1837 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Denham

Henry Hallam, in Introduction to the Literature of Europe of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries (1837-39; 1882) 3:246-47.



The Cooper's Hill of Sir John Denham, published in 1643, belongs, in a considerable degree, to this reasoning class of poems. It is also descriptive; but the description is made to slide into philosophy. The plan is original, as far as our poetry is concerned; and I do not recollect any exception in other languages. Placing himself upon an eminence not distant from Windsor, he takes a survey of the scene; he finds the tower of St. Paul's on its farthest horizon, the Castle much nearer, and the Thames at his feet. These, with the ruins of an abbey, supply, in turn, materials for a reflecting rather than imaginative mind, and, with a stag-hunt, which he has very well described, fill up the canvas of a poem of no great length, but once of no trifling reputation. The epithet, "majestic" Denham, conferred by Pope, conveys rather too much; but Cooper's Hill is no ordinary poem. It is nearly the first instance of vigorous and rhythmical couplets; for Denham is incomparably less feeble than Browne, and less prosaic than Beaumont. Close in thought, and nervous in language like Davies, he is less hard and less monotonous; his cadences are animated and various, perhaps a little beyond the regularity that metre demands; they have been the guide to the finer ear of Dryden. Those who cannot endure the philosophic poetry must ever be dissatisfied with Cooper's Hill; no personification, no ardent words, few metaphors beyond the common use of speech, nothing that warms or melts or fascinates the heart. It is rare to find lines of eminent beauty in Denham; and equally so to be struck by any one as feeble or low. His language is always well chosen and perspicuous, free from those strange turns of expression, frequent in our older poets, where the reader is apt to suspect some error of the press, so irreconcilable do they seem with grammar or meaning. The expletive "do," which the best of his predecessors use freely, seldom occurs in Denham; and he has in other respects brushed away the rust of languid and ineffective redundancies which have obstructed the popularity of men with more native genius than himself.