1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Davies

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:108.



SIR JOHN DAVIES (1570-1626), an English barrister, at one time Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, was the author of a long philosophical poem, On the Soul of Man and the Immortality thereof, supposed to have been written in 1598, and one of the earliest poems of that kind in our language. Davies is a profound thinker and close reasoner: "in the happier parts of his poem," says Campbell, "we come to logical truths so well illustrated by ingenious similes, that we know not whether to call the thoughts more poetically or philosophically just. The judgment and fancy are reconciled, and the imagery of the poem seems to start more vividly from the surrounding shades of abstraction." The versification of the poem (long quatrains) was afterwards copied by Davenant and Dryden. Mr. Southey has remarked that "Sir John Davies and Sir William Davenant, avoiding equally the opposite faults of too artificial and too careless a style, wrote in numbers which, for precision, and clearness, and felicity, and strength, have never been surpassed." The compact structure of Davies's verse is indeed remarkable for his times. In another production, entitled Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing, in a Dialogue between Penelope and One of her Wooers, he is much more fanciful. He there represents Penelope as declining to dance with Antinous, and the latter as proceeding to lecture her upon the antiquity of that elegant exercise, the merits of which he describes in verses partaking, as has been justly remarked, of the flexibility and grace of the subject.