Wednesday, July 09, 2014

`A Strange Piercingness'

After rereading John Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill” (1642), with its lovely evocation of the Thames (and poetry)-- 

“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.” 

--I went back to Dr. Johnson’s “Life of Denham” to recall what little I’ve ever known of an almost-forgotten poet. What Johnson writes of “Cooper’s Hill” could be said of any gathering of poets today: 

“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.” 

Human nature hasn’t changed a nanometer in three centuries. Among the pleasures of reading Johnson’s Lives of the Poets are these casually introduced moral asides. He likes Denham and defends him against critics and gossips alike:  

“…human felicity is short and uncertain: a second marriage brought upon him so much disquiet as for a time disordered his understanding; and [Samuel] Butler lampooned him for his lunacy [in “Panegyric upon Sir John Denham’s Recovery from his Madness”]. I know not whether the malignant lines were then made publick, nor what provocation incited Butler to do that which no provocation can excuse.” 

And Butler is nasty: “Sir, you ’ave outliv’d so desperate a fit / As none could do but an immortal wit; / Had yours been less, all helps had been in vain, / And thrown away though on a less sick brain.” As is his custom in the Lives, Johnson mingles and even blurs biography and criticism, a strategy not much in favor today. But see how he uses it to shed light on the work: 

“[Denham] 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.” 

Don’t mistake this for a dismissal of the man or poet. Remember Johnson’s odd characterization of Swift’s poems as “often humorous, almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easiness and gaiety.” Johnson tells us “the strength of Denham” is “found in many lines and couplets, which convey much meaning in few words, and exhibit the sentiment with more weight than bulk” – a compositional ideal after which we all aspire, whether poets or writers of prose. 

Johnson concludes his “Life” with this sentence: “He is one of the writers that improved our taste and advanced our language, and whom we ought therefore to read with gratitude, though having done much he left much to do.” What more could be said of any writer? 

In his Brief Lives, John Aubrey says of Denham: “His eie was a kind of light goose-gray, not big; but it had a strange piercingness, not as to shining and glory, but (like a Momus) when he conversed with you he look’t into your very thoughts.” There’s an image a reader won’t forget: more weight than bulk.

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