Sir John Denham. An unsigned review of The Poetical Works of Sir John Denham ed. Theodore Howard Banks, Jr.
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[ 463 Sir John Denham An unsigned review of The Poetical Works of Sir John Denham, ed. Theodore Howard Banks, Jr. New Haven: Yale UP; London: Oxford UP, 1928. Pp. xi + 362. The Times Literary Supplement, 1379 (5 July 1928) 501 Besides the famous “Cooper’s Hill,” there are but two or three poems of Sir John Denham that can be read with any pleasure; and even these are only just above the line at which pleasure expires. The best of Denham’s verse is not poetry; it is charming verse.1 Yet by his place in the history of English verse Denham deserves a scholarly edition; and Dr. Banks has provided not only the edition but a critical introduction which assigns Denham’s place with entire justice.2 In being reckoned as one of the inventors of the Augustan couplet Denhamhasreceivedrathermoreandratherlessthanhisdue.Less,because the poem has positive charm of its own; more, because, as Dr. Banks shows, the Augustan couplet would probably have reached the same perfection if Denham had never written. As for the respective contributions of Waller and Denham, there is no doubt at all.3 Waller was a poet by vocation, and the bulk of his work has technical interest at least. Denham was a good versifier on occasion, and the bulk of his work is rubbish, and sometimes ribald rubbish. Of wit, in either the modern or the Augustan sense, he had none. But although Denham will not bear comparison with Waller, the reputation of Waller, too, has been perverted. As Mr. Banks justly remarks: Before Waller were Drummond of Hawthornden and George Sandys, both directly exposed to French influence, notably that of Malherbe, and both writing, in their early couplets at least, in the strict classical manner .BeforethemwefindtendenciestowardclosedcoupletsinBeaumont and Fairfax, and Cartwright has, in the midst of metaphysical conceits, linesofthebalanceandpolishtypicalofPope.Wemightmultiplyexamples, but these are enough to show that closed couplets are not the invention of any one man, but were simply the outcome of a gradual process of prosodical development. [29-30] 1928 464 ] Mr. Banks allows, however, that Denham “had great influence in increasing the popularity” of closed couplets, by reason of the success of “Cooper’s Hill” [30]. “Cooper’s Hill” had, also, a distinct influence in forming a popular type of meditative poetry, to which this closed couplet is peculiarly adapted. In versification, as Dr. Banks gives us good reason to believe, Denham probably learned from Waller, and probably saw some of Waller’s poems in manuscript ; on page 36 Dr. Banks gives some interesting parallel passages. Even the four lines which the praise of Dryden has made famous: 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’er-flowing full.4 may, Dr. Banks thinks, have been suggested by a reading of Cartwright’s inferior lines: Low without creeping, high without loss of wings; Smooth, yet not weak, and by a thorough care, Big without swelling, without painting fair.5 Butthe poemsetthemodelforasuccessionofdidacticormeditativemonologues suggested by the contemplation of natural scenery. In most of them, as in “Cooper’s Hill,” the importance of the view or scenery contemplated is slight; for Denham it is merely the starting point for a succession of common -place but well phrased reflections. What is remarkable in “Cooper’s Hill” is the neatness of construction of these 358 lines. It is a succession of reflections and formal images, but none is pushed to excess or continued to monotony; they glide easily and naturally into each other; and each exists long enough to be distinct but not long enough to tire. Itisobservedthatlaterpoetsandcriticsoftheseventeenthcentury,inpraisingthequalitiesofDenham ,haveattributedtohisversethevirtueofstrength, often in contrast to Waller’s sweetness.6 Of strength in one sense in which the verse of Dryden has strength Denham’s has little. The strength which resides in the controlled but forceful surprise of thought and phrase in Dryden is anticipated, if by anyone, by Dryden’s young contemporary Oldham. Dryden combines the occasional force of Oldham with the mellifluence of Waller, and a wit and intellect infinitely superior to either. What is meant by Den­ ham’s “strength” is admirably defined by Johnson, who says: “The ‘strength of [ 465 Sir John Denham Denham,’ which Pope so emphatically mentions, is to be found in many lines and couplets, which convey much meaning in a few words, and exhibit the sentiment with more weight than bulk.”7 That is, it is...


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