The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets/Volume 1/Denham

OF Sir JOHN DENHAM very little is known but what is related of him by Wood, or by himself.

He was born at Dublin in 1615; the only son of Sir John Denham, of Little Horsely 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 98 DENHAM. the common law with sufficient appear ance of application; yet did not lose h i s propensity t o cards and dice; but was very often plundered b y gamesters. Being severely reproved for this folly, h e professed, and perhaps believed, himself reclaimed

and, t o testify the sincerity o f his repentance, wrote and published “An “Essay upon Gaming.” He seems t o have divided his studies be tween law and poetry; for, i n 1636, h e translated the second book of the AEneid. Two years after, his father died; and then, notwithstanding his resolutions and professions, h e returned again t o the vice o f gaming, and lost several thousand pounds that had been left him. I n 1642, h e published “The Sophy.” This seems t o have given him his first hold o f the publick attention; for Waller re marked, “ that h e broke out like the Irish “rchellion three score thousand strong “when nobody was aware, o r i n the least “ suspected i t

” a n observation which could have had n o propriety, had h i s poe tical abilities been known before. - He D-ENHAM. 99 He was after that pricked for sheriff of Surrey, and made governor 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 h i s Cato, and Pope o f h i s Essay o n Criticism. - I n 1647, the distresses o f the royal fa mily required him t o engage i n more dan gerous employments. He was entrusted b y the queen with a message t o the king; and, b y whatever means, s o far softened the ferocity o f Hugh Peters, that b y his intercession admission was procured. Of the king's condescension h e has given a n account i n the dedication of his works. He was afterwards employed i n carrying o n the king's correspondence; and, a s h e says, discharged this office with great safety t o the royalists

and being accidentally . . . H 2 - dis IOO DENHAM. discovered by the adverse party's know ledge of Mr. Cowley's hand, he escaped happily both for himself and h i s friends. He was yet engaged i n a greater under taking. I n April 1648, h e conveyed James the duke o f York from London into France, and delivered him there t o the queen and prince o f Wales. This year h e published his translation o f “Cato Major.” He now resided i n France, a s one o f the followers o f the exiled king; and, t o di. vert the melancholy o f their condition, was sometimes enjoined b y h i s master t o write occasional verses

one of which amuse ments was probably h i s ode o r song upon the Embassy t o Poland, b y which h e and lord Crofts procured a contribution o f ten thou sand pounds from the Scotch, that wan dered over that kingdom. Poland was a t that time very much frequented b y itine rant traders, who, i n a country o f very little commerce and o f great extent, where every man resided o n his own estate, con tributed very much t o the accommodation o f life, b y bringing t o every man's house those little necessaries which i t was very inconvenient t o want, and very trouble 5 some DENHAM. 1or

some to fetch. I have formerly read, without much refle&tion, of the multitude of Scotchmen that travelled with their wares in Poland; and that their numbers were not small, the success of this negoci ation gives sufficient evidence. About this time, what estate the war and the gamesters had left him was fold, by order of the parliament; and when, in 1652, he returned to England, he was en tertained 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 ap pears, whenever any serious question comes before him, to have been a man of piety, he consecrated his poetical powers to re ligion, and made a metrical version of H3 the

  • IO2

DENHAM. 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 feli city is short and uncertain; a second mar riage 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 provo cation incited Butler to do that which no provocation can excuse. His frenzy lasted not long *; and he seems to have regained his full force of mind; for he wrote afterwards his excel lent 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.

  • In Grammont's Memoirs many circumstances are related,

both of h i s marriage and his frenzy, very little favourable t o his sharaćter. R. DEN DENHAM. 103 DENHAM is deservedly considered as one of the fathers of English poetry. “Denham and Waller,” says Prior, “im “ proved our versification, and Dryden “perfected it.” He has given specimens of various composition, descriptive, ludi crous, 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, de barred from i t , Nothing i s less exhilara ting than the ludicrousness of Denham

he does not fail for want of efforts: he i s fa miliar, h e i s gross

but h e i s never merry, unless the “ Speech against peace i n the “close Committee” b e excepted. For grave burlesquc, however, his imitation of Davenant shews him to have been well qualified. - Of his more elevated occasional poems there i s perhaps none that does not deserve commendation. In the verses t o Fletcher, we have a n image that has since been adopted

- - H 4

Buf IC4 DEN.H.A.M. “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 t h e foul guilt “Of eastern kings, who, t o secure their reign, “Must have their brothers, sons, and kindred

slain.” After Denham, Orrery, i n one o f his prologues, - “Poets are sultans, i f they had their will; “For every author would his brother kill.” And Pope, , “Should such a man, too fond t o rule alone, “Bear like the Turk no brother near the throne.” But this i s not the best o f his little pie ces: i t i s excelled b y his poem t o Fanshaw, and his elegy o n Cowley. His praise o f Fanshaw's version o f Gua rini contains a very spritely and judicious charaćter o f a good translator: “That servile path thou nobly dost decline, “Of tracing word b y word, and line b y line. “Those are the labour'd births o f slavish brains, “Not the effect o f poetry, but pains; “Cheap vulgar arts, whose narrowness affords “No flight for thoughts, but poorly stick a t words. -

A new DENHAM. to 5.

