1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Davies

Richard Ryan, "Sir John Davies, and his Wife" Poetry and Poets: being a Collection of the choicest Anecdotes relative to the Poets of every Age and Nation (1826) 2:14-18.



SIR JOHN DAVIES, an eminent statesman and judge during the reigns of Elizabeth and James the First, and author of a beautiful poem on the Immortality of the Soul, is one of those early refiners of our verse and language, who, although their style approaches to the polish of modern times, have fallen into unaccountable neglect.

In his youth, while a student in the Temple, he appears to have conducted himself with little discretion; insomuch that he was fined for his disorderly conduct, and removed from Commons. He was, however, called to the bar; but "being," as Wood says, "a high-spirited young man, he did, upon some little provocation or punctilio, bastinado Richard Martin, [the celebrated humourist,] afterwards Recorder of London, in the Common Hall of the Middle Temple, while he was at dinner." For this outrage he was expelled, but soon retrieved his character; and the publication of his "Nosce te-ipsum" introduced him to notice and advancement, which was farther secured by twenty-six "Acrostic Hymns," in praise of the Queen. It has been observed as a singular circumstance, that at twenty-five years of age he wrote a poem on the Immortality of the Soul; and at fifty-two, when a judge and a statesman, another on "The Art of Dancing!"

His wife was a mad enthusiast, who dealt much in the prophetic line. Speaking of her husband's death, which happened suddenly by a fit of apoplexy, Anthony Wood says, — "It was then commonly rumoured, that his prophetical lady had foretold his death, in some manner, on the Sunday going before; for, while she sat at dinner by him, she suddenly burst out with tears; whereupon, he asking her what the matter was, she answered, 'Husband, these are your funeral tears;' to which he made reply, 'Pray, therefore, spare your tears now, and I will be content that you shall laugh when I am dead.'" She survived her husband many years; and some of her prophecies, a collection of which was published in 1649, brought her under the cognizance of the Star Chamber, and subjected her to much harsh and cruel treatment.

While noticing the attacks made by several men on Archbishop Laud, in 1634, Dr. Heylin says, — "That the other sex might whet their tongues upon him also, the Lady Davies, widow of Sir John Davies, Attorney General for King James in the realm of Ireland, scatters a prophecy against him. The lady had before spoken something unluckily of the Duke of Buckingham, importing that he should not live till the end of August, which raised her to the reputation of a cunning woman amongst the ignorant people; and now she prophecies of the new Archbishop, that he should live but few days after the fifth of November; for which, and other prophecies of a more mischievous nature, she was after brought into the Court of High Commission; the woman being grown so mad, that she fancied the spirit of the prophet Daniel to have been infused into her body. And this she grounded on an anagram which she made of her name, viz. Eleanor Davies, — Reveal, O Daniel! — and though the anagram had too much by an L, and too little by an S; yet she found "Daniel" and "reveal" in it, and that served her turn. Much pains were taken by the Court to dispossess her of this spirit; but all would not do, till Lamb, then Dean of the Arches, shot her through and through with an arrow borrowed from her own quiver; for whilst the bishops and divines were reasoning the point with her, out of Holy Scriptures, he took a pen into his hand, and, at last, hit upon this excellent anagram, viz. — Dame Eleanor Davies, — 'Never so mad a ladie'; which having proved to be true by the rules of art, 'Madam,' said he, 'I see you build much on anagrams, and I have found one which I hope will fit you.' This said, and reading it aloud, he put it into her hands in writing; which happy fancy brought that grave court into such a laughter, and the poor woman thereupon into such a confusion, that, afterwards, she was either wiser, or was less regarded."

Here, however, the learned High-church apologist is mistaken. That detestable court did not part with its victims so easily: — she was fined three thousand pounds, and closely imprisoned for two years in the Gate-house, at Westminster. She is, also, said to have been confined several years in Bedlam, and in the Tower of London; and she complained, that during part of her imprisonment, she was denied the use of a bible, and the attendance of female servant.