John Denham Biography | Poet
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DENHAM, SIR JOHN (1615-1669), English poet, only son of Sir John Denham (1559-1639), lord chief baron of the exchequer in Ireland, was born in Dublin in 1615. In 1617 his father became baron of the exchequer in England, and removed to London with his family. In Michaelmas term 1631 the future poet was entered as a gentleman commoner at Trinity College, Oxford. He removed in 1634 to Lincoln’s Inn, where he was, says John Aubrey, a good student, but not suspected of being a wit. The reputation he had gained at Oxford of being the “dreamingest young fellow” gave way to a scandalous reputation for gambling. In 1634 he married Ann Cotton, and seems to have lived with his father at Egham, Surrey. In 1636 he wrote his paraphrase of the second book of the Aeneid (published in 1656 as The Destruction of Troy, with an excellent verse essay on the art of translation). About the same time he wrote a prose tract against gambling, The Anatomy of Play (printed 1651), designed to assure his father of his repentance, but as soon as he came into his fortune he squandered it at play. It was a surprise to everyone when in 1642 he suddenly, as Edmund Waller said, “broke out like the Irish rebellion, three score thousand strong, when no one was aware, nor in the least expected it,” by publishing The Sophy, a tragedy in five acts, the subject of which was drawn from Sir Thomas Herbert’s travels. At the beginning of the Civil War Denham was high sheriff for Surrey, and was appointed governor of Farnham Castle. He showed no military ability, and speedily surrendered the castle to the parliament. He was sent as a prisoner to London, but was soon permitted to join the king at Oxford.
In 1642 appeared Cooper’s Hill, a poem describing the Thames scenery round his home at Egham. The first edition was anonymous: subsequent editions show numerous alterations, and the poem did not assume its final form until 1655. This famous piece, which was Pope’s model for hisWindsor Forest, was not new in theme or manner, but the praise which it received was well merited by its ease and grace. Moreover Denham expressed his commonplaces with great dignity and skill. He followed the taste of the time in his frequent use of antithesis and metaphor, but these devices seem to arise out of the matter, and are not of the nature of mere external ornament. At Oxford he wrote many squibs against the roundheads. One of the few serious pieces belonging to this period is the short poem “On the Earl of Strafford’s Trial and Death.”
From this time Denham was much in Charles I.’s confidence. He was entrusted with the charge of forwarding letters to and from the king when he was in the custody of the parliament, a 21duty which he discharged successfully with Abraham Cowley, but in 1648 he was suspected by the Parliamentary authorities, and thought it wiser to cross the Channel. He helped in the removal of the young duke of York to Holland, and for some time he served Queen Henrietta Maria in Paris, being entrusted by her with despatches for Holland. In 1650 he was sent to Poland in company with Lord Crofts to obtain money for Charles II. They succeeded in raising £10,000. After two years spent at the exiled court in Holland, Denham returned to London and being quite without resources, he was for some time the guest of the earl of Pembroke at Wilton. In 1655 an order was given that Denham should restrict himself to some place of residence to be selected by himself at a distance of not less than 20 m. from London; subsequently he obtained from the Protector a licence to live at Bury St Edmunds, and in 1658 a passport to travel abroad with the earl of Pembroke. At the Restoration Denham’s services were rewarded by the office of surveyor-general of works. His qualifications as an architect were probably slight, but it is safe to regard as grossly exaggerated the accusations of incompetence and peculation made by Samuel Butler in his brutal “Panegyric upon Sir John Denham’s Recovery from his Madness.” He eventually secured the services of Christopher Wren as deputy-surveyor. In 1660 he was also made a knight of the Bath.
In 1665 he married for the second time. His wife, Margaret, daughter of Sir William Brooke, was, according to the comte de Gramont, a beautiful girl of eighteen. She soon became known as the mistress of the duke of York, and the scandal, according to common report, shattered the poet’s reason. While Denham was recovering, his wife died, poisoned, it was said, by a cup of chocolate. Some suspected the duchess of York of the crime, but the Comte de Gramont says that the general opinion was that Denham himself was guilty. No sign of poison, however, was found in the examination after Lady Denham’s death. Denham survived her for two years, dying at his house near Whitehall in March 1669. He was buried on the 23rd in Westminster Abbey. In the last years of his life he wrote the bitter political satires on the shameful conduct of the Dutch War entitled “Directions to a Painter,” and “Fresh Directions,” continuing Edmund Waller’s “Instructions to a Painter.” The printer of these poems, with which were printed one by Andrew Marvell, was sentenced to stand in the pillory. In 1667 Denham wrote his beautiful elegy on Abraham Cowley.
Denham’s poems include, beside those already given, a verse paraphrase of Cicero’s Cato major, and a metrical version of the Psalms. As a writer of didactic verse, he was perhaps too highly praised by his immediate successors. Dryden called Cooper’s Hill “the exact standard of good writing,” and Pope in his Windsor Forest called him “majestic Denham.” His collected poems with a dedicatory epistle to Charles II. appeared in 1668. Other editions followed, and they are reprinted in Chalmers’ (1810) and other collections of the English poets. His political satires were printed with some of Rochester’s and Marvell’s in Bibliotheca curiosa, vol. i. (Edinburgh, 1885).