Edition of 54 copies
3.5″ x 4.2″x .3″, 3.5″x 219″ fully extended
Should this biography in verse seem to you the stuff of fiction, an embroidery of history which you are expected to believe whole cloth, read on. Some say the tailor makes the man; perhaps it would be more fitting to say the biographer makes the man. In this case, the artist has tailored the jeans to fit the poet, with an unusually long poem in the back pocket about a man with exceptionally long legs for the 17th century. As opposed to the Lives of the English Poets, this line of poetry might more accurately be termed, after inverting the vowels, the Levis of the English Poets, levis meaning light in Latin. These mock denim jeans are remarkably light in weight, consisting of pencil on paper, and the poem, humorous non-fiction in 696 rhyming lines, could be described as light verse of epic length. A chance discovery of a reference to Denham in Alexander Pope’s poem “An Essay on Criticism” invited investigation: the amusing concept of “Denham’s strength” compelled me to follow up and see if Denham was indeed as durable as his homophone denim. The character that emerged displays such an odd combination of weakness and strength that it was not a stretch to fit Denham into paper denims.
While Sir John Denham(1615-1669) would seem to display a weak character in many ways, he was made to last despite constant adversity: his mother’s, first wife’s and sons’ early deaths, Cromwell’s closing of the theaters after he wrote his first play, financial ruin due to his gambling addiction, capture and imprisonment while a soldier and spy for the Royalists under the Stuarts during the Civil War in England, the Great Plague in 1665, the Great Fire in 1666, a bout of insanity the same year, public cuckoldry when his second wife carried on with #2 in the kingdom, false accusations and ridicule regarding whether or not he wrote his own verse or poisoned his second wife with a cup of chocolate, and chronic lameness. Yet he limped through it all, talking or versifying his way out of every predicament, and was buried in Poet’s Corner with his reputation as poet, Knight of the Bath, Surveyor General and MP intact, and his finances in good stead after years of exile and debt. Somehow he always managed to ingratiate himself with the opposition – his rich and powerful father who didn’t approve of his gambling, Charles I who didn’t approve of his bawdy propaganda, his fire-breathing Puritan preacher captor Hugh Peters in prison and prominent members of Cromwell’s Council of State. This poem chronicles his tragicomic life and constantly evolving Curriculum Vitae, from reprimanded student at Oxford to lawyer trained at Lincoln’s Inn, poet, playwright, sheriff, governor, soldier, mail courier, spy, courtier, translator, diplomat, tutor, and after the Civil War, at Restoration, Surveyor General, Clerk of the Works, Paviour General, Knight, Member of Parliament, censor of plays and writer of psalms.
When Pope refers to the strength of Denham he is not referring to his character, however, but to his poetry, both original and in translation from Greek and Latin. He is calling attention to Denham’s strength in thoughts, neatly turned expressions of ethical and moral wisdom, and his concise verse in heroic couplets, rich in its use of symbols and emblems. Others referred to his poetry as “manly”. He wasn’t known to write romantic or love poems, preferring to versify on history, politics or human comportment, when he wasn’t writing wicked satire roasting Cromwell’s Roundhead soldiers, religious fanatics or fellow poets. He polished and popularized the closed couplet, which was championed by the Augustan poets to follow in the next century.
Dryden remarked that Denham’s reputation rested upon his style, but he wasn’t referring to his clothing. We don’t know exactly what he wore, apart from his marble clothes on his mother’s grave monument at age 4, in the Jacobean Period(James I reigned from 1603-1625). Diarist Samuel Pepys, who was the son of a tailor, spoke about his own clothes in detail, and though he mentions Denham repeatedly, he sticks mainly to the scandals, and never mentions Denham’s dress. But in the reign of Charles I the Jacobean piccadilly ruff was replaced with the relaxed, drooping Van Dyck collar, on shirts left open at the neck. Blue jeans weren’t invented until the 19th century, but Denham did live in a time of casual fashion with mens’ long hair hanging freely on their shoulders and breeches loosened at the knees, causing them to appear, as one textile historian put it, “as dukes desguised as art students.”
So while we know nothing about his style in dress, he did create a new style of poetry, recognized by only a select few of his imitators. The distinctive style of poetry he promoted through his most important work, Coopers Hill, was original not principally for its polished verse or its description of local scenery, but in its emblematic use of an actual landscape, in this case the Thames River valley, as a means to comment upon English history from Henry VIII to Oliver Cromwell(nicknamrd Noll). Emblem books were popular in Denham’s time, with images composed of symbols and mottos to convey erudite messages and wisdom. His poetic wit was akin to these books in his ability to find universal significance for something with a specific history or definition. The Thames River and its surrounding washlands, hills and monuments are only the substructure of his true discourse on the monarchy and the struggle for harmony in the realm.
Imitators interpreted the success of Denham’s poem a bit superficially, and started writing “hill poems”, as opposed to using local scenery in an allegorical way. Dryden singled out two couplets from the poem in 1697 for his highest praise, and they came to be known as the “Thames Couplets”. These couplets were added in 1653, 11 years after the first publication of the poem, which Denham reworked throughout his life. These lines were imitated, parodied and referred to so often that Swift complains about it(This complaint is printed on the back label of the pair of Denham Jeans devoted to Swift). Coopers Hill became one of the most popular poems in the English language for a hundred years: from 1642 to 1826 it was published at least 24 times, independent of the 19 known collected editions of Denham’s poems up to 1857. He was lauded by Samuel Johnson, Garth, Dennis, Addison, Goldsmith, Herrick and others besides Pope and Dryden. And though he was buried in Westminster Abbey near Chaucer, he is absent from my American Heritage Dictionary, even though many lesser contemporaries are present. Until Berkeley professor Brendan O’Hehir set the record straight in 1969, most of Denham’s biographical information was apocryphal, constantly rehashed and repeated even by Yale scholar T.H. Banks in 1926. O’Hehir blue-penciled, or corrected, a lot of the inaccuracies concerning Denham’s life and work through careful sleuthing, even through reconnaissance letters of the Civil War in spy code. Banks calls Denham a “curiously indistinct figure”, and sometimes O’Hehir has to concur that it is difficult to obtain a palpable definition of the man in these pale blue pants.
