1797 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dennis

Anonymous, "Dennis" European Magazine 31 (January 1797) 89-90.



Amongst the singularities of this learned self-tormentor, he either hated or affected to hate a pun so much, that he either grew outrageously angry, or quitted the company whenever a pun happened to be let off in his presence. He has expressed his contempt of this species of wit in many parts of his writings, particularly in one where he makes this very particular remark: "I look upon the difference between a pun, and a sentiment well conceived and happily executed, to be as great, as the pain of teasing — and the exquisite pleasures of fruition."

With this well-known prejudice against him the wits of his time constantly availed themselves: One night in particular, at Button's, Steele wanted to make a party without Dennis, tho' he could not decently do it, as Dennis was in the coffee-house at the same time; ruminating for some time how to get rid of him, he at last observed Rowe sitting at the opposite side of the same box, when coming up to Dennis he asked him aloud, "what was the matter with him?" — "The matter with me," says Dennis, "what do you mean by that?" — "Why," says Steele, "I did not know; but you appeared to me to be like an angry waterman; you look one way, and Rowe another."

This was enough for our angry critic, who immediately bounced up, and left the room, thundering his anathemas against all puns and miserable punsters.

This acerbity of temper stuck to poor Dennis to the last, as the following anecdote, not generally known, will prove; nor could even the liberality or assiduity of his friends allay it. Having outlived an annuity which he had of one hundred pounds per year, the latter part of his life was supported partly by the benefactions of his friends, and partly by benefit plays which they occasionally procured for him. His last benefit was "The Provoked Husband," which was obtained by the interest of Pope and Thomson; and as it turned out successful, Savage, who could contribute nothing but by his pen, wrote and published, in Dennis's name, some complimentary verses on the occasion. When Dennis heard these lines repeated to him (for by this time he was quite blind), he exclaimed in a great fury, "Why am I treated in this manner? by G—d this can be no other than that fool Savage."

This was perhaps his last flash of critical resentment, as he died two days afterwards.