1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Denham

J. E. Harwood, "Sir John Denham" Literary Magazine and American Register [Philadelphia] 5 (March 1806) 229-30.



Sir John Denham is a favourite with me, not only because he was a good poet, but because he was a loyal subject and a good soldier. He was born of noble family, in the reign of James I, and during all the persecution which Charles I experienced, from the turbulence of infatuated ignorance, deluded by the patriots of that day, he followed the fortunes of his master with zeal unabated, and courage undaunted. At the restoration, the discernment and gratitude of a liberal sovereign honoured and rewarded his constancy.

But of the claims of sir John Denham to the regard of posterity, that of having improved our versification is the most popular. Though his title to this honour be undisputed, he enjoys it in common with Waller, and, in some measure, with Fairfax: and Drummond, almost before Denham's birth, had written in numbers that are scarcely inferior to the most harmonious lines of Pope. But Denham's fame rests not here: in the short preface to his second book of Virgil, he gave the best rules for translation that had then appeared, or will, perhaps, ever appear. His Cooper's Hill is universally admired.

The species was new, and here he stands an original. His Apostrophe to the Thames has never received too high an encomium; and it is not, perhaps, even at this day, any where equalled.

These celebrated verses, however, were not in the first printed edition of the poem; though the general sentiment is there.

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep yet clear; though gentle yet not dull
Strong without rage, without o'erflowing full.
Heav'n her Eridanus no more shall boast;
Her fame in thine, like lesser currents, lost;
Thy nobler streams shall visit Jove's abodes,
To shine among the stars, and bathe the Gods.

The original edition was thus:

O, could my verse freely and smoothly flow
As thy pure flood, heav'n should no longer know
Her old Eridanus; thy purer stream
Should bathe the Gods, and be the poet's theme!

Among his other poems, the "Verses on Cowley," "on Lord Strafford," and "on Fletcher," exhibit instances of the same force of sense and harmony united. He has translated from Homer, Virgil, Martial, and Marcini; but his verses are without the spirit of his own rules, or the practice of his own examples in his original pieces. His "Imitation of D'Avenant" and "Poem on Brother Green" evince ability, in different modes of composition: and though his tragedy, "The Sophy," can be praised neither for much dramatic nor poetical excellence, it still affords some proof of the versatility of his genius. Considering, therefore, the history of his life; how general and lasting a distraction gaming, by which vice he lost all his estate in his youth, leaves on the mind; how much and how early he was employed in the public affairs; how deeply he must have partaken of the distresses of the times; and the little encouragement given to poetry by his master, Charles I; his genius must have operated very strongly against his habits, in the production of pieces so serious, and some of such distinguished excellence. Whoever so far surpasses his cotemporaries, as to furnish precepts for his followers, and good models for their imitation, is entitled to the admiration and gratitude of posterity as an inventor; and his praise is reflected in every future work produced or influenced by his rules or example.

In 1668, the year in which he died, sir John Denham collected and published his poems, with a dedication to the king, well worth perusal. A very good idea of the different tastes of the first and second Charles, with respect to poetry, may be derived from this dedication.

I. E. H.

Baltimore.