Twenty-First Friend: Sir John Denham, “A Song”

Our next friend is another one of our good ol’ Cavalier buddies. Sir John Denham was born in Dublin in 1615 and lived to 1669, a lawyer and the son of the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in Ireland. That sounds like an impressive title, and when his father died Sir John did inherit a great deal of property. During the English Civil War he was sheriff of Surrey and made a brief attempt to defend Farnham Castle against Parliamentary forces; after the war his estates were confiscated and he lived abroad with Charles II, though Cromwell did give him permission to live in Suffolk in 1658.

In literature, he’s best-known for two works, a blank verse tragedy called The Sophy, and a pastoral poem called “Cooper’s Hill.” Fans of the latter include no lesser figure than Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, despite a few criticisms, said that it “is the work that confers upon him the rank and dignity of an original author.” He adds:

To trace a new scheme of poetry has in itself a very high claim to praise, and its praise is yet more when it is apparently copied by [Samuel] Garth and [Alexander] Pope; after whose names little will be gained by an enumeration of smaller poets, that have left scarce a corner of the island not dignified either by rhyme or blank verse.

He also has good things to say about Sir John’s poem written on the death of Abraham Cowley, whom we’ve met previously.

Today I’ll share a shorter poem, simply titled “A Song” and which is taken from The Sophy.

Somnus, the humble god, that dwells
In cottages and smoky cells,
Hates gilded roofs and beds of down,
And, though he fears no prince’s frown,
Flies from the circle of a crown.

Come, I say, thou powerful god,
And thy leaden charming rod
Dipped in the Lethean lake,
O’er his wakeful temples shake,
Lest he should sleep and never wake.

Nature, alas, why art thou so
Obligéd to thy greatest foe?
Sleep, that is thy best repast,
Yet of death it bears a taste,
And both are the same thing at last.

“Somnus,” as you may guess, is the god of sleep. “Charming” is meant in the sense of spellbinding.

Though overall a solid poem, I’m not a big fan of the conclusion since the comparison of sleep to death has been done multiple times elsewhere, and done better. I also prefer John Donne’s more take optimistic take on the subject with this same analogy. That said, this is taken from a play so I’m obviously missing some context here, so I won’t judge it too harshly.

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