retailed by Angela Lorenz
Edition of 54 copies
3.5" x 4.2"x .3", 3.5"x 219" fully extended
Bologna, Italy, 2004
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 representitive 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:
Retailed by Angela Lorenz
To John Lorenz, who was adept in Latin,
and to Jeanne Amster, who gave me a leg up
I must acknowledge Berkeley's Brendan O'Hehir
The old name Denham is of French derivation,
Yet this is no repository for Denham's bawdy
If Denham's career should be surveyed
Was it serge on Sir John Denham, or satin
In his sixteenth year, in 1631
The first piece of writing was not poem or play,
Grandfather William, of London, Goldsmith,
After Oxford came law school at Lincoln's Inn,
Alas to gambling he was still addicted,
At this time he wrote "Anatomy of Play",
Troubles with women would ne'er subside;
At 24 he was called to the bar,
Soon after, he produced the work "Coopers Hill",
Denham's brief legal and military career,
Denham went off to London in shackles,
Surrey's sheriff was not so easily foiled;
Most poets, to combat reigning fears,
Not that all Charles' laws he did applaud,
But whether or not he did ingratiate with betters,
Yet of John Denham, it is difficult to see,
He stayed in Paris for nearly a year,
The Prince and Queen sent him on commissions,
While some found his Cavalier career derisible,
With this way with words did he fell with a penstroke
Mysteries abound about lenience accorded Denham
In May 1660, his work as spy ended;
'Twixt Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren,
His appointment had to override Jones' nephew Webb.
An early task in Denham's occupation
Whether for his role as surveyor or detective,
It is clear Butler felt he did deserve more
A glance at Pepys' job in the Navy makes clear
Knighthood was not the last honor conferred;
Soon he gained the "Clerk of the Works"
While such mock heroics may have made Jack jolly
Pepys gives details of disgust on Lady Denham's ways,
From Pepys we have word on this mistress noisome,
While outwardly Jack drew in his horns,
In that Denham often did play with words
His sudden fit couldn't have been more keenly acted.
As usual, no matter whatever occurred,
An obvious cause for mental strife
In the next, and last, two years he had to live,
The man who matured without help from a mother,
Jack's reputation did rest upon a hill,
The poet presented in this denim pean
If perhaps the intent of Coopers Hill was misconstrued,
Whether acknowledged as Augustans' savior,
So goes the tale of Denham Jack jingle,
Yet better with Horace than horse,
Denham the poet of many lives,
The last plum obtained by little Jack Horner?
A special acknowledgement goes to
I thank Nancy Allen, librarian and
I hope that Sal Hudson will continue
Jack is presented without dust jacket,