Denham, John (1615-1669) (DNB00)

DENHAM, Sir JOHN (1615–1669), poet, was the only son of Sir John Denham, the Irish judge [q. v.], of Little Horkesley, Essex, by his second wife, Eleanor, daughter of Sir Garrett More, baron Mellefont and viscount Drogheda. He was born at Dublin in 1615, and educated in London. On 18 Nov. 1631 he matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, where he was ‘looked upon,’ says Wood, ‘as a slow, dreaming young man, and more addicted to gaming than study.’ He was examined for the degree of B.A., but there is no proof that it was granted him. He subsequently studied law at Lincoln's Inn, where his name had been entered on the register as early as 28 April 1631. William Lenthall [q. v.] was one of his sureties. On 25 June 1634 he married at St. Bride's, Fleet Street, his first wife, Ann Cotton, of a Gloucestershire family, ‘by whom he had 500 lib. per annum, one son, and two daughters’ (Aubrey). He took up his residence with his father at Egham, Surrey, and in the church there a son of his was buried 28 Aug. 1638 (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. i. 552). His love of gambling now grew pronounced, and threatened a breach with his relatives. To allay his father's anxieties, he wrote ‘an essay against gaming,’ which was published in 1651 without the author's permission or name. Its title ran: ‘The Anatomy of Play. Written by a worthy and learned gent. Dedicated to his father to show his detestation of it.’ In 1638 the poet inherited on his father's death the family mansion at Egham and other property, but he persisted in his gaming practices, and squandered several thousand pounds.

Denham seems to have first attempted verse in 1636, when he paraphrased the second book of Virgil's ‘Æneid,’ but it was not published till 1656. His earliest publication was an historical tragedy, entitled ‘The Sophy’—written on classical lines—which was acted with success at the private theatre at Blackfriars, and issued in 1642. The plot—the scene of which is in Turkey—is drawn from Sir Thomas Herbert's ‘Travels’ (1634), and Robert Baron [q. v.] a few years later utilised the same story in his ‘Mirza.’ Waller said of Denham's performance: ‘He broke out like the Irish rebellion, three score thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or in the least suspected it’ (Aubrey).

At the beginning of the civil wars Denham was high sheriff of Surrey, and took up arms for the king. He was made governor of Farnham Castle, whence he was easily driven by Sir William Waller on 1 Dec. 1642 (Rushworth, v. 82). Waller sent him prisoner to London, where he ‘contracted a great familiarity,’ according to Sir John Berkeley, with Hugh Peters; but he was soon allowed to retire to Oxford, where he remained for nearly five years, and was treated with much consideration. His well known poem, ‘Cooper's Hill,’ in which he described the scenery about his house at Egham, was first published in London in 1642, although it was stated to have been written two years earlier, and subsequently underwent much alteration. His royalist friends at Oxford were amused by his squibs and satires penned against the presbyterians and parliamentarians. One of his few serious poems written at this period lamented the death of Strafford. On 19 June 1644 Denham's goods in London were sold by order of the parliament (Mercurius Aulicus, 1050). George Wither, the poet, who was a captain in the parliamentary army, is said by Aubrey and Wood to have petitioned for a grant of Denham's property, and to have temporarily held Egham; but Wither was taken prisoner by the royalists soon afterwards, when Denham begged Charles I to pardon him on the ground that while Wither lived he ‘should not be the worst poet in England.’ In the articles of peace projected in 1646 Denham was one of the persons on whose removal from the royal counsels the parliament insisted (Thurloe, i. 81). In 1647 Henrietta Maria entrusted him with the duty of bearing letters to the king while at Holmby Castle. According to Berkeley, Denham and Sir Edward Ford were to promote a final agreement between the king and the army. Berkeley and John Ashburnham [q. v.] were subsequently joined in the enterprise, which came to nothing. Denham's intimacy with Hugh Peters proved useful, and through Peters he obtained frequent access to the royal presence. Charles freely discussed the situation with the poet, whom he recommended to abstain from versifying while engaged in politics. When the king left Hampton Court he directed Denham to remain in London, ‘to send to him and receive from him all his letters to and from all his correspondents at home and abroad.’ For this purpose Denham was supplied with nine ciphers; Cowley assisted him, and for nine months the work proceeded satisfactorily, but by the end of that time Denham's action was suspected, and in April 1648 he deemed it safer to help in the removal of James, duke of York, to Holland. Clarendon overlooks his share in this transaction, and it is probable that it was smaller than Denham and his friends asserted. For a time Denham was in attendance on Henrietta Maria in Paris. On 10 May 1649 the queen sent him back to Holland with instructions as to future policy for the young king, Charles II, and with despatches for the Prince of Orange (Letters of Henrietta Maria, ed. Green, 361). In 1650 Charles II sent Denham and William, lord Crofts, to Poland, and they collected 10,000l. from Scotchmen residing there, according to Denham's versified narrative of the journey. The next two years were spent with the exiled royal family, chiefly in Holland. On 13–23 May 1652 Nicholas wrote from the Hague that Denham ‘hath here lately had very ill-luck at play.’ He was in great want of money, but was afraid, according to Nicholas, of going to England on account rather of his creditors' threats than of the rebels' (Nicholas, Papers, Camd. Soc. i. 300). Later in the year, however, he was in England, and found a protector in the Earl of Pembroke. His estates had been sold 20 July 1651, and he was penniless. On 20 Sept. 1653 a royalist writing from Paris proves Denham's growing literary reputation by enclosing a French drinking song, ‘which,’ he says, ‘if Englished by one Denham, I hear to be the state's poet, truly it will be much to the instruction of our country’ (ib. i. 471). Aubrey made Denham's acquaintance while staying with Pembroke at Wilton, and Denham visited Evelyn at Wotton 6 April 1654 and 5 Jan. 1655–6; but he was more frequently in London than the authorities approved, and on 9 June 1655 an order was issued that he was to be confined to a place more than twenty miles from the metropolis chosen by himself. On 11 Jan. 1657–8 Cromwell signed a license authorising him to live at Bury in Suffolk, and on 24 Sept. 1658–9 a passport was granted to him and the Earl of Pembroke to enable them to go abroad together. His translation of Virgil (‘The Destruction of Troy; an Essay upon the second book of Virgil's Æneis’) was issued with an interesting preface on translation in 1656, and an indecent doggerel poem about a Colchester quaker in a single folio sheet in 1659.

