Sunday, March 14, 2021

On the sidelines

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Frome, 14 March 2021.

Nahum Tate (1652 - 1715) is one of those English Literature names that tends to crop up when you're thinking about someone else. But I've enjoyed the evening I spent in his company.

Probably he's best known to students as the author of The History of King Lear (1681), his adaptation of Shakespeare which held sway for the next century or more. At the end Cordelia is saved from being hanged, marries her beloved Edgar and becomes sovereign, with her old father in tranquil retirement. It might provoke derision in the classroom, but it's a pretty good play and I enjoyed seeing the well-known characters in scenes that Shakespeare never wrote. 

[Enter Kent and Gloster.]
Nay, good my Lord, your Charity
O'reshoots it self to plead in his behalf;
You are your self a Father, and may feel
The sting of disobedience from a Son
First-born and best Belov'd: Oh Villain Edgar!
Be not too rash, all may be forgery,
And time yet clear the Duty of your Son.
Plead with the Seas, and reason down the Winds,
Yet shalt thou ne're convince me, I have seen
His foul Designs through all a Father's fondness:
But be this Light and Thou my Witnesses
That I discard him here from my Possessions,
Divorce him from my Heart, my Blood and Name.
It works as I cou'd wish; I'll shew my self.
Ha Edmund! welcome Boy; O Kent see here
Inverted Nature, Gloster's Shame and Glory,
This By-born, the wild sally of my Youth,
Pursues me with all filial Offices,
Whilst Edgar, begg'd of Heaven and born in Honour,
Draws plagues on my white head that urge me still
To curse in Age the pleasure of my Youth.
Nay weep not, Edmund, for thy Brother's crimes;
O gen'rous Boy, thou shar'st but half his blood,
Yet lov'st beyond the kindness of a Brother.
But I'll reward thy Vertue. Follow me.
My Lord, you wait the King who comes resolv'd
To quit the Toils of Empire, and divide
His Realms amongst his Daughters, Heaven succeed it,
But much I fear the Change.

(From the opening scene)

Anyway, Nahum Tate's an author who unobtrusively deserves well of us. He most likely wrote the words of the carol "While shepherds watched their flocks by night". He wrote the libretto (originally a play) for Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. He wrote most of the second part of Absalom and Achitophel (1682), which isn't often read but is certainly worth reading (happily, it's included in the The Works of John Dryden on my bookshelf, and can be read online here).

(The cabals . . .)

See where involv'd in Common Smoak they sit ;
Some for our Mirth, some for our Satyr fit ;
These Gloomy, Thoughtfull and on Mischief bent,
While those for mere good Fellowship frequent
Th' appointed Clubb can let Sedition pass,
Sense, Non-sence, anything t' employ the Glass ;
And who believe in their dull honest Hearts,
The Rest talk Treason but to show their Parts ;
Who ne'er had Wit or Will for Mischief yet,
But pleased to be reputed of a Set.     

(Absalom and Achitophel, The Second Part, 524-533)

And then there's his delightful Panacea, A Poem Upon Tea (1700). 

(Venus is speaking, during an Olympian debate:)

"Look down ye Pow'rs, the British Ladies View,
"See there the Effects of this Celestial Dew!
"See there how grateful Tea, their choice Delight,
"It's gen'rous Patronesses does requite!
"Sublimes their Native Charms; and makes 'em shine
"As bright, almost, as lasting too as mine.
"Who then but Beauty's Goddess, can pretend
"A Title to the Plant that's Beauty's Friend?
"To me, ye Pow'rs, this Prize you must assign,
"For that which thus can Beauty's Charms refine,
"And keep them ever young, for ever should be mine.

 (from Panacea, Canto II)


Where this all started, however, was with a morning dream in which the words Nosce Teipsum kept resounding. In my dream, strangely, I understood that the second word should be pronounced tay-ip-some. But when I woke up, I remembered that in my waking life I'd always pronounced it type-some. I did read Sir John Davies' poem once, but I was very young and couldn't concentrate, so not much went in. 

Anyway, my curiosity was reignited, so I read the poem properly in Grosart's edition on Google Books. Only afterwards did I discover that there is a complete digitized online text, in Nahum Tate's 1697 edition. The text is by no means perfect, but it's serviceable. I suppose it didn't show up in my initial searches because its title isn't Nosce Teipsum but The Original, Nature, and Immortality of the Soul. The appreciative introduction was, Tate said, "written by an ingenious and learned Divine". Tate himself didn't really contribute much, except for a prefatory poem lamenting the decayed state of poetry in his own time: 

No Spencer's Strength, or Davies, who sustain'd Wit's Empire when Divine Eliza reign'd.


