English poet, only son of Sir John Denham, lord chief baron of the exchequer in Ireland, was born in Dublin in 1615. In 1617 his father became baron of the exchequer in England, and removed to London with his family. In Michaelmas term 1631 the future poet was entered as a gentleman commoner at Trinity College, Oxford. He removed in 1634 to Lincoln's Inn, where he was, says John Aubrey, a good student, but not suspected of being a wit. The reputation he had gained at Oxford of being the "dreamingest young fellow" gave way to a scandalous reputation for gambling. In 1634 he married Ann Cotton, and seems to have lived with his father at Egham, Surrey. In 1636 he wrote his paraphrase of the second book of the Aeneid. About the same time he wrote a prose tract against gambling, "The Anatomy of Play," designed to assure his father of his repentance, but as soon as he came into his fortune he squandered it at play. It was a surprise to everyone when in 1642 he suddenly, as Edmund Waller said, "broke out like the Irish rebellion, three score thousand strong, when no one was aware, nor in the least expected it," by publishing "The Sophy," a tragedy in five acts, the subject of which was drawn from Sir Thomas Herbert's travels. At the beginning of the Civil War Denham was high sheriff for Surrey, and was appointed governor of Farnham Castle. He showed no military ability, and speedily surrendered the castle to the parliament. He was sent as a prisoner to London, but was soon permitted to join the king at Oxford.
In 1642 appeared "Cooper's Hill," a poem describing the Thames scenery round his home at Egham. The first edition was anonymous: subsequent editions show numerous alterations, and the poem did not assume its final form until 1655. This famous piece, which was Pope's model for his "Windsor Forest," was not new in theme or manner, but the praise which it received was well merited by its ease and grace. Moreover Denham expressed his commonplaces with great dignity and skill. He followed the taste of the time in his frequent use of antithesis and metaphor, but these devices seem to arise out of the matter, and are not of the nature of mere external ornament. At Oxford he wrote many squibs against the roundheads. One of the few serious pieces belonging to this period is the short poem "On the Earl of Strafford's Trial and Death."
From this time Denham was much in Charles I.'s confidence. He was entrusted with the charge of forwarding letters to and from the king when he was in the custody of the parliament, a duty which he discharged successfully with Abraham Cowley, but in 1648 he was suspected by the Parliamentary authorities, and thought it wiser to cross the Channel. He helped in the removal of the young duke of York to Holland, and for some time he served Queen Henrietta Maria in Paris, being entrusted by her with despatches for Holland. In 1650 he was sent to Poland in company with Lord Crofts to obtain money for Charles II. They succeeded in raising £10,000. After two years spent at the exiled court in Holland, Denham returned to London and being quite without resources, he was for some time the guest of the earl of Pembroke at Wilton. In 1655 an order was given that Denham should restrict himself to some place of residence to be selected by himself at a distance of not less than 20 m. from London; subsequently he obtained from the Protector a license to live at Bury St Edmunds, and in 1658 a passport to travel abroad with the earl of Pembroke. At the Restoration Denham's services were rewarded by the office of surveyor-general of works. His qualifications as an architect were probably slight, but it is safe to regard as grossly exaggerated the accusations of incompetence and peculation made by Samuel Butler in his brutal "Panegyric upon Sir John Denham's Recovery from his Madness." He eventually secured the services of Christopher Wren as deputy-surveyor. In 1660 he was also made a knight of the Bath.
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