Of sir John Denham very little is known but what is related of him by Wood, or by himself.
He was born at Dublin, 1615; the only son of sir John Denham, of Little Horsley, in Essex, then chief baron of the exchequer in Ireland, and of Eleanor, daughter of sir Garret More, baron of Mellefont.
Two years afterwards, his father, being made one of the barons of the exchequer in England, brought him away from his native country, and educated him in London.
In 1631 he was sent to Oxford, where he was considered "as a dreaming young man, given more to dice and cards than study:" and, therefore, gave no prognosticks of his future eminence; nor was suspected to conceal, under sluggishness and laxity, a genius born to improve the literature of his country.
When he was, three years afterwards, removed to Lincoln's inn, he prosecuted the common law with sufficient appearance of application; yet did not lose his propensity to cards and dice; but was very often plundered by gamesters.
Being severely reproved for this folly, he professed, and, perhaps, believed, himself reclaimed; and, to testify the sincerity of his repentance, wrote and published an Essay upon Gaming.
He seems to have divided his studies between law and poetry; for, in 1636, he translated the second book of the Aeneid. Two years after, his father died; and then, notwithstanding his resolutions and professions, he returned again to the vice of gaming, and lost several thousand pounds that had been left him.
In 1641, he published the Sophy. This seems to have given him his first hold of the publick attention; for Waller remarked, "that he broke out like the Irish rebellion, three score thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or in the least suspected it;" an observation which could have had no propriety had his poetical abilities been known before.
He was after that pricked for sheriff of Surrey, and made governour of Farnham castle for the king; but he soon resigned that charge, and retreated to Oxford, where, in 1643, he published Cooper's Hill.
This poem had such reputation as to excite the common artifice by which envy degrades excellence. A report was spread, that the performance was not his own, but that he had bought it of a vicar for forty pounds. The same attempt was made to rob Addison of his Cato, and Pope of his Essay on Criticism.
In 1647, the distresses of the royal family required him to engage in more dangerous employments. He was intrusted, by the queen, with a message to the king; and, by whatever means, so far softened the ferocity of Hugh Peters, that, by his intercession, admission was procured. Of the king's condescension he has given an account in the dedication of his works.
He was, afterwards, employed in carrying on the king's correspondence; and, as he says, discharged this office with great safety to the royalists: and, being accidentally discovered by the adverse party's knowledge of Mr. Cowley's hand, he escaped happily both for himself and his friends.
He was yet engaged in a greater undertaking. In April, 1648, he conveyed James, the duke of York, from London into France, and delivered him there to the queen and prince of Wales. This year he published his translation of Cato Major. He now resided in France, as one of the followers of the exiled king; and, to divert the melancholy of their condition, was sometimes enjoined by his master to write occasional verses; one of which amusements was probably his ode, or song, upon the Embassy to Poland, by which he and lord Crofts procured a contribution of ten thousand pounds from the Scotch, that wandered over the kingdom. Poland was, at that time, very much frequented by itinerant traders, who, in a country of very little commerce and of great extent, where every man resided on his own estate, contributed very much to the accommodation of life, by bringing to every man's house those little necessaries which it was very inconvenient to want, and very troublesome to fetch. I have formerly read, without much reflection, of the multitude of Scotchmen that travelled with their wares in Poland; and that their numbers were not small, the success of this negotiation gives sufficient evidence.
About this time, what estate the war and the gamesters had left him was sold, by order of the parliament; and when, in 1652, he returned to England, he was entertained by the earl of Pembroke.
Of the next years of his life there is no account. At the restoration he obtained that which many missed, the reward of his loyalty; being made surveyor of the king's buildings, and dignified with the order of the Bath. He seems now to have learned some attention to money; for Wood says, that he got by this place seven thousand pounds.
After the restoration, he wrote the poem on Prudence and Justice, and, perhaps, some of his other pieces; and as 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 he has failed; but in sacred poetry who has succeeded?
It might be hoped that the favour of his master, and esteem of the publick, would now make him happy. But human felicity is short and uncertain; a second marriage brought upon him so much disquiet, as, for a time, disordered his understanding; and Butler lampooned him for his lunacy. I know not whether the malignant lines were then made publick, nor what provocation incited Butler to do that which no provocation can excuse.
His phrensy lasted not long; and he seems to have regained his full force of mind; for he wrote afterwards his excellent poem upon the death of Cowley, whom he was not long to survive; for, on the 19th of March, 1668, he was buried by his side.