While the history of literature on Denham doesn’t hinge, he is more than a marginal note, or fringe. Apart from the impact of his own verse, he was very influential in the theory and practice of translation in the Augustan Age. Instead of doing literal translations of each separate word in each line of Latin or Greek poetry, he attempted to translate the meaning of each phrase in heroic couplets, keeping more or less to the same number of lines of the original text. He was praised by Dryden and Pope for his translation methodology, in which he chose to use contemporary english, having Vergil speak as a man of 17th century England. Accordingly, I use modern colloquialisms in “The Strength of Denham”, which is loosely based on Denham’s own rhyming verse.
Discussion of themes
“The Strength of Denham” is highly concentrated in puns and double-entendres, in keeping with 17th century satire, which often aimed below the belt anatomically speaking. The wit was crude, not subtle. Mine is very mild in comparison, but describes the themes wielded by the wits of the period. Behinds, pants, briefs, bestiality, adultery, flatulence and sexual disease are all prominently featured, albeit mildly.
While Denham is defined through his homophone, in punning with fabric I am not alone. Textile terms are present throughout the poem. This is consistent with Denham and his contemporaries, especially in satirical “mock” genres, like mock advices, mock eulogies and mock heroics, which Denham helped establish as genres. In a poem ridiculing poet and playwright Davenant’s “Gondibert”, Denham writes,”As I came from Lombardy with my fustian style.” He is joking about clothing, as fustian is the term for the stiff, robust material we call jeans, or denim. But Denham is also punning with the word “style”, which means stylus or pen, not just fashion of clothing. To this day, fustian refers to stuffy language. In Denham’s wonderful elegy on his friend and fellow poet Abraham Cowley, written and published within three weeks of Cowley’s death, he praises his knowledge of ancient authors and his ability to emulate as opposed to copy them: “And when he would like them appear, their garb, but not their cloaths, did wear.”Two possibly unfamiliar textile terms for readers might be “woad”, a blue dye of the time, and “tailor’s hell”, a box where tailors’ leftover scraps were tossed.
One poet, Christopher Wase, in defending Denham from accusations of other poets, makes a pun with minerals and stones, “Parting the diamond from the bristol stone” in reference to Lord Bristol and, I imagine, bristol-paste diamonds, which were very popular as ornamentation on the clothes of the time. I make use of banded blue-john of Derbyshire, a beautiful mineral native to Great Britain, mined to exhaustion by the 19th century, in connection with Denham’s last surviving descendent, his granddaughter the Duchess of Derby.
The color blue is a recurrent theme, as it is associated with royalty and nobility as well as being the color of jeans. Royal blue is the color of the ribbon worn by the highest chivalric order, or knighthood, the Order of the Garter. Blue is also associated with blue-prints, appropriate for Denham, who became the chief architect in Britain as Surveyer General, although this cyanotype process postdates Denham. The numerous low-points in Denham’s life would make great material for the blues, but Denham preferred to make light of woe, writing humorous bawdy verse instead of wallowing in self-pity, and needed to devote his time to conniving his way out of one disaster after another. But in a humorous poem on syphilis, presented as a conversation between two other exiled poet-courtiers, Denham has one poet ask the other why he looks “so bluely”. In this sense, we could say Denham sang “the lues”, lues being another word for syphilis, to humor the future Charle II at his exiled court. The poet and navy official Mennis bragged decades later to Pepys that he cured Denham of V.D. abroad, but this could well be a rumor.
Blue is also suggestive of water, and Denham focused on the Thames River in Coopers Hill. But water themes course throughout Denham’s life. After the Civil War, at Restoration in 1660, King Charles II knighted Denham with the Order of the Bath, second only to the Order of the Garter. Denham, as Surveyer, instituted the waterways in St. James Park, and drained fens. In Parliament, he served on the Committee of River Navigation. During parliamentery recess he frequented “the Wells”, Epsom and/or Tunbridge, where the muse of Sir John resurged, supposedly, after his dry spell imposed by Charles I, who asked him to stop writing his undignified verse. O’Hehir disproves, however, Denham’s claim that he “drew none but architectural lines” until the summer of ’67. Another connection to water would be through his second wife, Margaret Brooke. An anonymous poem, said to be authored by Waller, warns of potential infidelity in the mis-matched marriage, punning on gorgeous young Ms. Brooke’s name. The poet implies that the vigor and sexuality of this beauty couldn’t be controlled, like man’s inability to control the course of a brook in nature. This also must be a reference to Coopers Hill, in which Denham uses the flooding of the Thames to signify authoritarian rulers’ inability to control the populace.
There are numerous references to playing cards, gambling and poker, appropriate for Denham the gambling addict. His nickname Jack relates to cards, but suits him in its definition as “knave” as well as laborer, in regard to all of the public works he was responsible for with his various titles and building committees. There are references to work clothing and equipment, such as jackhammer, compressor and plumb, as well as architectural terms such as “folly”, an ornamental architectural structure. But Jack often comes into play in nursery rhymes, which have been historically toyed with by British poets for satire, usually political. Most of the Jack references I use are still familiar today, except Jack Jingle. “Jack” has been in use in tales and nursery rhymes atleast since the 1300’s. The name is still synonymous with “guy”, especially in Great Britain.
The terms pens, pencils and drawing appear in Denham’s own verse, as well as in this biographical poem, including words and names starting with Pen, as in “My Lady Pen” and “Penshurst”. I held back Penruddock’s Rebellion and Moses Pengry, as well as many other terms and jokes, as the poem was lengthy enough. My Lady Pen was a parent of Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn, whose name Pepys spells with one n. The poem “Penshurst”, by Jonson, along with Drayton’s “Polyolbion” preceded Coopers Hill in its use of local scenery, though in a less didactic way.
