1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Denham

Robert Aris Willmott, in Lives of Sacred Poets (1834) 145-49.



Wither, who, according to his own account, was the first in Surrey who had taken arms for the Parliament, was also the first who suffered in its behalf. His farm at Wanborough, a village about four miles from Guildford, was plundered by the royalists. Edward Browne, in his Pathetical Apology for Book-making, dated from London, in December, 1642, says, "Captain George Wither hath my certificate, but I fear he is so perplexed because his house near Guildford, in Sorry, was plundered by the king's cavaliers, that he can find no spare time to sign it." This event took place, it is probable, towards the beginning of January, 1642, for we discover from the Journals of the House of Commons that an order from the Committee of Safety for immediate payment to Wither of 328 6s. out of the coinage of plate, was issued, January 6, 1642.

He estimated his loss at 2000, and several attestations upon oath were laid before the Parliament verifying this statement. Few poets have possessed a dwelling so richly stored with provisions of every description. He enumerates, among other articles, a thousand weight of cheese, nearly eight hundred-weight of butter, six or seven hogsheads of beer and cider, of the whole of which the house was entirely pillaged. Having obtained the order of Parliament to indemnify himself upon the property of his plunderers, one of whom was the poet Denham, then high-sheriff of the county, he lost no time in seizing upon the goods of "Master Denham and Master Tichborne."

Both of these estates, however, were at the time untenanted, and the "goods which were Master Denham's," were, by an order of some sequestrators, taken out of Wither's hands, and put into the possession of Denham's wife, who, "as do many other delinquents," the poet indignantly complained, found much more favour than he "did who had been ever faithful to the State." "For when my wife and children," he continues, "had been cruelly driven out of their habitation, and robbed of all they had, by her husband and his confederates, and when, by virtue of the forementioned order, I justly entered upon the house of the said Denham, purposing to harbour my said wife and children therein, Mistress Denham, having long before deserted the house, and left there only some tables, with such-like household-stuff, was, upon false suggestions, put again, by order, into possession of the house, because, as her charitable patron alleged, she was a gentlewoman, big with child, and had a fancy to the place."

Aubrey has given a rambling account of this occurrence. "In the time of the civil war, Geo. Withers, the poet, begged Sir John Denham's estate of the Parliament, in whose cause he was a captain of horse. It happened that G. W. was taken prisoner, and was in danger of his life, having written severely against the king. Sir John Denham went to the king, and desired his Majesty not to hang him, for that while G. W. lived, he should not be the worst poet in England." It seems likely that our poet's captivity took place after the battle of Edge-hill, on the 23rd of October, 1642, for we learn from Clarendon, that a very considerable number of the Parliament's cavalry officers were taken after that engagement.

A similar act of malicious kindness was performed by Henry Martin, when he saved the life of Sir William Davenant; but in Denham's request there was a bitterness which spoke of the lost fields at Egham. The name of Denham frequently recurs in the life of Wither. At this time his talents were not in much repute, although the Sophy, which gave rise to Waller's witty saying, that he broke out, like the Irish rebellion, threescore thousand strong, when nobody suspected it, was published in 1642, and, according to Aubrey, "did take extremely." Soon after the battle of Edgehill, his well-known poem of Cooper's Hill is said to have been printed at Oxford, "on a sort of brown paper, for there they could get no better." But this story, which has been always unhesitatingly credited, is not reconcileable with the fact of an edition of the poem having been published in London, by Thomas Walkley, in August, 1642.

The poetical fortune of Denham forms a singular contrast to that of his rival. While Wither has been long forgotten, except by a few students of our old poetry, the works of Denham have been carefully collected, and his life written by one who touched nothing he did not adorn. Yet Johnson, it must be confessed, was too favourable in his estimate of the poet's genius; his claim to the invention of a species of poetry, to which the great critic has applied the name of local, seems to be purely imaginary. Cooper's Hill has nothing about it local, but the name. Wither and Browne furnished specimens far more individually descriptive than any thing in Denham. Pope formed a truer estimate of his merits, when he styled him "Majestic Denham," an appellation to which the occasional dignity of his manner, particularly in the Lines upon the Earl of Strafford, fully entitled him. In more peaceful times his Muse might have given utterance to a grander strain. The happier efforts of his pen are still remembered with pleasure, and the portrait left of him by his friend Aubrey, places the poet before us in an interesting light. "He was of the tallest, but a little incurveting at his shoulders, not very robust. His hair was but thin and flaxen, with a moist curl.... His eye a kind of light goose grey, not big, but it had a strange piercingness, not as to shining and glory (but like a Momus) when he conversed with you, he looked into your very thoughts."