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LIFE OF DEN HAM,
BY DR JOHNSON.
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 prognostics of his future eminence; nor was suspected to conceal, under his 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
pro. pensity to cards and dice; but was very often plundered by gamesters.
Being severely reproved for this folly, he professed, and perhaps believed, him. self reclaimed; and to testify the sincerity of his repentance, wrote and published An Essay upon Gaming.
He seems to have divided his studies between law and poetry; for, iu 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 1642, he published The Sophy. This seems to have given him his first hold of the public attention ; for Waller remarked, “ that he broke out like the Irish rebellion, three-score thousand strong, when no body was aware, or in the least suspected it;" an observation which could have had po 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 de grades 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 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 accident. ally 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 di. vert 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, con. tributed
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 Scotch. men 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 picces: and as he appears, whenever any serious question comes bc. fore 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 poctry who has succeeded?
It might be hoped that the favour of his ma ster and esteem of the public would now make him happy. But human felicity is short and uncertain ; a second mar. riage brought upon him so much disquiet, as for a time disordered his understand. ing: and Butler lampooned him for his lunacy. I know not whether the malignant lines were then made public, 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 March, 1668, he was buried by his side.
DENHAM is deservedly considered as one of the fathers of English poetry.“ Den. ham and Waller,” says Prior, “improved our versification, and Dryden perfected it.” He has given specimens of various composition, descriptive, ludicrous, didactic and sublime.
He appears to have had, in common with almost all mankind, the ambition of be. ing upon proper occasion 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 exhilirating 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 shows him to be 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 :
But whither am I stray'd ? I need not raisc
After Denham, Orrery, in one of his prologues,
Poets are sultans, if they had their will;
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
But this is not the best of his little pieces: it is excelled by his poem to Fanshaw and his elegy on Cowley.
• In Grammont's Memoirs many circumstances are related, both of his marriage and his freasy rery little favourable to his character. R.
His praise of Fanshaw's version of Guarini contains a very spritely and judicious character of a good translator.
That servile path thou nobly dost decline,
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 musical, and the thoughts are just.
COOPER's Hill is the work that confers 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 subject is some particular landscape, to be poetically described, with the addition of such embellishments as may be supplied by historical retrospection or incidental me. ditation,
To trace a new scheme of poetry has in itself a very high claim to praise, and its praise is yet more when it is apparently copied by Garth and Pope; after whose names little will be gained by an enumeration 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 its faults. The digressions are too long, the morality too frequent, and the sentiments sometimes such as will not bear a rigorous inquiry.
The four verses, which, since Dryden has commended them, almost every writer for a century past has imitated, are generally known:
O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
The lines are in themselves not perfect; for most of the words, thus artfully op: posed, are to be understood simply on one side of the comparison, and metaphoria cally on the other; and if there be any language that does not express intellectual operations by material images, into that language they cannot be translated. But so much meaning is comprised in so few words; the particulars of resemblance are
• By Garth, in his Poem on Claremont; and by Pope, in his Windsor Forest, H.
so perspicatiously collected, and every mode of excellence separated from its adjacent fault by so pice a line of limitation; the different parts of the sentence are so accu. rately adjusted; and the flow of the last couplet is so smooth and sweet; that the passage, however celebrated, has not been praised above its merit. It has beauty pe. culiar to itself, and must be numbered among those felicities which cannot be pro. duced at will by wit and labour, but must arise unexpectedly in some hour propiti. ous to poetry.
He appears to have been one of the first that understood the necessity of emanci. pating translation from the drudgery of counting lines and interpreting single words. How much this servile practice obscured the clearest and deformed the most beautiful parts of the ancient authors, may be discovered by a perusal of our earlier versions ; some of them are the works of men well qualified, not only by critical knowledge, but by poetical genius, who yet, by a mistaken ambition of exactness, degraded at once their originals and themselves.
Denham saw the better way, but has not pursued it with great success. sions 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 mueh meaning in few words, and exhibit the sentiment with more weight than bulk.
On the Thames.
Though with those streams he no resemblance hold,
His wisdom such, at once it did appear
To him no author was unknown,