    • 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 musi cal, and the thoughts are just. “Cooper's Hill” is the work that con fers 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 sub jećt is some particular landscape, to be poetically described, with the addition of such embellishments as may be supplied by historical retrospection or incidental medi tation. To trace a new scheme of poetry has in itself a very high claim to praise, and i t s praise i s yet more when i t i s apparently copied b y Garth and Pope”; after whose

B y Garth, i n h i s “Poem o n Claremont,” and b y Pope, i n his “Windsor Forest.” H. Ila II] CS Ioô D,ENHAM. names little will be gained by an enumera tion 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 i t s faults. The digressions are too long, the morality too frequent, and the sentiments sometimes such a s will not bear a rigorous enquiry. The four verses, which, since Dryden has commended them, almost every writer for a century past has imitated, are gene rally known

- “O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream “My great example, a s i t i s my theme ! “Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet “not dull; “Strong without rage, without o'erflowingfull.” The lines are i n themselves not perfect; for mostof the words, thus artfully opposed, are t o b e understood simply o n one side o f the comparison, and metaphorically o n the other; and i f there b e any language which does not express intelle&tual opera tions b y material images, into that lan guage DENHAM. 107 guage they cannot be translated. But so much meaning is comprised in few words; the particulars of resemblance are so per spicaciously colle&ted, and every mode of excellence separated from i t s adjacent fault b y s o nice a line o f limitation; the differ ent parts o f the sentences are s o accurately adjusted; and the flow o f the last couplet i s s o smooth and sweet; that the passage, however celebrated, has not been praised above i t s merit. I t has beauty peculiar t o itself, and must b e numbered among those felicities which cannot b e produced a t will b y wit and labour, but must arise unex pećtedly i n some hour propitious t o poetry. He appears t o have been one o f the first that understood the necessity o f emancipa ting translation from the drudgery o f count ing lines and interpreting single words. How much this servile pračtice obscured the clearest and deformed the most beauti ful parts o f the ancient authors, may b e discovered b y a perusal o f our earlier ver sions

some o f them the works o f men well qualified, not only b y critical know ledge, but b y poetical genius, who yet, by a mistaken ambition o f exactness, de

, 6 graded 108 DENHAM. graded at once their originals and themia selves. 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 spriteliness 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 h i s bottom, but survey h i s shore.” On Strafford.

“His wisdom such, a s once i t did appear “Three kingdoms’ wonder, and three king “ doms’ fear. “While DENHAM. i o 9 “While single h e stood forth, and seem’d, “ although “Each had a n army, a s a n equal foe, “Such was h i s force o f eloquence, t o make “The hearers more concern'd than h e that spake: “Each seem'd t o ačt that part h e came t o see,

And none was more a looker-on than he

“So did h e move our passions, some were known “To wish, for the defence, the crime their own. “Now private pity strove with publick hate, “Reason with rage, and eloquence with fate.” On Cowley. “To him no author was unknown, “Yet what h e wrote was a l l his own; “Horace's wit, and Virgil's state, “He did not steal, but emulate

“And when h e would like them appear, “Their garb, but not their cloaths, did wear.” As one of Denham's principal claims to the regard o f posterity arises from his im provement o f our numbers, his versification ought t o b e considered. I t will afford that pleasure which arises from the observation o f a man o f judgement, naturally right, forsaking bad copies b y degrees, and ad vancing towards a better pračtice, a s h e gains more confidence i n himself. - In II& DENHAM. 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 Choroebeus 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, or 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 infrequent in this first essay, - but DENHAM. III but which is to be supposed his maturer judgement disapproved, since in his latter works he has totally forborn them.

His rhymes are such as seem found with out 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 whathecanget. “O how transform'd 1 “How much unlike that Hector, who return’d “Clad in Achilles' spoils " And again: “. From thence a thousand lesser poets sprung “Like pretty 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 a l l her glories: i f i t might have stood “By any power, b y this right hand i t shou’d. “ —And though my outward state misfortune

/ai/) “Deprest thus low, i t cannot reach my faith.” “ —Thus, b y his fraud and our own faith o'er “ come, “A feigned tear destroys us, against whom “Tydides nor Achilles could prevail, “Nor ten years conflićt, nor a thousand sail.” He He is not very careful to vary the ends of his verses: in one passage the word die rhimes three couplets in six.

Most of these petty faults are in his first productions, when he was less skilful, or at least less dextrous, 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.