Denham is deservedly considered as one of the fathers of English poetry. "Denham and Waller," says Prior, "improved our versification, and Dryden perfected it." He has given specimens of various compositions, descriptive, ludicrous, didactick, and sublime.
He appears to have had, in common with almost all mankind, the ambition of being, upon proper occasions, a merry fellow, and, in common with most of them, to have been by nature, or by early habits, debarred from it. Nothing is less exhilarating than the ludicrousness of Denham; he does not fail for want of efforts; he is familiar, he is gross; but he is never merry, unless the Speech against Peace in the close Committee be excepted. For grave burlesque, however, his imitation of Davenant shows him to have been well qualified.
Of his more elevated occasional poems, there is, perhaps, none that does not deserve commendation. In the verses to Fletcher, we have an image that has since been often adopted:
But whither am I stray'd? I need not raise
Trophies to thee from other men's dispraise;
Nor is thy fame on lesser ruins built,
Nor need thy juster title the foul guilt
Of eastern kings, who, to secure their reign,
Must have their brothers, sons, and kindred, slain.
After Denham, Orrery, in one of his prologues,
Poets are sultans, if they had their will;
For ev'ry author would his brother kill.
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear like the Turk no brother near the throne.
But this is not the best of his little pieces: it is excelled by his poem to Fanshaw, and his elegy on Cowley.
His praise of Fanshaw's version of Guarini contains a very sprightly and judicious character of a good translator:
That servile path thou nobly dost decline,
Of tracing word by word and line by line.
Those are the labour'd births of slavish brains,
Not the effect of poetry but pains;
Cheap vulgar arts, whose narrowness affords
No flight for thoughts, but poorly stick at words,
A new and nobler way thou dost pursue,
To make translations and translators too,
They but preserve the ashes; thou the flame,
True to his sense, but truer to his fame.
The excellence of these lines is greater, as the truth which they contain was not, at that time, generally known.
His poem on the death of Cowley was his last, and, among his shorter works, his best performance: the numbers are musical, and the thoughts are just.
Cooper's Hill is the work that confers upon him the rank and dignity of an original author. He seems to have been, at least among us, the author of a species of composition that may be denominated local poetry, of which the fundamental subject is some particular landscape, to be poetically described with the addition of such embellishments as may be supplied by historical retrospection, or incidental meditation.
To trace a new scheme of poetry, has, in itself, a very high claim to praise, and its praise is yet more, when it is apparently copied by Garth and Pope; after whose names little will be gained by an enumeration of smaller poets, that have left scarcely a corner of the island not dignified either by rhyme or blank verse.
Cooper's Hill, if it be maliciously inspected, will not be found without its faults. The digressions are too long, the morality too frequent, and the sentiments, sometimes, such as will not bear a rigorous inquiry.
The four verses, which, since Dryden has commended them, almost every writer for a century past has imitated, are generally known:
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.
The lines, are, in themselves, not perfect; for most of the words, thus artfully opposed, are to be understood simply on one side of the comparison, and metaphorically on the other; and, if there be any language which does not express intellectual operations by material images, into that language they cannot be translated. But so much meaning is comprised in so few words; the particulars of resemblance are so perspicaciously collected, and every mode of excellence separated from its adjacent fault by so nice a line of limitation; the different parts of the sentence are so accurately adjusted; and the flow of the last couplet is so smooth and sweet; that the passage, however celebrated, has not been praised above its merit. It has beauty peculiar to itself, and must be numbered among those felicities which cannot be produced at will by wit and labour, but must rise unexpectedly in some hour propitious to poetry.
He appears to have been one of the first that understood the necessity of emancipating translation from the drudgery of counting lines, and interpreting single words. How much this servile practice obscured the clearest, and deformed the most beautiful parts of the ancient authors, may be discovered by a perusal of our earlier versions; some of them are the works of men well qualified, not only by critical knowledge, but by poetical genius, who yet, by a mistaken ambition of exactness, degraded, at once, their originals and themselves.
Denham saw the better way, but has not pursued it with great success. His versions of Virgil are not pleasing; but they taught Dryden to please better. His poetical imitation of Tully on Old Age has neither the clearness of prose, nor the sprightliness of poetry.
The "strength of Denham," which Pope so emphatically mentions, is to be found in many lines and couplets, which convey much meaning in few words, and exhibit the sentiment with more weight than bulk.
On the Thames.
