Why Did My Parents Send Me To The Schools? by John Davies

Why did my parents send me to the Schools,
That I with knowledge might enrich my mind?
Since the desire to know first made men fools,
And did corrupt the root of all mankind:

Even so by tasting of that fruit forbid,
Where they sought knowledge, they did error find;
Ill they desir’d to know, and ill they did;
And to give Passion eyes, made Reason blind.

For then their minds did first in Passion see
Those wretched shapes of misery and woe,
Of nakedness, of shame, of poverty,
Which then their own experience made them know.

But then grew Reason dark, that she no more,
Could the faire forms of Good and Truth discern;
Bats they became, that eagles were before:
And this they got by their desire to learn.

All things without, which round about we see,
We seek to know, and how therewith to do:
But that whereby we reason, live and be,
Within our selves, we strangers are thereto.

We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ebs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint our selves with every Zone
And pass both Tropics and behold the Poles
When we come home, are to our selves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.

We study Speech but others we persuade;
We leech-craft learn, but others cure with it;
We interpret laws, which other men have made,
But read not those which in our hearts are writ.

Is it because the mind is like the eye,
Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees −
Whose rays reflect not, but spread outwardly:
Not seeing itself when other things it sees?

No, doubtless; for the mind can backward cast
Upon her self her understanding light;
But she is so corrupt, and so defac’t,
As her own image doth her self affright.

Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem


How well do you know yourself?  As Facebook says, “it’s complicated.”  Since the oracle of Delphi uttered ‘Nosce Te Ipsum!’ (know thyself!) our best and finest writers have struggled to articulate the quest.  Into this fray came John Davies in the late 16th century.  A contemporary of William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, Davies composed a 2,000 line poem that takes us to task on self-knowledge.

For the next three days, we look to Davies’ poem for insight.  In The Word in the Wilderness, Malcom Guite wrote:

What we need is the kind of self-knowledge that would lead us to understand that we are not self-made, and would put ourselves and our world into better perspective. Davies exclaims upon the strange paradox of our sophisticated knowledge of the world set against our wilful self-ignorance, and, anticipating both Freud and Jung, suggests that we prefer to hide ourselves rather than know ourselves because we are afraid of what we might find:

For the mind can backward cast
Upon her self her understanding light;
But she is so corrupt, and so defac’t,
As her own image doth her self affright.

Davies’ response to this insight is not flight or cynicism, the two characteristic responses of our own age, but rather courageous exploration.

How has your understanding of yourself evolved?

Proverbs 20:5

Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.

Dig Deeper: Literature & Liturgy

John Davies

John Davies

(1569–1626). The Englishman John Davies distinguished himself as a poet and as a statesman. His famous work Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing reveals a typically Elizabethan pleasure in the contemplation of the correspondence between the natural order and human activity.

Davies was born in April 1569 in Tisbury, Wiltshire, England. Educated at the University of Oxford, he was called to the bar in 1595. On the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, Davies was one of the messengers who carried the news to James VI of Scotland, who succeeded Elizabeth as James I. James received him with great favor, sent him to Ireland as solicitor general, and conferred a knighthood on him. In 1606 Davies was made attorney general for Ireland. He took an active part in the Protestant settlement of Ulster, a province in the northeastern part of the island of Ireland, and wrote several tracts on Irish affairs. He entered the Irish Parliament and was elected speaker in 1613, and after he returned to England he sat in the English Parliament of 1621. He was appointed lord chief justice in 1626 but died later that year, on December 8, before taking office.

Much of Davies’ early poetry consisted of epigrams. Epigrammes and Elegies by J.D. and C.M. (1590?) contained both Davies’ work and posthumous works by Christopher Marlowe; it was one of the books the archbishop of Canterbury ordered burned in 1599. Orchestra (1596) is a poem in praise of dancing set against the background of Elizabethan cosmology and its theory of the harmony of the spheres. In Nosce teipsum (1599; Know Thyself), he gave a lucid account of his philosophy on the nature and immortality of the soul. In the same year he published Hymnes of Astraea in Acrosticke Verse, a series of poems in which the initials of the first lines form the words Elisabetha Regina in honor of Queen Elizabeth. A volume of his collected poems was published in 1622.

“Davies, John,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

 

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page

Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith

 

51vg-xoskvl-_sy346_For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.

Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.

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