Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46.1 (2004) 49-72
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John Dryden and John Denham
In 1692, more than two decades after the death of John Denham, John Dryden paid homage to the poet as he recalled a conversation he had had "about Twenty Years ago" with Sir George Mackenzie:
He asked me why I did not imitate in my Verses, the turns of Mr. Waller, and Sir John Denham; of which, he repeated many to me: I had often read with pleasure, and with some profit, those two Fathers of our English Poetry; but had not seriously consider'd those Beauties which give the last perfection to their Works." 1
The largesse of this tribute, the labeling of Denham and Waller as "Fathers of our English Poetry," is, on first appearances, startling considering the discrepancy between Denham's slight reputation today and the fact that throughout the 1690s Dryden is concerned—to the point of obsession—with cementing an English poetic tradition and establishing poetic genealogies. 2 Also startling, however, is what an examination of the number and nature of allusions to Denham pervading Dryden's works reveals. While Dryden rarely acknowledges his debts to Denham and while critics remark upon them only cursorily, key tenets of Dryden's critical and political stances have their roots in Denham's poetry and critical proclamations. This intricate poetic relationship sheds light on Dryden's criticism and politics—not least a previously unnoted philosophical correlation between them.
The dues owed to Denham's criticism, in particular, point to limitations in existing discussions of Dryden's works. One problem, as Jennifer Brady notes, is the tendency to isolate Dryden: "Our institutional praxis of respecting the discreteness of literary periods tends to insulate Dryden and his contemporaries from predecessors who were central to their critical self-awareness." 3 When critics do contextualize Dryden, they generally look if not to Classical and French influences then to the "big three" English predecessors (Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher) often assuming traditions rather than recognizing where Dryden was creating them. 4 Yet the parallels between Denham's and Dryden's conceptions of [End Page 49] problems facing seventeenth-century English literature throw into relief the extent to which Dryden's criticism builds upon English precepts that go beyond Shakespeare and Jonson.
At the heart of Denham's influence lies his Royalism, even as the neglect of his place in English letters is a result of the limiting of his importance to Coopers Hill. Certainly, this famous poem signals but does not circumscribe Denham's accomplishment as a Royalist poet: one searching for a rhetoric at a time when aesthetics and politics became indistinguishable and political turmoil rendered inherently unstable any personal or public stance. 5 Willy nilly, Dryden found in Denham not only a kindred poetic spirit and English precedent for many of his own critical and poetical declarations, but a methodology that enabled him, throughout his career, to confront political chaos in an open-ended fashion while promulgating English traditions in a seemingly teleological fashion. Phillip Harth has thoroughly explicated the nature of Dryden's skepticism by showing how he contrasts his "natural diffidence" or "skeptical way of reasoning" with a "Magisterial" or "dogmatical" manner. Yet Harth traces the roots of Dryden's philosophy to that of the Royal Society, whose influences, he contends, were everywhere evident to him. 6 Further arguing that attention must therefore be paid to the specific contexts of Dryden's thought, Harth follows this skepticism through the particular theological and political debates that challenged him. The defining features of Dryden's skepticism—through which he deeply probes English tradition and monarchic authority while providing reassurances of their stability—are, however, also a natural consequence of his participation in a Royalist poetics, the spadework of which is owing to Denham. Dryden's allegiance to Denham thus also writes larger Howard Weinbrot's argument in Britannia's Issue: attention to French influences on Dryden's works has overshadowed his conscious development of an English literary tradition. While Weinbrot's discussion of the Essay...