Thursday, November 07, 2013

`More Weight Than Bulk'

If it makes sense to refer to the “best-known lines” written by Sir John Denham (1615-1669), a poet hardly known, they may be these: 

“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.” 

These are lines 189-192 from “Cooper’s Hill” (1642), which describes the scenery along the Thames near Denham’s home in Egham, and they are noteworthy enough to show up on coffee mugs and mouse pads. Dryden praised “Cooper’s Hill” as “the exact standard of good writing.” Denham was a courtier, a bit of a rake as a young man and the very definition of a minor poet, buried like many another reputation in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer. I’m remembering him only because I’ve just reread Dr. Johnson’s “Life of Denham” from Lives of the English Poets, which is filled with more critical insight and memorable language than anything found in Denham’s collected works. Note Johnson’s judgment on the passage from “Cooper’s Hill” quoted above: 

“The lines are in themselves not perfect, for most of the words thus artfully opposed are to be understood simply on one side of the comparison, and metaphorically on the other; and if there be any language which does not express intellectual operations by material images, into that language they cannot be translated.” 

You sense Johnson straining after tactfulness and praising rather tepidly. The critical hinge, the all-important “but . . .,” follows in the next sentences: 

“But so much meaning is comprised in so few words; the particulars of resemblance are so perspicaciously collected, and every mode of excellence separated from its adjacent fault by so nice a line of limitation; the different parts of the sentence are so accurately adjusted; and the flow of the last couplet is so smooth and sweet — that the passage however celebrated has not been praised above its merit. It has beauty peculiar to itself, and must be numbered among those felicities which cannot be produced at will by wit and labour, but must arise unexpectedly in some hour propitious to poetry.” 

This interests me less for what it says about Denham’s poem than for its display of Johnson’s critical perspicacity and its broader application to poetry – and prose – in general.  “Much meaning is comprised in so few words” is the ideal of any serious writer; in Yvor Winters’ formulations, “Much in Little” and “Write little; do it well.” Further on Johnson praises Denham’s “lines and couplets, which convey much meaning in few words, and exhibit the sentiment with more weight than bulk.” We might call it artful density. Also read John Aubrey’s amusing “Brief Life” of Denham, which concludes: “He was satyricall when he had a mind to it.”

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