Nosce Teipsum (1599) -- the title means "Know Thyself" -- is another poem that stands on the sidelines of English Literature, but in a very different way from Nahum Tate. It was admired in its time, and to this day everyone who reads it reports its excellence, but few people do read it. 

Sir John Davies (1569 - 1626) wrote it in his late twenties. It's a long poem, about a hundred pages in Grosart's edition, and it's about the soul. Davies tells us that it was Dame Affliction that forced his mind to turn within, and I should think that's true. For as he says, we tend to avoid thinking about our own souls. 

And as the Man loves least at Home to be,
That hath a sluttish House, haunted with Sprites;
So she, impatient her own Faults to see,
Turns from her self, and in strange things delights.

For this few know themselves: For Merchants broke,
View their Estate with Discontent and Pain;
And Seas as troubled, when they do revoke
Their slowing Waves into themselves again.

And while the Face of outward things we find
Pleasing and fair, agreeable and sweet,
These things transport, and carry out the Mind,
That with her self, the Mind can never meet.

Reading through the hundred pages of close argument is a serious business, but it was far easier than I'd expected. The lucidity of the verse is astounding. I suppose Davies owes something to Samuel Daniel. It's remarkably different to most of his great contemporaries in 1599: the airy but knotty diatribes of Donne, the tortuosities of Fulke Greville or Chapman (also "philosophical" poets), even the clotted style that Shakespeare was beginning to dally with at about this time. 

If Nosce Teipsum is a little-read poem it isn't because of difficulty, nor dryness --  that image of the revoking waves is wonderful. More likely it's because the idea of a poem on the soul is off-putting. Isn't that only a topic for the deranged? 

"The ideas you come up with, really, Maxi. What do you care if the soul comes from here or over there? What are you going to line your pockets with for finding out? Do you think they're going to give you something for discovering it?" (Fortunata and Jacinta)

... We're all right with the mind, the self, the ego, but we don't altogether believe in the soul, and it sounds like Davies' poem is going to be religious (which it is). 

And yet, if we re-frame the poem as being about the mystery of consciousness, the nature of humanity, the goal of being alive, then we can perhaps concede that these are still critically important topics, even if we don't quite want to think about them. 

Some of the poem's strongest arguments are about the soul's immortality. Here's Davies considering the objection that, after the death of our bodies, our souls, even if they persist, will have no inputs (e.g the senses) and so will not be alive in any meaningful sense. 

But how, till then, shall she her self employ?
Her Spies are dead, which brought home News before:
What she hath got, and keeps, she may enjoy,
But she hath Means to understand no more.

Then what do those poor Souls, which nothing get?
Or what do those which get, and cannot keep?
Like Buckets bottomless, which all out-let;
Those Souls, for want of Exercise, must sleep.

See how Man's Soul against it self doth strive:
Why should we not have other Means to know?
As Children, while within the Womb they live,
Feed by the Navil: Here they feed not so.

These Children, if they had some use of Sense,
And should by chance their Mother's talking hear,
That in short time they shall come forth from thence,
Would fear their Birth, more than our Death we fear.

They would cry out, If we this place shall leave,
Then shall we break our tender Navil-strings:
How shall we then our Nourishment receive,
Since our sweet Food no other Conduit brings?

And if a Man should to these Babes reply,
That into this fair World they shall be brought,
Where they shall view the Earth, the Sea, the Sky,
The glorious Sun, and all that God hath wrought:

That there ten thousand Dainties they shall meet,
Which by their Mouths they shall with pleasure take;
Which shall be cordial too, as well as sweet;
And of their little Limbs, tall Bodies make:

This World they'd think a Fable, ev'n as we
Do think the Story of the Golden Age;
Or as some sensual Spirits 'mongst us be,
Which hold the World to come, a feigned Stage:

Yet shall these Infants after find all true,
Tho' then thereof they nothing could conceive:
As soon as they are born, the World they view,
And with their Mouths, the Nurses Milk receive.

