Sidney, Philip, Sir. The Defense of Poesy: Otherwise Known as an Apology for Poetry. Edited by Albert S. Cook. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.
COOPER'S HILL John Denham (1642) Most students enrolled in college English literature courses are introduced to Cooper's Hill by John Denham as an important descriptive poem that influenced 18th-century poets, particularly John Dryden, through its topographical emphasis. While Denham did focus on nature and the countryside around Windsor Castle, he used his view of geography to muse on the nature of royalty, employing his talent, as did other poets of his day, in hopes of influencing King Charles I to redeem his reign while it was still possible to prevent a Protes tant revolution. Thus Denham adopts topoi, or traditional themes and literary convention, of space to reflect his Royalist leanings while remaining somewhat critical of his ruler.
Joseph Addison in his The Annual Miscellany: For the Year 1694 (London: Jacob Tonson) praised Denham, writing, "nor Denham must we e're forget thy Strains / While Cooper's Hill commands the Neighb'ring Plains." Alexander Pope, whose "Windsor Forest" (1713) reflected Denham's influence, and Samuel Johnson also praised Cooper's Hill. They found it powerful and balanced in format, that balance resulting from Den-ham's rhetorical use of pairs of ideas in phrases. An example appears in lines 4 and 5, which read, "Those made not poets, but the poets those. / And as courts make not kings, but kings the court." However, later critics such as James Grantham Turner argued that such use of balance proved standard in the traditional Royalist viewpoint. He finds that rhetorical method in Royalist tracts and even in the king's writing.
Later critics also considered the poem's political content more important than had Denham's contemporaries, although the poet himself must have noticed it, because he revised much of its political content when he rereleased Cooper's Hill in 1655. Criticism evaluating its polemical content grew strong in the 20th century. One of the first essays to consider the lengthy poem closely was by the noted literary critic Earl Wasserman in 1959. Wasserman, executing a new criticism approach, found the poem political but also successful in balancing the tension that arose through the use of irony. He evaluated the work as a prime example of concordia discors, or balanced discourse. Other critics, including Bruce Boeckel, disagree, evaluating the poem as a failure in regard to achieving concord, seeing it instead as "highly partisan" in its successful attempt to construct a landscape in which Denham's political enemies are silenced. Boeckel achieves meaning through the application of new historicism, in which he considers the political unrest that led up to the isolation of Charles I at Oxford, where Denham lived, and eventually to his execution. That type of reading has gained strength with the popularity of a revised view of Stuart England, which began with the reign of Charles's father, James I. That view holds that the Civil War did not begin with Puritan revolution, as traditionally taught, but rather at the time that Charles took the throne. The opinion claims that a broad agreement regarding the proper manner of worship existed in England in the 1630s, but that religious leaders rejected that agreement in an attempt to impose their own more limited ideas on the populace. That meant that even though many English citizens accepted the Book of Common Prayer and the rites of the Church of England, a few power-hungry religious leaders, such as William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, shattered that acceptance by forcing instead their own extreme Anglican view. The fact that such new views of history have spurred a reconsideration of the meaning of literature emphasizes the importance of political and social culture during the era in which poetry is written. No artist creates in a vacuum; most are strongly affected by what takes place around them. The effect of the unrest and political and religious divisions on John Denham as he wrote Cooper Hill should not be ignored in its reading.
The 358-line poem is composed of rhyming couplets, another factor in its format that supports the praise of its balanced presentation. It begins with a call to classical tradition as Denham mentions Parnassus and the Helicon. As are most of his additional classical allusions, this one is common. However, Denham includes paradox in his statements that note that poets who did not live during classical times can still produce poetry. Thus, it was not the geographical locations of Parnassus or Helicon that made the poets, but rather the poets created or made famous the geographical locations: "Those made not poets, but the poets those." As Boeckel notes, Denham's statement that the "poetic topos—a Parnassus or a Cooper's Hill—is essentially the creation of the poet, yet it functions as the poet's inspiration," remains comparable to "a serpent swallowing its tail."
