John Dennis (16571734)

John Dennis, by John Vandergucht, 1734



  • Author
  • Critic

Biographical details

Note: the 19th- and early 20th-century biographies below preserve a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

DENNIS, JOHN (1657–1734), critic, was born in London in 1657. His father, Francis Dennis, was a prosperous saddler. Dennis was sent to Harrow under Dr. William Horn, where he remained for about five years. He entered Caius College, Cambridge, 13 Jan. 1675, and took his B.A. degree in 1679. He left the following year for Trinity Hall, where he became M.A. in 1683 (Graduati Cantabrigienses, p. 137). In the ‘European Magazine’ (1794), xxv. 412, Dr. R. Farmer, in a letter to Isaac Reed, quotes for the first time the following entry from the ‘Cambridge Gesta Book:’ ‘March 4, 1680. At a meeting of the masters and fellows, Sir Dennis mulcted 3l., his scholarship taken away, and he sent out of the college, for assaulting and wounding Sir Glenham with a sword.’ Nothing more is known of the affair. After leaving college Dennis started for a tour through France and Italy. On his return he mixed with the leading literary and fashionable men, such as the Earls of Pembroke and Mulgrave, and Dryden, Congreve, Moyle, Wycherley, Southern, Garth, and others. Property inherited from his father and an uncle, who was an alderman of London, maintained him for a considerable time, though he had afterwards to live by his pen. He defended the revolution, and after Anne's accession wrote in support of the war. This secured him the patronage of the Duke of Marlborough, who procured him a place as one of the royal waiters in the port of London, at a salary of 120l. per annum (6 June 1705). He was allowed to sell out by treasury warrant of 21 March 1715 (Gent. Mag. 1850, pt. ii. p. 18). Lord Halifax protested against his selling the place without securing a reversion for himself during forty years. Dennis acknowledges the interference of Halifax in the dedication of his poem upon Ramilies. A letter from Mr. Thomas Cook to the antiquary Thomas Baker of St. John's (Harleian MSS. 7031, and Gent. Mag. 1795, p. 105) says that Dennis possessed this waiter's place ‘many years, and sold [it] for 600l. about the year 1720.’ Dennis wrote various poems, ‘in the Pindaric way,’ as Cibber puts it, between 1692 and 1714. They are loyal, but beneath notice. Three specimens are given in Edward Bysshe's ‘Art of English Poetry’ (edit. 1702). Dennis's first play, an anti-Jacobite performance called ‘A Plot and No Plot,’ was acted at Drury Lane in 1697 without success. Two years afterwards his tragedy of ‘Rinaldo and Armida’ (from Tasso's ‘Gerusalemme Liberata’) was produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Another tragedy, ‘Iphigenia,’ was acted at the same place in 1700. The story is taken from Euripides' ‘Iphigenia in Tauris,’ as Dennis states in his preface. It had no success, although Cibber found it impossible to read it without tears (Lives, iv. 233). ‘Liberty Asserted’ was produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1704, the leading characters being taken by Bowman, Betterton, Powell, and Booth, Mrs. Barry (whom Dennis describes in the preface to this play as an ‘incomparable actress’), and Mrs. Bracegirdle. Its success was probably due to its violent attacks upon the French. The play was issued by Strahan & Lintot, the latter purchasing a half-share of the former for 7l. 3s., on 24 Feb. 1703–4 (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. viii. 295–301). Dennis is said to have feared that the French would stipulate for his extradition upon the peace of Utrecht. It is stated that he informed the Duke of Marlborough of his alarm, and that the duke replied that he was not himself nervous, though perhaps an equally formidable enemy to France. It is added that Dennis fled from the coast on seeing a French ship, which he assumed was coming for him (Cibber, Lives, iv. 221–2). Swift refers to this probably mythical story in the ‘continuation’ of his ‘Thoughts on various Subjects,’ 1726 (Scott's edit. ix. 238). In 1702 ‘The Comical Gallant, or the Amours of Sir John Falstaffe,’ by Dennis, from the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ was played at Drury Lane without success. In 1705 he brought out ‘The Invader of his Country, or the Fatal Resentment,’ founded on ‘Coriolanus,’ which languished at Drury Lane for three or four nights. In 1705 the comedy ‘Gibraltar, or the Spanish Adventure,’ was brought out, also at Drury Lane, again without success. His masque, ‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ published in the ‘Muses' Mercury,’ February 1707, was probably never acted. Dennis wrote his last play, the tragedy of ‘Appius and Virginia,’ in 1705, but it was not produced at Drury Lane until 1709. This play had a very short run. Pope's ‘Essay on Criticism,’ published 15 May 1711, contained these lines, obviously pointed at Dennis:

… Appius reddens at each word you speak, And stares, tremendous, with a threatening eye, Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry. (Pt. iii. v. 585–8.)

Dennis replied the following June by ‘Reflections, Critical and Satirical, on a late Rhapsody called an Essay on Criticism.’ This was the beginning of a long and bitter quarrel. Dennis injured his cause by gross personalities, amply retorted by Pope, who, however, took some of Dennis's hints and erased the passages attacked. Dennis was popularly credited with having invented a new device for simulating thunder on the stage. This was used in the ‘Appius and Virginia.’ In a note to a line in the ‘Dunciad’—‘with thunder rumbling from the mustard-bowl’—Pope states that ‘the old way of making thunder and mustard were the same; but since, it is more advantageously performed by troughs of wood with stops in them.’ It is not certain whether Dennis was the first to introduce this ‘improved’ method. It is said, however, that shortly after ‘Appius and Virginia’ was withdrawn, Dennis was at a performance of ‘Macbeth,’ and, on hearing the thunder, exclaimed, ‘That is my thunder, by God! the villains will play my thunder but not my plays’ (CIBBER, Lives, iv. 234). ‘The Mohocks,’ attributed to Gay, is dedicated to Dennis as a ‘horrible and tremendous piece.’ Dennis's plays are bad, and written to illustrate a quaint theory of ‘poetical justice;’ but his prefaces have some interest. Dennis is now best remembered as a critic. He was ridiculed by Swift, Theobald (in the ‘Censor’), and Pope; his temper became soured, and he was a general enemy of the wits. But he showed real abilities, and Southey justly observes that Dennis's critical pamphlets deserve republication (Specimens of the Later English Poets, i. 306). He criticised Blackmore's ‘Prince Arthur’ in 1696 with civility, and they exchanged compliments, Blackmore comparing Dennis to Boileau. The appearance of Rymer's ‘A Short View of Tragedy,’ 1693, induced Dennis to write and publish ‘The Impartial Critic,’ 1693. Dennis's ‘Letters upon several Occasions’ appeared in 1696. They were addressed to Dryden, Wycherley, and Congreve, and are chiefly critical. Collier's ‘Short View,’ 1698, was criticised by Dennis in ‘The Usefulness of the Stage to the Happiness of Mankind, to Government, and to Religion,’ 1698. When, in 1703, Collier published ‘A Dissuasive from the Play-house, by way of letter to a Person of Quality,’ Dennis replied with ‘The Person of Quality's Answer to Mr. Collier: containing a Defence of a regular Stage.’ Dennis's chief critical work appeared in 1701, as ‘The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry. A Critical Discourse.’ ‘The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry,’ 1704, was a sort of sequel to the ‘Advancement,’ &c., and in both works Dennis insists upon the wide scope which religion affords for poetic excellence. In 1702 Dennis published ‘The Danger of Priestcraft to Religion and Government, with some politick Reasons for Toleration,’ and was answered by Charles Leslie (Madan, Bibliography of Dr. Henry Sacheverell, pp. 11, 12; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. ii. 45). Soon after George I's accession Dennis wrote ‘Priestcraft distinguished from Christianity.’ His political essays include ‘An Essay on the Navy,’ 1702, and ‘Proposals for putting a speedy End to the War by ruining the Commerce of the French and Spaniards, and recovering our own without any additional Expense to the Nation,’ 1703. In his ‘Essay on the Operas after the Italian Manner,’ 1706, he attacked the effeminacy indicated by the popularity of the performances in question, and when Harley came into power Dennis pointed out by letter that the national prosperity could never be effected while the Italian opera corruption existed (Disraeli, Calamities, art. ‘Influence of a Bad Temper in Criticism’). His ‘Essay upon Public Spirit’ appeared in 1711, for which, although among his best works, Lintot seems to have paid (25 April 1711) the sum of 2l. 12s. 6d. only (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. viii. 295). Mandeville's ‘Fable of the Bees’ called forth from Dennis, in 1724, ‘Vice and Luxury Public Mischiefs; or Remarks on the “Fable of the Bees.”’ Early in 1711 Dennis published ‘Three Letters on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare,’ which include some of his best criticism. In 1711, also, commenced the ‘differences’ between Dennis and Addison. Dennis replied to the 39th and 40th numbers of the ‘Spectator,’ in which his pet theory of poetical justice is denounced. On 24 April 1711 Addison quoted a ‘couple of humorous lines’ from Dennis with a sarcastic intention, which Dennis perceived and resented in a furious ‘Letter to the Spectator.’ Had a compliment been intended, he said, a better passage might have been taken, which he kindly pointed out. Addison's papers on ‘Chevy Chase’ brought another attack from Dennis. In his ‘Remarks upon Cato,’ 1713, he took his revenge. Dennis charges Addison with publishing ‘a great deal of false and abominable criticism in order to poison his general reader and prepare the way for “Cato”’ (Introd. p. 6). Pope made a coarse and stupid retort in his ‘Narrative of Dr. Robert Norris, concerning the strange and deplorable Frenzy of John Dennis, an officer in the Custom House,’ which is dated 30 July 1713. Dr. Johnson has preserved the salient points of Dennis's criticism in his ‘Life of Addison.’ Addison disavowed any complicity in Pope's assault through Steele. Pope was for a short time reconciled to his old enemy, who, when publishing some of his ‘Letters’ a few years afterwards, struck out several severe reflections against Pope, one of his subscribers. For this Pope thanked him in a letter of 3 May 1721, and expressed himself heartily sorry for the ‘differences’ that had existed between them. In 1717 Curll published Dennis's ‘Remarks upon Mr. Pope's Translation of Homer, with two letters concerning “Windsor Forest” and the “Temple of Fame.”’ Sarah Popping, the bookseller, issued at 3d., in 1717, ‘A True Character of Mr. Pope,’ full of scurrilous abuse. Curll, in the first edition of the ‘Key to the Dunciad,’ declared Gildon to be the author of this discreditable production, but in subsequent editions this declaration is omitted; and the ‘Curliad’ states that Dennis was the writer. In the latter part of 1719 Dennis attacked Steele. Steele started the ‘Theatre,’ 2 Jan. 1719–20, under the pseudonym of ‘Sir John Edgar.’ ‘The Character and Conduct of Sir John Edgar, called by himself sole monarch of the stage in Drury Lane, and his Three Deputy Governors. In two letters to Sir John Edgar,’ is the title of Dennis's onslaught, to which Steele replied good-humouredly in No. 11 of the ‘Theatre.’ Steele's ‘Conscious Lovers’ was acted in November 1722, and in the following year Dennis's ‘Remarks’ upon that play appeared in print. In ‘The Stage Defended,’ 1726, Dennis replied to the ‘Serious Remonstrance’ of the admirable William Law, whose zeal against the stage was more conspicuous than his knowledge of it. Dennis was fiercely attacked in the ‘Dunciad’ (1728). He replied in ‘A Letter against Mr. Pope at large,’ which appeared anonymously in the ‘Daily Journal,’ 11 May 1728. At about the same time he joined with Duckett in ‘Pope Alexander's Supremacy and Infallibility examined,’ &c. In 1729 Dennis published a more elaborate attack, ‘Remarks upon several Passages in the Preliminaries to the Dunciad.’ In an ‘Essay on the Poet Laureate,’ presumably published 19 Nov. 1729, attributed to Pope, it is stated that Dennis was aiming at the laureateship, in succession to Eusden, who, however, did not die until September 1730. The absurdity of Dennis's candidature is urged with grim humour in the ‘Grub Street Journal,’ 19 Nov. 1730. Dennis's last years were wretched. From the Harleian MS. printed in ‘Gent. Mag.’ 1795, p. 105, it seems that the Earl of Pembroke continually befriended the critic for nine or ten years; on one occasion he sent thirty guineas by Sir Andrew Fountaine, and several times in a year separate presents of five and ten guineas each. Atterbury, about 1730, sent from France, by the hands of his son-in-law Morice, the sum of 100l. Dennis was not informed of the name of the donor, whom, however, he guessed to be Atterbury. Walpole allowed him 20l. for several years before his death. A benefit performance on behalf of the aged critic, then blind, was organised by Thomson, Mallet, Martin, and Pope at the little theatre in the Haymarket on 18 Dec. 1733, when the ‘Provoked Husband,’ was acted under the direction of Mills and Theophilus Cibber. Pope wrote a prologue, recited by Cibber, in which the author could not even now refrain from insulting his enemy. Savage returned thanks, in the name of Dennis, in some verses which when Dennis heard, he is said to have exclaimed that ‘they could be no one's but that fool Savage's.’ The foul epigram upon Dennis, attributed to Savage, was probably written by Pope himself (Grub Street Memoirs, ii. 91; Johnson, Life of Savage; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. ix. 223, 7th ser. i. 385, 473). Dennis only survived his benefit a few days, dying on 6 Jan. 1734 (Gent. Mag. iv. 42, 50). A portrait of Dennis is given in vol. ii. of Ireland's ‘Hogarth’ (1799). The following collective editions may be mentioned: 1. ‘Miscellanies in Prose and Verse,’ 1693. 2. ‘Letters on Milton and Congreve,’ 1696. 3. ‘Works,’ 1702. 4. ‘Select Works, consisting of Plays, Poems, &c.,’ 2 vols., 1718. 5. ‘Original Letters, familiar and critical,’ 2 vols., 1721. 6. ‘Miscellaneous Tracts’ (only 1 vol. published), 1727.

[Lowndes's Bibl. Man. ed. 1834, pp. 571–2; Genest's Hist. of the Stage; Cibber's Lives of the Poets, iv. 215–38; Johnson's Lives of Pope and Addison; Disraeli's Calamities (Influence of a Bad Temper in Criticism); Quarrels (Pope, Pope and Addison, and Lintot's Account Book); Retrospective Review, i. 305–22 (by Talfourd); Courthope and Elwin's Works of Pope; Malone's edit. of Dryden, vol. i. pt. i.; New Theatrical Dictionary, 1792; a few references to Dennis are in Nichols's Literary Anecdotes.]

W. R.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

DENNIS, JOHN (1657–1734), English critic and dramatist, the son of a saddler, was born in London in 1657. He was educated at Harrow School and Caius College, Cambridge, where he took his B.A. degree in 1679. In the next year he was fined and dismissed from his college for having wounded a fellow-student with a sword. He was, however, received at Trinity Hall, where he took his M.A. degree in 1683. After travelling in France and Italy, he settled in London, where he became acquainted with Dryden, Wycherley and others; and being made temporarily independent by inheriting a small fortune, he devoted himself to literature. The duke of Marlborough procured him a place as one of the queen’s waiters in the customs with a salary of £120 a year. This he afterwards disposed of for a small sum, retaining, at the suggestion of Lord Halifax, a yearly charge upon it for a long term of years. Neither the poems nor the plays of Dennis are of any account, although one of his tragedies, a violent attack on the French in harmony with popular prejudice, entitled Liberty Asserted, was produced with great success at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1704. His sense of his own importance approached mania, and he is said to have desired the duke of Marlborough to have a special clause inserted in the treaty of Utrecht to secure him from French vengeance. Marlborough pointed out that although he had been a still greater enemy of the French nation, he had no fear for his own security. This tale and others of a similar nature may well be exaggerations prompted by his enemies, but the infirmities of character and temper indicated in them were real. Dennis is best remembered as a critic, and Isaac D’Israeli, who took a by no means favourable view of Dennis, said that some of his criticisms attain classical rank. The earlier ones, which have nothing of the rancour that afterwards gained him the nickname of “Furius,” are the best. They are Remarks … (1696), on Blackmore’s epic of Prince Arthur; Letters upon Several Occasions written by and between Mr Dryden, Mr Wycherley, Mr Moyle, Mr Congreve and Mr Dennis, published by Mr Dennis (1696); two pamphlets in reply to Jeremy Collier’s Short View; The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701), perhaps his most important work; The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704), in which he argued that the ancients owed their superiority over the moderns in poetry to their religious attitude; an Essay upon Publick Spirit … (1711), in which he inveighs against luxury, and servile imitation of foreign fashions and customs; and Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare in three Letters (1712). Dennis had been offended by a humorous quotation made from his works by Addison, and published in 1713 Remarks upon Cato. Much of this criticism was acute and sensible, and it is quoted at considerable length by Johnson in his Life of Addison, but there is no doubt that Dennis was actuated by personal jealousy of Addison’s success. Pope replied in The Narrative of Dr Robert Norris, concerning the strange and deplorable frenzy of John Dennis … (1713). This pamphlet was full of personal abuse, exposing Dennis’s foibles, but offering no defence of Cato. Addison repudiated any connivance in this attack, and indirectly notified Dennis that when he did answer his objections, it would be without personalities. Pope had already assailed Dennis in 1711 in the Essay on Criticism, as Appius. Dennis retorted by Reflections, Critical and Satirical …, a scurrilous production in which he taunted Pope with his deformity, saying among other things that he was “as stupid and as venomous as a hunch-backed toad.” He also wrote in 1717 Remarks upon Mr Pope’s Translation of Homer … and A True Character of Mr Pope. He accordingly figures in the Dunciad, and in a scathing note in the edition of 1729 (bk. i. 1. 106) Pope quotes his more outrageous attacks, and adds an insulting epigram attributed to Richard Savage, but now generally ascribed to Pope. More pamphlets followed, but Dennis’s day was over. He outlived his annuity from the customs, and his last years were spent in great poverty. Bishop Atterbury sent him money, and he received a small sum annually from Sir Robert Walpole. A benefit performance was organized at the Haymarket (December 18, 1733) on his behalf. Pope wrote for the occasion an ill-natured prologue which Cibber recited. Dennis died within three weeks of this performance, on the 6th of January 1734.

His other works include several plays, for one of which, Appius and Virginia (1709), he invented a new kind of thunder. He wrote a curious Essay on the Operas after the Italian Manner (1706), maintaining that opera was the outgrowth of effeminate manners, and should, as such, be suppressed. His Works were published in 1702, Select Works … (2 vols.) in 1718, and Miscellaneous Tracts, the first volume only of which appeared, in 1727. For accounts of Dennis see Cibber’s Lives of the Poets, vol. iv.; Isaac D’Israeli’s essays on Pope and Addison in the Quarrels of Authors, and “On the Influence of a Bad Temper in Criticism” in Calamities of Authors; and numerous references in Pope’s Works.