So when the Soul is born (for Death is nought
But the Soul's Birth, and so we should it call)
Ten thousand things she sees beyond her Thought;
And in an unknown manner, knows them all.

Then doth she see by Spectacles no more,
She hears not by report of double Spies;
Her self in Instants doth all things explore;
For each thing's present, and before her lies.

(from Sect. XXXII)

I feel sure that this poetry requires our engagement in the topic, it cannot be just imbibed for an aesthetic payoff with copious "suspension of disbelief". No, let's by all means disbelieve or believe, let's argue with it. 

I don't agree, for instance, with Davies' assurance that human beings are the only earthly creatures to have the intellectual powers of the soul (wit and will):

BVT now I have a Will, yet want a Wit,
T' express the working of the Wit and Will;
Which, though their Root be to the Body knit,
Use not the Body, when they use their Skill.

These Pow'rs the Nature of the Soul declare,
For to Man's Soul these only proper be;
For on the Earth no other Wights there are
That have these Heav'nly Pow'rs, but only we.

(from Sect. XXIV)

(The first line of this extract is a rare but typically modest joke.)

Will, in Davies' terms, means the power of choosing: it's an intellectual faculty, not mere desire. What he's really denying here is animal intelligence, and so elsewhere he denies animals the kind of souls that are directly infused by God and are immortal. It has taken a long time for us to begin to see how animal (and plant) intelligence manifests; we've been too insistent on it being like our own. 

When this perspective leads to seeing man as king over the earth's creatures, it sends a chill down my spine. 

Besides, this World below did need one Wight,
Which might thereof distinguish ev'ry part;
Make use thereof, and take therein delight;
And order things with Industry and Art:

Which also God might in his Works admire,
And here beneath yield him both Pray'r and Praise;
As there, above, the holy Angels Choir
Doth spread his Glory forth with spiritual Lays.

Lastly, The brute, unreasonable Wights,
Did want a visible King, o're them to reign:
And God himself thus to the World unites,
That so the World might endless Bliss obtain.

(from Sect. IX)

This describes man's (in effect) exploitation of the earth as to "order things with Industry and Art": not for greed or the pursuit of riches, but for God's glory. 

It says that God wanted prayer and praise, but couldn't get them from the other creatures on the earth. 

It says that the animals (lacking intellectual souls) couldn't know the invisible king, i.e. God. They needed a visible king, i.e. man. 

These are stronger positions than I wish to admit. It's perfectly true that animals show little sign of being religious in our own terms, or of worshipping the kind of God that we conceive. But who's to say that our conceptions of God are privileged? Who's to say that other creatures don't interact with God in their own way, and that a planet without man might be fully as pleasing to God, so far as prayer and praise are concerned? 

As to the visible king (from whom the animals mostly flee in well-judged terror). It does remind me of what Maurice Maeterlinck says about our friend the dog: "He is the only living being that has found and recognizes an indubitable, tangible, unexceptionable and definite god." But the remarkable dog-and-man relationship is founded on a canine potential that man had nothing to do with, originally. Wolves have bonds of similar or greater strength and complexity, but they function within the wolf pack and man has no part in them. (Though it is possible to join a pack: see e.g. Shaun Ellis, The Man Who Lives With Wolves). 


To me, the problem is symbolised by two words I keep stumbling across in scientific and official papers: “underfished” and “underexploited”. These are the terms fisheries scientists use for populations that are not “fully fished”. The words people use expose the way they think, and what powerful, illuminating, horrible words these are. They seem to belong to another era, when we believed in the doctrine of dominion: humans have a sacred duty to conquer and exploit the Earth.

(George Monbiot in the Guardian, 7 April 2021:



Yes, let's agree and disagree with Davies. But at the same time, it's not sufficient to view Nosce Teipsum simply as philosophy and to ignore its poetic form. 

If we do so, we must see Nosce Teipsum as a synthesis of timebound arguments that were already fighting a rearguard action when Davies composed his poem. 

Louis I. Bredvold in 1923 was presumably right to identify Davies' indebtedness to Peter de la Primaudaye and Philippe de Mornay, or to something very like them; sources he characterizes as "popularized Christian theology". 

Nahum Tate's edition of Nosce Teipsum was one of several in the second half of the seventeenth century, evidently motivated by dismay at recent developments in philosophy such as Hobbesian materialism. But, as philosophy, Davies was already out of date. Philosophy had already moved on, and was either denying the soul's immortality or finding new reasons to affirm it, but in both cases on grounds of which Davies could have no inkling. (As explained by Richard H. Perkinson in 1939.)