The references to geography or topography prove crucial to the entire poem, which describes the English countryside but actually does something in addition. That "something" Denham suggests in his next line, which plays upon his previous comment that poets make the place. He contradicts his own remark regarding the poets' power by firmly stating the court, meaning those who serve the king, lack that power in respect to the monarch. He writes in line 5, "And as courts make not kings, but kings the court," then continues
So where the Muses and their train resort, Parnassus stands; if I can be to thee A poet, thou Parnassus art to me.
Denham at once seems to equate the power of poetry with that of royalty but then makes clear that King Charles I acts as his inspiration. This proves a crucial political point, for if the politic body of the king inspires Denham's poetry, it must be written in order to support that inspiration. The speaker underscores the power given him by his monarch, stating that his "flight," meaning flights of fancy or imagination, takes "wing from thy auspicious height." This leads Denham into FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE (FIGURE OF SPEECH) with the use of the extended metaphor of flight, allowing the speaker to hover above the country and its people, reporting what he observes. Thus, the speaker's eye swift as thought contracts the space That lies between, and first salutes the place Crown'd with that sacred pile, so vast, so high, That whether 'tis a part of Earth, or sky, uncertain seems.
This allows Denham to note that sense may be superior to intellect, a proposal that readers must accept in order to accompany him on this flight. With the term uncertain, Denham may offer an excuse for whatever claims he intends to make, thus allowing himself escape from censure of those he will offend.
The speaker's initial vantage point is that of London's St. Paul's Cathedral, which he praises as having survived "sword, or time, or fire," secure in the praise of many poets and "Preserv'd from ruin by the best of kings." From the top of St. Paul's the speaker sees the city as if in "a mist" where the "state and wealth the business and the crowd, / Seems at this distance but a darker cloud." He then notes that "luxury, and wealth, like war and peace, / Are each the others ruin, and increase," offering another paradox in that luxury increases wealth as it simultaneously ruins it. His view of London's populace is not flattering, as he compares the people in his original version to "Ants" who toil to "prevent imaginarie wants." The speaker continues to praise the building itself, which invites
A pleasure, and a reverence from the sight.
Thy mighty master's emblem, in whose face
Sat meekness, heighten'd with majestic grace, suggesting the prophet Paul as the master.
Denham combines themes of politics and religion in this section, reflecting upon the state of England itself. As Boeckel discusses, a fundraising campaign to repair and preserve St. Paul's had begun in 1631, and it had not progressed well. As part of Charles I's plan to restore a decent mode of worship, he had undertaken to repair English churches, and St. Paul's should have served as a major happy symbol of that effort. However, the people soon recognized the king's plan as his demand that all accept a rigid conformity in worship, as he verbally attacked those who wished to preserve icons and the sacrament in their rituals. Most importantly, Charles eventually ordered all justices of the peace to collect pledges and donations from their counties. This resulted in not only a taxation of citizens, but also a clear message that the king intended to impose the unity the people refused to give him, quashing local powers of government. Finally, he supported the dean of St. Paul's in what became known as the St. Gregory's case. When the dean decided to relocate the communion table to the east part of the chancel and confine it behind a rail, he ordered that the same be done in St. Gregory's, a church at St. Paul's border, a move that invoked complaints from those who used the church. When the court in control of such issues stood ready to counteract the dean's command, Charles I ordered the case be heard before the Privy Council, his own court, which ruled local churches must follow the guidance of St. Paul's. In addition, as Denham wrote of St. Paul's, suggesting its spire as the highest point in London, he reflects upon another tall landmark, the Tower of London, where William Laud had been imprisoned in March 1641.
Denham's next topography of consideration is that of Windsor. He makes a smooth transition by writing of St. Paul's that the heavenly race
Do homage to her, yet she cannot boast Amongst that numerous, and celestial host, More heroes than can Windsor, nor doth Fame's
He mentions "Caesar, Albanact, or Brute, / The British Arthur, or the Danish Knute," comparing Windsor's claim of those individuals to the famous seven cities' claims as the birthplace of Homer. He continues writing of Windsor,
But whosoere it was, Nature design'd First a brave place, and then as brave a mind. Not to recount those several kings, to whom It gave a cradle, or to whom a tomb, But thee (great Edward) and thy greater son, The lilies which his father wore, he won.
