1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Davies

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 1:177-78.



This knight, says Campbell, "wrote, at twenty-five years of age, a poem on the Immortality of the Soul, and at fifty-two, when he was a judge and a statesman, another on the Art of Dancing. Well might the teacher of that noble accomplishment, in Moliere's comedy, exclaim, 'La philosophie est quelque chose — mais la danse!'" This, however, is more pointed than correct, since the first of these poems was written in 1592, when the author was only twenty-two years of age, and the latter appeared in 1599, when he was only twenty-nine.

Tisbury, in Wiltshire, was the birthplace of this poet, and 1570 the date of his birth. His father was a practising lawyer. John was expelled from the Temple for beating one Richard Martyn, afterwards Recorder, but was restored, and subsequently elected for Parliament. In 1592, as aforesaid, appeared his poem, Nosce Teipsum; or, The Immortality of the Soul. Its fame soon travelled to Scotland; and when Davies, along with Lord Hunsdon, visited that country, James received him most graciously as the author of Nosce Teipsum. His history became, for some time, a list of promotions. He was appointed, in 1603, first Solicitor and then Attorney-General in Ireland, was next made Sergeant, was then knighted, then appointed King's Sergeant, next elected representative of the county of Fermanagh, and, in fine, after a violent contest between the Roman Catholic and Protestant parties, was chosen Speaker of the House of Commons in the Protestant interest. While in Ireland he married Eleanor, a daughter of Lord Audley, who turned out a raving prophetess, and was sent, in 1649, to the Tower, and then to Bethlehem Hospital, by the Revolutionary Government. In 1616, Sir John returned to England, continued to practise as a barrister, sat in Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyne, and received a promise of being made Chief-Justice of England; but was suddenly cut off by apoplexy in 1626.

His poem on dancing, which was written in fifteen days, and left a fragment, is a piece of beautiful, though somewhat extravagant fancy. His Nosce Teipsum, if it casts little new light, and rears no demonstrative argument on the grand and difficult problem of immortality, is full of ingenuity, and has many apt and memorable similes. Feeling he happily likens to the

—subtle spider, which doth sit
In middle of her web, which spreadeth wide;
If aught do touch the utmost thread of it,
She feels it instantly on every side.

In answering an objection, "Why, if souls continue to exist, do they not return and bring us news of that strange world?" he replies—

But as Noah's pigeon, which return'd no more,
Did show she footing found, for all the flood,
So when good souls, departed through death's door,
Come not again, it shows their dwelling good.

The poem is interesting from the musical use he makes of the quatrain, a form of verse in which Dryden afterwards wrote his Annus Mirabilis, and as one of the earliest philosophical poems in the language. It is proverbially difficult to reason in verse, but Davies reasons, if not always with conclusive result, always with energy and skill.