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Being severely reproved for this folly, he professed, and, perhaps, believed, himself reclaimed; and, to testify the sincerity of his repentance, wrote and published an Essay upon Gaming.
He seems to have divided his studies between law and poetry; for, in 1636, he translated the second book of the Æneid.
Two years after, his father died; and then, notwithstanding his resolutions and professions, he returned again to the vice of gaming, and lost several thousand pounds that had been left him.
In 1641, he published the Sophy. This seems to have given him his first hold of the publick attention; for Waller remarked, “ that he broke out like the Irish rebellion, three score thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or in the least suspected it:" an observation which could have had no propriety had his poetical abilities been known before.
He was after that pricked for sheriff of Surrey, and made governour of Farnham castle for the king; but he soon resigned that charge, and retreated to Oxford, where, in 1643, he published Cooper's Hill.
This poem had such reputation as to excite the common artifice by which envy degrades excellence. A report was spread, that the performance was not his own, but that he had bought it of a vicar for forty pounds. The same attempt was made to rob Addison of his Cato, and Pope of his Essay on Criticism.
In 1647, the distresses of the royal family required him to engage in more dangerous employments. He
was intrusted, by the queen, with a message to the king; and, by whatever means, so far softened the ferocity of Hugh Peters, that, by his intercession, admission was procured. Of the king's condescension he has given an account in the dedication of his works.
He was, afterwards, employed in carrying on the king's correspondence; and, as he says, discharged this office with great safety to the royalists: and, being accidentally discovered by the adverse party's knowledge of Mr. Cowley's hand, he escaped happily both for himself and his friends.
He was yet engaged in a greater undertaking. In April, 1648, he conveyed James, the duke of York, from London into France, and delivered him there to the queen and prince of Wales. This year he published his translation of Cato Major.
He now resided in France, as one of the followers of the exiled king; and, to divert the melancholy of their condition, was sometimes enjoined by his master to write occasional verses; one of which amusements was probably his ode, or song, upon the Embassy to Poland, by which he and lord Crofts procured a contribution of ten thousand pounds from the Scotch, that wandered over the kingdom. Poland was, at that time, very much frequented by itinerant traders, who, in a country of very little commerce and of great extent, where every man resided on his own estate, contributed very much to the accommodation of life, by bringing to every man's house those little necessaries which it was
very inconvenient to want, and very troublesome to fetch. I have formerly read, without much reflection, of the multitude of Scotchmen that travelled with their wares in Poland; and that their numbers were not small, the success of this negotiation gives sufficient evidence.
About this time, what estate the war and the gamesters had left him was sold, by order of the parliament; and when, in 1652, he returned to England, he was entertained by the earl of Pembroke.
Of the next years of his life there is no account. At the restoration he obtained that which many missed, the reward of his loyalty; being made surveyor of the king's buildings, and dignified with the order of the Bath. He seems now to have learned some attention to money; for Wood says, that he got by this place seven thousand pounds.
After the restoration, he wrote the poem on Prudence and Justice, and, perhaps, some of his other pieces; and as he appears, whenever any serious question comes before him, to have been a man of piety, he consecrated his poetical powers to religion, and made a metrical version of the psalms of David. In this attempt he has failed; but in sacred poetry who has succeeded ?
It might be hoped that the favour of his master, and esteem of the publick, would now make him happy. But human felicity is short and uncertain; a second marriage brought upon him so much disquiet, as, for a time, disordered his understanding; and Butler lampooned him for his lunacy. I know
not whether the malignant lines were then made publick, nor what provocation incited Butler to do that which no provocation can excuse.
His phrensy lasted not longb; and he seems to have regained his full force of mind; for he wrote afterwards his excellent poem upon the death of Cowley, whom he was not long to survive; for, on the 19th of March, 1668, he was buried by his side.
Denham is deservedly considered as one of the fathers of English poetry. “Denham and Waller,” says Prior, “improved our versification, and Dryden perfected it.” He has given specimens of various compositions, descriptive, ludicrous, didactick, and sublime.
He appears to have had, in common with almost all mankind, the ambition of being, upon proper occasions, a merry fellow, and, in common with most of them, to have been by nature, or by early habits, debarred from it. Nothing is less exhilarating than the ludicrousness of Denham; he does not fail for want of efforts; he is familiar, he is gross; but he is never merry, unless the Speech against Peace in the close Committee be excepted. For grave burlesque, however, his imitation of Davenant shows him to have been well qualified.
Of his more elevated occasional poems, there is, perhaps, none that does not deserve commendation.
b In the ninth and tenth chapters of the Memoires de Grammont, in Andrew Marvell's works, and in Aubrey's letters, ii. 319, many scandalous anecdotes respecting Denham, are reported. Ed.
In the verses to Fletcher, we have an image that has since been often adoptedo:
But whither am I stray'd ? I need not raise
After Denham, Orrery, in one of his prologues,
Poets are sultans, if they had their will;
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
But this is not the best of his little pieces: it is excelled by his poem to Fanshaw, and his elegy on Cowley.
His praise of Fanshaw's version of Guarini contains a very sprightly and judicious character of a good translator:
That servile path thou nobly dost decline,
True to his sense, but truer to his fame. It is remarkable that Johnson should not have recollected, that this image is to be found in Bacon. Aristoteles, more otthomannorum, regnare se haud tuto posse putabat, nisi fratres suos omnes contrucidasset. De Augment. Scient. lib. 3.