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is Sir John Denham, whose “ chief claim to immortality," according to a recent critic, rests on the fine lines in his poem of “Cooper's Hill,” descriptive of the Thames :
"O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
But these are not the only good lines in a poem, which had at all events the merit of being the first of its kind (for Ben Jonson's “Penshurst” cannot fairly be considered of the same category), which Dryden, with exuberant praise, declares “for the majesty of its style is, and ever will be, the exact standard of good writing.” The allusion to St. Paul's (not Wren's Cathedral, but its predecessor) is worth quotation :
“That sacred pile, so vast, so high,
The following couplet seems to have suggested a passage in Dr. Johnson's "London":
“ Under his proud sarvey the city lies,
And like a mist beneath a hill doth rise,
And surely the impartial critic will own that in these
lines-on the reformation and the sharp contrast between Monasticism and Puritanism-strength and smoothness are not unhappily combined :
“No crime so bold but would be understood
A real, or at least a seeming good,
Than, led by a false guide, to err by day !" “ Cooper's Hill ” was written in 1640 and published in 1643.* It is a poem of nearly four hundred lines, written
* « The epithet, majestie Denham, conferred by Pope, conveys rather too much ; but Cooper's Hill is no ordinary poem. It is nearly the first instance of vigorous and rhythmical couplets, for Denham is incomparably less feeble than Browne, and less prosaic than Beaumont. Close in thought, and nervous in language like Davies, he is less hard and less monotonous; his cadences are animated and various, perhaps a little beyond the regularity that metre demands; they have been the guide to the finer ear of Dryden. Those who cannot endure the philosophic poetry, must ever be dissatisfied with Cooper's Hill : no personification, no ardent words, few metaphors beyond the common use of speech, nothing that warms, or melts, or fascinates the heart. It is rare to find lines of eminent beauty in Denham ; and equally so to be struck by any one as feeble or low. His language is always well-chosen and perspicuous, free from those strange terms of ex• pression, frequent in our older poets, where the reader is apt to suspect some error of the press, so irreconcilable do they seem with grammar or meaning. The expletive do, which the best of his predecessors use freely, seldom occurs in Denham; and he has in other respects brushed away the rust of languid and ineffective redundancies which have obstructed the popularity of men with more native genius than himself." - Hallam, " Literature of Europe," üü., 254, 255.
in the heroic couplet, and embodies the reflections suggested to a thoughtful observer by the various scenes which are visible from the summit of its author's “ Mount Parnassus.”* These include a long reach of the winding Thames, the towers of Windsor Castle, St. Paul's Cathedral, and the field of Runnymede. The freshness of the subject, and the fluent strength of the versification, secured for this poem an immediate popularity. Dryden pronounced it “ the exact standard of good writing.” “ This poem,” says Johnson, “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.” Pope, in his poem of 6 Windsor Forest,” which “ Cooper's Hill ” suggested, affirms that
“On Cooper's Hill eternal wreaths shall grow
While lasts the mountain, or while Thames shall flow;" while Somerville, in “ The Chase,” calls upon us to tread with respectful awe —
“ Windsor's green glades ; where Denham, tuneful bard,
Charmed once the list'ning Dryads with his song,
Sublimely sweet." By a natural law of reaction the excessive praise of one generation is succeeded by the extreme depreciation of another. Southey writes of Denham with great frigidity :
* Cooper's Hill lies about half-a-mile to the north-west of Egham, where the poet's father had built for himself a house-(now the Vicarage)—" in which his son Sir John (though he had better seats) took most delight." The spot from which the poet made his survey is traditionally said to be now comprised within the grounds of Kingswood Lodge; a seat marks the site.
† Johnson praises Denham as “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 meditation."
-“That Sir John Denham began a reformation in our verse, is one of the most groundless assertions that ever obtained belief in literature. More thought and more skill had been exercised before his time in the construction of English metre than he ever bestowed on the subject, and by men of far greater attainments and far higher powers. To improve, indeed, either upon the versification or the diction of our great writers, was impossible; it was impossible to exceed them in the knowledge or in the practice of their art, but it was easy to avoid the more obvious faults of inferior authors: and in this way he succeeded, just so far as not to be included in
The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease;' nor consigned to oblivion with the persons of quality' who contributed their vapid effusions to the miscellanies of those days. His proper place is among those of his contemporaries and successors who called themselves wits, and have since been entitled wits by the courtesy of England." I venture to claim for him a higher position. Surely some hearty praise may be given to a writer who virtually introduced into our poetical literature a new kind of composition, and one peculiarly adapted to the tastes and sympathies of Englishmen? Surely some hearty praise is justly due to a writer who had so strong a relish for the beauties of landscape, and was so keenly alive to the pastoral sentiment. And though he did not begin “a reformation in our verse," he certainly showed how the heroic couplet might be written with vigour while not losing in ease.
Denham's other works include an “Essay on Gaming ;" and a translation of the second book of “The Æneid.” In 1641, his feeble tragedy of “ The Sophy” was produced
at a private house in Blackfriars with so much success that Waller said “he broke out like the Irish rebellion, some ten thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or in the least suspected it.” The best thing in it is a Song to Morpheus, in the fifth Act, which is graceful and pleasing :
“ Morpheus, the humble god, that dwells
And both are the same thing at last.” In a satirical poem, written at a much later date, in imitation of Suckling's “Session of the Poets," occurs a caustic allusion to Denham’s tragedy and poem:
" Then in came Denham, that limping old bard,
Whose fame on The Sophy and Cooper's Hill stands;
That nothing sold better, except 'twere his lands." Denham also wrote “An Elegy on Abraham Cowley," which is full of grace, and contains a happy reference to the great Elizabethan poets and their immortal predecessors :
“ Old Chaucer, like the morning star, *
* Borrowed by Tennyson in his “ Dream of Fair Women," where he speaks of Chaucer as “the morning star of song."