Though with those streams he no resemblance hold,
Whose foam is amber, and their gravel gold;
His genuine and less guilty wealth t' explore,
Search not his bottom, but survey his shore.
His wisdom such, at once, it did appear
Three kingdoms' wonder, and three kingdoms' fear.
While single he stood forth, and seem'd, although
Each had an army, as an equal foe;
Such was his force of eloquence to make
The hearers more concern'd than he that spake:
Each seem'd to act that part he came to see,
And none was more a looker-on than he;
So did he move our passions, some were known
To wish, for the defence, the crime their own.
Now private pity strove with public hate,
Reason with rage, and eloquence with fate.
To him no author was unknown,
Yet what he wrote was all his own;
Horace's wit, and Virgil's state,
He did not steal, but emulate!
And, when he would like them appear,
Their garb, but not their clothes, did wear.
As one of Denham's principal claims to the regard of posterity arises from his improvement of our numbers, his versification ought to be considered. It will afford that pleasure which arises from the observation of a man of judgment naturally right, forsaking bad copies by degrees, and advancing towards a better practice, as he gains more confidence in himself.
In his translation of Virgil, written when he was about twenty-one years old, may be still found the old manner of continuing the sense ungracefully from verse to verse:
Then all those
Who in the dark our fury did escape,
Returning, know our borrow'd arms, and shape,
And differing dialect; then their numbers swell
And grow upon us; first Choroebus fell
Before Minerva's altar; next did bleed
Just Ripheus, whom no Trojan did exceed
In virtue, yet the gods his fate decreed.
Then Hypanis and Dymas, wounded by
Their friends; nor thee, Pantheus, thy piety,
Nor consecrated mitre, from the same
Ill fate could save; my country's funeral flame
And Troy's cold ashes I attest, and call
To witness for myself, that in their fall
No foes, no death, nor danger, I declin'd,
Did, and deserv'd no less, my fate to find.
From this kind of concatenated metre he afterwards refrained, and taught his followers the art of concluding their sense in couplets; which has, perhaps, been with rather too much constancy pursued.
This passage exhibits one of those triplets which are not unfrequent in this first essay, but which it is to be supposed his maturer judgment disapproved, since, in his latter works, he has totally forborne them.
His rhymes are such as seem found without difficulty, by following the sense; and are, for the most part, as exact, at least, as those of other poets, though now and then the reader is shifted off with what he can get:
O how transform'd!
How much unlike that Hector, who return'd
Clad in Achilles' spoils!
From thence a thousand lesser poets sprung
Like petty princes from the fall of Rome.
Sometimes the weight of rhyme is laid upon a word too feeble to sustain it:
Troy confounded falls
From all her glories: if it might have stood
By any power, by this right hand it shou'd.
–And though my outward state misfortune hath
Deprest thus low, it cannot reach my faith.
–Thus, by his fraud and our own faith o'ercome,
A feigned tear destroys us, against whom
Tydides nor Achilles could prevail,
Nor ten years' conflict, nor a thousand sail.
He is not very careful to vary the ends of his verses; in one passage the word die rhymes three couplets in six.
Most of these petty faults are in his first productions, when he was less skilful, or, at least, less dexterous in the use of words; and though they had been more frequent, they could only have lessened the grace, not the strength of his composition. He is one of the writers that improved our taste, and advanced our language, and whom we ought, therefore, to read with gratitude, though, having done much, he left much to do.
[Footnote 22: In Hamilton's memoirs of count Grammont, sir John Denham is said to have been seventy-nine, when he married Miss Brook, about the year 1664; according to which statement he was born in 1585. But Dr. Johnson, who has followed Wood, is right. He entered Trinity college, Oxford, at the age of sixteen, in 1631, as appears by the following entry, which I copied from the matriculation book.
"1631. Nov. 18. Johannes Denham, Essex. filius J. Denham de Horsley-parva in com. praedict. militis, annos natus 16. MALONE".]
[Footnote 23: In the ninth and tenth chapters of the Mémoires de Grammont, in Andrew Marvell's works, and in Aubrey's letters, ii. 319, many scandalous anecdotes respecting Denham, are reported. ED.]
[Footnote 24: It is remarkable that Johnson should not have recollected, that this image is to be found in Bacon. Aristoteles, more otthomannorum, regnare se haud tuto posse putabat, nisi fratres suos omnes contrucidasset. De Augment. Scient. lib. 3.]
[Footnote 25: By Garth, in his poem on Claremont: and by Pope, in his Windsor Forest.]