Lastly are the references to the US West, where jeans were invented, and sheriffs, cowboys, frontierspeople and pony express riders wore them on horseback.The names of Denham’s father’s estates Horseley Parva and Horsenden Manor, his claims of being of Western origin, his being named High Sheriff of Surrey, his trip west to Portland, his role as mail courier between royals, and his bawdy references to horses and farting all conjured up images of the rough times in the old west. He was even elected to Parliament as a representative of a ghost town, Old Sarum, an archeological site with few if any inhabitants.
It wasn’t difficult to make jeans embody Denham’s persona, given his life circumstances. But the jeans are not just an allegory with legs; they function as a slipcase to house the actual book, or poem, on his life and work. His life unfolds vertically from an accordion-fold deck of 51 card-shaped pages bound with remnants of the 10 pairs of paper Denham jeans. The text is ink-jet, printed with my Canon, and washed with water from the Reno River in Bologna. An old sock was used to wash the text downward in order to give it the appearance of a constant stream of water. The playing cards were cut by hand, after marking the corners with a coin.
The typeface is Times New Roman, perfect for a translator of the Classics. It was printed on “Ermine” paper from the Bond Street stationer Smythson, which boasts four Royal Appointments to supply the Crown. Denham, a staunch Royalist, would surely approve also of the tiny crown substituted for the decorative mark on the faux-leather label on the back of the jeans between “original” and “riveting”. In Denham’s time, stationers were actually publishers, and publishing rights were recorded in the Stationer’s Register. The back labels were letterpress printed in Portland, Maine after being dyed with coffee and chocolate. Denham was accused of poisoning his second wife with chocolate, only known in liquid form at the time, but coffee and chocolate, apart from the color they give to the Japanese mulberry paper, played a big part in the spread of literature and current events in England during the latter part of Denham’s life, in the new coffee and chocolate houses. Tea did not become important until the 18th century, when it supplanted the two in popularity.
The portrait of Sir John Denham was drawn in pen and ink, with a border based on the old American card game “Authors Improved”. The book is wrapped in a paper cover, rubbed with jeans texture, and lined with cloth. The image and format of the wrapper is based on an antique tax wrapper for playing cards from the Victoria&Albert Museum. The embossed inset is composed of the Denham Jean button embossed on “Nile” paper also produced by Smythson. The embossing, which reads, “Sir John Denham Jeans” was used to make the silver paper buttons of the jeans, painted with tempera paint and attached to the jeans with bookbinders’ screw posts.
The jeans were sewn by the artist on a sewing machine, after the white paper was rubbed with a blue color pencil atop jeans cloth, a technique known as frottage. Each of the ten pairs is different, being dedicated to a different imitation of Denham’s Thames Couplets. Some of the authors are famous name brands, like Pope, Swift and Dryden: others are relatively obscure, concluding with one anonymous poet in generic jeans. They are priced according to reputation, from Denham(edition copy no.1) to Anonymous(no.10). The original Thames Couplets and the nine imitation Thames Couplets are laser-printed and bound, accordion-fold, into a cardstock label with Denham’s pen and ink portrait, and attached by a white cord to a belt loop. Where physical attributes are known, each pair of jeans reflects the physical stature of each poet, with long legs for Denham and tiny jeans for Pope. Known biographical information is summed up in a paper “care label” tucked inside the waistband of each pair. There are also correlations between the brand of jeans imitated and the poet or title of the poem on the back label. Pope’s name is actually on two pairs of jeans with imitation Thames Couplets. His jeans are based on the brand GAP, which for Pope could refer to Gaius Asinius Pollio, a poet and and patron of art and literature in ancient Rome, whom Pope admired and referred to in his writing. Denham’s pair is based on Levi’s. Two paper loops fold out at the sides of the waist to facilitate hanging or display.
The total edition size of the book is 54 copies. Only the first 10 of the edition are housed in a pair of jeans, which are stored in acid-free shopping bags crafted by the artist, embossed and numbered.
The Strength of Denham:
Sir John Denham Jeans
and Imitation Denhams
Retailed by Angela Lorenz
To John Lorenz, who was adept in Latin,
but a much better card player in college
than Sir John Denham
and to Jeanne Amster, who gave me a leg up
in deciphering what is known as history
I must acknowledge Berkeley’s Brendan O’Hehir
Without which never would have appeared these pairs.
And also to Banks, from old Eli Blue,
To whom the first volume on Denham is due.
The old name Denham is of French derivation,
Not De Nimes but Dinan, avant anglicization.
No, Sir John Denham was not from Nimes,
As the surname Denham would make it seem,
Nor from Genoa, in old French “Genes”
In reference to fustian, which jeans did mean.
Though he did flee to France to exiled Henrietta
Acting as diplomat and courier of letters.
But her son preferred to make use of his flair
For delivering rhymes in triplets and pairs.
Yet this is no repository for Denham’s bawdy
be he famed for such,
Commissioned to write it by the future King
to amuse him at courts French and Dutch.
King Charles disdained this poetic panacea
Composed of shameless verse on gonorrhea.
What served to allay exiled days
Was viewed by him as scandalous lays,
So Denham agreed to forswear writing
For a line of work deemed more inviting.
If Denham’s career should be surveyed
It soon is clear he was jack-of-all-trades.
To his misfortune the Civil War saw
A suspension of his strides in theater and law.
Few could imagine, or possibly foresee,
The professions then destined for Denham’s CV.
Was it serge on Sir John Denham, or satin
When as a boy he studied French and Latin?
The only image of young Denham saved
Is a marble relief on his mother’s grave.
