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Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Sir John Denham

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DENHAM, Sir John (1615–1668), a royalist poet, who has won a place among the foremost British authors more by a happy accident than by any decided genius, was the only son of Sir John Denham, lord chief baron of the Exchequer in Ireland, and was born in Dublin in 1615. In 1617 his father was promoted to the rank of baron of the Exchequer in England, and removed to London with his family. The future poet attended a grammar school in London, and in Michaelmas term 1631 was removed to Oxford, where he was entered a gentleman commoner of Trinity College. Having taken his degree of B.A., be began the study of the law at Lincoln's Inn in 1634; but the character he had maintained at Oxford, of being "a slow, dreaming young man," gave way to a scandalous reputation for gambling, by which he beggared himself and seriously embarrassed his father. We learn that, by way of penance, he wrote at this time an Essay against Gaming, whether in prose or verse is not recorded. After his father's death the habit became still more dominant, and he squandered a fortune. It was a surprise to every one, therefore, when in 1642 he suddenly, as Waller said, "broke out like the Irish rebellion, threescore thousand strong, when no one was aware, nor in the least expected it," by publishing in that year two most successful volumes of verse. The first of these was The Sophy, a tragedy in five acts, a thin folio, the theme of which was a Turkish tale of blood and intrigue, drawn from Sir Thomas Herbert's travels. This, Denham's only dramatic performance, is tame and correct, without passion, but free from the faults of some of the minor authors of the time. It was successful, but it enjoyed nothing of the unparalleled popularity of his simultaneous venture, the descriptive poem of Cooper's Hill, the first edition of which in quarto was anonymous. In this famous piece no entirely new style was attempted, for Ben Jonson had led the way in theme and Cowley in manner; but it had a smooth grace and a polished antithesis that were doubtful merits in poetry, but extremely dear to the rising generation. One quatrain, out of the three or four hundred lines of reflection and description, has been universally praised, and forms one of our most familiar quotations. Addressing the Thames, the poet says—

"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;
Strong without rage, without o erflowing full."

Brought into royal notice by his poems, Denham was appointed high sheriff for Surrey and governor of Farnham Castle; but he showed no military talent, and soon followed the king to Oxford. During the civil war he served the queen mother, and was intrusted with the letters in cipher that Cowley wrote to the king, which he managed to deliver into Charles's hands. Being detected, however, he was obliged to escape into France. In April 1648 he is said to have conveyed the young duke of York from St James's to Paris; it is certain that, later in that year, he was sent in company with Lord Crofts, as ambassador to Poland, to obtain money for the king, and he succeeded in bringing back £10,000. In 1652 he returned, a ruined man, to England, and resided as the guest of the earl of Pembroke at Wilton for a year. He now disappears until the Restoration. When Charles II. returned, Denham was made surveyor-general and Knight of the Bath, and seems to have been well provided for; but his subsequent life was far from happy, for his second wife, a young woman of great beauty, was seduced by the duke of York, and became his mistress. This catastrophe, which is abundantly noticed in the current literature of that day, shattered the old poet's reason; and he recovered from his insanity only to die, at his house near Whitehall, on the 10th of March 1668. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. In the same year, 1668, his works were collected in a single volume, entitled Poems and Translations. This included, besides Cooper's Hill and The Sophy, a fragment of an epic on the destruction of Troy, some beautiful lines on the death of Cowley, written a few months before his own decease, a didactic poem on the progress of learning, and some translations. Notwithstanding the fame of Cooper's Hill, which Pope imitated in his Windsor Forest, Denham's poems have not been edited in modern times. He was one of the very first to note the tendency towards rhetorical and gallicized forms in public taste, and to gratify the new fashion. But to speak of him, as was once customary, as a great reformer of metre and fashioner of language, is to fail to realize the limitations of his talent.