Article Source:
Eliot, T. S. "Sir John Davies".
Elizabethan Poetry: Modern Essays in Criticism. Paul J. Alpers, Ed.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.  321-326.


Sir John Davies


Chief Justice John Davies died on December 7, 1626. He left a number of poems, a philosophical treatise, “Reason’s Academy,” some legal writings, and several long State Papers on Ireland. As a public servant he had a distinguished career; but very likely the poem which has preserved his memory, Nosce Teipsum, was what commended him 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. 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.
Reprinted from On Poetry and Poets by T. S. Eliot, Pp. 149-55, by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. and of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright ©1957 by T. S. Eliot. Originally published in The Times Literary Supplement in 1926.


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.
     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. 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 the later seventeenth-century philosopher, 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. Nor are the problems of sense perception difficult to resolve: Davies is not troubled by the “reception of forms without matter.” 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.
Whether or not Davies borrowed his theories—if they deserve the name of theories—from Nemesius or from some other Early Christian author, 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 es-


pecially 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 which Alexander borrows for his Julius Caesar), or
And if thou, like a child, didst feare before,
Being in the darke, where thou didst nothing see;
Now I have brought thee torch-light, fear no more;
Now when thou diest, thou canst not hud-winkt be.
Davies has not had the credit for great felicity of phrase, but it may be observed that, when other poets have pilfered from him or have arrived independently at the same figure, it is usually Davies who has the best of it. Grosart compares the following two passages showing a simile used by Davies and by Pope:
Much like a subtill 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.
The spider’s touch, how exquisitely fine,
Feels at each thread, and lives along the line.
Davies’s spider is the more alive, though he needs two more lines for her. Another instance is the well-known figure from the Ancient Mariner:
Still as a slave before his lord,
     The ocean hath no blast;
His great bright eye most silently
     Up to the Moon is cast— 
where “most” is a blemish. Davies has (in Orchestra):

For be the Sea that fleets about the Land, 
     And like a girdle clips her solide waist,
Musicke and measure both doth understand;
     For his great chrystall eye is always cast
Up to the Moone, and on her fixèd fast;
     And as she daunceth in her pallid spheere
     So daunceth he about his center heere.
But the mastery of workmanship of Nosce Teipsum and its beauty are not to be appreciated by means of scattered quotations. Its effect is cumulative. Davies chose a difficult stanza, one in which it is almost impossible to avoid monotony. He embellishes it with none of the flowers of conceit of his own age or the next, and he has none of the antitheses or verbal wit with which the Augustans sustain their periods. His vocabulary is clear, choice and precise. His thought is, for an Elizabethan poet, amazingly coherent; there is nothing that is irrelevant to his main argument, no excursions or flights. And, although every quatrain is complete in itself, the sequence is never a “string of pearls” (such as was fashionable in the next age, as in Crashaw’s Weeper); the thought is continuous. Yet no stanza ever is identical in rhythm with another. The style appears plain, even bald, yet Davies’s personal cadence is always there. Many critics have remarked the condensation of thought, the economy of language, and the consistency of excellence; but some have fallen into the error of supposing that Davies’s merit is of prose. Hallam, after praising the poem, says:
     “If it reaches the heart of all, it is through the reason. But since strong argument in terse and correct style fails not to give us pleasure in prose, it seems strange that it should lose its effect when it gains the aid of regular metre to gratify the ear and assist the memory.”
     Hallam’s criticism is topsy-turvy. Hallam’s heart must have been peculiarly inaccessible, or his reason very easily touched. The argument is not strong; had Davies entered the ring of philosophical argument his contemporary, Cardinal Bellarmine, could have knocked him out in the first round. Davies had not a philosophical mind; he was primarily a poet, but with a gift for philosophical exposition. His appeal is, indeed, to what Hallam calls the heart, though we no longer employ that single organ as the vehicle of all poetic feeling. The excellence of the theory of body and soul which Davies expounded is, however, irrelevant. If someone had provided him with a better theory the poem might have been, in one aspect, a better one;


