Sir John Denham (?1615-1669). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sir John Denham (1615 - 19 March 1669) was an Irish poet and courtier.



Denham, son of the Chief Baron of Exchequer in Ireland, was born in Dublin, and educated at Oxford. He began his literary career with a tragedy, The Sophy (1641), which seldom rises above mediocrity. His poem, Cooper's Hill (1642), is the work by which he is remembered. It is the 1st example in English of a poem devoted to local description. Denham received extravagant praise from Samuel Johnson; but the place now assigned him is a much more humble one. His verse is smooth, clear, and agreeable, and occasionally a thought is expressed with remarkable terseness and force. In his earlier years Denham suffered for his Royalism; but after the Restoration enjoyed prosperity. He, however, made an unhappy marriage, and his last years were clouded by insanity. He was an architect by profession, coming between Inigo Jones and Wren as King's Surveyor.[1]

Youth and educationEdit

Denham was the only son of Sir John Denham, the Irish judge, of Little Horkesley, Essex, by his second wife, Eleanor, daughter of Sir Garrett More, baron Mellefont and viscount Drogheda. He was born at Dublin in 1615, and educated in London.[2]

On 18 Nov. 1631 he matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, where he was "looked upon," says Wood, "as a slow, dreaming young man, and more addicted to gaming than study." He was examined for the degree of B.A., but there is no proof that it was granted him. He subsequently studied law at Lincoln's Inn, where his name had been entered on the register as early as 28 April 1631.[2]

1st marriage and early writingEdit

On 25 June 1634 he married at St. Bride's, Fleet Street, his first wife, Ann Cotton, of a Gloucestershire family, by whom he had £500 per annum, one son, and two daughters (Aubrey). He took up his residence with his father at Egham, Surrey, and in the church there a son of his was buried 28 Aug. 1638 (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. i. 552).[2]

His love of gambling now grew pronounced, and threatened a breach with his relatives. To allay his father's anxieties, he wrote an essay against gaming, which was published in 1651 without the author's permission or name. Its title ran: The Anatomy of Play. Written by a worthy and learned gent. Dedicated to his father to show his detestation of it. In 1638 the poet inherited on his father's death the family mansion at Egham and other property, but he persisted in his gaming practices, and squandered several thousand pounds.[2]

Denham seems to have 1st attempted verse in 1636, when he paraphrased the second book of Virgil's Aeneid, but it was not published till 1656. His earliest publication was an historical tragedy, entitled The Sophy — written on classical lines — which was acted with success at the private theatre at Blackfriars, and issued in 1642. The plot — the scene of which is in Turkey — is drawn from Sir Thomas Herbert's Travels (1634), and Robert Baron a few years later utilised the same story in his Mirza. Waller said of Denham's performance: "He broke out like the Irish rebellion, three score thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or in the least suspected it" (Aubrey).[2]

His well known poem, Cooper's Hill, in which he described the scenery around his house at Egham, was first published in London in 1642, although it was stated to have been written 2 years earlier, and subsequently underwent much alteration.[2]

Civil War and ProtectorateEdit

At the beginning of the civil wars Denham was high sheriff of Surrey, and took up arms for the king. He was made governor of Farnham Castle, from where he was easily driven by Sir William Waller on 1 Dec. 1642 (Rushworth, v. 82). Waller sent him prisoner to London; but he was soon allowed to retire to Oxford, where he remained for nearly 5 years, and was treated with much consideration. His royalist friends at Oxford were amused by his squibs and satires penned against the presbyterians and parliamentarians. One of his few serious poems written at this period lamented the death of Strafford.[2]

On 19 June 1644 Denham's goods in London were sold by order of the parliament . George Wither, the poet, who was a captain in the parliamentary army, is said by Aubrey and Wood to have petitioned for a grant of Denham's property, and to have temporarily held Egham; but Wither was taken prisoner by the royalists soon afterwards, when Denham begged Charles I to pardon him on the ground that while Wither lived he "should not be the worst poet in England."[2]

In the articles of peace projected in 1646 Denham was one of the persons on whose removal from the royal counsels the parliament insisted (Thurloe, i. 81). In 1647 Henrietta Maria entrusted him with the duty of bearing letters to the king while at Holmby Castle. According to Berkeley, Denham and Sir Edward Ford were to promote a final agreement between the king and the army. Berkeley and John Ashburnham were subsequently joined in the enterprise, which came to nothing. Denham's rien with Hugh Peters proved useful, and through Peters he obtained frequent access to the royal presence. Charles freely discussed the situation with the poet, whom he recommended to abstain from versifying while engaged in politics.[2]

When the king left Hampton Court he directed Denham to remain in London, "to send to him and receive from him all his letters to and from all his correspondents at home and abroad." For this purpose Denham was supplied with 9 ciphers; Abraham Cowley assisted him, and for 9 months the work proceeded satisfactorily, but by the end of that time Denham's action was suspected, and in April 1648 he deemed it safer to help in the removal of James, duke of York, to Holland.[2] Clarendon overlooks his share in this transaction, and it is probable that it was smaller than Denham and his friends asserted.[3]

For a time Denham was in attendance on Henrietta Maria in Paris. On 10 May 1649 the queen sent him back to Holland with instructions as to future policy for the young king, Charles II, and with despatches for the Prince of Orange (Letters of Henrietta Maria, ed. Green, 361). In 1650 Charles II sent Denham and William, lord Crofts, to Poland, and they collected £10,000 from Scotchmen residing there, according to Denham's versified narrative of the journey.[3]

The next 2 years were spent with the exiled royal family, chiefly in Holland. On 13–23 May 1652 Nicholas wrote from the Hague that Denham "hath here lately had very ill-luck at play." He was in great want of money, but was afraid, according to Nicholas, of going to England on account rather of his creditors' threats than of the rebels.(Nicholas, Papers, Camd. Soc. i. 300). Later in the year, however, he was in England, and found a protector in the Earl of Pembroke. His estates had been sold 20 July 1651, and he was penniless.[3]

On 20 Sept. 1653 a royalist writing from Paris proves Denham's growing literary reputation by enclosing a French drinking song, "which," he says, ‘if Englished by one Denham, I hear to be the state's poet, truly it will be much to the instruction of our country" (ib. i. 471). Aubrey made Denham's acquaintance while staying with Pembroke at Wilton, and Denham visited Evelyn at Wotton 6 April 1654 and 5 Jan. 1655-6; but he was more frequently in London than the authorities approved, and on 9 June 1655 an order was issued that he was to be confined to a place more than 20 miles from the metropolis chosen by himself. On 11 Jan. 1657-8 Cromwell signed a license authorising him to live at Bury in Suffolk, and on 24 Sept. 1658-9 a passport was granted to him and the Earl of Pembroke to enable them to go abroad together.[3]

His translation of Virgil (The Destruction of Troy; an Essay upon the second book of Virgil's Æneis) was issued with an interesting preface on translation in 1656, and an indecent doggerel poem about a Colchester quaker in a single folio sheet in 1659.[3]


At the Restoration Clarendon was advised to secure the services of Denham (Clarendon, State Papers, iii. 644–5), and the poet was rewarded for his loyalty by several grants of land and valuable leases. In June 1660 he was made surveyor-general of works. He claimed to have received the reversion to this office from Charles I in the lifetime of its latest holder, Inigo Jones (died 1651). Jones's nephew and assistant, John Webb, protested against the appointment on the ground that "though Denham may have, as most gentry, some knowledge of the theory of architecture, he can have none of the practice."[3]

Webb was conciliated by a promise of the reversion, and Denham entered upon his duties. He superintended the erection and alteration of many official buildings in London, designed some new brick buildings in Scotland Yard on land which he leased from the crown, and is said to have built Burlington House, Piccadilly. Evelyn, like Webb, questioned his knowledge of architecture, and describes him as a better poet than architect, but in his last years he was fortunate enough to secure the services of Christopher Wren as his deputy.[3]

In Nov. 1660 Denham published in a single sheet a prologue for a dramatic performance with which Monck entertained the king. Early in 1661 he arranged the coronation ceremony. He was M.P. for Old Sarum 1661 until his death.

2nd marriageEdit

Denham was now a widower, and on 25 May 1665 he married at Westminster Abbey his second wife, Margaret, 3rd daughter of Sir William Brooke, K.B., a nephew of Henry Brooke, lord Cobham; according to Grammont, a girl of 18. Denham, according to the same authority, was 79, but this is a palpable falsehood, for he was little more than 50, although his health was broken and he looked like an old man.[3]

Lady Denham soon became known as the Duke of York's mistress; her lover visited her openly at her husband's house in Scotland Yard and paid her unmistakable attentions at court (Pepys, 26 Sept. and 8 Oct. 1666). A scandal, preserved by Oldys, attributes to Denham a loathsome method of avenging himself on both his wife and the duke. While smarting under the disgrace, Denham was seized with a short fit of madness. He visited the king and told him he was the Holy Ghost. His illness, commonly attributed to the scandalous conduct of his wife, was due, according to Marvell, to an accidental blow on the head (Clarendon's House-Warming, st. vii.)[3]

When Denham was convalescent Lady Denham died (on 6 Jan. 1666-7). Lord Conway wrote 2 days later that she was "poisoned, as she said herself, in a cup of chocolate. The Duke of York was very sad, and kept his chamber when I went to visit him" (Rawdon Papers, 1819, p. 227). Pepys roundly accuses Denham of murdering his wife; Aubrey credits the Countess of Rochester with giving Lady Denham the poisoned chocolate; the Count de Grammont accepts Pepys's version of the episode, and adds that Denham had to shut himself up in his house because his neighbours threatened to tear him to pieces.[3]

The fury of the populace was only appeased (according to Grammont) by a sumptuous funeral on 9 January at St. Margaret's, Westminster, and by a very liberal distribution of burnt wine. According to Henry Newcome, the Duchess of York was soon afterwards "troubled with the apparition of the Lady Denham, and through anxiety bit off a piece of her tongue." Marvell, in 1667, on the death of the Duke of York's infant son, the Duke of Kendal, and the apparently mortal sickness of another infant son, the Duke of Cambridge, published the epigram—

Kendal is dead and Cambridge riding post—
What fitter sacrifice for Denham's ghost?[4]

In other satires Marvell constantly associates Lady Denham's name with "mortal chocolate," but shifts the responsibility for its employment from Denham's shoulders to those of the Duke and Duchess of York. The scandalous accusation seems to have been quite unjustified on all hands, for a post-mortem examination showed no trace of poison (Orrery State Papers, 1742, p. 219).[4]

Last yearsEdit

Denham survived this crisis for 2 years. He had made money by his official duties and lived at ease, but he was disliked at court (Grammont), and many contemporary writers made him their butt. Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras, penned in 1667 a cruel "panegyric on Sir John Denham's recovery from his madness," in which the poet was charged with the most shamefaced literary plagiarism, with fraudulent practices in his office, and with all the vices of a confirmed gamester and debauchee. Lord Lisle, writing to Temple (26 Sept. 1667), says: "Poor Sir John Denham is fallen to the ladies also, and is extremely pleased with those that seem willing to hear him, and for that obligation exceedingly praises the Duchess of Monmouth and my Lady Cavendish. If he had not the name of being mad, he would be thought better than ever" (Temple, Works, i. 484).[4]

On Cowley's death (28 July 1667) Denham wrote an elegy which showed no sign of failing powers. He himself died in the middle of March 1668-9, and was buried near Chaucer's monument in Westminster Abbey on the 23rd. An epigram in his honour appeared in William Speed's ‘Epigrammata’ (1669), p. 82.[4]

Aubrey describes Denham as very tall, but slightly bent at the shoulders, of slow and stalking gait, with piercing eyes that "looked into your very thoughts."[4]


Cooper's HillEdit

Cooper's Hill and the musical elegy on Cowley are the poems by which Denham best deserves to be remembered. The former was much altered after its first publication in 1642, and received its final form in 1655. The title-page of the 1655 edition describes the poem as "written in the yeare 1640; now printed from a perfect copy and a corrected impression."[4] The editor, who calls himself J.B., states that there had been no less than 5 earlier editions, all of which were "meer repetitions of the same false transcript which stole into print by the author's long absence from this great town." The famous apostrophe to the Thames ("O could I flow like thee and make thy stream," &c.) was one of the passages that first appeared in 1655, and the many other changes were all made, as Pope says, ‘with admirable judgment.’ The alterations are fully noted in Spence's Anecdotes, p. 282, note.[4]

In the "Session of the Poets" (Poems on State Affairs, 1697) Denham is charged with having bought the poem from a vicar for £40, and Butler repeats the accusation in his Panegyric, but the charge seems baseless. Later critics have exhumed, in one of Ascham's Latin letters and in William Cartwright's verses on Ben Jonson (1637), similar turns of expression to those employed by Denham in his well-known lines on the Thames ("Though deep yet clear," &c.), but Denham's originality cannot be seriously impugned.[4]

Herrick was the first to write in praise of Cooper's Hill (Hesperides, ed. Grosart, ii. 220), and he was followed by Dryden and Pope. Dryden, when dedicating his "Rival Ladies" to Roger, earl of Orrery, in 1664, said that in Cooper's Hill Denham transferred the sweetness of Waller's lyrics to the epic, and that the poem "for the majesty of its style is and ever will be the standard of exact writing." In the dedication of his translation of the Aeneid, 1697, Dryden draws attention to the "sweetness" of the lines about the Thames.[4]

Pope avowedly imitated Denham in Windsor Forest, as Samuel Garth did in his ‘Claremont.’ Pope calls Denham "majestic," and insists on his strength. Swift, in ‘Apollo's Edict,’ writes:

Nor let my votaries show their skill
In aping lines from Cooper's Hill;
For know I cannot bear to hear
The mimicry of "deep yet clear."

The poem is the earliest example of strictly descriptive poetry in the language, and, in spite of an excess of moralising, deserves its reputation.[5]

Other worksEdit

The sprightly eulogy on "Friendship and Single Life against Love and Marriage" is the most attractive of Denham's lighter pieces. The Senecan tragedy of Sophy, which Butler charged Denham with borrowing, is an interesting effort in a worn-out style of dramatic art. Denham shows to worst advantage in his satirical doggerel. "Nothing is less exhilarating than the ludicrousness of Denham, ... he is familiar, he is gross; he is never merry" (Johnson).[5]

His translations of Virgil and Cicero, in which he practised his theory of paraphrase as opposed to literal reproduction, are only interesting in their influence on Dryden (cf. Dryden's pref. to Ovid's Epistles in Works, ed. Scott, xii. 12–14). Dr. Johnson assigns to Denham the credit of first endowing the heroic couplet with epigrammatic terseness.[5]

Denham's separate publications are: 1. ‘The Sophy,’ 1642 and 1667. 2. ‘Cooper's Hill,’ 1642; 1650 (with prologue and epilogue to ‘The Sophy’ and verses on Fanshawe's translation of ‘Pastor Fido’); 1655 (corrected). 3. ‘Cato Major,’ verse translation from Cicero, 1648, 1669, 1703, 1710, 1769, and 1779. 4. ‘The Destruction of Troy, with a preface on translation,’ 1656. 5. ‘Anatomy of Play,’ 1651, prose tract (Bliss notes a copy dated 1645). 6. ‘Second and Third Advices to a Painter for describing our Naval Business,’ 1667. Two editions of this work appeared in 1667, one in 12mo and the other in 8vo, and it is reprinted in ‘Poems on Affairs of State.’ In these poems, which are accompanied by two addresses to the king, Denham continued the poetic narrative of the Dutch wars which Waller had begun in his ‘Instructions to a Painter,’ describing the naval battle with the Dutch (3 June 1665). The 8vo edition was described as ‘the last work of Sir John Denham,’ and ‘written in imitation of Waller,’ but it was apparently produced surreptitiously, and to it was ‘annexed “Clarendon's House-Warming,” by an unknown author.’ The unknown author was Andrew Marvell, and it has been assumed in some quarters that Marvell rather than Denham was the author of the whole work. But this is an error, attributable to the fact that Marvell parodied Denham's poem in a satire on the Dutch war and other political incidents which he christened ‘Last Directions to a Painter.’ Except in their titles, Denham's and Marvell's poems are easily distinguishable. 7. ‘Psalms of David, fitted to the Tunes used in Churches,’ 1744, with an interesting essay on earlier metrical versions. This was edited by Heighes Woodford, and dedicated to the Earl of Derby. Samuel Woodford refers to the existence of this work in his ‘Occasional Compositions in English Rhimes,’ 1668. Poems by Denham in celebration of Monck's efforts (1659–60), of Monck's entertainment of the king (1661), of the crimes of a Colchester quaker (1659–1660), of the queen's new buildings at Somerset House (1665), of Cowley (1667), and the ‘True Character of a Presbyterian,’ were issued separately in single folio sheets. Much of Denham's political doggerel appeared in ‘The Rump,’ 1662. Denham wrote the fifth act for Mrs. Katherine Philips's—‘matchless Orinda's’—translation of Corneille's ‘Horace’ (not issued till 1669), and contributed verses to Richard Fanshawe's translation of Guarini's ‘Pastor Fido’ (1647), to ‘Lacrymæ Musarum’ on the death of Lord Hastings (1649), to the satirical volume on Davenant's ‘Gondibert’ (‘Certain verses by several of the author's friends’), 1653, to Robert Howard's ‘British Princess,’ and to the collected edition of Beaumont and Fletcher's works. The first collected edition of Denham's poems appeared in 1668, with a dedicatory epistle to Charles II. Other collected editions followed in 1671, 1676, 1684, and 1709. They are reprinted in Johnson's (1779), Anderson's (1793), Park's (1808), and Chalmers's (1810) collections of English poets. One poem by Denham, ‘To his Mistress,’ is only to be found in Gildon's ‘Poetical Remaines’ (1698).[5]

Critical introductionEdit

by Edmund Gosse

Denham was the first writer to adopt the precise manner of versification introduced by Waller. His relation to that poet resembles that taken a century later by Mason with respect to Gray, but Denham is a more original writer than Mason. The names of Waller and Denham were first associated by Dryden, and the critics of the next sixty years were unanimous in eulogizing the sweetness of the one, and the strength of the other.

