Sir John Denham



The Poetical Works of Sir John Denham, ed. Theodore Howard Banks, [1st edition, 1928], 2nd edition ([New Haven], 1969).

Certain Verses (1653)

Certain Verses Written By severall of the Authors Friends; To be re-printed with the Second Edition of Gondibert (London, 1653).


Hilton Kelliher, ‘John Denham: New Letters and Documents’, British Library Journal, 12 (1986), 1-20.

O Hehir, Harmony

Brendan O Hehir, Harmony from Discords: A Life of Sir John Denham (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968).

O Hehir, Hieroglyphicks

Brendan O Hehir, Expans'd Hieroglyphicks: A Critical edition of Sir John Denham's Coopers Hill (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969)


The Osborn Manuscript

Only one significant autograph literary manuscript by Denham is known to survive. Now preserved at Yale (Osborn pb 53), it is Denham's own exemplum of his collected Poems and Translations (London, 1668). On twenty-eight pages bound-in at the beginning (pp. 18-24 being left blank), Denham has copied out eleven verse satires on Sir William Davenant, all of them evidently of his own composition. Eight of the poems were published anonymously some fifteen years earlier in the pamphlet Certain Verses (1653), a collection of which Denham is known to have been the principal author. The assumption is made in Banks (p. 312) that the three poems in Denham's hand which did not appear in the 1653 pamphlet were probably composed likewise in 1653 ‘or shortly after’; however, one is a mock elegy on Davenant, who died on 7 April 1668 (and whose funeral Denham attended), and all three were conceivably composed after that date. Denham evidently came to feel in 1668 not only that his eight earlier satires were worth acknowledging as his own, but that the series was worth revising and extending, for incorporation in his collected works. Furthermore, Denham made numerous autograph corrections and alterations throughout the main body of printed text in this volume, affecting thirteen of the poems (including Cooper's Hill, in which six autograph lines are inserted) as well as his play The Sophy. Prepared in the last year of the author's life, this volume is the nearest approximation to an approved ‘official’ collection of his poetical and dramatic works.

Presentation and Inscribed Volumes

W.W. Greg (in A Bibliography of the English Printed Drama to the Restoration, 3 vols (London, 1939-57), III, 1058-60) records two presentation exempla of the 1668 volume: one, owned by himself, ‘in the original binding and inscribed “Cal: Ian: 1667/8 Guliell Rogers ex hospitie Lincoln è Dono Authoris”’; the other, apparently the dedication exemplum (‘Charles II's own copy’), in the British Library (C.83.b.9) — this identification based on the fact that the volume is in a contemporary Royal binding.

A volume that came to light in 1982 was also once in the possession of the author. It is what appears to be a unique recorded exemplum of the edition of 1653 of Cooper's Hill, bearing three corrections (supplying omitted words) in Denham's distinctive hand (see *DeJ 9). This edition, which was printed in London for Humphrey Moseley and described on the title-page as ‘Now Printed from a perfect copy; And a Corrected Impression’, can claim to be the first authorized edition of Denham's most celebrated poem. Originally composed in 1640, a version of Cooper's Hill (what O Hehir, Hieroglyphicks, has designated the ‘A-text’) was first published in 1642, in a pirated edition, of which two equally unauthorized reprints were subsequently issued. What has hitherto been regarded (by Banks, O Hehir and others) as the first authorized edition of the poem (in a revised version: the ‘B-text’) is that of 1655, which, in fact, proves to have been set up largely from the same standing type as the edition of 1653 but with the addition of a preface by one ‘J. B.’ making the claim: ‘I obtained from the Author's owne papers this perfect Edition’. The most extensive attempt made as yet to disentangle the complex textual problems of this poem was that by O Hehir in 1969. However, the discovery of this exemplum, as well as of further manuscript copies of the poem (see below), gives rise to query as to whether a definitive critical text has yet been established in full.

Letters and Documents

The authenticity of the autograph manuscripts noted above may be established by comparison with other surviving examples of Denham's hand. Although it is not true, as Banks stated (p. 1), that ‘No personal letters or manuscripts [of Denham] remain’, the number of those that have yet come to light is certainly limited. It is possible to record at present the existence of only nine surviving letters by Denham (DeJ 129-137), not all of which have been known to his biographers. Two of the earliest, for instance, concern the activities of Royalist exiles on the continent and Denham's attempts to save his estate and his ‘poore family from ruine’ in 1651-2. They incidentally throw light on a relatively obscure period in his life, while in exile, and on the chronology of his embassy to Poland with Lord Crofts in 1650-51.

