Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Writers of the Couplet > Cooper’s Hill
  Sir John Denham Abraham Cowley  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

III. Writers of the Couplet.

§ 6. Cooper’s Hill.

This prepared the way for the fame of Cooper’s Hill, the first edition of which bears date 1642. Aubrey describes the delight which Denham took in the neighbourhood of the house at Egham, which had come to him by the death of the elder Sir John, its builder, in 1639. 20  This neighbourhood, as seen from Cooper’s hill, was the subject of a poem which, combining description with moral reflection in an unfamiliar manner, was, as an example of that combination, the first of a long series.   16
  The habit of mind which produced these united elements of description and sentiment was natural to Denham, and was expressed by him without difficulty. After the preliminary argument, addressed to the hill on which he stands, that it is the poet who makes Parnassus, not Parnassus which makes the poet, he refers to the distant view of London and old St. Paul’s. He prophesies the eternal security of the cathedral, restored by the bounty of Charles I, and celebrated by the lines in which Waller hailed its restoration, and contrasts the tumult of the city with the innocent happiness of private life. The nearer towers of Windsor move him to the praise of the royal line, culminating in Charles I. A contrast is provoked by the memory of a chapel, apparently belonging to Chertsey abbey, which stood on a neighbouring hill: this calls forth reflections on Henry VIII, and on the religious controversies of his own day. The Thames next receives his praise in lines containing the passage which begins “O could I flow like thee”—a passage, however, which is not to be found in the first edition of the poem. The fertile valley, with its wooded banks, suggests old stories of fauns, nymphs and satyrs, and a long description of a stag-hunt, in which the quarry falls at length a victim to the king’s shaft. Here, on Runnymede, says Denham, continuing the hunt in metaphor, Liberty, hunted by Power, once stood at bay, and Power laid down arbitrary tyranny. The poem concludes with a comment, appropriate to the times, upon the encroachments of subjects on kingly generosity, and with a warning against provoking the fury of a river, which may be guarded against by embankments, but cannot be confined in time of flood within a narrower channel.   17
  The feature of the style of Cooper’s Hill is a forcible conciseness, aiming at constant antithesis and occasional epigram. The reflections on the spoliation of the monasteries consist of a string of shrewd observations. Denham knew the value of alliteration in driving a point home:
May no such storm [he prays]
Fall on our times, where ruin must reform;  21 
and, a few lines lower down:
Thus he the church at once protects, and spoils:
But princes’ swords are sharper than their styles.  22 
Repetition of a telling word or phrase is another of his artifices:
But god-like his unweary’d bounty flows;
First loves to do, then loves the good he does;  23 
and he is alive to the virtues of an oxymoron:
Finds wealth where ’t is, bestows it where it wants,
Cities in deserts, woods in cities plants.  24 
In spite of this studied brevity, he makes no consistent use of the stopped couplet; and, in Cooper’s Hill, there is ample proof that its occurrence in the poetry of this age is the result, not of a fixed metrical design, but of an effort to be direct and intelligible in expression. As descriptive poetry, Cooper’s Hill has that tendency to generalise scenery which was already inherent in English verse. Local details are subordinated to subjective musings. But for the mention by name of Windsor and the Thames, the woods, the flood and the boldly designated “airy mountain” might belong to any part of England or even of Europe. Denham did not invent the habit of looking on scenery as composed of certain fixed elements, with conventional equivalents in poetic diction; but Cooper’s Hill certainly increased the vogue of this fashion.
  Between 1642 and 1648, Denham wrote occasional verses; and the poem Of Old Age, a paraphrase in verse of Cicero’s De Senectute, is said to have been published in 1648. 25  Denham himself tells us that, on behalf of queen Henrietta Maria, he gained admittance to Charles I in captivity, and that Charles, after referring kindly to his lines on Sir Richard Fanshawe’s translation of Il Pastor Fido, advised him to write no more, as verses were well enough for idle young men, but stood in their way “when they were thought fit for more serious employments.” 26  Denham took the advice, and devoted himself to the task of transmitting the ciphered correspondence between Charles and his adherents. On its discovery, he escaped into France, and was employed on various missions by Charles II and Henrietta Maria. Returning to England in 1652, he stayed for some time with lord Pembroke at Wilton. The translation of Vergil which Aubrey says that he made here may have been a fragment of the fourth book, The Passion of Dido for Aeneas; but Aubrey, possibly, was thinking merely of The Destruction of Troy, which was published in 1656. 27  In 1658, Denham obtained leave to live at Bury St. Edmunds. At the restoration, he came into the office, the reversion of which had been promised him by Charles I, of surveyor-general of the royal works, and was made a knight of the Bath at the coronation. His second marriage was unhappy; and to his wife’s faithlessness was attributed a strange fit of madness which overtook him on a journey, undertaken in the performance of his duties as supervisor of the king’s buildings, to the Portland stone-quarries. He recovered before his death: the poems Of Prudence and Of Justice, translated from the Italian of Mancini, and the octosyllabic couplets On Mr. Abraham Cowley’s Death, belong to his latest years. In 1667–8, he published his poems and The Sophy, with a dedication to Charles II. His version of De Senectute was published by itself in 1669. His last work was A Version of the Psalms of David. Denham also wrote a number of verses on current topics in irregular and halting metres, which may have amused his friends, but have little merit in them to-day. Of his shorter couplet pieces, the Elegy on the Death of Henry Lord Hastings, written in 1650, treats a subject to which Dryden devoted some of his earliest verse.   19

Note 20. Aubrey, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 218. [ back ]
Note 21. Ll. 115, 116. [ back ]
Note 22. Ll. 131, 132. [ back ]
Note 23. Ll. 177, 178. [ back ]
Note 24. Ll. 185, 186. [ back ]
Note 25. Johnson, Life of Denham. [ back ]
Note 26. Dedication to Poems, 1667–8. [ back ]
Note 27. Aubrey, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 218. [ back ]

  Sir John Denham Abraham Cowley  

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.