1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Denham

John Holland, in Psalmists of Britain. Records of upwards of One Hundred and Fifty Authors, who have rendered the Whole or Parts of The Book of Psalms, into English Verse (1843) 2:113-14.



Sir John Denham was born at Dublin, in 1615 — both his parents having been English. His college life was irregular; and among other irregularities, he was addicted to the vice of gaming: he, however, not only reformed, and was engaged in various important services for Charles the Second, whose exile and fortunes he shared, but, as Dr. Johnson says, "he appears, whenever any serious question comes before him, to have been a man of piety: he consecrated his poetical powers to religion, and made a Metrical Version of the Psalms of David. In this attempt be has failed; but in sacred poetry who has succeeded?" If the Doctor means simply that Denham has "failed" to impart to his Version of the Songs of Zion, the sort and degree of interest, which belongs to his exquisitely beautiful and original poem of "Cooper's Hill," the assertion cannot be denied: otherwise, some portions of his translation, at least, have been highly and deservedly praised. As to the closing question of the above quotation, Montgomery's "Christian Poet," to say nothing of other works, is a triumphant reply. Denham's Version is comparatively rare; there is a copy in the Library of Christ Church, Oxford: the title is — "A Version of the Psalms of David; Fitted to the Tunes used in Churches. By the Honourable Sir John Denham, Knight of the Bath. London, Printed for J. Bowyer," &c., 1714. In order to give every advantage to this Version, it was accompanied with music composed by Andrew Roner, the friend of Handel. Tattershall, in the Preface to his Edition of Merrick, speaks with enthusiasm of the Version of Sir John Denham; giving it as his opinion "that none of his predecessors or contemporaries have ever come near him, and that few of his successors have equalled, scarcely one surpassed him." He adds, "what height of devotion, what elegance of diction, do we meet with from the beginning to the conclusion of this author's work, wherein there is nothing too difficult for meaner capacities, nothing foreign to, or incoherent with the Scriptural sense of the Psalmist!" The following specimen is not only creditable, but will probably be allowed to exhibit a certain compactness of structure which justifies the author's character for "strength." Denham died in 1668, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, by the side of Cowley, whose death he had recently lamented in an excellent poem.