Sir John Davies Essay - Critical Essays


Sir John Davies’ minor poetry falls into three general classes: dramatic entertainments written for court ceremonies or celebrations, occasional poems which he sent to prominent people, and satires commenting on a literary fashion or topical scandal. Of the entertainments which can be clearly attributed to Davies, the most important are “The Epithalamion of the Muses,” presented at the wedding of Elizabeth Vere, daughter of Edward Vere, earl of Oxford, to William Stanley, earl of Derby, and preserved in the commonplace book of Leweston Fitzjames of the Middle Temple; A Contention Betwixt a Widdowe, and a Maide presented at the home of Sir Robert Cecil on December 6, 1602, in honor of Queen Elizabeth; and Yet Other Twelve Wonders of the World, twelve poems in rhymed couplets which were apparently inscribed on a dozen trenchers which Davies presented to the Lord Treasurer on New Year’s Day in 1602 or 1603. John Maynard set Yet Other Twelve Wonders of the World to music in 1611.

Davies’ occasional poems were addressed to influential people such as Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland; Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Chancellor of England; and Sir Edward Coke, attorney general; as well as King James and Queen Anne. His “Gulling Sonnets” belong to the third class of topical poetry. In these sonnets, Davies mocks the conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet sequences which were popular in the 1590’s. These particular poems survived only in manuscript accompanied by a dedication to Sir Anthony Cooke. They must have been written between 1596, when Cooke was knighted, and 1604, when he died. An internal reference to Zepheria (1597), an anonymous sonnet sequence, suggests that they were completed by 1598. Zepheria was probably written by a young law student since it contains an awkward combination of learned legal terms and Petrarchan images.

In his nineteenth century Victorian edition of Davies’ works, Alexander Grosart supplied a commentary on Davies which unfortunately has dominated twentieth century critical opinion of the poet’s major works. Orchestra, a dialogue between Penelope and one of her wooers, is, according to Grosart, a jeu d’esprit which Davies tossed off in his youth. Grosart insisted that Davies’ most valuable work was Nosce Teipsum and that the chief merit of this exhaustive compendium of knowledge about the soul and immortality was its originality. Responding to Grosart’s claim, modern academic scholarship on Davies has largely consisted of arguments that Davies’ ideas derive from Plato, Aristotle, Pierre de la Primaudaye, Philippe du Plessis-Mornay, and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.

Underlying the approach to Davies which Grosart initiated is the assumption that a sixteenth century writer would have aimed at or even particularly valued originality. Davies, however, belonged to an age which suspected novelty, valued intellectual tradition, and sought to imitate poetic models rather than to express personal feelings. Poets consciously modeled themselves on previous poets. Edmund Spenser, who hoped to win the title of the English Vergil, began by writing pastorals just as his Latin master had done.

In On Poetry and Poets (1957), T. S. Eliot, in what remains the best critical appreciation of Davies’ works, calls attention to his metrical virtuosity, his clarity and purity of diction, and his independence of thought. In shifting the critical issue from originality to independence of thought, Eliot demonstrates historical as well as literary insight. While Davies’ ideas on the soul and immortality are not original, one should not expect them to be. His synthesis of many diverse sources shows intellectual independence.

Each of Davies’ major poems has to be assessed in relation to other works in that particular genre. He consciously works with certain established poetic conventions. His Nosce Teipsum should be examined in relation to other long philosophical poems, such as Lucretius’s De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1682), Aonio Paleario’s De immortalitate animae (1536), Samuel Daniel’s Musophilus: Or, A Defence of Poesie (1599, 1601, 1602, 1607, 1611, 1623), and Fulke Greville’s poetic treatises. Orchestra belongs to the genre of mythological wooing poems, which were later given the name epyllia, or minor epics. In writing Orchestra, Davies did not set out to write a poem about the Elizabethan worldview; he suggests that Orchestra relates a wooing episode that Homer forgot to include in the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) because he wants his readers to associate the poem with other amatory poems popular in England in the 1590’s. Of these, two of the most popular were Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598) and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593). Orchestra, however, lacks the sensuality of these two poems and seems to resemble the more philosophical efforts in the genre, such as Michael Drayton’s Endimion and Phoebe (1595) and George Chapman’s Ovid’s Banquet of Sense (1595). The Hymnes of Astraea belong to a genre treated with disdain by most modern scholars. They are acrostic lyrics intended as an Accession Day tribute to Queen Elizabeth. Like the many entertainments written to praise Elizabeth’s beauty or her purity, they are intended as courtly compliments and should be approached as artful “trifles,” excellent in their kind.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that Davies was a man of ideas. His poems are intended not only to delight but also to teach and to inform. Critics who associate poetry with the expression of feelings or the description of scenery may find his verse less immediately accessible. He thrived on formal restraints; to appreciate his poetry requires a sensitivity to the technical difficulties of writing verse. It also requires that the reader accept verse in which, in Eliot’s words, “thought is not exploited for the sake of feeling; it is pursued for its own sake.”

Epigrammes and Elegies

Davies’ Epigrammes and Elegies appeared without a date and with a title page reading “At Middleburgh.” No satisfactory explanation has been offered for the posthumous combination of Christopher Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s Elegies with Davies’ Epigrammes and Elegies. It is unlikely that the first edition was a piracy because Epigrams 47 and 48, which balance 1 and 2 in the printed text, seem to have been written specifically for the printed edition; they are absent from all four of the most important manuscripts. Although some of the epigrams may have dated from his school days, the majority were probably written between 1594 and 1595.

The poems are obviously modeled on Martial’s epigrams, but Davies supplies details of sixteenth century English life. In “Meditations of a Gull,” he describes a young gentleman consumed by “melancholy,” a young man uninterested in politics who wears a cloak and a “great black feather.” He is clearly describing the type of young man who pretends to be an intellectual, rather than a specific caricature. Davies, in fact, claims that his epigrams tax under “a peculiar name,/ A generall vice, which merits publick blame.” In June, 1599, the bishop of London and the archbishop of Canterbury ordered that “Davyes Epigrams and Marlowe’s Elegyes” be burned. Since they seem less obscene than other works so condemned, it may be that one of the epigrams contained a libelous allusion unrecognizable today. Practice in this genre, which requires condensation and lucidity, assisted Davies in developing talents which he demonstrated more forcefully in Nosce Teipsum and Orchestra, but the Epigrammes and Elegies still have some interest because of the clever way in which they mirror life in sixteenth century London.

Nosce Teipsum

Nosce Teipsum was first printed in 1599, approximately one year after Davies was expelled from the Middle Temple. The poem has frequently been described as an attempt on Davies’ part to “repair his fortunes with his pen,” thus assuming that Davies wrote it to show that he repented his assault on Martin and that he had completed his reformation. The poem contains what could be interpreted as an autobiographical reference: Affliction is described as having taken the narrator by the ear to teach him a lesson. There is substantial evidence, however, that the poem was begun long before Davies attacked Martin and that it was revised over a period of several years.

The question of literary form has received little attention in discussions of Nosce Teipsum, but an understanding of the nature of the poem’s form and structure is crucial. First, the argument, or organization of ideas, does not define the form. It is impossible to outline Nosce Teipsum thematically without reaching the conclusion that the poem is a...

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