Tiny Jack, just old enough to talk,
Sports breeches and ruff of Jacobean stock,
About his shoulders, a scarlet cloak
His later Knighthood of the Bath evokes.
This is all that is known of his youth or education
Though he mentions early poetic inclinations.
While Denham said he was of Western stock,
West of Winchester the records balk.
The poet’s origins are hard to trace,
But his family seat in Surrey he called “The Place”.
In his sixteenth year, in 1631
Denham’s public record is said to have begun.
This early chapter in biographical knowledge
Comes upon entrance to Trinity College.
“The dreamingest young fellow” chums admit,
“Was not suspected to be a wit”.
Out of the blue he emerged in print;
Of this gift for writing his cohorts had no hint.
Did his birth in Dublin
inspire Waller to say this hellion
“Broke out three-score-thousand strong,
like the Irish Rebellion”?
The first piece of writing was not poem or play,
It takes the form of a grave essay,
A didactic and instructive cautionary tale
In which the evils of gambling Denham assails.
Sir Denham penned “Anatomy of Play”
from a “most dutifull son”
To convince his very wealthy father
his gambling ways were done.
Grandfather William, of London, Goldsmith,
Affluent member of Tudor new rich,
And father Sir John, eminent lawyer and judge,
Would be loath to have reputations smudged.
A reprimand in college from president Kettel
Gives an early example of his mischievous mettel.
When from gambling debts away Jack ran,
Kettel said his dad “hanged many an honester man!”
He gambled all his money, and father’s rich clothes:
Embroidered caps that were wrought with gold.
Though he tried to pull wool over people’s eyes,
At cards he was always cut down to size.
Gamesters ever rooked this jackanapes,
Creating debt which took decades to escape.
No matter his demeanor to father or the King,
His promises were empty, despite authentic ring.
Motivated, no less, by his empty pockets,
This giver of advice was always to mock it.
After Oxford came law school at Lincoln’s Inn,
Perhaps Judge Denham’s graces to win.
His levity shows in another type of gambol
When into the streets at term-time he ambled,
With other future barristers, brush and ink-pot,
The names on the street signs for to blot.
The following day, traffic was at a loss
From Temple Bar to Charing Cross.
Alas to gambling he was still addicted,
A predeliction with which the Judge conflicted.
His father cottoned onto his ruinous ways,
Which weren’t to be an adolescent phase.
Old Denham chid this Jack of Knaves,
Hoping his wastrel child would behave.
Some allege he threatened to cast off his son,
and strip him of all he’d inherit,
But fear and loathing, not loss of clothing,
cajoled Jack to dispel the demerit.
At this time he wrote “Anatomy of Play”,
Soon before the Judge lived his final day.
Ever in denial did Denham pretend
Not losing “great summes…as to sharpen my pen”.
But the essay rings true, from the seat of his pants,
And Denham soon recanted upon which he rants.
He gambled and lost it all, lock, stock and barrel,
His father’s estates, not just luxury apparel.
The only one lady luck left in his hand
Was the home in Wales called Cottonsland.
Pity he didn’t bet at “bowles”,
As he excelled in this sport we are told.
Only decades later was he able to lay straight
Some of the Exchequer’s lost cash and plate.
56 years Jack’s elder, th’old man failed to impress;
The pants of the family were worn under duress.
To his mother’s apron strings he couldn’t be tied,
Jack was just a sprat, age four, when she died.
His own kids were not writ large in his life,
Assigned to guardians in Civil War strife.
Troubles with women would ne’er subside;
At age nineteen he first took a bride.
Mistress Anne Cotton did soon wear thin.
Did the life of single mother in Civil War do her in?
He picked Anne Cotton for wife at St. Brides,
But when pricked for sheriff off Denham did ride.
A dear John letter would never arrive;
In just a few years Anne Cotton died.
At 24 he was called to the bar,
But neither was this role destined to go far.
At 26 he was author of a play;
The war forced a hiatus until his final days.
Cromwell’s closing of theaters in 1642
Left little for English playwrights to do.
His play, “The Sophy”, printed within the year,
Only a limited audience would hear.
He would have to hang it up, or revert to “closet drama”.
The closest thing to theater was now a private genre.
Soon after, he produced the work “Coopers Hill”,
The poem that crowns his oeuvre still.
But Denham fared better with his poetic numbers;
Soon his estates were sold off or encumbered.
If not for the outbreak of the Civil War,
Denham certainly would have penned more.
Instead he was chosen as Sheriff of Surrey,
And left his fledgling family in a hurry.
Married in Fleet Street, fleeting was his marriage,
Though not due to conjugal disparage.
When Sheriff Denham joined Charles’ men,
Never would he live with his young family again.
Denham’s brief legal and military career,
Was as protector of a castle for King Charles’ Cavaliers.
Puritan Poet Wither first governed Farnham Castle.
After he abandoned it, the poets clashed in battle.
Denham soon surrendered to a small Roundhead force,
Consisting primarily of a regiment of horse.
The enemy, having no artillery at all,
Put petard to the gate, and undid barricade wall.
Parliamentary Roundhead accounts were uproarious
Regarding his moment most inglorious.
Denham went off to London in shackles,
But still raised opponent Wither’s hackles
From the confines of the castle,
Wither called th’other governor “rascal”,
But Denham’s wife called Parliament hither,
And Cromwell’s men sent Wither thither.
First they assured Anne Cotton Denham linen,
sequestered in her home,
And when she was confined for the birth of her child,
Rump Parliament forced Wither to roam.
So started accusations of pillage and theft:
Wither’s lifelong contest to take back all Jack had left.
In this battle of the poets that they would long contend,
Denham would come out on top in the end.
Yet Wither’s unremitting hue and cry
May have aggrandized Denham in the enemy eye.
At the start of the war, his affairs in arrears,
Denham had creditors not Cromwell to fear.
Though Cromwell sought to confiscate
The little jack left after gambling his estate.
