Sir John Davies

(1569-1626 / England)

Of Humane Knowledge - Poem by Sir John Davies

Why did my parents send me to the Schooles
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:

For when God's hand had written in the hearts
Of the first Parents, all the rules of good,
So that their skill infusde did passe all arts
That ever were, before, or since the Flood;

And when their reason's eye was sharpe and cleere,
And (as an eagle can behold the sunne)
Could have approcht th' Eternall Light as neere,
As the intellectuall angels could have done:

Even then to them the Spirit of Lyes suggests
That they were blind, because they saw not ill;
And breathes into their incorrupted brests
A curious wish, which did corrupt their will.

For that same ill they straight desir'd to know;
Which ill, being nought but a defect of good,
In all God's works the diuell could not show
While Man their lord in his perfection stood.

So that themselves were first to doe the ill,
Ere they thereof the knowledge could attaine;
Like him that knew not poison's power to kill,
Untill (by tasting it) himselfe was slaine.

Even so by tasting of that fruite 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 Miserie and Woe,
Of Nakednesse, of Shame, of Povertie,
Which then their own experience made them know.

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

But we their wretched of-spring, what doe we?
Doe not we still taste of the fruit forbid,
Whiles with fond fruitlesse curiositie
In bookes prophane we seeke for knowledge hid?

What is this knowledge but the sky-stolne fire,
For which the thiefe still chain'd in ice doth sit?
And which the poore rude Satyre did admire,
And needs would kisse but burnt his lips with it.

What is it? but the cloud of emptie raine,
Which when love's guest imbrac't, hee monsters got?
Or the false payles which oft being fild with paine,
Receiv'd the water, but retain'd it not!

Shortly, what is it but the firie coach
Which the Youth sought, and sought his death withal?
Or the boye's wings, which when he did approach
The sunne's hot beames, did melt and let him fall?

And yet, alas, when all our lamps are burnd,
Our bodyes wasted, and our spirits spent:
When we have all the learned volumes turn'd,
Which yeeld mens wits both help and ornament:

What can we know? or what can we discerne?
When Error chokes the windowes of the minde,
The divers formes of things, how can we learne,
That have been ever from our birth-day blind?

When Reasone's lampe, which (like the sunne in skie)
Throughout Man's little world her beames did spread;
Is now become a sparkle, which doth lie
Under the ashes, halfe extinct, and dead:

How can we hope, that through the eye and eare,
This dying sparkle, in this cloudy place,
Can recollect these beames of knowledge cleere,
Which were infus'd in the first minds by grace?

So might the heire whose father hath in play
Wasted a thousand pound of ancient rent;
By painefull earning of a groat a day
Hope to restore the patrimony spent.

The wits that div'd most deepe and soar'd most hie
Seeking Man's pow'rs, have found his weaknesse such:
“Skill comes so slow, and life so fast doth flie,
“We learne so little and forget so much.

For this the wisest of all moralliv men
Said, 'He knew nought, but that he nought did know';
And the great mocking-Master mockt not then,
When he said, 'Truth was buried deepe below.'

For how may we to others' things attaine,
When none of us his owne soule understands?
For which the Diuell mockes our curious braine,
When, 'Know thy selfe' his oracle commands.

For why should wee the busie Soule beleeve
When boldly she concludes of that and this;
When of her selfe she can no judgement give,
Nor how, nor whence, nor where, nor what she is?

All things without, which round about we see,
We seeke to knowe, and how therewith to doe;
But that whereby we reason, live and be,
Within our selves, we strangers are thereto.

We seeke to know the mouing of each spheare,
And the strange cause of th' ebs and flouds of Nile;
But of that clocke within our breasts we beare,
The subtill motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint our selves with every Zoane
And passe both Tropikes and behold the Poles,
When we come home, are to our selves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our owne Soules.

We study Speech but others we perswade;
We leech-craft learne, but others cure with it;
We interpret lawes, which other men have have,
But reade not those which in our hearts are writ.

Is it because the minde is like the eye,
Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees —
Whose rayes reflect not, but spread outwardly:
Not seeing it selfe when other things it sees?


No, doubtlesse; for the mind can backward cast
Upon her selfe, her vnderunderstandingt;
But she is so corrupt, and so defac't,
As her owne image doth her selfe affright.

As in the fable of the Lady faire,
Which for her lust was turnd into a cow;
When thirstie to a streame she did repaire,
And saw her selfe transform'd she wist not how:

At first she startles, then she stands amaz'd,
At last with terror she from thence doth flye;
And loathes the watry glasse wherein she gaz'd,
And shunnes it still, though she for thirst doe die:

Even so Man's Soule which did God's image beare,
And was at first faire, good, and spotless pure;
Since with her sinnes her beauties blotted were,
Doth of all sights her owne sight least endure:

For even at first reflection she espies,
Such strange chimeraes, and such monsters there;
Such toyes, such antikes, and such vanities
As she retires, and shrinkes for shame and feare.

And as the man loves least at home to bee,
That hath a sluttish house haunted with spirits;
So she, impatient her own faults to see,
Turns from her selfe and in strange things delites.

For this few know themselves merchants broke
View their estate with discontent and paine;
And seas are troubled when they doe revoke
Their flowing waves into themselues againe.

And while the face of outward things we find,
Pleasing and faire, agreeable and sweet;
These things transport, and carry out the mind,
That with her selfe her selfe never meet.

Yet if Affliction once her warres begin,
And threat the feebler Sense with sword and fire;
The Minde contracts her selfe and shrinketh in,
And to her selfe she gladly doth retire:

As Spiders toucht, seek their webs inmost part;
As bees in stormes unto hives returne;
As bloud in danger gathers to the heart;
As men seek towns, when foes the country burn.

If aught can teach vs aught, Afflictions lookes,
(Making vs looke into oure selves so neere,)
Teach vs to know our selves beyond all bookes,
Or all the learned Schooles that ever were.

This mistresse lately pluckt me by the eare,
And many a golden lesson hath me taught;
Hath made my Senses quicke, and Reason cleare,
Reform'd my Will and rectifide my Thought.

So doe the winds and thunders cleanse the ayre;
So working lees settle and purge the wine;
So lop't and pruned trees doe flourish faire;
So doth the fire the drossie gold refine.

Neither Minerva nor the learned Muse,
Nor rules of Art, nor precepts of the wise;
Could in my braine those beames of skill infuse,
As but the glance of this Dame's angry eyes.

She within lists my ranging minde hath brought,
That now beyond my selfe I list not goe;
My selfe am center of my circling thought,
Only my selfe I studie, learne, and know.

I know my bodie's of so fraile a kind,
As force without, feavers within can kill;
I know the heauenly nature of my minde,
But 'tis corrupted both in wit and will:

I know my Soule hath power to know all things,
Yet is she blinde 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 paine and but a span,
I know my Sense is mockt with every thing:
And to conclude, I know myself a Man,
Which is a proud, and yet a wretched thing.


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Poem Submitted: Thursday, April 22, 2010



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