While Denham begins with praise for Windsor, he moves into an indictment of Henry VIII, which later critics saw as a direct attack on the English Reformation. The speaker transfers his consideration specifically to Chertsey Abbey, referring to a hill whose top of late
A chapel crown'd, till in the common fate, The adjoining Abbey fell: (may no such storm Fall on our times, where ruin must reform).
Denham extends the abbey's ruin into a metaphor for the impending ruin of England, which must be set right by the king. For Henry he expresses disgust, writing,
Tell me (my Muse) what monstrous dire offence,
What crime could any Christian king incense To such a rage? Was't luxury, or lust? Was he so temperate, so chast, so just? Were these their crimes? They were his own much more: But wealth is crime enough to him that's poor.
As Denham berates Henry, by extension he praises his own monarch as a different type of ruler. However, some critics view Denham's approach as warning Charles I against royal despotism. He views Henry as a monster who spent all of the funds in the treasury for his own delights, who used "devotion's name" as a way to "varnish o'er the shame / of sacrilege."
While many Protestants may have also felt that Henry's action in breaking from the Catholic Church in order to annul his marriage to Queen Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn had been wrong, they felt the break a needed one. Denham lambastes present reformist Protestants, his personal political enemies, writing of their lethargy, which causes "Religion in a lazy cell, / In empty, airy contemplations dwell." As far as the speaker is concerned, the English people have been made to "wish for ignorance" of the terrible knowledge that the Anglican Church inflicts. They would "rather in the dark . . . grope our way, / Than [be] led by a false guide to err by day." He adds that Henry's change so affected England outsiders might wonder "What barbarous Invader sack'd the land?" This section is one to which critics point who argue against the theory that Denham presents a poem of concord and unity. His argument is definitely balanced in favor of the Royalists and against Protestant reformists as well as Catholicism, in favor of the Caroline Church of England's Episcopal and sacramentalist beliefs.
Denham next moves as part of his topographical consideration to the Thames River, considered the life-blood of London and even of England:
My eye descending from the hill, surveys
Where Thames amongst the wanton valleys strays.
Thames, the most lov'd of all the ocean's sons,
He next compares a river to the oceans it feeds, with their foam equated to "amber, and their gravel gold." By contrast, a river is more "genuine" and offers less guilty wealth t'explore,
Search not his bottom, but survey his shore;
o'er which he kindly spreads his spacious wing, And hatches plenty for th'ensuing Spring.
In those and lines that follow, Denham clearly notes the importance of the river to England's international trade. What he does not make clear is the political contention that such trade had sparked, as both England's navy and its maritime trade opposed the king's policies, including the rule of "tonnage and poundage," which applied customs duties to imported goods. As Boeckel thoroughly discusses, while Charles had legitimate right to regulate commerce, many citizens viewed his customs duties as an illegal tax. They grew out of the king's inability to work with the Parliaments of 1625 and 1626 and caused uproar in the third Parliament of 1629, emphasizing Charles's inability to compromise with elected officials. He followed with an additional tax, "ship money," based on an old regulation, whereby he taxed outside Parliament all of England to support his navy and foreign policy, giving him complete control. Another example of the king's exercise of royal absolutism, the tax on shipping commerce greatly increased his unpopularity. This knowledge does not detract from the lovely sense of Denham's description in his praise of the Thames as
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o'er-flowing full. Heaven her Eridanus no more shall boast, Whose fame in thine, like lesser currents lost, Thy nobler streams shall visit Jove's abodes.
But even in the first two lines of this passage, the reader might see a warning to the king to express his strength without anger, not to indulge in greed. As for most of the other Carolinian poets' warnings, this one would not be heeded by Charles. When the speaker touts the wealth taken to England through its foreign trade, however, Denham's contemporaries would be quick to note and counter that claim.
