John Denham Essay - Critical Essays

Denham, John


John Denham 1615-1669

English poet, playwright, translator, and essayist.

Active in both literary and political circles of seventeenth-century England, John Denham enjoyed critical praise and popular success from his own time well into the nineteenth century. He was widely admired among neoclassical writers of the eighteenth century, a group that included Edmund Waller, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Samuel Johnson. His most highly regard poem is the frequently-anthologized Coopers Hill (1642). Like most of his works, Coopers Hill is concerned with the political issues of his time, and expresses Denham's royalist leanings. Denham was also an important stylist, and was recognized for his wit and for originating the genre of “local poetry,” defined by Johnson as “description of a landscape, embellished by retrospection or meditation.” Denham also wrote one play, The Sophy (1642), and translated several classical works; his The Destruction of Troy (1656), a poetic adaptation of part of Virgil's Aeneid, had a significant influence on later translators, most notably Dryden.

Biographical Information

Denham was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1615, the only son of Sir John Denham and his second wife, Eleanor Moore. The elder Denham was a Baron of the Exchequer, working in Dublin as the lord chief justice of the King's Bench. The family returned to England in 1617, and Denham was reared in Egham, Surrey. Little is known about his education, save that in 1631 he entered Trinity College, Oxford University. He married Anne Cotton in 1634, with whom he had four children, one of whom died in infancy. Also in 1634 he began to study law at Lincoln's Inn; he was admitted to the bar five years later. In 1639 his father died, leaving him much wealth and property, including numerous estates; but Denham was forced to sell or mortgage a large portion of his property to pay old debts.

By this time Denham had begun to demonstrate royalist leanings. When the Earl of Strafford, a close advisor to Charles I, was tried for treason before Parliament in early 1641, Denham served as a witness for his defense. After the Earl's execution Denham wrote his first original poem, “On the Earl of Strafford's Tryal and Death” (1641). Around the same time Denham began writing two of his most significant works, Coopers Hill and The Sophy, both of which were published in 1642. Denham continued to be involved in politics, becoming increasingly committed to the royalist cause. In the fall of 1642 he took up arms for Charles I against the forces of Parliament. By December he was imprisoned in London but was soon exchanged for a prisoner held by the royalists. In 1647 Denham's wife died, and some of his estates were sequestered. The following year Denham fled the country due to the political situation; he spent the next five years living in exile with the other royalists, raising funds and acting as a go-between for members of the royal family. Denham's remaining estates were confiscated by Parliament for his loyalty and assistance to the King. He returned to England in March 1653, and was harbored by the Earl of Pembroke at Wilton. Despite Oliver Cromwell's rise to power later that year, Denham chose to remain at Wilton, where he revised several of his works and continued to compose others. A revised edition of Coopers Hill—influenced by changes in the political situation—was published in 1655, and in the following year Denham published his translation of the second book of Vergil's Aeneid, entitled The Destruction of Troy. After the monarchy was restored in 1660, Charles II rewarded Denham for his loyalty by making him a knight of the Order of the Bath and appointing him Surveyor of the Works. In 1663 Denham was a founding member of the Royal Society. Two years later he married a much younger woman, a wealthy heiress named Margaret Brooke, who would become mistress to the Duke of York. In 1667 Denham suffered a bout of madness; the causes have never been clearly determined, though some have suggested that it was brought on by his wife's infidelity. However, his wife died later that same year. Denham continued to complete poems and translations until his death on March 10, 1669. He was buried in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner.

Major Works

Most critics consider Coopers Hill Denham's most important work. The poem, which describes the landscape observed from a hill overlooking the Thames, uses depictions of the scenery and meditations on the view to comment on the political conditions of the day. Denham regularly revised Coopers Hill to better comment on the changing political situation. The original version reflects the tumultuous events of 1642, while the 1655 version, often considered more moderate, reflects the greater stability of the time. Some critics consider The Sophy, Denham's only play, one of his most important works. A tragedy in blank verse, The Sophy is a story of political intrigue set in Persia. It focuses on Shah Abbas, his son, Mizra, and the Shah's jealous advisor, Haly. Haly incites fears in the Shah that Mizra is planning a rebellion. On Abbas's orders Mizra is blinded and imprisoned. Mizra plans to gain revenge on his father by murdering his own daughter, Fatyma, whom Abbas loves dearly. Mizra cannot, however, bring himself to commit the act. Haly arranges to poison both Abbas and Mizra and then brings them together; during their meeting the father and son reconcile before they die. Despite Haly's plotting, Mizra's son, Sophy, takes the throne and has the corrupt advisor executed. Denham's most significant translation was The Destruction of Troy, an adaptation in heroic couplets of part two of Virgil's Aeneid. In this and other translations Denham pioneered nonliteral translation, in which translation is considered as much a poetic as a linguistic effort. In the Preface to The Destruction of Troy Denham maintains that for a translator “it is not his business alone to translate Language into Language, but Poesie into Poesie,” a view that is seen as a precursor to those of Dryden and Pope.