in another aspect it does not matter a fig. The wonder is that Davies, in his place and time, could produce so coherent and respectable’ a theory as he did. No one, not even Gray, has surpassed Davies in the use of the quatrain which he employed for Nosce Teipsum; and no poem in any similar metre (compare The Witch of Atlas) is metrically superior to Orchestra. Even his little acrostic poems on the name of Queen Elizabeth are admirable in grace and melody. And with this genius for versification, with a taste in language remarkably pure for his age, Davies had that strange gift, so rarely bestowed, for turning thought into feeling.
     In the effort to “place” Davies, who appears anomalous, critics have compared him on the one hand to the Senecals, to Chapman and Daniel and Greville, and on the other hand to Donne and the metaphysicals. Neither classification is quite exact. Davies’ only direct debt as a poet seems to be to Spenser, the master of everybody. The type of his thought, and consequently the tone of his expression, separates him from the Senecals. His thought, as we have said, is inferior as philosophy, but it is coherent and free from eccentricity or pose. He thinks like a scholastic, though the quality of his thought would have shocked a scholastic. Chapman, Daniel and Greville, so far as they can be said to have thought at all, thought like Latin rhetoricians. Like the other dramatists, they imbibed from Seneca a philosophy which is essentially a theatrical pose. Hence their language, even when pure and restrained—and Daniel’s is astonishingly pure and restrained—is always orotund and oratorical; their verse is as if spoken in public, and their feelings as if felt in public. Davies’s is the language and the tone of solitary meditation; he speaks like a man reasoning with himself in solitude, and he never raises his voice.
     In the same way Davies may be said to have little in common with Donne. It is not merely Davies’s restraint in the use of simile and metaphor. The verbal conceit, as used by Donne, implies a very different attitude towards ideas from that of Davies, perhaps a much more conscious one. Donne was ready to entertain almost any idea, to play with it, to follow it out of curiosity, to explore all its possibilities of affecting his sensibility. Davies is much more mediaeval; his capacity for belief is greater. He has but the one idea, which he pursues in all seriousness—a kind of seriousness rare in his age. Thought is not exploited for the sake of feeling, it is pursued for its own sake; and the feeling is a kind of by-product, though a by-product worth far more than the thought. The effect of the sequence of the poem is not


to diversify or embellish the feeling: it is wholly to intensify. The variation is in the metrics.
There is only one parallel to Nosce Teipsum, and, though it is a daring one, it is not unfair to Davies. It is the several passages of exposition of the nature of the soul which occur in the middle of the Purgatorio. To compare Davies with Dante may appear fantastic. But, after all, very few people read these parts of Dante, and fewer still get any pleasure out of them: in short, these passages are probably as little read or enjoyed as Nosce Teipsum itself. Of course they are vastly finer, for two quite different reasons—Dante was a vastly greater poet, and the philosophy which he expounds is infinitely more substantial and subtle:

Esce di mano a lui, che Ia vagheggia
    prima che sia, a guisa di fanciulla
    che piangendo e ridendo pargoleggia,

l’anima semplicetta, che sa nulla,
    salvo che, mossa da lieto fattore,
    volentier torna a cio che la trastulla.

Di picciol hene in pria sente sapore;
    quivi s’inganna, e retro ad esso corre,
    se guida o fren non torce suo amore.

From his hands who fondly loves her ere she is in 
    being, there issues, after the fashion of a little child 
    that sports, now weeping, now laughing,

the simple, tender soul, who knoweth naught save that, 
    sprung from a joyous maker, willingly she turneth 
    to that which delights her.

First she tastes the savour of a trifling good; there she 
    is beguiled and runneth after it, if guide or curb turn 
    not her love aside.

It is not in any way to put Davies on a level with Dante to say that anyone who can appreciate the beauty of such lines as these should be able to extract considerable pleasure from Nosce Teipsum

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