At the Restoration Clarendon was advised to secure the services of Denham (Clarendon, State Papers, iii. 644–5), and the poet was rewarded for his loyalty by several grants of land and valuable leases. In June 1660 he was made surveyor-general of works. He claimed to have received the reversion to this office from Charles I in the lifetime of its latest holder, Inigo Jones (d. 1651). Jones's nephew and assistant, John Webb, protested against the appointment on the ground that ‘though Denham may have, as most gentry, some knowledge of the theory of architecture, he can have none of the practice.’ Webb was conciliated by a promise of the reversion, and Denham entered upon his duties. He superintended the erection and alteration of many official buildings in London, designed some new brick buildings in Scotland Yard on land which he leased from the crown, and is said to have built Burlington House, Piccadilly. Evelyn, like Webb, questioned his knowledge of architecture, and describes him as a better poet than architect, but in his last years he was fortunate enough to secure the services of Christopher Wren as his deputy. In Nov. 1660 Denham published in a single sheet a prologue for a dramatic performance with which Monck entertained the king. Early in 1661 he arranged the coronation ceremony, and was made knight of the Bath. He was M.P. for Old Sarum 1661 till death.

Denham was now a widower, and on 25 May 1665 he married at Westminster Abbey his second wife, Margaret, third daughter of Sir William Brooke, K.B., a nephew of Henry Brooke, lord Cobham [q. v.] The lady was, according to Grammont, a girl of eighteen. Denham, according to the same authority, was seventy-nine, but this is a palpable falsehood, for he was little more than fifty, although his health was broken and he looked like an old man. Lady Denham soon became known as the Duke of York's mistress; her lover visited her openly at her husband's house in Scotland Yard and paid her unmistakable attentions at court (Pepys, 26 Sept. and 8 Oct. 1666). A scandal, preserved by Oldys, attributes to Denham a loathsome method of avenging himself on both his wife and the duke. While smarting under the disgrace, Denham was seized with a short fit of madness. He visited the king and told him he was the Holy Ghost. His illness, commonly attributed to the scandalous conduct of his wife, was due, according to Marvell, to an accidental blow on the head (Clarendon's House-Warming, st. vii.) When Denham was convalescent Lady Denham died (on 6 Jan. 1666–7). Lord Conway wrote two days later that she was ‘poisoned, as she said herself, in a cup of chocolate. The Duke of York was very sad, and kept his chamber when I went to visit him’ (Rawdon Papers, 1819, p. 227). Pepys roundly accuses Denham of murdering his wife; Aubrey credits the Countess of Rochester with giving Lady Denham the poisoned chocolate; the Count de Grammont accepts Pepys's version of the episode, and adds that Denham had to shut himself up in his house because his neighbours threatened to tear him to pieces if he went abroad. The fury of the populace was only appeased (according to Grammont) by a sumptuous funeral (9 Jan.) at St. Margaret's, Westminster, and by a very liberal distribution of burnt wine. According to Henry Newcome, the Duchess of York was soon afterwards ‘troubled with the apparition of the Lady Denham, and through anxiety bit off a piece of her tongue.’ Marvell, in 1667, on the death of the Duke of York's infant son, the Duke of Kendal, and the apparently mortal sickness of another infant son, the Duke of Cambridge, published the epigram—

Kendal is dead and Cambridge riding post—
What fitter sacrifice for Denham's ghost?