Surrey’s sheriff was not so easily foiled;
As Royal propagandist Jack duly toiled.
Since he was better with Horace than horse,
The poet’s pen was his sword, perforce.
After “Coopers Hill” came “A Western Wonder”
Which soundly ridicules a Roundhead blunder.
“A Second Western Wonder”, the sequel, followed.
In Royalist praise Denham Jean did wallow.
Jack was quite the jocular type,
Perfectly suited to Cavalier hype.
His triplets were written to popular songs,
So Royalist supporters could sing along.
While the war forced the poet to wander,
With wit he was able to slander;
As goosing was good propaganda.
Yes, Denham was awash with Cavalier glory,
But his “Rump Songs” poems tell the nether-ending story;
Other works sang less heroic discourses,
With topics like Quakers sowing oats with their horses.
Most poets, to combat reigning fears,
Turned to panegyric to sooth Noll’s ears.
This type of verse of flattering flavor,
Was a poet’s attempt to curry favor.
Jack was known a bit to glower
At poets fawning to the current power.
Denham did modify lines over time,
or temporize as it is known,
Yet never did he ever waver in faith
to either Stuart throne.
He was deft at warping parts of his text
even editing out of existence,
For covert attacks on Cromwell’s new order,
a poet’s stab at resistance.
Never a turncoat, never blue on blue,
In turns of phrase his allegiance rang true.
Scarcely a poet between Stuart sceptors
Didn’t write a eulogy to Cromwell The Protector.
No matter how well Denham did or didn’t deride,
He cannot be accused of turning with the tide.
Not that all Charles’ laws he did applaud,
Or the potpourri of Popery proposed by Bishop Laud.
The Puritans and businessmen did not care
For funding St. Paul’s in disrepair.
Levies for the “Temple of Jerusalem”
Only meant onerous taxes to them.
Shopkeepers didn’t have a jones for the job,
even if Inigo was willing;
Outlying businesses and buildings were destroyed,
Royal hatred instilling.
And Denham faulted Charles in Earl of Strafford’s death,
Which may have been the impetus for “Coopers Hill” text.
But whether or not he did ingratiate with betters,
He escaped to France as negligent debtor.
Former Sheriff Denham, of Horseley, Essex County,
Hoofed it to France, pursuing other bounty.
He cavorted with Cavaliers at the exiled court,
And cultivated verse of another sort.
While others thought flattering Cromwell made sense,
Denham referred to flatulence,
And to Cavalier missions, with Jack Berkeley, and others,
Including poets, whom around the court hovered.
With Sir John Berkeley he was linked for time to come,
In Royalist plottings abroad and at home.
Yet of John Denham, it is difficult to see,
How he gained royal confidence to such a degree.
Both Charles and Henrietta to him entrusted more
Than by his standing be accounted for.
Denham had no need of weapons to brandish;
With his tongue he managed blandish,
Obtaining whatever he desired,
With nary a pistol or cannon fired.
So when Denham went prisoner again in ’46
On captor Hugh Peters he worked his tricks.
Of this harshest of Reverends, hanged in the end,
Denham somehow made a friend.
This Jack never had to kill the Leviathan
Having his secret plans to rely upon.
Still, two months in jail he was kept,
Not for his politics but for debt.
Upon release, again to France he levanted,
Evading the creditors by whom he was wanted.
He stayed in Paris for nearly a year,
Primarily attending Henrietta Maria.
She sent him back to the captured king.
Peters gave access, then let him take wing.
The King made Denham now abnegate verse,
Saying he was fit for more serious works.
While his role as writer was supposedly suspended,
To commissions of espionage Denham now tended.
After nine months courier for Royal maneuvers,
Denham again took refuge at the Louvre.
The Prince and Queen sent him on commissions,
Along with occasional diplomatic missions.
He professed to diversify, yet diverted with verse,
Per request of the Prince, to make banishment less worse.
While Denham’s utility would seem quite vague,
He was successful ambassador to Poland from the Hague.
And though his debacles were rather flagrant,
He was still reputed a trusted Royal agent,
Credited for helping the King to take flight,
From Hampton, with Berkeley, to the Isle of Wight.
But he was blamed for capture, not saving the day,
While waiting in vain to whisk the King away
With getaway frigate to safety on Jersey,
Though Royalist memory would show him mercy.
Curiously post-war Cavalier lore
Denham’s rending of surrenders tends to ignore.
While some found his Cavalier career derisible,
He got plenty of ink, even invisible.
We find his name in ciphers, the underground’s mode,
Designated, prestigiously, “180” in code.
Referred to Denham during the war.
And LGFM KHPODO
Was Jack Denham in cipher, a spy would know.
While his missing details can cause despondence,
Information is supplied in spy correspondence.
Even a reference to his facility with wit
In spy code, by a Roundhead, we find was writ.
With this way with words did he fell with a penstroke
And gain the patronage of the Earl of Pembroke,
Allowing for a swell in his poetic career,
Harbored in Pembroke’s homes for a year?
Favoritism figures again in Denham’s fate,
Protected by this member of Cromwell’s Council of State.
London’s 20-mile Cavalier ban
Didn’t apply to every man.
This early fan of the poet Milton,
Found paradise with Pembroke in London and Wilton.
In this period of leisure he’d not had since a boy,
He translated the Aeneid as “Destruction of Troy”,
A significant work for Augustan poetics
Faithful not slavish, artful yet not synthetic.
Denham also re-mixed “Coopers Hill”
Adding Thames Couplets to the mill.
Then he returned to the Cavalier cause
Playing cat and mouse with Roundhead maws.
Mysteries abound about lenience accorded Denham
By various authorities in the interregnum.
Whenever Denham was apprehended,
It was catch and release, his captors befriended.
Was it lame excuse when Jack did beg
For leave to see a London doctor for his legs?
Denham endeavored his true essence to hide:
The pale blue pants with no one inside.