Denham's description continues, as he focuses on nature, first noting a paradox: "Wisely she knew, the harmony of things, / As well as that of sounds, from discords springs." He includes lines supporting an argument of balance for the poem, such as
While the steep horrid roughness of the wood Strives with the gentle calmness of the flood. Such huge extremes when nature doth unite, Wonder from thence results, from thence delight.
Those wonders include a stream "transparent, pure, and clear." The speaker then turns to focus on a variety of mystical beings that arise from, and celebrate, the water, including "fairies, satyrs, and the nymphs their dames, / Their feasts, their revels, and their amorous flames."
Denham then transitions into a consideration of the realistic creatures that dwell in the nearby woods and fields and describes a famous hunt scene, also considered strongly polemic:
The stag now conscious of his fatal growth, At once indulgent to his fear and sloth, To some dark covert his retreat had made, Where no man's eye, nor heaven's should invade His soft repose.
However, the stag will be aroused by the sounds of dogs and hunters and employ "his strength, and then his speed, / His winged heels, and then his armed head" to escape, only to be traced through the scent of his hooves. When he seeks shelter in a herd, it "chases him from thence, or from him flies," so that
Like a declining statesman, left forlorn To his friends' pity, and pursuers' scorn, With shame remembers, while himself was one Of the same herd, himself the same had done.
In a metaphoric hunt for liberty, Denham seems to reverse the land's guarantee of protection for all, based on the Magna Carta, creating an England where no mutual security exists and one portion of the population is desperate for protection. The shooting begins, and none of the stag's past triumphs can save the "Prince of the soil." As he turns to the water for solace, "fearless they pursue, nor can the flood / Quench their dire thirst; alas, they thirst for blood." The stag at least has the honor of dying by the king's "mortal shaft," and remaining "Proud of the wound," he resigns his blood. Denham then uses color imagery to suggest a curious reversal of victims when the speaker notes that the stag "stains the crystal with a purple flood." Because purple long symbolized royalty, he equates the king with the stag, again perhaps as a signal to Charles.The political rhetoric strengthens as the speaker notes that the happier style of king and subject bear; Happy, when both to the same center move, When kings give liberty, and subjects love, as he continues to reflect on the importance of the Magna Carta, writing, "Therefore not long in force this charter stood; / Wanting that seal, it must be seal'd in blood." He emphasizes through italicized print, "Who gives constrain'd, but his own fear reviles / Not thank'd, but scorn'd; nor are they gifts, but spoils." After that balanced thought, Denham offers advice: "Thus kings, by grasping more than they could hold, / First made their subjects by oppression bold." Again, he cautions against royal tyranny, but he insists that subjects share the blame, continuing,
And popular sway, by forcing kings to give More than was fit for subjects to receive, Ran to the same extremes; and one excess Made both, by striving to be greater less.
He concludes by comparing political forces to the natural forces that cause a river to overrun its banks, noting that if "husbandmen" have wisely "with high-rais'd banks" secured "Their greedy hopes," the king can endure the rising. However, if "bays" and "dams" are employed in an attempt "to force
His channel to a new, or narrow course; No longer then within his banks he dwells, First to a torrent, then a deluge swells: Stronger, and fiercer by restraint he roars, And knows no bound, but makes his power his shores.
Denham cautions power-hungry individuals not to force the king, as the monarch will react by extending his powers until boundaries remain unrecognizable.
As Boeckel notes, Cooper's Hill remains applicable to any era that experiences a culture war. He characterizes Denham and the Royalists as "belligerents" who exclusively claim ideals and symbols that others may also value. Their opponents are not allowed also to lay claim, as the belligerents monopolize ideology to make themselves appear legitimate, the only group allowed to represent "national authority and identity." Readers may recognize belligerents in their own cultures.
Whichever one of the multiple readings of Cooper's Hill one may accept, it remains important for its effect on 18th-century writers. Had it not been for this poem, Denham's loss of popularity might have been complete.
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