One early example of Denham's hand is known, since at the age of sixteen, in 1631, he signed the Oxford subscription book upon matriculating at Trinity College (*DeJ 138). At the other end of his life, probably the last document he signed is his will, six days before his death in 1669 (*DeJ 140). Otherwise, surviving documents written or signed by Denham are largely official papers deriving from the period, following the Restoration in 1660, when Denham was appointed Surveyor General of the Works. Examples of Denham's certificates, warrants, minutes, accounts and receipts relating to the Works and the Exchequer between 1661 and 1669 are most readily found in the National Archives, Kew (notably: SP 29/40/27; 29/51/45; 29/52/135; 29/53/100; 29/58/113; 29/109/74; 29/157/90; 29/198/120; 29/199/17; 29/203/92; 29/211/39; 29/215/121; 29/219/59; 29/229/130.I; 29/236/195; 29/251/161; and 29/255/74).

These items can be supplemented by numerous other documents that relate to Denham, which can be found in the National Archives, Kew, British Library, Bodleian, Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and elsewhere. Some of them are cited in O Hehir, Harmony, and in Kelliher. For instance, a set of ‘Instructions for Mr. Denham’, written out in the hand of Abraham Cowley (as secretary to Henry Jermyn) and signed by Queen Henrietta Maria, on 10 May 1649, is in the British Library (Add. MS 19399, ff. 72r-3r: see *CoA 252) and is edited in Kelliher, pp. 18-19. The original draft of a letter written by the Earl of Clarendon to Denham on 4/14 February 1659/60 is in the Bodleian (MS Clarendon 69, f. 66r) and is edited in O Hehir, Harmony, pp. 141-2. Documents relating to various legal suits in which Denham was involved are among the Chancery Papers in the National Archives, Kew, as is the Royal Letters Patent for his appointment as Surveyor General of the Works (C.66/2951/29). These papers are discussed in Herbert Berry, ‘Sir John Denham at Law’, Modern Philology, 71 (1973-4), 266-76. Estate documents relating in part to the sequestration of Denham's property in 1651 are in the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford (D/DOt T1).

Manuscripts Copies of Denham's Verse

While it is true that Denham's poems are not, for the most part, among those most frequently transcribed in this period, some of them clearly had a limited circulation in manuscripts. Of these the most notable is his verse translation of Virgil's Aeneid, Books II to VI, Denham's earliest known poetical composition, written probably c.1636. The translation has remained to this day unpublished, and the author's own manuscript is lost. The text is preserved in a transcript made a few years later by Lucy Hutchinson (DeJ 116). Celebrated for her biography of her husband, the regicide Colonel John Hutchinson, Governor of Nottingham, she was the sister of Allen Apsley, associate of Denham's possibly from as early as his student days at Oxford and at Lincoln's Inn. John Hutchinson himself (who married Lucy on 3 July 1638) was likewise a contemporary of Denham's at Lincoln's Inn. The translation must have come ‘into Lucy's hands in some way as a fruit of the temporary conjunction of her husband, her brother, and Denham at Lincoln's Inn’ (O Hehir, Harmony, pp. 11-13). Professor O Hehir (1927-91) produced an edition of Denham's translation in typescript, originally intended for the Augustan Reprint Society, but it remained unpublished at his death.

Other poems by Denham evidently had some degree of circulation among the Royalist community with whom Denham was associated both in the Civil War period of the 1640s and during his exile in the 1650s. In this connection contemporary copies of several of his poems are found among the papers of such figures as the Duke of Ormonde (DeJ 21, DeJ 58, DeJ 103), Viscount Conway (DeJ 54, DeJ 57), and the Egerton family, Earls of Bridgewater (DeJ 16, DeJ 23, DeJ 35, DeJ 91), while one poem (one of the previously unpublished satires on Davenant) has even been copied out by the Earl of Clarendon's secretary, William Edgeman (DeJ 56). The channels through which many texts were transmitted must remain a matter for speculation, Clear indication of one instance, however, is in the copy of one of the satires on Davenant which appears in John Watson's miscellany (DeJ 26) with a note saying that it was communicated to him on 20 January 1669/70 by his brother Thomas (i.e. Thomas Watson (1637-1717) of St John's College Cambridge, later Bishop of St David's).

Cooper's Hill

Cooper's Hill, Denham's best-known work, was transcribed repeatedly — in versions of both ‘A’ and ‘B’ texts. What was alleged to be Denham's ‘Autograph’ manuscript of the poem was once owned by Edward Umfreville (1702?-86), collector of legal manuscripts, and was offered in Paterson's auction catalogue, 13 February 1758, MSS lot 16. Whether it really was autograph, rather than a copy, is now beyond determination.

Some of the copies recorded below (DeJ 8-19) may conceivably derive from printed texts, but the majority are certainly the product of manuscript circulation. One of the copies (*DeJ 1) is in the hand of the professional copyist now known as the ‘Feathery Scribe’. whose work is found in huge numbers of political and antiquarian tracts, poems and miscellaneous papers of the 1620s and '30s. Yet another copy (DeJ 17) — unknown to Banks and O Hehir — is among the State Papers, where it has been docketed as ‘written by an vnknowne Author’.