Yet this blue-blood supporter, tinted with woad,
Was dyed in the wool, and stayed the Royal road.
Though he gambled to his ruin in several nations
He finally hit the jackpot at Restoration.
His long-shot bet at last came through
Having placed all his chips on Royal blue.
In May 1660, his work as spy ended;
For a much different role now Denham contended.
The man ever planning his secret designs
Esteemed now to draw architectural lines.
He held Charles II to the King’s solemn word;
He’d rescinded verse for a position proffered.
So Jack plucked the plumb of chief Surveyor,
Despite assumptions he’d merit little there.
‘Twixt Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren,
Few could shine as such illustrious men.
The first criticism, from Evelyn’s pen,
For which he later made public amends,
Was just an unpublished animadversion
Only subject to private aspersion.
Evelyn first posits “more poet than architect” there
But later praises the “industrious and worthy surveyor”.
Waller lauded waterways in St. James Park,
And works on The Mall, where bowling Jack left a mark.
From his office issued blueprints for Wren’s St. Paul’s.
In his tenure, London’s streets were overhauled.
Jack had his house built in Scotland Yard:
“Sir John Denham’s Buildings” were in high regard.
The former possessor of Horsenden Manor
Was reinvented as city planner.
His appointment had to override Jones’ nephew Webb.
Eventually attempts at nepotism ebbed.
Jack quieted Webb as his active assistant,
Prevailing against adversity, as was consistent.
When later Webb worked to revert the job at last,
Denham took care to insure it never passed.
Even here there’s evidence he subtly conspired
To secure Wren’s accession to the post when he retired.
In appearance, still complaisant and compliant,
Still Jack was furtively defiant.
An early task in Denham’s occupation
Was for physical arrangements of Charles’ coronation.
But Denham would take part in more ways than one;
Due to be knighted before day was done.
Jack keeps us guessing what service he bartered
To garner the Order only second to the Garter.
Perhaps Denham’s Knighthood of the Order of the Bath
Was the reason responsible for another poet’s wrath.
Or maybe for the wealth that Denham laid to waste,
For him Butler expressed such detest and distaste.
Whether for his role as surveyor or detective,
We can’t unearth clues for Butler’s invective.
The accusals were absent of any foundation
And subsequently failed to create a sensation.
Could frustrations with impending penury
Cause cries of punishing lovers’ through venery?
The ideas Butler spread got even worse:
That Jack poisoned his wife and commissioned his verse.
It is clear Butler felt he did deserve more
For his poetic contributions on the Cavalier score.
But while little rewarded for his verse anti-Puritan,
The fame still afforded his name is certain.
The Hudibras brouhaha still sounds today,
While Sir Denham’s canon has but faded away.
Perhaps Butler didn’t envy his poetic lines,
But his lining of pockets in post-war times.
A glance at Pepys’ job in the Navy makes clear
That bureaucratic perks in many forms appeared.
He is a good source on Denham, if piquant,
Interesting, but by gossip weakened.
Certain things, however, we know are true:
His coronation perch to Denham was due.
Pepys entered on his tails and reached the scaffold
“With much ado” by Denham’s man, we are told.
Although he lamented his view was obstructed,
Without Jack, to this height, he’d not have been conducted.
Knighthood was not the last honor conferred;
He was elected to Parliament, from a borough a bit absurd.
With what maneuvering or social charm
Was Denham elected as Burgess of “Old Sarum”?
Was this flimsy district, an archeological site,
Bestowed with largesse of patron Pembroke’s might?
Soon he gained the “Clerk of the Works”
with its office in the Tower,
The place he was conducted once
as prisoner of former powers.
The poet Wither of “unceasing whine”
Was committed to the Tower around this time.
His penchant for defamatory pamphleteering
Denied “pen, ink and paper” to silence his jeering.
It is said Denham stayed Wither’s execution
With apocryphal wit, offering this solution:
Wither’s salvation by Denham’s hand
Assured Denham was not worst poet in the land.
Whether the witticism on Wither is true,
That’s the last we hear of the battle between the two.
While such mock heroics may have made Jack jolly
None could have upstaged the Surveyor’s next folly.
The same year he escaped the Great Plague of ’65,
Which one of four Londoners wouldn’t survive,
Nothing could save him from the course he took,
At fifty years, prematurely-aged in looks,
Marrying twenty-three-year Margaret Brooke.
Friends would declare the gravest error in his life
Was limping to the altar with his trophy wife.
Brooke was daughter and wife of Knights of the Bath,
Each one honored in war’s aftermath.
Of this ill-starred match, much was written and said,
But in nineteen months this public beauty was dead.
From Pepys we have first news of the affair,
How Peg wouldn’t leg-it down Privy-stairs.
The grand old Duke of York went up to Scotland Yard.
This publicly-owned madam made Jack’s life quite hard.
Pepys gives details of disgust on Lady Denham’s ways,
Relaying Evelyn’s outrage in coarse words for the day.
He says she even troubled the Duke
with current affairs of state;
Perhaps young Margaret with double motive
did her desire sate.
Related to Lord Bristol,
she may have sought to be a bother,
To the Lord’s opponent Clarendon,
the Duchess’ father.
We can only wonder if family politics steered
Lady Denham to whisper propaganda in his ears.
And while, those ears, in public, didn’t burn,
Opinion against Clarendon soon did turn.
From Pepys we have word on this mistress noisome,
That My Lady Pen told him Margaret was poisoned.
From what contemporary evidence can show,
The culprit did not consist of cocoa.
The doctors pronounced her dead of colic,
A bitter end for this chocoholic.
But the malady that did My Lady benight thus
Was consistent with acute appendicitus.
Despite all the rumors, I doubt very much
That Sir John and the Duchess went double-dutch.
Chocolate wasn’t needed to seek just deserts;
To poetic retorts did Denham revert.
Forced to stomach the Duke of York’s tease,
The wittol used his wits to put his mind at ease.