It is quite true that the versification of Denham is vigorous; it proceeds with greater volume than that of Waller, and produces a stronger impression. But he is a very unequal and irregular writer, and not unfrequently descends to doggerel, and very dull doggerel too. His literary taste was superior to his genius; he knew what effect he desired to produce, and strove to conquer the difficulties of antithesis, but the result of his effort was rarely classic. He takes the same place in English poetry as is taken in French by Chapelain and other hard versifiers of the beginning of the seventeenth century, who had lost the romantic fervour and had not yet gained the classic grace. But, like those poets, he has his fine flashes of style.

The works of Denham are small in extent. They consist of The Sophy, a languid tragedy of Turkish misrule; Cooper’s Hill, a topographical poem, The Destruction of Troy, an insignificant paraphrase of part of the Æneid; and a selection of miscellaneous pieces. These latter, and Cooper’s Hill, are all that need attract critical attention. The reputation of the last-mentioned poem rests almost entirely upon its famous quatrain:—

  ‘O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep yet clear, though gentle yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’erflowing full.’

It is a curious fact that this exquisite apostrophe, which is one of the gems of our language, does not occur in the 1st edition of Cooper’s Hill. There are no other lines in that poem which approach these in elegance and force, and it occurs to the mind of the present writer that they may possibly have been contributed by Waller. This, however, is unlikely, and it would be unfair, without shadow of proof, to deprive Denham of his chief claim to immortality. [T]his poem ... has certainly been over-praised. The style is obscure and the wit laboured, while it probably contains more errors against the rules of grammar than any other poem in the language; but Denham is at all times a singularly ungrammatical writer.

Of his other long poems, by far the best is the Elegy on Cowley, which was written but a very few months before his own death, and after a long attack of insanity. In this poem he is brighter and more easy than in any other long composition, and it contains some interesting critical matter.

Denham was highly esteemed for his comical vein, and his lampoons are not devoid of wit, though incredibly brutal and coarse. He is very unlike the amorous poets of his age in this, that he has left behind him not one copy of love-verses; and his best poem is written in dispraise of love. Among the royalist lyrists there is but one, Cleveland, who forms a connecting link between Denham and the old lyric school. His satires and squibs are closely allied to those of Cleveland, and he has something of the same cynical and defiant attitude of mind.

He adored literature with the worship of one who practises it late in life, and without much ease; his conception of the ideal dignity of the poet’s function contrasts oddly with the indecorous matter that he puts forth as comic poetry. There was nothing about him very original, for Cooper’s Hill, which was destined to inspire Windsor Forest, had been itself preceded by Ben Jonson’s Penshurst. But he forms an important link in the chain of transition, and ranks chronologically second among our Augustan poets.[6]


Denham was made a Knight of the Bath in 1661.[3]

He became a Fellow of the Royal Society on 20 May 1663.

On 23 March 1669, he was buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.[7]

Samuel Johnson included Denham in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.



  • Poems and Translations, with The Sophy. London: Henry Herringman, 1668; 5th edition, London: Jacob Tonson, 1709.
  • Cooper's Hill: A poem. London: H. Hills, 1709.
  • Cato Major of Old Age: A poem. London: H. Hills, 1710.
  • The Poetical Works. Perth, UK: R. Morison & Son, Booksellers, 1780.
  • The Poems of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham (edited by Wentworth Dillon Roscommon). Chiswick, UK: Press of C. Whittingham, 1822.
  • The Poems of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham (edited by George Gilfillan). Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1857.


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[8]

See alsoEdit

From Cooper's Hill by Sir John Denham (1642)

From Cooper's Hill by Sir John Denham (1642)



  1. John William Cousin, "Denham, Sir John," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 112. Web, Jan. 3, 2018.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Lee, 346.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 Lee, 347.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Lee, 348.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Lee, 349.
  6. from Edmund W. Gosse, "Critical Introduction: Sir John Denham (1615–1669)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Feb. 14, 2016.
  7. Sir John Denham, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  8. Search results = au:Sir John Denham, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 14, 2016.

External links Edit