But there's "more in heaven and earth". Nosce Teipsum, as poetry, continues to challenge its readers in ways that perhaps aren't philosophical in a narrow sense but are suggestive. As that image of the choppy waves suggests, there really is an intrinsic difficulty with the self understanding the self. Isn't there? And that, in a roundabout way, could after all form the germ of a critique of Hobbesian materialism. 


One of the counter-arguments that Davies engages with concerns what he calls "dotage" i.e. senility or (the preferred term nowadays) dementia. Isn't this evidence that the soul is not immortal, but decays like the body?

Davies' argument (Sect XXXII) is that the soul itself, and its ability to judge (wit) and choose (will), are not affected. Rather, the problem lies with the bodily senses, including the "fantasy", the inward sense responsible for imaginings. That could certainly account for the fear and paranoia of some sufferers, but doesn't seem to sufficiently recognize the cognitive aspects of dementia, e.g. memory. At the same time there is a modern consensus that dementia is not a disorder of consciousness, which you could see as in line with Davies, though it would amount to a much narrower definition of the soul's terrain than his. 

Living with a loved one with dementia, we do feel that their self is in there somewhere, especially when it's manifested by a sudden unexpected lucidity. But we also feel that that there is a new person here, the demented one of the everyday present, a person with a new character, painfully similar yet also different from the person we remember from the past. And we feel that the whole of who someone is somehow embraces all these stages through life. What part of them, we wonder, goes forward into immortality? My great-aunt Lydia as she was in her wonder-working youth, or in her final years as a skeleton on a mattress? Does her memory pass into immortality with her soul, and if it doesn't, could she still meaningfully be the same person that other people knew at any stage of her long life? We can't answer these questions, of course. I feel that I do think Aunt Lydia still exists somehow, but perhaps only imaginable as the deepest love in her soul, more or less a correlative to the ache of unsatisfied love on our own side of the veil. But that's a reductive conception; I should remember the "Navil-string". (Perhaps the freed soul doesn't need a memory because they have direct access to all times...) 


Here's another of those natural images that I've found myself dwelling on. Davies is considering how the soul exists within the body. 

Then dwells she not therein, as in a Tent;
Nor as a Pilot in his Ship doth sit;
Nor as the Spider in his Web is pent;
Nor as the Wax retains the Print in it;

Nor as a Vessel Water doth contain;
Nor as one Liquor in another shed;
Nor as the Heat doth in the Fire remain;
Nor as a Voice throughout the Air is spread:

But as the fair and chearful Morning Light
Doth here and there her Silver-Beams impart,
And in an Instant doth her self unite
To the transparent Air, in all, and ev'ry part:

Still resting whole, when Blows the Air divide;
Abiding pure, when th' Air is most corrupted;
Throughout th' Air, her Beams dispersing wide;
And when the Air is toss'd, not interrupted:

So doth the piercing Soul the Body fill,
Being all in all, and all in part diffus'd;
Indivisible, incorruptible still;
Not forc'd, encounter'd, troubled, or confus'd.

And as the Sun above the Light doth bring,
Though we behold it in the Air below;
So from th' Eternal Light the Soul doth spring,
Though in the Body she her Pow'rs do show.

(from Sect. X)

This beautiful image of morning light filling the air does suggest to me a soul that I can believe in, but it also takes away from the soul's individual identity. For if this is how it works it seems arbitrary that my soul fills only my own body. Davies is keen to insist that each person's soul is individual, a position he doubtless thought necessary to defend the Christian story in an orthodox form. (Perhaps it would be harder to see why a shared soul would need salvation; and yet his own account of original sin does suggest that all the souls from Adam are connected, as branches of a single tree, and thus can suffer a general corruption.) Nor is the soul God, though it comes from God -- as the image in the final stanza tries to emphasize.

But at this and a few other moments I do feel the poem comes close to conceiving a spiritual realm in which individuality and identity are not as we see them on earth. A realm in which the spirit cannot be split into individuals, a realm in which the spirit is the Tao, and God, and beyond expression.  


A happy result of searching the internet for what others have said about Nosce Teipsum is that it led me to one of those rare blogs that I deeply regret not having followed since its inception (in 2007). It's "Out the Backroom Window" by Julian Long, a retired teacher, also a poet, who lives in St Louis.

