Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Sir John Denham (16151669)
[Sir John Denham was born in Dublin. He took a prominent part in public affairs, acting for the King in several capacities; and after many vicissitudes of fortune he died at Whitehall. He published The Sophy, a tragedy, in 1641, and Coopers Hill, anonymously, in the same year.]
DENHAM was the first writer to adopt the precise manner of versification introduced by Waller. His relation to that poet resembles that taken a century later by Mason with respect to Gray, but Denham is a more original writer than Mason. The names of Waller and Denham were first associated by Dryden, and the critics of the next sixty years were unanimous in eulogizing the sweetness of the one, and the strength of the other. It is quite true that the versification of Denham is vigorous; it proceeds with greater volume than that of Waller, and produces a stronger impression. But he is a very unequal and irregular writer, and not unfrequently descends to doggerel, and very dull doggerel too. His literary taste was superior to his genius; he knew what effect he desired to produce, and strove to conquer the difficulties of antithesis, but the result of his effort was rarely classic. He takes the same place in English poetry as is taken in French by Chapelain and other hard versifiers of the beginning of the seventeenth century, who had lost the romantic fervour and had not yet gained the classic grace. But, like those poets, he has his fine flashes of style.
The works of Denham are small in extent. They consist of The Sophy, a languid tragedy of Turkish misrule; Coopers Hill, a topographical poem, The Destruction of Troy, an insignificant paraphrase of part of the Æneid; and a selection of miscellaneous pieces. These latter, and Coopers Hill, are all that need attract critical attention. The reputation of the last-mentioned poem rests almost entirely upon its famous quatrain:
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,
It is a curious fact that this exquisite apostrophe, which is one of the gems of our language, does not occur in the first edition of Coopers Hill. There are no other lines in that poem which approach these in elegance and force, and it occurs to the mind of the present writer that they may possibly have been contributed by Waller. This, however, is unlikely, and it would be unfair, without shadow of proof, to deprive Denham of his chief claim to immortality. The two passages we select give the reader a fair idea of the general manner of this poem, which has certainly been over-praised. The style is obscure and the wit laboured, while it probably contains more errors against the rules of grammar than any other poem in the language; but Denham is at all times a singularly ungrammatical writer. Of his other long poems, by far the best is the Elegy on Cowley, which was written but a very few months before his own death, and after a long attack of insanity. In this poem he is brighter and more easy than in any other long composition, and it contains some interesting critical matter. Denham was highly esteemed for his comical vein, and his lampoons are not devoid of wit, though incredibly brutal and coarse. He is very unlike the amorous poets of his age in this, that he has left behind him not one copy of love-verses; and his best poem is written in dispraise of love. Among the royalist lyrists there is but one, Cleveland, who forms a connecting link between Denham and the old lyric school. His satires and squibs are closely allied to those of Cleveland, and he has something of the same cynical and defiant attitude of mind. He adored literature with the worship of one who practises it late in life, and without much ease; his conception of the ideal dignity of the poets function contrasts oddly with the indecorous matter that he puts forth as comic poetry. There was nothing about him very original, for Coopers Hill, which was destined to inspire Windsor Forest, had been itself preceded by Ben Jonsons Penshurst. But he forms an important link in the chain of transition, and ranks chronologically second among our Augustan poets.