Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dennys, John
DENNYS, JOHN (d. 1609), author of ‘The Secrets of Angling,’ was known only by his initials (J. D.), prior to the investigations of Mr. T. Westwood, the late Rev. H. T., and Canon Ellacombe. He was first made generally familiar by six of his most beautiful stanzas on the angler's happy life in the first chapter of the ‘Compleat Angler’ (1653), and at first ascribed by Walton to ‘Jo. Da.’ In the fifth edition (1668), this is altered to ‘Jo. Davors.’ Others, as for instance R. Howlett in 1706, had assigned them to Donne or Davies. Pinkerton states that their authorship has been attributed to no less than six poets of the name of Davies. J. D.'s poem is itself prefaced by certain commendatory verses signed ‘Jo. Daues.’ This man was probably a relative of the author, whose great-grandmother's name was Davers, Danvers, or Daues. About 1811 the author's name was discovered from the following entry in the ‘Stationers' Registers:’ ‘23mo Martii, 1612’ (i.e. 1613) ‘Master Roger Jackson Entred for his Copie vnder th[e h]ands of Master Mason and Master Warden Hooper, a booke called “The Secretes of Angling,” teaching the Choysest tooles, bates, and seasons for the taking of any fish in pond or River, practised and opened in three bookes by John Dennys Esquier, vjd.’
A family of the name of Dennys had long lived in the parish of Pucklechurch, Gloucestershire. A stream which divides that parish from Dyrham is soon joined by other rivulets, and by their confluence a brook is formed called the Boyd, which falls into the Avon in the meadows below Bitton. The third verse of the ‘Secrets’ introduces this stream:
And thou, sweet Boyd, that with thy watry sway,
Dost wash the cliffs of Deignton and of Weeke;
And through their Rockes with crooked winding way,
Thy mother Avon runnest soft to seeke;
In whose fayre streames the speckled Trout doth play.
The north aisle of the old church of Pucklechurch is the burial-place of the family of Dennys.
The Rev. H. N. Ellacombe of Bitton has published six descents of the Dennys pedigree (correcting Sir Harris Nicolas's account) from Sir Walter Dennys of Pucklechurch, who was born in the latter part of the fifteenth or the very beginning of the sixteenth century. His second son, John (marrying Fortune, widow of William Kemys of Newport, and daughter of Thomas Norton of Bristol), left a son called Hugh. Hugh died in 1559, and left John (the author of the ‘Secrets’), by Katherine, daughter of Edward Trye of Hardwick, Gloucestershire, who died at Pucklechurch, 1583. John Dennys (J. D.) is known to have resided in the neighbourhood of Pucklechurch in 1572; married Elianor or Helena, daughter of Thomas Millet, Warwickshire; and was buried at Pucklechurch in 1609. R. I., the publisher of the poem (i.e. Roger Jackson), in his dedication, states that the ‘Secrets’ was a posthumously printed book. The large mansion of the Dennys still remains at Pucklechurch, but the family is extinct.
There seem to have been four ancient editions of the ‘Secrets of Angling.’ Ed. i., 1613, 12mo; a copy is in the Bodleian, and two more in the Huth and Denison libraries. The woodcut in the title represents an angler with a fish on his hook, and the motto, ‘Well fayre the pleasure that brings such treasure,’ and a man treading on a serpent with a sphere at the end of his rod and line labelled, ‘Hold hooke and line, then all is mine.’ ‘The dates of the second and third editions are still an open question’ (T. Westwood in Notes and Queries, iv. 4, 92). The second is ‘augmented with approved experiments’ by Lauson, and has the same woodcut on the title. The date is conjectured to be about 1620 by Mr. Westwood. The only copy known (in the Denison collection) has the date ploughed off. The third edition, 1630? ‘printed at London for John’ [Jackson], has a slightly different woodcut, with a varied motto, ‘Well feare the Pleasure, That yeelds such Treasure.’ A copy is in the British Museum, obtained in 1882 from Mr. A. Denison in exchange for a copy of the fourth edition. The fourth edition, 1652, 12mo, London, ‘printed by T. H. for John Harison, and are to be sold by Francis Coles, at his shop in the Old Bayly.’ The woodcut in the title of the other editions here figures as frontispiece, the angler being dressed in the costume of a later period, and the flowers, foliage, &c., a little modified. There are two copies in the British Museum Library, and several others are known.
The ‘Secrets’ was reprinted in Sir E. Brydges's ‘British Bibliographer’ (1812, ii. 465). A hundred were struck off separately, edited by Mr. H. Ellis, in 1811. Much of the poem was also quoted in ‘Censura Literaria’ (1809, x. 266), which Daniel, after the usual fashion of angling writers, reproduced in his ‘Rural Sports.’ Mr. Arber reprinted a very imperfect version of it in his ‘English Garner’ (1877, i. 143). Mr. Thomas Westwood, who has long made a special study of J. D., reprinted verbatim the whole poem with an introduction of great value in 1883 (Satchell & Co.). In 1614 the ‘Secrets of Angling’ was transmuted into prose by Gervase Markham in his ‘English Husbandman,’ and appears also in his ‘Pleasures of Princes,’ and in others of his works. ‘It is proof of the vitality of Dennys's verse that it retains its strength, sweetness, and savour in its more sober form’ (Westwood).
As for the ‘Secrets of Angling’ itself, it is sufficient to say that no more musical and graceful verses were ever written on the art of angling. The author has chosen a measure at once sweet and full of power, and its interlinked melodies lure the reader onwards with much the same kind of pleasure as the angler experiences who follows the murmuring of a favourite trout-stream. The tone of the poem is religious. It is full of lofty sentiments and natural descriptions, a poetical atmosphere surrounding even the commonest tools of the angler's craft, and so often reminds us of Walton's style, that it is not perhaps wonderful to find that the ‘Secrets of Angling’ was a poem familiar to the ‘common father of all anglers.’ Canon Ellacombe has printed some ingenious speculations on the probability of Shakespeare having been acquainted with J. D.[Lowndes's Bibliographer's Manual (Bohn), vol. ii. 1864; Hazlitt's Collections and Notes, 1876; Hazlitt's Handbook to the Pop. Literature of Great Britain, 1867; Arber's MSS. of the Stationers' Registers, 1876, iii. 237; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iv. 91, 177; article by Mr. T. Westwood in The Angler's Note Book, p. 181 (Satchell, 1880); Westwood and Satchell's Bibliotheca Piscatoria; Collectanea Hunteriana, Chorus Vatum Anglicanorum, i. 328; Quarterly Review, No. 278, p. 353; Corser's Collectanea, v. 181; Athenæum, 7 April and 28 July 1883; Canon Ellacombe's Shakespeare as an Angler, p. 61.]