1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Davies

Mary A. Ward, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 1:548-50.



Sir John Davies belongs to that late Elizabethan circle of courtly poets which still gathered round the declining age of the great Queen with apparently as much personal devotion as the circle of Sidney and Spenser had gathered round her prime. His Nosce Teipsum, published in 1599, was dedicated

To that clear majesty which in the North
Doth like another sun in glory rise;

and the Hymns to Astraea, which appeared in the same year, may be ranked as one of the most readable and freely written expressions of that complex sentiment toward the Queen of which each considerable Elizabethan poet became in turn the mouthpiece. This later group is to be distinguished on the one hand from the earlier lyrical and pastoral school, and on the other from the great dramatic circle which crowds the foreground of this second period. Its production was reflective and philosophical, and only occasionally and subordinately either lyrical or dramatic. It testified to revolt against pastorals and love poetry, but no member of it was possessed of a sufficiently great or pliant genius to achieve any important triumph outside the older and well-worn fashions. Lord Brooke in point of power reigns supreme among these philosophers in verse, but Sir John Davies' Nosce Teipsum enjoyed a wider contemporary reputation than anything of Lord Brooke's, and has been far more frequently read since. It is a strange performance, and is to be admired rather for the measure of victory it obtains over unfavourable conditions, than for any absolute poetical merits. Some handbook of Christian philosophy seems to have fallen in the author's way during a year of retirement at Oxford, — possibly the De Natura Hominis of Nemesius, of which Wither published an English translation in 1636, — and the text suited a sobered mood, while it offered an opportunity for rehabilitating a reputation shaken by youthful folly and extravagance. Accordingly the Nosce Teipsum was produced, an "oracle expounded in two Elegies — (1) of Human Knowledge; (2) of the Soul of Man and the Immortality thereof." It is an exposition in the verse of Gondibert and the Annus Mirabilis of what Davies himself calls the "received opinions," the orthodox metaphysic of his time, and treats such topics as "what the soul is;" "that she soul is more than the Temperature of the Humors of the Body;" "that the soul is created immediately by God;" 'the vegetative or Quickening power;" "the power of sense, the Relations between wit and will," &c. &c. All these interminable and tremendous subjects are indeed handled with admirable clearness and brevity. Where Lord Brooke would have wandered on to unmeasured length, thinking his way from cloud to clearness with laborious sincerity, Sir John Davies, a man of far inferior temper and morale, plays the artist with his inartistic material, clearly foresees his end, maps out his arguments and "acclamations," and infuses just so much imagination and so much eloquence as still carry the subject to the ears it is intended to reach. Hallam said of Nosce Teipsum , that it scarcely contained a languid verse. It may be said of it with equal truth that it scarcely contains a verse of real energy, and that it shows not a spark of that genuine poetic gift which at rare intervals lightens the most heavy and formless of Lord Brooke's Treatises. Nothing in Davies' smoothly turned and occasionally eloquent introduction to his subject proper, "The Elegy of Human Knowledge," has the poetic flavour of such lines as these, which break the monotony of Lord Brooke's Treatise on the same subject:—

The chief use then in man of that he knows,
Is his painstaking for the good of all;
Not fleshly weeping for our own-made woes,
Not laughing from a melancholy all.
Not hating from a soul that overflows
With bitterness, breathed out from inward thrall;
But sweetly rather to ease, to loose or bind,
As need requires, this frail fall'n human kind.

Expression of this high and tender quality is not to be looked for in Nosce Teipsum. The poem deals with an eternally poetic subject, the longings, griefs, and destiny of the soul, in such a way as to furnish one more illustration of the futility of "philosophical poetry" — of the manner in which the attempt to combine poetry and science extracts all pathos and all influence from the most pathetic and the most potent of themes. From this judgment we may perhaps exclude the passages, quoted below, which deserve to live when the rest of Nosce Teipsum is forgotten.

Orchestra was a poem of the author's youth, "a sudden rash half-capreol of my wit," as he calls it in the dedication. It in unfinished and immature in style, but there is considerable charm in its wandering fancifulness. The graceful and delicate verse beginning "For lo, the sea that fleets about the land" (p. 556), will remind a reader of well-known lines in the Ancient Mariner. In one or two other passages Sir John Davies may be suggestively matched with modern poets. The resemblance of his 38th Epigram to Wordsworth's Power of Music has been already pointed out, and a verse of another modern poem,—

We see all sights from pole to pole,
And glance and nod and bustle by,
And never once possess our soul
Before we die,—

recalls a passage in the Elegy "Of Human Knowledge":—

We that acquaint ourselves with every Zone,
And pass both Tropics, and behold the Poles,
When we come home are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.