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.
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.
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.
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.