Critical Reception

Among Denham's works, Coopers Hill in particular has been the subject of critical discourse since its initial publication. Samuel Johnson considered Coopers Hill the first work of the “local poetry” genre, characterized by a poetic meditation on a landscape, and the poem inspired works in the same vein by both Edmund Waller and Alexander Pope. Modern critics have been especially concerned with the relation of Coopers Hill to its historical context, often exploring the ways its stylistic and thematic aspects promote its political concerns. Earl R. Wasserman has argued that “the primary function” of the poem's descriptive elements “is to create a realizable and meaningful structure” for its political commentary. Like Wasserman, Brendan O Hehir has viewed Denham's application of the concept of concordia discors, or harmony of opposites, in his depiction of nature in the poem as a device for analyzing and interpreting political events. John M. Wallace has investigated the successive versions of the poem, exploring Denham's evolving view of the rapidly changing political events of his time. James Turner has placed the poem within a “tradition of adapting landscape to social issues.” On the other hand, W. Hutchings has cautioned against placing too great an emphasis on the poem's political message, urging a reading that gives equal weight to the descriptive elements and maintaining that Denham's careful balancing of the poem's two aspects is essential to its success. Several critics have compared Coopers Hill to The Sophy, noting the close publication of the two works and their shared thematic concerns. Also of critical interest has been the question of whether or not The Sophy was actually performed, an issue explored by Parvin Loloi in his survey of the play's composition, performance, and critical history. Among Denham's translations, The Destruction of Troy has garnered the most critical attention, with critics such as Lawrence Venuti focusing on the effect of Denham's nonliteral translation style on later writers, including Dryden. It is Denham's influence on Dryden, Pope, Johnson, and others writers of the eighteenth century, and his role in the development of neoclassicism, that make him a subject of ongoing critical interest and study.

Principal Works

The Sophy (drama) 1642

Coopers Hill. A Poeme (poetry) 1642, revised 1655

The Anatomy of Play (pamphlet) 1651

The Destruction of Troy: an Essay upon the Second Book of Virgil's Aeneis: Written in the year 1636 [translator; from Virgil's epic] (poetry) 1656

On Mr. Abraham Cowley his Death, and Burial Amongst the Ancient Poets (poetry) 1667

Poems and Translations, With The Sophy (collection) 1668

Cato Major, Of Old Age. A Poem [translator; from Cicero's dialogue] (poetry) 1669


Earl R. Wasserman (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: Wasserman, Earl R. “Denham: Cooper's Hill.” In The Subtler Language: Critical Readings of Neoclassic and Romantic Poems, pp. 45-88. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1959.

[In the following essay, Wasserman uses the idea of concordia discors to analyze Coopers Hill, arguing that the politics of Denham's day were an overriding concern of the descriptive, thematic, and symbolic aspects of the poem.]


Although it has long been a staple of criticism that whatever is good in Pope's Windsor Forest is to be found in its lively descriptions of the natural scene, a parallel critical tradition claims, as one of...

(The entire section is 15910 words.)

Paul J. Korshin (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Korshin, Paul J. “The Evolution of Neoclassical Poetics: Cleveland, Denham, and Waller as Poetic Theorists.” Eighteenth Century Studies 2, No. 2 (December 1968): 102-37.

[In the following excerpt, Korshin considers Denham's theory of poetry, which, he contends, foreshadows the neoclassical views of the Restoration period.]

Denham's place in the formation of neoclassical poetics has always been more or less well established, but whether he entirely deserves to be regarded principally as one of the fathers of eighteenth-century prosody is a matter open to serious discussion. It may seem curious that so many contemporary references to Denham tend to classify...

(The entire section is 4505 words.)

Brendan O Hehir (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: O Hehir, Brendan. “Coopers Hill and ‘Local Poetry’” and “Nature's Emblems,” in Expans'd Hieroglyphicks: A Critical Edition of Sir John Denham's Coopers Hill, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 3-15; 16-24.

[In the following excerpt, O Hehir examines the combination of landscape and political material in Coopers Hill as it relates to the poem's genre and relationship to the emblem tradition.]

Cooper's Hill is the work that confers upon [Denham] 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,...

(The entire section is 7541 words.)

Theodore Howard Banks (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Banks, Theodore Howard. “Introduction.” In The Poetical Works of Sir John Denham, edited by Theodore Howard Banks, second edition, pp. 1-57. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1969.

