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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 considercd as "a dreaming young man, given more to dice and cards than study:" and thercfore gave no prognostics of his future cminence; nor was suspected to conceal, under his sluggishness and laxity, a genjus 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 believe's, 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. be 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 holà 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 no propricty, had his poctical 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 Cato, and Pope of his Essay on Criticism. In 1647, the distresses of the royal family required him to engage in more dan. gerous 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, 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 sailed; but in sacred poetry who has succeeded?
It might be hoped that the favour of his master and esteem of the public would now make him happy. But human felicity is short and uncertain; a second marriage brought upon him so much disquiet, as for a time disordered his understanding: 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. “Denham 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 being 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 raise
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 frensy very little favourable to his character. R. wol. VII. Q