, with anger; but he found them with acuteness, such as ought to rescue his criticism from oblivion;" and Dr. Johnson has thought a large extract from this pamphlet worthy of transcription into his Life of Addison, who himself maintained a profound silence. Pope, however, took upon him to avenge his cause, in a pamphlet entitled "The Narrative of Dr. Robert Norris, concerning the strange and deplorable frenzy of Mr. John Dennis, an officer in the custom house," a piece of humour which does little credit to Pope's heart, and must excite the disapprobation of every benevolent mind. Pope, however, left Dennis's objections to Cato in their full force, "and therefore discovered more desire of vexing the critic, than of defending the poet. Addison, who was no stranger to the world," says Dr. Johnson, "probably saw the selfishness of Pope's friendship; and resolving that he should have the consequences of his officiousness to himself; informed Dennis by Steele, that he was sorry for the insult; and that whenever he should think fit to answer his remarks, he would do it in a manner to which nothing could be objected." Mr. Dennis, having been successful in displaying the faults of Cato, with regard to the probability of the action, and the reasonableness of the plan, proceeded, in the pride of conquest, to attack the sentiments of the play in seven letters. But here his strictures are, in general, trifling and insignificant; containing such petty cavils, and minute objections, as the malignity of criticism, united with some degree of sagacity, might be capable of exercising against the most perfect productions of the human mind.

In 1718, Mr. Dennis published, in two volumes, 8vo, his "Select Works;" and printed, likewise, in the same year, by subscription, in two volumes, large 8vo, "Original Letters, familiar, moral, and critical," a collection which does credit to our author's abilities. Among the pieces not yet mentioned, he has made some ingenious remarks upon the "vis comica," with the want of which Terence was charged by Julius Caesar; and there are several other disquisitions that are not unworthy of a perusal. In a letter to Mr. Jacob Tonson, senior, on the conspiracy against the reputation of Mr. Dryden, our author has manifested a high regard for the honour of that great poet. The character, however, which Mr. Dennis gives of himself, in the same letter, is very different from what the public, both at that time and ever since, has entertained. "Whatever," says he, "the mistaken world may think, I am always willing to be pleased; nay, am always as greedy of pleasure as any Epicurean living; and whenever I am naturally touched, I give myself up to the first impression, and never look for faults."

The relief which Mr. Dennis obtained by these publication, though considerable, was not permanent. Being much distressed very near the close of his life, it was proposed to act a play for his benefit, and Thomson, Mallet, Mr. Benjamin Martin, and Pope, took the lead upon the occasion. The play, which was "The Provoked Husband," was represented at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, December 18, 1733; and Pope wrote a prologue, which was spoken by Theophilus Cibber. Dennis had at this time become blind. Mr. Pope's benevolence was not so pure as could be wished; for his prologue was throughout a sneer upon the poor old critic, who happily, either from vanity, or the decay of his intellects, did not perceive its tendency. Warburton styled it "benevolent irony." Mr. Dennis survived this assistance only twenty days, dying on the 6th of January, 1733-4, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.

The character of Mr. Dennis must in general be sufficiently apparent from what has already been said. Ill-nature has been ascribed to him with too much shew of reason; though perhaps it belonged to him more as a writer than as a man. In a letter to a friend he has endeavoured to vindicate himself from the charge; but not, we think, with entire success. This at least is certain, from several transactions, that he was very irritable in his temper. Till he was five and forty, he was intimately conversant with the first men of the age, both with respect to rank and abilities; and when he retired from the world, he continued to preserve some honourable connections. Such was the estimation in which he was held, that he experienced the patronage of gentlemen whose political principles were extremely different from his own. George Granville, esq. in particular, afterwards lord Lansdowne, behaved to him with distinguished generosity, as did the earl of Pembroke, bishop Atterbury, and sir Robert Walpole.