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Of Human Knowledge -- Sir John Davies

       
(Poem #1336) Of Human Knowledge
 I know my body's of so frail a kind,
    As force without, fevers within can kill;
 I know the heavenly nature of my mind,
    But 'tis corrupted both in wit and will.

 I know my Soul hath power to know all things,
    Yet is she blind and ignorant in all;
 I know I am 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 with every thing:
 And to conclude, I know myself a MAN,
    Which is a proud, and yet a wretched thing.
-- Sir John Davies
 From Nosce Teipsum ('know thyself'), published in 1599.

 One thing I like about the Elizabethan and metaphysical poets is the
wonderfully _assured_ quality of their verse. The Sonnets are perhaps
the canonical example of this: again and again Shakespeare uses the most
unexpected of words, yet on closer inspection these words are revealed
to be absolutely, incontrovertibly _right_ for their contexts. Even the
lesser poets of those days -- Campion, Peele and yes, John Davies --
seem to have this quality in spades.

 I think it has a lot to do with the intellectual climate of the time.
The late 15th and early 16th centuries saw a confluence of factors --
the humanistic ideals of the Renaissance, the emergence of England as a
seafaring power, the maturing of the English language, the merging of
Italianate and classical prosody with the folk songs and ballads of the
English countryside -- which combined to spark into life a poetry that
was confident and self-assured, exploring brave new themes in a language
perfectly suited to its purpose. English poetry had broken free of the
intellectual and thematic limitations of the Middle Ages, and had yet to
be entangled in the stifling conventions of the Augustan period. A true
golden age, responsible for such gems as today's poem.

thomas.

A biography of Sir John Davies can be found at Luminarium:
http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/daviebio.htm

41 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

David Wright said...

I loved the Davies and your commentary. John Davies seems t'have had a
keen eye/ear for nonsense and overblown conceit, as illustrated in his
wonderful Gulling Sonnets, a crown of poems parodizing
'...the bastard Sonnets of the Rhymers base,
Which in this whisking age are daily born
To their own shames, and Poetry's disgrace...'
such familiar literary conceits as a perverse affection for metaphor:

Gulling Sonnets 6.
by Sir John Davies

The sacred Muse that first made love divine
Hath made him naked and without attire,
But I will clothe him with this pen of mine
That all the world his fashion shall admire.
His hat of hope, his band of beauty fine,
His cloak of craft, his doublet of desire,
Grief for a girdle, shall about him twine,
His points of pride, his eyelet holes of ire,
His hose of hate, his codpiece of conceit,
His stockings of stern strife, his shirt of shame,
His garters of vainglory gay and fleet ;
His pantofles of passions I will frame,
Pumps of presumption shall adorn his feet
And socks of fullness exceeding sweet.

..to ill-chosen conceits, such as this legalistic love rhyme:

VIII.

My case is this, I love Zepheria bright,
Of her I hold my heart by fealty
Which I discharge to her perpetually,
Yet she thereof will never me acquit.
For now supposing I withhold her right,
She hath distrained my heart to satisfy
The duty which I never did deny,
And far away impounds it with despite.
I labour therefore justly to repleve
My heart which she unjustly doth impound,
But quick conceit which now is love's high shrieve
Returns it as esloined, not to be found;
Then, which the law affords, I only crave
Her heart for mine in withernam to have.

...to vapid rhetorical flourishes:

III.

WHAT Eagle can behould her sunbrighte eye,
her sunbrighte eye that lights the world with love,
the world of Love wherein I live and die,
I live and die and divers changes prove,
I changes prove, yet still the same am I,
The same am I and never will remove,
never remove untill my soule doth flye,
my soule doth fly, and I surcease to move,
I cease to move which now am mov'd by you,
am mov'd by you that move all mortall hartes,
all mortall hartes whose eyes yor eyes doth veiwe,
Yor eyes doth veiwe whence Cupid shoots his darts,
whence Cupid shoots his dartes and woundeth those
that honor you and neuer were his foes.

...which reminds us that there was plenty of bad verse back then as
well, and Sir John Davies was sick of it. It is a delight to see that
the New York Review of Books has chosen to reissue D.B. Wyndham Lewis's
wonderful 'The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse." As an
occasional book reviewer, I can attest that there is nothing to make one
appreciate good writing like a periodical innoculation with the bad
stuff.

David Wright

Kathy M Dixon said...

Was just reading your comment about Dickinson's poem "Ample make this bed." How interesting...

You say, "when i hear the poem i hear love and coupling but when i read it in print i see death. isn't that weird?

This is exactly how I feel too.

Thanks for sharing.
Kathy

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