In other satires Marvell constantly associates Lady Denham's name with ‘mortal chocolate,’ but shifts the responsibility for its employment from Denham's shoulders to those of the Duke and Duchess of York. The scandalous accusation seems to have been quite unjustified on all hands, for a post-mortem examination showed no trace of poison (Orrery State Papers, 1742, p. 219).

Denham survived this crisis for two years. He had made money by his official duties and lived at ease, but he was disliked at court (Grammont), and many contemporary writers made him their butt. The author of ‘Hudibras’ penned in 1667 a cruel ‘panegyric on Sir John Denham's recovery from his madness,’ in which the poet was charged with the most shamefaced literary plagiarism, with fraudulent practices in his office, and with all the vices of a confirmed gamester and debauchee. Lord Lisle, writing to Temple (26 Sept. 1667), says: ‘Poor Sir John Denham is fallen to the ladies also, and is extremely pleased with those that seem willing to hear him, and for that obligation exceedingly praises the Duchess of Monmouth and my Lady Cavendish. If he had not the name of being mad, he would be thought better than ever’ (Temple, Works, i. 484). On Cowley's death (28 July 1667) Denham wrote an elegy which showed no sign of failing powers. He himself died in the middle of March 1668–9, and was buried near Chaucer's monument in Westminster Abbey on the 23rd. An epigram in his honour appeared in William Speed's ‘Epigrammata’ (1669), p. 82. Aubrey describes Denham as very tall, but slightly bent at the shoulders, of slow and stalking gait, with piercing eyes that ‘looked into your very thoughts.’

Denham's unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, was sole executrix of his will (dated 13 March 1668–9, and proved 9 May 1670). His friends, Sir John Birkenhead [q. v.] and William Ashburnham [q. v.], were overseers. Elizabeth received the poet's lease of Scotland Yard with a moiety of a Bedfordshire lease. To his grandchildren, John, William, and Mary, children of the poet's second daughter, Anne, and her husband, Sir William Morley, K.B., other landed property was left, and liberal provision was made for John's education. John and William Morley both died young, the former in 1683 and the latter, who was by the will to have assumed the name of Denham, in 1693. Mary Morley, who married James, tenth earl of Derby, thus became sole heiress. She died without surviving issue in 1782 (Wills from Doctors' Commons, Camd. Soc. pp. 120–3).

‘Cooper's Hill’ and the musical elegy on Cowley are the poems by which Denham best deserves to be remembered. The former was much altered after its first publication in 1642, and received its final form in 1655. The title-page of the 1655 edition describes the poem as ‘written in the yeare 1640; now printed from a perfect copy and a corrected impression.’ The editor, who calls himself J. B., states that there had been no less than five earlier editions, all of which were ‘meer repetitions of the same false transcript which stole into print by the author's long absence from this great town.’ The famous apostrophe to the Thames (‘O could I flow like thee and make thy stream,’ &c.) was one of the passages that first appeared in 1655, and the many other changes were all made, as Pope says, ‘with admirable judgment.’ The alterations are fully noted in Spence's ‘Anecdotes,’ p. 282, note. In the ‘Session of the Poets’ (Poems on State Affairs, 1697) Denham is charged with having bought the poem of a vicar for 40l., and Butler repeats the accusation in his ‘Panegyric,’ but the charge seems baseless. Later critics have exhumed, in one of Ascham's Latin letters and in William Cartwright's verses on Ben Jonson (1637), similar turns of expression to those employed by Denham in his well-known lines on the ‘Thames’ (‘Though deep yet clear,’ &c.), but Denham's originality cannot be seriously impugned. Herrick was the first to write in praise of ‘Cooper's Hill’ (Hesperides, ed. Grosart, ii. 220), and he was followed by Dryden and Pope. Dryden, when dedicating his ‘Rival Ladies’ to Roger, earl of Orrery, in 1664, said that in ‘Cooper's Hill’ Denham transferred the sweetness of Waller's lyrics to the epic, and that the poem ‘for the majesty of its style is and ever will be the standard of exact writing.’ In the dedication of his translation of the ‘Æneid,’ 1697, Dryden draws attention to the ‘sweetness’ of the lines about the Thames. Pope avowedly imitated Denham in ‘Windsor Forest,’ as Garth did in his ‘Claremont.’ Pope calls Denham ‘majestic,’ and insists on his strength. Swift, in ‘Apollo's Edict,’ writes:

Nor let my votaries show their skill
In aping lines from Cooper's Hill;
For know I cannot bear to hear
The mimicry of ‘deep yet clear.’

