« AnteriorContinua »
any suspicion of his excellence in poetry, may be applied to these compositions. No author ever kept his verse and his prose at a greater distance from each other. His thoughts are natural, and his style has a smooth and placid equability, which has never yet obtained its due commendation. Nothing is far sought, or hard laboured; but all is easy without feebleness, and familiar without grossness.
It has been observed by Felton, in his Essay on the Classicks, that Cowley was beloved by every Muse that he courted; and that he has rivalled the Antients in every kind of poetry but tragedy.
It may be affirmed, without any encomiastick fervour, that he brought to his poetick labours a mind replete with learning, and that his pages are embellished with all the ornaments which books could supply; that he was the first who imparted to English numbers the enthusiasm of the greater ode, and the gaiety of the less; that he was equally qualified for spritely sallies, and for lofty flights; that he was among those who freed translation from servility, and, instead of following his author at a distance, walked by his side; and that if he left versification yet improveable, he left likewise from time to time such specimens of excellence as enabled succeeding poets to improve it.
D ENH A M.
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 Horsley 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 edacated 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 6 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 the common law with sufficient appearance of application; yet did not lose his propensity to cards and dice; but was very often plundered by gamesters.
Being severely reproved for this folly, he professed, and perhaps believed, himself reclaimed; and, to testify the sincerity of his repentance, wrote and published “ An “ Essay upon Gaming."
In Hamilton's Memoirs of Count Grammont, Sir John Denham is said to have been 79 when he married Miss Brook about the year 1664 ; according to which statement he was born in 1585. But Dr. Johnson, who has followed Wood, is right. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, at the age of 16 in 1631, as appears by the following entry which I copied from the Matriculation Book.
Trin. Coll. “ 1631. Nov. 18. Johannes Denham, Essex. filius J. Denham de “ Horsley Parvâ in com. prædict, militis, annos natus 16.”—MALONE. He seems to have divided his studies between law and poetry; for, in 1636, he translated the second book of the Æneid.
Two years after his father died; and then, notwithstanding his resolutions and professions, he returned again to the vice of gaming, and lost several thousand pounds that had been left him.
In 1641, he published “ The Sophy.” This seems to have given him his first hold of the publick attention; for Waller remarked, “ that he broke out like the Irish rebel“ lion, threescore thousand strong, when nobody was “aware, or in the least suspected it;” an observation which could have had no propriety, had his poetical abilities been known before.
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 his Cato, and Pope of his Essay on Criticism.
In 1647, the distresses of the royal family required him to engage in more dangerous employments. He was entrusted by the queen with a message to the king; and, by whatever means, so far softened the ferocity of Hugh Peters, that by his intercession admission was procured. Of the king's condescension he has given an account in the dedication of his works.
He was afterwards employed in carrying on the king's correspondence; and, as he says, discharged this office with great safety to the royalists: and, being accidentally discovered by the adverse party's knowledge of Mr. Cowley's hand, he escaped happily both for himself and his friends.
He was yet engaged in a greater undertaking. In April, 1648, he conveyed James the Duke of York from London into France, and delivered him there to the queen and prince of Wales. This year he published his translation of “ Cato Major.”
He now resided in France, as one of the followers of the exiled king; and, to divert the melancholy of their condition, was sometimes enjoined by his master to write occasional verses; one of which amusements was probably his ode or song upon the Embassy to Poland, by which he and lord Crofts procured a contribution of ten thousand pounds from the Scotch, that wandered over that kingdom. Poland was at that time very much frequented by itinerant traders, who, in a country of very little commerce and of great extent, where every man resided on his own estate, contributed very much to the accommodation of life, by bringing to every man's house those little necessaries which it was very inconvenient to want, and very troublesome to fetch. I have formerly read, without much reflection, of the multitude of Scotchmen that travelled with their wares in Poland; and that their numbers were not small, the success of this negociation gives sufficient evidence. - About this time, what estate the war and the gamesters had left him was sold, by order of the parliament; and when, in 1652, he returned to England, he was entertained 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 appears, whenever any serious question comes before him, to have been a man of piety, he consecrated his poetical powers to religion, and made a metrical version of 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 eşteem of the publick would now make him happy. But human felicity is short and uncertain; a second marriage brought upon him so much disquiet, as for a tiine disordered his understanding; and Butler lampooned him for his lunacy. I know not whether the malignant lines were then made publick, nor what provocation 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 excellent poem upon the death of Cowley, whom he was not long to survive; for, on the 19th of March1668, he was buried by his side.
DENHAM is deservedly considered as one of the fathers of English poetry. “ Denham and Waller," says Prior,
improved our versification, and Dryden perfected it.” He has given specimens of various compositions, descriptive, ludicrous, 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, debarred from it. Nothing is less exhilarating than the ludicrousness of Denham; he does not fail for want of efforts; he is familiar, he is gross; but he is never merry, unless the « Speech “ against Peace in the close Committee” be excepted. For grave burlesque, however, his imitation of Davenant shews him to have been well qualified.
Of his more elevated occasional poems, there is perhaps none that does not deserve commendation. In the verses to. Fletcher, we have an image that has since been often adopted: t
“ But whither am I stray’d? I need not raise
“ Must have their brothers, sons, and kindred, slain.” After Denham, Orrery, in one of his prologues,
“ Poets are sultans, if they had their will;
“ For every author would his brother kill.” * In Grammont's Memoirs many circumstances are related, both of his marriage and his frenzy, very little favourable to his character. R.
+ It is remarkable that Johnson should not have recollected, that this image is to be found in Bacon. Aristoteles, more Ottomannorum, regnare se haud tuto posse putabat, nisi fratres suos oinnes contrucidâsset. De Augment. Scient. lib3.