restricted access Sir John Davies
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860 ] Sir John Davies1 Chief Justice Davies died on December 7, 1626. He left a number of poems, a philosophical treatise, “Reason’s Academy,” some legal writings, and severallongStatePapersonIreland .2 Asapublicservanthehadadistinguished career; but very likely the poem which has preserved his memory, Nosce Teipsum, was what commended him3† to King James. Possibly James was more appreciative of learning than of poetical merit but, in any case, he recognized merit in a poet who was, in some respects, as out of place in his own age as he is in ours. Davies’s shorter poems are usually graceful and occasionally lovely, but they are so completely eclipsed even by the modest reputation of Nosce Teipsum and Orchestra that they are never chosen as anthology pieces. Nosce Teipsum, by its gnomic utterance and its self-contained quatrains, lends itself to mutilation: but a stanza or two is all that has been anthologized .4† Probably all that most readers know of Davies is represented by the two stanzas in the Oxford Book of English Verse: I know my soul hath power to know all things, Yet she is blind and ignorant in all: I know I’m one of Nature’s little kings, Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall. I know my life’s a pain and but a span; I know my sense is mock’d in everything; And, to conclude, I know myself a Man – Which is a proud and yet a wretched thing.5 Fine and complete as the two stanzas are they do not represent the poem, and no selection of stanzas can represent it. Davies is a poet of fine lines, but he is more than that. He is not one of that second rank of poets who, here and there, echo the notes of the great.6† If there is, in Orchestra, a hint of the influence of Spenser, it is no more than the debt which many Elizabethans owe to that master of versification. And the plan, the versification , and the content of Nosce Teipsum are, in that age, highly original. The poem of Nosce Teipsum is a long discussion in verse of the nature of the soul and its relation to the body. Davies’s theories are not those of [ 861 Sir John Davies the later seventeenth-century philosophers, nor are they very good Aristotelianism. Davies is more concerned to prove that the soul is distinct from the body than to explain how such distinct entities can be united. The soul is a spirit, and, as such, has wit, will, reason and judgment. It does not appear as the “form” of the body, and the word “form” appears in the poem rather in the sense of “representation” (similitudo). The soul is in the body as light is in the air – which disposes of the scholastic question whether the soul is more in one part of the body than another.7 Nor are the problems of sense perception difficult to resolve: Davies is not troubled by the “reception of forms without matter.”8 His contribution to the science of acoustics is the explanation that sounds must pass through the “turns and windings” of the ear – For should the voice directly strike the braine, It would astonish and confuse it much;9 Whether or not Davies borrowed his theories – if they deserve the name of theories – from Nemesius or from some other Early Christian author,10 and whether he got them direct or secondhand, it is evident that we cannot take them very seriously. But the end of the sixteenth century was not a period of philosophic refinement in England – where, indeed, philosophy had visibly languished for a hundred years and more. Considering the place and the time, this philosophical poem by an eminent jurist is by no means a despicable production. In an age when philosophy, apart from theology, meant usually (and especially in verse) a collection of Senecan commonplaces , Davies’s is an independent mind. The merit and curiosity of the poem, however, reside in the perfection of the instrument to the end. In a language of remarkable clarity and austerity Davies succeeds in maintaining the poem consistently on the level of poetry; he never flies to hyperbole or bombast, and he never descends, as he easily might, to the pedestrian and ludicrous. Certain odd lines and quatrains remain in the memory, as: But sith our life so fast away doth slide, As doth a hungry eagle through the wind, (a simile...