The poem is the earliest example of strictly descriptive poetry in the language, and, in spite of an excess of moralising, deserves its reputation. The sprightly eulogy on ‘Friendship and Single Life against Love and Marriage’ is the most attractive of Denham's lighter pieces. The Senecan tragedy of ‘Sophy,’ which Butler charged Denham with borrowing, is an interesting effort in a worn-out style of dramatic art. Denham shows to worst advantage in his satirical doggerel. ‘Nothing is less exhilarating than the ludicrousness of Denham, … he is familiar, he is gross; he is never merry’ (Johnson). His translations of Virgil and Cicero, in which he practised his theory of paraphrase as opposed to literal reproduction, are only interesting in their influence on Dryden (cf. Dryden's pref. to Ovid's Epistles in Works, ed. Scott, xii. 12–14). Dr. Johnson assigns to Denham the credit of first endowing the heroic couplet with epigrammatic terseness.

Denham's separate publications are: 1. ‘The Sophy,’ 1642 and 1667. 2. ‘Cooper's Hill,’ 1642; 1650 (with prologue and epilogue to ‘The Sophy’ and verses on Fanshawe's translation of ‘Pastor Fido’); 1655 (corrected). 3. ‘Cato Major,’ verse translation from Cicero, 1648, 1669, 1703, 1710, 1769, and 1779. 4. ‘The Destruction of Troy, with a preface on translation,’ 1656. 5. ‘Anatomy of Play,’ 1651, prose tract (Bliss notes a copy dated 1645). 6. ‘Second and Third Advices to a Painter for describing our Naval Business,’ 1667. Two editions of this work appeared in 1667, one in 12mo and the other in 8vo, and it is reprinted in ‘Poems on Affairs of State.’ In these poems, which are accompanied by two addresses to the king, Denham continued the poetic narrative of the Dutch wars which Waller had begun in his ‘Instructions to a Painter,’ describing the naval battle with the Dutch (3 June 1665). The 8vo edition was described as ‘the last work of Sir John Denham,’ and ‘written in imitation of Waller,’ but it was apparently produced surreptitiously, and to it was ‘annexed “Clarendon's House-Warming,” by an unknown author.’ The unknown author was Andrew Marvell, and it has been assumed in some quarters that Marvell rather than Denham was the author of the whole work. But this is an error, attributable to the fact that Marvell parodied Denham's poem in a satire on the Dutch war and other political incidents which he christened ‘Last Directions to a Painter.’ Except in their titles, Denham's and Marvell's poems are easily distinguishable. 7. ‘Psalms of David, fitted to the Tunes used in Churches,’ 1744, with an interesting essay on earlier metrical versions. This was edited by Heighes Woodford, and dedicated to the Earl of Derby. Samuel Woodford refers to the existence of this work in his ‘Occasional Compositions in English Rhimes,’ 1668. Poems by Denham in celebration of Monck's efforts (1659–60), of Monck's entertainment of the king (1661), of the crimes of a Colchester quaker (1659–1660), of the queen's new buildings at Somerset House (1665), of Cowley (1667), and the ‘True Character of a Presbyterian,’ were issued separately in single folio sheets. Much of Denham's political doggerel appeared in ‘The Rump,’ 1662. Denham wrote the fifth act for Mrs. Katherine Philips's—‘matchless Orinda's’—translation of Corneille's ‘Horace’ (not issued till 1669), and contributed verses to Richard Fanshawe's translation of Guarini's ‘Pastor Fido’ (1647), to ‘Lacrymæ Musarum’ on the death of Lord Hastings (1649), to the satirical volume on Davenant's ‘Gondibert’ (‘Certain verses by several of the author's friends’), 1653, to Robert Howard's ‘British Princess,’ and to the collected edition of Beaumont and Fletcher's works. The first collected edition of Denham's poems appeared in 1668, with a dedicatory epistle to Charles II. Other collected editions followed in 1671, 1676, 1684, and 1709. They are reprinted in Johnson's (1779), Anderson's (1793), Park's (1808), and Chalmers's (1810) collections of English poets. One poem by Denham, ‘To his Mistress,’ is only to be found in Gildon's ‘Poetical Remaines’ (1698).

[Wood's Athenæ, ed. Bliss, iii. 823; Langbaine's Dramatick Poets (1691), with Oldys's manuscript notes in Brit. Mus. C. 28, g. 1; Hunter's MS. Chorus Vatum in Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 24491; Aubrey's Lives, vol. ii.; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, i. 67–78; Berkeley's Memoirs (1702); Cal. State Papers, 1650–67; Gent. Mag. (1850), ii. 370; Chester's Marriage Licenses (Foster), p. 395; Pepys's Diary; Evelyn's Diary; Grammont's Memoirs; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. i. 532, x. 249 (by Rev. H. W. Cookes); Marvell's Works, ed. Grosart.]

S. L. L.