John Denham Biography

Sir John Denham (1614 or 1615 – 19 March 1669) was an English poet and courtier. He served as Surveyor of the King's Works and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Denham was born in Dublin to Sir John Denham, judge and Chief Baron of the Exchequer of Ireland, and his second wife Eleanor. He was educated at Trinity College, Oxford and at Lincoln's Inn in London.

He began his literary career with a tragedy, The Sophy (1641), but his poem, Cooper's Hill (1642), is the work by which he is remembered. It is the first example in English of a poem devoted to local description, describing the Thames scenery round his home at Egham in Surrey. Denham wrote many versions of this poem, reflecting the political and cultural upheavals of the British Civil War. Denham received extravagant praise from Dr Samuel Johnson; but the place now assigned him is a much more humble one. His verse is smooth, clear, and agreeable, and occasionally a thought is expressed with remarkable terseness and force.

In his earlier years Denham suffered for his Royalism; during the English Civil War, he was high sheriff of Surrey and governor of Farnham Castle, but after the Restoration enjoyed prosperity. He, however, made an unhappy marriage, and his last years were clouded by dementia.

Although he initially trained as a lawyer, after the Restoration he succeeded (pre-Restoration) Inigo Jones as Surveyor of the King's Works. However, though he claimed that the post had been promised him in 1649, it is likely the 1661 appointment was more for reasons of his earlier political services than for any aptitude as an architect: John Webb, who, as Inigo Jones' deputy had the competence to have served in the post, and complained "though Mr. Denham may, as most gentry, have some knowledge of the theory of architecture, he can have none of the practice and must employ another."there is no evidence that he personally designed any buildings, although he seems to have been a competent administrator. John Webb was appointed Denham's deputy by 1664 and did Denham's work at Greenwich (from 1666) and elsewhere; with Denham's increasing mental incapacity, Charles II requested in March 1669 that Christopher Wren be appointed Denham's "sole deputy"; Wren succeeded him as King's Surveyor upon his death two weeks later.

Denham became a Member of Parliament for Old Sarum in 1661, became a Fellow of the Royal Society on 20 May 1663, and became a Knight of the Bath.

He was buried in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

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