Printed texts of Cooper's Hill, in addition to those recorded below, are sometimes found with contemporary manuscript additions. For instance, an exemplum of the edition of 1642 in the Huntington (RB 134086-7), recorded in O Hehir, Hieroglyphicks, pp. 56-7, has a manuscript emendation on p. 19 probably in the hand of Izaak Walton, while an exemplum of the edition of 1655 owned in 1988 by Theodore Hofmann, has a series of textual alterations and annotations partly in the hand of the historian James Tyrrell (1642-1718). There are also a few manuscript copies of a Latin translation of Cooper's Hill by Moses Pengry, Chaplain to the Earl of Devonshire, which are recorded below (DeJ 19.2-19.8).

The Canon

The canon of Denham's verse, prose and dramatic works has been largely established in Banks and in O Hehir (see the latter's ‘Revised Canon of the Works of John Denham’ in Harmony, pp. 262-5). O Hehir's most notable modification to the canon which was accepted in Banks is his rejection of three poems, which he classifies as ‘Works attributed to Denham but almost certainly not written by him’. Two of these — i.e. A Panegyrick on His Excellency, the Lord General George Monck (‘If England's bleeding story may transmit’) [Banks, pp. 147-9] and The Prologue to His Majesty (‘Greatest of Monarchs, welcome to this place’) [Banks, pp. 94-5] — are currently found only in printed sources; but the third, Verses on the Cavaliers Imprisoned in 1655, occurs in several contemporary manuscripts (DeJ 112-15), including a copy among the Earl of Clarendon's papers. In no text is the poem ascribed to Denham and the attribution was not made until 1890 (see O Hehir, Harmony, pp. 117-19).

A somewhat more controversial modification made by O Hehir to the canon is his classification of The Second Advice to a Painter (‘Nay painter, if thou dar'st design that flight’) as a work ‘of uncertain authorship attributed to Denham and not improbably written by him’, although he agrees that the attribution to Denham of various other ‘Directions to a Painter’ is spurious (see Harmony, pp. 217-19, 227-8; Banks, pp. 328-32, and Mary Tom Osborne, Advice-to-a-Painter Poems 1633-1856 (University of Texas, 1949), Nos. 10, 11, 12, 13 and 65). The authorship of these poems has been, and is likely to remain, a subject of scholarly debate. For manuscript texts of some of the poems, including The Second Advice, see Andrew Marvell, MaA 314-504).

Other doubtful attributions to Denham, which have not been mentioned by editors, need not command undue attention. Three of the poems in a manuscript collection of ‘Rump’ songs and ballads in the Huntington (HM 16522, pp. 27-30, 67-9, 143-6) have ascriptions to Denham added afterwards: i.e. The Parliament Accompt (‘So much to purchase peace of ye Scot’), Londons farewell to the Parliament (‘Farewell the Parliament wth hey wth hey’) and A Battaile in Wales (‘List and a story you shall heare’), the last ascribed to ‘Mr Denham, & Pepper the Player’. The first two of these poems appear anonymously in other sources. One of the anonymous satires on Davenant printed with Denham's satires in Certain Verses (1653) — i.e. Upon Fighting Will (‘The King knights Will for fighting on his side’) — is specifically ascribed to ‘Sr John Denham’ in a more elaborately titled miscellany-version in the Bodleian (MS Douce 357, f. 1r). It occurs twice, anonymously, in a miscellany of William Fulman (Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 309, ff. 52v, 59r). Yet another satire on Davenant, which does not appear in Certain Verses — namely, On Gondibert (‘All in ye Land of Lombardie’) — is interestingly ascribed to ‘Sr Jo: Denham’ in one of the miscellanies of William (later Archbishop) Sancroft in the Bodleian (MS Sancroft 53, pp. 33-4). Reference has also been made, in Banks (p. xiii), to an unspecified ‘ms. poem of Denham’, comprising eighteen lines ‘in very halting anapaests addressed to D'Avenant and written in the flyleaf’ of an exemplum of Gondibert (1651), a volume owned in 1933 by the bookseller B.J. Beyer, of 5 East 52nd Street, New York. Unless it can be identified with the text of one of Denham's established poems on Davenant (also comprising eighteen lines) written in an exemplum of Gondibert formerly in John Sparrow's library (DeJ 55), this text remains untraced. Lines beginning ‘Swans must have pleasant nests high feeding’, said to be translated by Denham from Guarini's Il Pastor Fido, are in University of Leeds, Brotherton Collection, MS Lt. 97, f. 56r.


The autograph manuscript of John Aubrey's account of Denham is in the Bodleian (principally MS Aubrey 6, f. 105r; also MSS Aubrey 8, f. 6v, and 23, f. 84r): see Brief Lives, ed. Andrew Clark (Oxford, 1898), I, 216-21

A printed exemplum of the 1719 edition of Denham's Poems and Translations bearing the copious annotations of George Thorn-Drury, KC (1860-1931), literary scholar and editor, is now in the Bodleian (Thorn-Drury d. 51).

Peter Beal