The affair made Jack ass of Butler and Marvel’s jokes.
Probably provoking the butt’s next hoax.
The Jack of Hearts they pierced with wit;
For the kingpin of farce, the bill did fit.
With withering darts their crackpot hit.
He that deftly dealt it near Delft
Could only be expected to reap his wealth,
Even if he suffered from ailing health.
While outwardly Jack drew in his horns,
Professing not to be saddle-worn,
He took aim at all who horned in with venom,
Saddling with ridicule the addled Denham.
Did he strike back under cover of quarto sheet,
Inserting his name in verse to hide his feet?
The cuckold’s means were characteristically subtle
Delivering Marvel’s and Butler’s rebuttal.
Perhaps for this reason Denham did assert
A quite precise date on recommencing verse.
Claimed the Knight of the Bath, a very hard sell,
His muse came to at Epsom and Tunbridge Wells.
He post-dates acknowledged verse to summer of ’67,
When released from his love, gone to court in heaven.
But biographers point to clues and diction,
That spite his efforts to defy ascription.
What we call “journaling” to provide relief
Was perhaps the motive for Denham’s mock brief.
In that Denham often did play with words
like paint, draw and copy-pencil,
“Second Advice to a Painter”
does bear the mark of his stencil.
Who but a poet-surveyor could we guess
Would refer to sinning wife as “Madame l’Edificatress”
Constructing a pun with edifice and edifies,
Aware he was architect of his own demise.
His mock-advice became a standard theme,
Fitting his empty promises in hollow jeans.
Still Sir Denham continued to thrive,
Despite the criticisms detractors contrived.
Even when St. Margaret’s tolled the death knell,
With great send-up Denham honored his belle.
Aubrey said Margaret’s flaunting vein
Caused the cuckold to go insane.
But his breakdown preceded news of the affair,
On a trip west to Portland, concerning stone quarried there.
There were, quite possibly, a number of reasons
For Denham’s collapse the previous summer season.
His sudden fit couldn’t have been more keenly acted.
Friends at bedside wrote, “Not yet dead, but distracted.”
“Great master of wit and reason is fallen mad,”
wrote Sir Fox;
But was it caused of brickbat,
or a cure for the pox?
He would have benefited from workman’s safety hat
To save him being brained a blow by brickbat.
The connection with the pox is a bit more obscure,
But for lameness, mercury cures he endured.
As these cures in Dutch exile his limp couldn’t shake,
Charles invited to London “Irish Stroker” Greatrakes.
Perhaps the rough administerings of this medical quack
Released mercury from limbs which he did whack.
Or was it from pain and delusion procured
When the laying of hands failed his lameness to cure?
As usual, no matter whatever occurred,
In a short time his trouble was deferred.
A few months later he was mentally sure,
After in Lentall’s asylum immured.
Scorned as wittol, praised as wit,
Even managed to “scape the fit”,
Somehow Denham was not impaired
By his brief dementia or his wife’s affair.
And while he didn’t wear his horns with pride,
Still he resurged when the scandal did subside.
Even the Great Fire of September ’66
Left Denham’s Buildings standing, made of bricks.
But during the fire he removed the roof,
To render the neighborhood more fireproof.
His committee for Utensils for the Quenching of Fire
Was not in time though to douse the Duke’s desires.
His “Securing of Highways against Thefts and Robberies”
Could not act in time to answer Pinchwife’s pleas.
Did he have success with the committee against gaming,
To which there was some irony in his naming?
In professional activity Jack was fervent;
Not a disobedient civil servant.
An obvious cause for mental strife
Would seem to spring from his professional life:
As Surveyor, endless works, some of private speculation,
In Parliament his committees, no small occupation.
How could Jack ever be free for lunch
Serving on twenty committees at once?
He even took on duties during recess.
Struck with mid-life crisis, or merely stress?
When did Jack’s hammer decompress?
To me his collapse could be understood
As an underachiever who finally made good.
This profligate son, long picaresque,
In Scotland Yard was to die at his desk.
It is not to say his wife’s death he didn’t mourn,
But when Margaret died, of one stress he was shorn.
In the next, and last, two years he had to live,
Denham put out all that he could give.
Was the inspiration that surged at the Wells
A release from domestic and gambling hells?
He pursued belles-lettres with renewed vigor,
In forms that surely few would figure.
Maybe due to weathered limbs, and poor form,
With elderly reflection he was taken by storm.
He hopped to work like a hot potato,
Translating Cicero’s old-age work Cato.
He advises not to let old age discourage.
Regarding his efforts, we should be encouraged.
In addition to all the workload he handled,
Jack jumped back to the light of footcandles.
For the stage he completed Mrs. Phillips’ Horace,
Hearing his words declaimed again in chorus.
He was called on, with Waller, to censor plays,
Perhaps for his knowledge of licentious ways.
He published new poems, and more Aeneid translations,
His “Passion of Dido”, the culmination.
And perhaps with hope of salvation through alms
He turned from versicles to Canticles, rewriting psalms.
The man who matured without help from a mother,
Always showed gratitude in acknowledging others.
One of his strongest pieces to survive
Was an elegy on Cowley when he died.
Denham credits contemporaries as inspirations:
Cowley and Waller, Fanshawe for translations.
To Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson and Fletcher
He confesses to be a debtor.
Critics point to influence of Jonson’s Penshurst,
Which in political allegory did come first.
Denham was now resigned to his role,
As charming old gaffer, harmless and droll,
At the end of his life, prone to jactitation,
Titillating ladies with wit and tribulations.
But the line of Denham was soon retired,
The day granddaughter, Countess of Derby, expired.
One can fancy attendants’ mourning attire,
In gems replete with blue-john of Derbyshire.
Yet Denham’s fame was still very strong,
For a hundred years above the throng.
Jack’s reputation did rest upon a hill,
adjacent to a body of water.
