SIR JOHN DENHAM, an eminent English poet, the only son of sir John Denham, knt. of Little Horseley in Essex, by Eleanor, daughter of sir Garret More, knt. baton of Mellefont in Ireland, was born at Dublin in 1615, his father having been some time before chief baron of the exchequer in Ireland, and one of the lords commissioners of that kingdom; but, upon his being made, in 1617, one of the barons of the exchequer in England, he was brought by him to London, and educated there in school-learning. In 1631 he was entered a gentleman-commoner of Trinity-college in Oxford; "but being looked upon," says Wood, "as a slow and dreaming young man by his seniors and contemporaries, and given more to cards and dice than his study, they could never then in the least imagine that he could ever enrich the world with his fancy, or issue of his brain, as he afterwards did." When he bad continued there three years, and undergone a public examination for his degree of B.A. he went to Lincoln's Inn with a view of studying the law; but his love of gaming continuing, be squandered away all the money he could get. His father being informed of this, and threatening to disinherit him if he did not reform, he wrote a little "Essay upon Gaming," which he presented to his father, in order to shew him what an abhorrence he had conceived towards it: this gentleman's death, however, no sooner happened, in 1638, than he returned to his former habits, and presently lost several thousand pounds.
In 1641 he published his tragedy of the "Sophy;" which was so much admired by Waller that he took occasion from this piece to say of the author, that "he broke out like the Irish rebellion, threescore thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or in the least suspected it." Soon after he was pricked high sheriff of Surry, and made governor of Farnham-castle for the king; but, not being skilled in military affairs, he quitted that post soon after, and retired to his majesty at Oxford. Here, in 1643, he published his "Cooper's Hill;" a poem, which, Dryden says, for majesty of style, is, and ever will be, the standard of good writing. Pope has celebrated this poem very highly in his "Windsor Forest;" and indeed it is thought so much superior to his other poems, that some have suspected him, though without any just foundation, not to have been author of it. Thus, in the "Session of the Poets," printed in Dryden's Miscellanies, we have the following insinuation:
Then in came Denham, that limping old bard,
Whose fame on the Sophy and Cooper's Hill stands;
And brought many stationers, who swore very hard,
That nothing sold better, except 'twere his lands.
But Apollo advis'd him to write something more,
To clear a suspicion which possessed the court,
That Cooper's Hill, so much bragg'd on before,
Was writ by a vicar, who had forty pounds for 't.
In 1647 he was entrusted by the queen with a message to the king, who was then in the hands of the army, and to whom he got admittance by the help of his acquaintance Hugh Peters; "which trust," says he, in the dedication of his poems to Charles II. "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 them." In April 1648 he conveyed away James duke of York into France, as Wood says; but Clarendon assures us, that the duke went off with colonel Bamfield only, who Contrived the means of escape. Not long alter, he was sent sent ambassador from Charles II. to the king of Poland; and William (afterwards lord) Crofts was joined in the embassy with him. Among his poems is one entitled, "On my lord Crofts's and my journey into Poland, from whence we brought £10,000 for his majesty, by the decimation (or tithing) of his Scottish subjects there." About 1652 he returned to England; and, his paternal estate being greatly reduced by gaming and the civil wars, he was kindly entertained by lord Pembroke at Wilton; where, and sometimes at London, he continued with that nobleman above a year. At the restoration he entered upon the office of surveyor-general of all his majesty's buildings; and at the coronation of the king, was created K.B. Wood pretends, that Charles I. had granted our poet the reversion of that place, after the decease of the famous Inigo Jones, who held it; but sir John himself, in the dedication of his poems, assures us, that Charles II. at his departure from St. Germain's to Jersey, was pleased, freely, without his asking, to confer it upon him. After his promotion to this office, he gave over his poetical lines, and "made it his business," he says, "to draw such others as might be more serviceable to his majesty, and, he hoped, more lasting." Upon some discontent arising from a second marriage, he had the misfortune to be deprived of his reason. Dr. Johnson notices a slight circumstance omitted by other writers, which is, that when our poet was thus afflicted, Butler lampooned him for his lunacy. "I know not," adds the doctor, "whether the malignant lines were then made public; nor what provocation incited Butler to do what no provocation can excuse." On his recovery, which was soon, he wrote his fine verses upon the death of Cowley; whom yet he survived but a few months; for he died at his office near Whitehall, which he had before built, March 1668, and was interred in Westminster-abbey, near Chaucer, Spenser, and Cowley. Sir John was an early member of the royal society.
