Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Mary Augusta Ward
Sir John Davies (15701626)
[Born at Tisbury, Wiltshire, and educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford. After a somewhat riotous youth, he gained the friendship and patronage of Lords Mountjoy and Ellesmere, and became Solicitor- and Attorney-General for Ireland under James. On the dismissal of Chief Justice Crew by Charles I in Nov. 1626, Sir John Davies, who had distinguished himself by zealous championship of anti-popular views, was appointed his successor. He did not live however to enter upon the office, dying suddenly of apoplexy in the following month. The Orchestra, or a Poeme of Dauncing was licensed 1593, published 1596; Nosce Teipsum was published 1599; Hymns to Astraea 1599. Davies was a contributor to Englands Helicon (1600) and to Davisons Poetical Rhapsody (1602). An edition of his works appeared in 1622, and a modern complete edition, containing hitherto unpublished matter, was made by Mr. Grosart in 1869 (republished 1876).]
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 Brookes, 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 authors 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 the 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 will 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 Brookes 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 Brookes 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 gall.
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 falln 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 authors youth, a sudden rash half-capreol of my wit, as he calls it in the dedication. It is 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 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 Wordsworths 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: