Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/John Dennis

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DENNIS, John (1657-1734), a critic and poet of some celebrity in his own day, was the son of a saddler in London, where he was born in the year 1657. He received the first branches of education at Harrow and at Caius College, Cambridge, from which after four years residence he removed to Trinity Hall. In 1683 he graduated M.A. When he quitted the university he made the tour of Europe, in the course of which he acquired a strong prejudice against foreign manners and customs, and became confirmed, as was natural in one born and brought up a Whig, in his dislike of foreign Governments. On his return to England he became acquainted with Dryden, Wycherly, Congreve, and Southerne, whose conversation, inspiring him with a passion for poetry, and a contempt for every attainment that had not in it something of the belles lettres, diverted him from entering any profession. He lived for a time on a small fortune he had inherited from an uncle, but this was soon squandered. Through the patronage of the duke of Marlborough, to whom he had recommended himself by his zeal for the Protestant succession, he obtained a place in the customs worth £120 per annum. After some years, however, his extravagance reduced him to the necessity of disposing of it; but, in selling it, he reserved to himself an annuity for a term of years. Outliving this term, he was in the closing years of his life reduced to extreme necessity.

Dennis was the author of several small poems of little merit, and one or two plays which possess none, though one at least of the latter was received with considerable favour at the time of its production, on account of its hitting the strongest popular prejudice then existing. His tragedy of Love Asserted, produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre in 1704, was fiercely anti-French, and as such met with warm sympathy and approval. Dennis conceived the insane idea that by writing it he had roused the implacable resentment of the French Government, and amusing stories are told of the precautions he thought it necessary to take in consequence. He is said to have visited the duke of Marlborough, previous to the negotiations for the peace of Utrecht, and asked him to secure the insertion of a special clause in the treaty protecting his person from vengeance. On another occasion the appearance of an approaching vessel is said to have caused him to flee to London from a friend's house on the coast of Sussex. His tragedy of Appius and Virginia, produced at Drury Lane in 1709, was unsuccessful. It is memorable only on account of a peculiar kind of thunder used in the performance, which was both novel and effective. A few nights after the failure of his play Dennis, sitting in the pit, heard the thunder introduced into the tragedy of Macbeth, whereupon he rose and cried to the audience, “They won't act my tragedy, but they steal my thunder.”

But for his inordinate vanity, and an infirmity of temper that fell little short of insanity, Dennis might have made some mark in literature as a critic. His reviews of Pope's Essay on Man and Addison's Cato showed considerable discernment and not a little wit; but they were disfigured by bitter personal feeling. As his attacks were almost always on persons of abilities greatly superior to his own, like Addison, Steele, and Pope, their replies usually turned opinion strongly against him, irritating his testy temper, and rendering him a perpetual torment to himself. Pope pilloried him in the Dunciad, and in the following epigram—

Should Dennis publish you had stabb'd your brother,
Lampoon'd your monarch, or debauch'd your mother,
Say, what revenge on Dennis can be had?
Too dull for laughter, for reply too mad;
On one so poor you cannot take the law;
On one so old your sword you scorn to draw.
Uncag'd then let the harmless monster rage,
Secure in duluess, madness, want, and age.

At length, after a long life of vicissitudes, he was compelled to receive obligations from those whom he had been continually reviling. In the very close of his days a play was acted for his benefit at the little theatre in the Haymarket, through the united interests of Thomson, Mallet, and Pope. It is much to the credit of Pope especially that, notwithstanding the gross manner in which Dennis had calumniated him on many occasions, he took part in the arrangements, and even wrote an occasional prologue to the play, which was spoken by Cibber. Not long after this Dennis died, on the 6th of January 1734.