1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Denham

Walter Scott, in Life of Dryden (1808; 1834) 13-15.



But as melody will be always acceptable to the ear, some poets chose this neglected road to fame, and gained a portion of public favour, by attending to the laws of harmony, which their rivals had discarded. Waller and Denham were the first who thus distinguished themselves; but, as Johnson happily remarks, what was acquired by Denham, was inherited by Waller. Something there was in the situation of both these authors, which led them to depart from what was then the beaten path of composition. They were men of rank, wealth, and fashion, and had experienced all the interruptions to deep study, with which such elevated station is naturally attended. It was in vain for Waller, a wit, a courtier, and a politician; or for Denham, who was only distinguished at the university as a dreaming, dissipated gambler, to attempt to rival the metaphysical subtleties of Donne and Cowley, who had spent serious and sequestered lives in acquiring the knowledge and learning which they squandered in their poetry. Necessity, therefore, and perhaps a dawning of more simple taste, impelled these courtly poets to seek another and more natural mode of pleasing. The melody of verse was a province unoccupied, and Waller, forming his rhythm upon the modulation of Fairfax, and other poets of the maiden reign, exhibited in his very first poem striking marks of attention to the suavity of numbers. Denham, in his dedication to Charles II., informs us, that the indulgence of his poetical vein had drawn the notice, although accompanied with the gentle censure, of Charles I., when, in 1647, he obtained access to his person by the intercession of Hugh Peters. Suckling, whom Dryden has termed "a sprightly wit, and a courtly writer," may be added to the list of smooth and easy poets of the period, and had the same motives as Denham and Waller for attaching himself to that style of composition. He was allowed to have the peculiar art of making whatever he did become him; and it cannot be doubted, that his light and airy style of ballads and sonnets had many admirers. Upon the whole, this class of poets, although they hardly divided the popular favour with the others, were also noticed and applauded. Thus the poets of the earlier part of the seventeenth century may be divided into one class, who sacrificed both sense and sound to the exercise of extravagant, though ingenious, associations of imagery; and a second, who, aiming to distinguish themselves by melody of versification, were satisfied with light and trivial subjects, and, too often contented with attaining smoothness of measure, neglected the more essential qualities of poetry.