He's now in his eighties, and he survived three strokes in 2019 alone, but his blog is graceful, fiery, ample, acute and learned. It makes a pressing case, as does Davies' poem, not for old knowledge but for old wisdom. He abhors Trumpism;  and is all the more devastating on that subject because his words have no shrillness about them, no hint of a cabal's echo chamber.  Ironically, a longing for old wisdom is also a discernible factor among ordinary people who vehemently support Trump. 


Major plot changes in Nahum Tate's The History of King Lear, just as I remember them from a hasty read.

At the start of the play, Edmund has already commenced casting suspicion on Edgar. (as reflected in the extract above)
Edgar is wooing Cordelia. 
Cordelia (who loves Edgar) is determined not to marry Burgundy, so her refusal to flatter Lear has the conscious motive of making him angry so he'll withhold her dowry.
Cordelia has only one royal suitor, not two. (The King of France is omitted). So after Burgundy refuses to take her without a dowry (as in Shakespeare), Cordelia remains unmarried and in Britain. 
After the abdication scene Cordelia acts coldly to Edgar, who is too forward in showing his delight at the outcome, i.e. the departure of Burgundy.  
The Fool is omitted (some of his lines are reallocated to Kent, etc)
Gloster's fomenting of insurrection against the sisters, prior to his blinding, is more explicit.
Edmund's sexual involvement with both Goneril and Regan has greater prominence in Tate's play.
In Act III Cordelia is out on the heath too, looking for her father. Edmund sends ruffians to capture her (with her maid, Arante) with the intention of raping her during the storm (generally Edmund gets to relish a lot of prospective sex with the three sisters). 
Edgar rescues Cordelia from the ruffians, and she declares her love for him.
Act IV begins with a musical love scene between Edmund and Regan. 
The emphasis on Goneril being better-looking than Regan is more explicit in Tate's play. 
In the battle Lear's forces are commanded by Edgar and Kent. The blinded Gloster resides under a tree during the battle, wishing he could get involved. Cordelia plays no part in the military operations.
Regan and Goneril poison each other (in Shakespeare, Goneril poisons Regan, then commits suicide).
Goneril gives the command to kill Lear and Cordelia. (In Shakespeare it was a joint edict by Edmund and Goneril.)
The execution is interrupted in the nick of time by Albany and Edgar, after Lear has valiantly dispatched two of the executioners. 
Lear invests the royal power in Cordelia and Edgar. Lear asks Gloster and Kent to join him in a tranquil retirement.

[The potential for King Lear to be a tragicomedy was always there, and Shakespeare himself showed the way in later plays like Pericles and Cymbeline. Shakespeare's ending is all the bleaker for not really being called for by the dramatic logic; the death of Cordelia feels almost like an accident, a supplementary horror we knew nothing about until too late ; Lear's storyline was not, like Julius Caesar or Othello or Macbeth, inescapably tragic. At the same time, a happy ending to Lear can only be contemplated by adopting a naive fairy-tale outlook: the death of two daughters casts no shadow, because they were wicked.]


Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Frome, 14 March 2021.

The labiate family tends to be more of a late summer thing, but Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea, Sw: Jordreva) is a welcome exception, flowering on this south-facing bank along with the golden daffodils and the earliest blackthorn blossom.

(Almost throughout British Isles, apart from NW Scotland and close to the west coast of Ireland. Common in the southern half of Sweden, sporadic further north.)

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At 9:20 pm, Blogger Ray Davis said...

A lovely post; thank you. Davies I know & admire, but I may have been too quick to accept the standard dismissals of Tate.

I'm very fond of the two verses which immediately follow "with her self, the Mind can never meet":

Yet if Affliction once her wars begin,
And threat the feebler Sense with sword and fire,
The Mind contracts her self and shrinketh in,
And to her self she gladly doth retire:

As spiders toucht, seek their webs inmost part;
As bees in storms unto their hives return;
As blood in danger gathers to the heart;
As men seek towns, when foes the country burn.

As you probably know, Davies's Gulling Sonnets are a bit less modest in humor and a bit more openly aware of 1599 fashions.

At 8:25 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Thanks Ray. Yes, those are great lines. No I had never heard of the Gulling Sonnets, I'm enjoying reading them... I've just been looking up "withernam" in the OED.


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