His works have been several times printed together in one volume, under the title of "Poems and translations, with the Sophy, a tragedy." The sixth edition is that of 1719, and besides this collection, Wood mentions: 1. "A Panegyric on his excellency the lord general George Monk, commander in chief," &c. printed at London in 1659, and generally ascribed to him, though his name is not to it. 2. "A New Version of the Book of Psalms." 3. A prologue to his Majesty at the first play presented at the Cockpit in Whitehall, being part of that noble entertainment which their majesties received on November 20; 1690, from his grace the duke of Aibemarle. 4. "The True Presbyterian without disguise: or, a character of a Presbyterian's ways and actions," Lond. 1680. Our author's name is to this poem; but it was then questioned by many, whether he was the author of it. In 1666 there were printed by stealth, in 8vo, certain poems, entitled "Directions to a Painter," in four copies or parts, each dedicated to Charles II. They were very satirically written against several persons engaged in the Dutch war in 1665. At the end of them was a piece, entitled, "Clarendon's House-warming," and after that his epitaph; both containing bitter reflections on that excellent nobleman. Sir John Denham's name is to these pieces; but they were generally thought to be written by the well-known Andrew Marvel: the printer, however, being discovered, was sentenced to stand in the pillory for the same.
"Denham," says Dr. Johnson, "is deservedly considered as one of the fathers of English poetry. Denham and Waller, according to Prior, improved our versification, and Dryden perfected it. He appears to have had, in common with almost all mankind, the ambition of being upon proper occasions a merry fellow; and, in common with most of them, to have been by nature, or by early habits, debarred from it. Nothing is less exhilarating than the ludicrousness of Denham. He does not fail for want of efforts: he is familiar, he is gross; but he is never merry, unless the 'Speech against Peace in the close Committee' be excepted. For grave burlesque, however, his imitation of Davenant shews him to have been well qualified. His poem on the death of Cowley was his last, and, among his shorter works, his best performance: the numbers are musical, and the thoughts are just. 'Cooper's Hill' is the work that confers upon him the rank and dignity of an original author. He seems to have been, at least among us, 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 maybe supplied by historical retrospection or incidental meditation. To trace a new scheme of poetry has in itself a very high claim to praise, and its praise is yet more when it is apparently copied by Garth and Pope; after whose names little will be gained by an enumeration of smaller poets, that have left scarce a corner of the island undignified by rhymes or blank verse. He appears to have been one of the first that understood the necessity of emancipating translation from the drudgery of counting lines and interpreting single words. How much this servile practice obscured the clearest and deformed the most beautiful parts of the ancient authors, may be discovered by a perusal of our earlier versions; some of them the works of men well qualified not only by critical knowledge, but by poetical genius; who yet, by a mistaken ambition of exactness, degraded at once their originals and themselves. Denham saw the better way, but has not pursued it with great success. His versions of Virgil are not pleasing: but they taught Dryden to please better. His poetical imitation of Tully On Old Age has neither the clearness of prose, nor the spriteliness of poetry." — Most of the lesser faults pointed out in Dr. Johnson's critique "are in Denham's first productions, when he was less skilful, or at least less dextrous in the use of words; and though they bad been more frequent, they could only have lessened the grace, not the strength, of his composition. He is one of the writers that improved our taste, and advanced our language, and whom we ought therefore to read with gratitude, though, having clone much, he left much to do."
It has not been generally remarked that Denham continued to improve and polish his poems as long as he lived. Pope wrote on his copy of "Cooper's Hill" the following note: "This poem was first printed without the author's name in 1643. In that edition are a great many verses to be found, since omitted, and very many others since corrected and improved. Some few the author afterwards added, and in particular, the celebrated lines on the Thames, "O could I flow like thee," &c. all with admirable judgment; and the whole read together is a very strong proof of what Mr. Waller says,
Poets lose half the praise they should have got,
Could it be known what they discretely blot.
On the above, so often repeated, lines on the Thames, and so often parodied, the reader may find some curious disquisitions in lord Monboddo's "Origin and Progress of Language," and in Mason's "Essay on the power of Numbers and the principles of Harmony," 1749. The only opponent of Denham as a poet, generally, is Mr. Scott in his "Critical Essays," but with Dryden, Johnson, Warton, &c. &c. in his favour, his reputation cannot suffer much by a solitary foe.