[In the following essay, taken from the revised edition of a collection that was originally published in 1928, Banks provides a broad overview of Denham's life, works, and reputation. The critic characterizes Denham's work as “didactic”; the poet, he asserts, “has little imagination, little emotion, little beauty of phrase; his strength lies in his thought, in his neatly turned expressions of ethical and moral truisms.”]

A famous poet, a renowned wit, a prominent courtier in...

(The entire section is 20625 words.)

John M. Wallace (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Wallace, John M. “Coopers Hill: The Manifesto of Parliamentary Royalism, 1641.” ELH 41, No. 4 (Winter 1974): 494-540.

[In the essay below, Wallace attempts to establish composition dates for the various drafts of Coopers Hill, in an effort to identify more definitively the political events treated in the poem.]

If we could discover the very day on which Denham stood on Cooper's Hill, staring out across the Thames valley and reflecting upon the history of its landmarks, we should not only be able to read his famous poem with more exactitude, but we could see where it belonged in the exciting history of which it is a part. Professor Brendan O...

(The entire section is 20933 words.)

James Turner (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Turner, James. “Long Views: Prospect and historical perspective in two poems of place.” The Politics of Landscape: Rural Scenery and Society in English Poetry 1630-1660, pp. 49-84. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Turner examines Coopers Hill, as part of a tradition of “adapting landscape to political issues,” comparing the poem to some of its predecessors.]

It seems to me (beholding it at the
best light) a Lantskip of these Kingdoms …

(Fanshawe on Il Pastor Fido)

Denham's Coopers Hill appeared in 1642, and Marvell's Upon Appleton House was...

(The entire section is 5558 words.)

W. Hutchings (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Hutchings, W. “‘The Harmony of Things’: Denham's Coopers Hill as Descriptive Poem.” Papers on Language and Literature 19, No. 4 (Fall 1983): 375-84.

[In the following essay, Hutchings maintains that, rather than merely serving as a vehicle for political commentary, the description of landscape in Coopers Hill gives the poem its structure and sense of order.]

Coopers Hill has been honored as a poem for three centuries, but it deserves to be more famous as a historical document.”1 So John M. Wallace sets out the approach which his essay on Denham's poem displays so comprehensively; an approach towards which modern...

(The entire section is 4009 words.)

David Hill Radcliffe (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Radcliffe, David Hill. “These Delights from Several Causes Move: Heterogeneity and Genre in ‘Coopers Hill’.” Papers on Language and Literature 22, No. 4 (Fall 1986): 352-71.

[In the following essay, Radcliffe contends that throughout Coopers Hill Denham “champions heterogeneous rather than totalizing ways of thinking” and “combines differing points of view, a variety of ideological positions, and a mixture of literary conventions.”]

Eighteenth-century poets and critics agreed that John Denham was a seminal writer in the history of English literature.1Coopers Hill played an important role in the reorganization of the...

(The entire section is 7632 words.)

Lawrence Venuti (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Venuti, Lawrence. “The Destruction of Troy: translation and royalist cultural politics in the Interregnum.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 23, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 197-219.

[In the essay that follows, Venuti examines The Destruction of Troy, Denham's translation of part of the Aeneid, exploring the social and political implications of his method of translation and the circumstances of its publication.]

In 1656, Sir John Denham published a translation with the running title The Destruction of Troy. An Essay upon the Second Book of Virgils Æneis. Written in the year, 1636.1 The title page is one among many...

(The entire section is 9105 words.)

Parvin Loloi (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Loloi, Parvin. “Introduction.” In Two Seventeenth-Century Plays, Volume 1: The Sophy by Sir John Denham, pp. vii-lxxiv. Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Loloi examines Denham's only play, The Sophy, exploring issues such as its composition date, initial publication, first performance, historical context, sources, and critical reception.]

The Sophy was Denham's only venture into drama (unless one counts the translation of the fifth act of Corneille's Horace, which he contributed to Katherine Philips's version of the play, published in 1669) and was one of his first publications. The play was...

(The entire section is 12088 words.)

Further Reading


Berry, Herbert. “Sir John Denham at Law.” Modern Philology 71, No. 3 (February 1974): 266-76.

Assembles information from unpublished legal document to provide a fuller biographical portrait of Denham.

Kelliher, Hilton. “John Denham: New Letters and Documents.” British Library Journal 12, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 1-20.

Examines previously unpublished letters and legal papers for what they reveal about Denham's writings and activities, especially while in Europe.

O Hehir, Brendan. Harmony from Discords: A Life of Sir John Denham. Berkeley: University of California Press,...

(The entire section is 300 words.)