Gaging from the 46 poems on hills
that soon came tumbling after.
Though Denham Jean was adept at the genre
Of mock-advice and double entendre
The work for which he was primarily known,
Was a political portrait of his boyhood home.
Imitating poets fell into the trap
Of seeing the poem as a contour map.
Yet Cooper’s Hill in Egham, a ridge of Bagshot Sand,
Found above the Thames washland,
Where the Magna Carta was first issued to King John,
Was but a substructure for the theme to rest upon.
The landscape underlies, as do the jeans,
A didactic poem, with emblems to glean.
The Thames river course he did use
As an allegorical ruse.
The poet presented in this denim pean
Offered advice set in rural scenes,
With agriculture symbolizing political affairs
Neatly hewn in rhyming pairs.
On something real it was firmly grounded;
On political-didactic actualities founded.
The true meaning, however, can rarely be seen,
In the pseudo-genres and pseudo-jeans.
If perhaps the intent of Coopers Hill was misconstrued,
Its poetic format was clearly less subdued.
Much of Denham’s fame derives from Dryden citing
This poem as “The exact standard of good writing”.
He improved the closed couplet, which we define,
With no full stops within the line.
Heroic couplets, his most polished feat,
Consist of even lines, each with ten beats.
Sir John promoted this iambic form
Which in th’Augustan Age became the norm.
Whether acknowledged as Augustans’ savior,
No one can deny he was the kingdom’s Paviour,
Paving the way in more ways than one,
Levigating verse for the inroads to come.
Evelyn wrote his method of paving
“Both the mother and the babe” was saving.
It’s not as if Denham, in literature, doesn’t dwell,
Tossed with the rags in the tailor’s hell,
But I retrieved him through Pope, in the same line,
With Edmund Waller, contemporary in rhyme.
And even though lexicons often do vary,
Waller, not Denham, is in my dictionary.
So goes the tale of Denham Jack jingle,
Two times married but usually single.
Adept at burlesque, but not at poker,
Suffered at hands of gamesters and “Stroker”.
The essay to save his shirt all for nought,
Not able to practice what he taught.
Couldn’t fill his father’s britches, or shoes,
All the family wealth did lose.
Civil War thwarted his path.
Had to contend with creditors’ wrath.
As sheriff, didn’t earn his spurs,
Used only his canon against poet-curs.
His Royal service reckoned slight,
With failures at Farnham, Dartmouth and Wight.
Versified on cures sure to ease
Court’s common affliction of venereal disease.
Received the Knight’s riband of old,
Less for chivalry than ribald.
Yet better with Horace than horse,
He forged his will without force.
Outwardly co-operative to facilitate
Underhanded plans with to militate.
Even his first wife gained opposition’s favors,
But his second supplied them, with opposite behavior.
Though Pepys did peer into Denham’s affairs,
Rarely do we see the man who was there.
A reconnaissance man, hard to define,
Furnished with ciphers his letters to divine.
Didn’t write Cromwell a poetic salute
True-blue Denham wouldn’t follow suit.
Denham the poet of many lives,
Regained his wits, outlived two wives.
Pale blond hair and pale blue eyes,
With piercing gaze that demobilized.
Long-limbed Jack, known to stalk,
With lameness causing a limp when he walked.
Often stricken, but never kept down,
Nor could brickbat break his crown.
Refusing to be all forlorn,
Despite his cuckold’s crumpled horn.
Put up his pen in recompense
To redress the Duke’s offense.
Rakish ways he did suppress,
Toiling away in Commons’ recess.
Gaming vice he managed to quell,
Recovered his fountainhead at the Wells.
Father would have nodded Jack’s new propriety
Elected founding Fellow of the Royal Society.
Did Denham seek approval regarding his score
With “Search not his bottom, but survey his shore” ?
The last plum obtained by little Jack Horner?
A berth near Chaucer in Poet’s corner.
And while there’s no monument to Denham there,
Butler’s bust glares down, his remains elsewhere
It will be revealed if his brand will soar
Now that Denham’s been put in drawers.
The poet is offered breeches-birth;
May the weight of his jeans not indicate his worth.
I hope my mind has proved prehensile
Regarding his pencil portrait pensile.
What might seem fantastical is purely paraphrastical,
I rest on Banks and O’Hehir,
Infusing non-fiction with poetic diction
Sewed up with sartorial care.
These jeans may be seen as a frivolous toy,
A last-ditch effort or breeches-buoy,
To attain Denham’s salvation,
Or resuscitate his reputation.
May these empty trousers a poet’s life fill,
Never worsted by his betters in cotton twill.
If his poems do not rub off on you,
his jeans, in blue pencil, will.
A special acknowledgement goes to
my stepfather Stephen Halpert, who,
in the tradition of all antiquarian
booksellers and ephemera collectors,
has been a great source of knowledge
regarding the history of printing
literature, humor, manners and dress.
Thank you for lighting my way.
I thank Nancy Allen, librarian and
seamstress, for expedient lessons in
sewing curves and felled seams.
I hope that Sal Hudson will continue
to brook all my copy-editing quandaries
even after she’s gone West to Portland.
This poem was printed with my Canon
on Ermine paper from a Bond St
stationer in London with four Royal
coats of arms. The ink jet text in Times
(in keeping with the Thames) was
washed with river water using a holey
sock belonging to someone named
John in Italian. The book is bound with
scraps from Sir John Denham Jeans,
rubbed with a Decoro color pencil on
mulberry paper. The cover is based on
an antique tax wrapper for playing cards
housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Its inset is composed of a Denham Jean
button embossed on Nile paper. My
portrait of Sir John Denham was drawn
in pen and ink with a border based on the
old American game “Authors Improved”.
Bologna, Italy 2004
Jack is presented without dust jacket,
A shopping bag the appropriate packet,
Or for those who would economize,
Just in a wrapper cut to size.