The Soul and the Body by Sir John Davies

I’m flicking through the pages of my  Oxford Book of English Verse  looking for the Poem of the Day. Here’s one I’ve never read before.  I’ve been hoping to alight on a poem that isn’t filled with the longing for the beloved, and stopped briefly at Davies’ Affliction (‘If aught can teach us aught, Affliction’s looks…’) a poem I have before and read, I think, in a Shared Reading group. But my eye was caught by the title of the poem across the page, and so I started to read. I have to let the word ‘soul’ rest in my mind a little, translating itself into something I can understand.

What does ‘soul’ mean to me? If we were having this discussion over dinner in a restaurant we’d be talking about embodiment and energy, about brain and gut, about the place of  thought and feeling in the body. ‘Soul’ – hhm, I love the word, but I’m not sure wha tit means.

Like me, Davies has to use a lot of negatives to arrive at a positive conception.

But how shall we this union well express?
Nought ties the soul; her subtlety is such,
She moves the body, which she doth possess,
Yet no part toucheth, but by virtue’s touch.

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 cheerful morning light
Doth here and there her silver beams impart,
And in an instant doth herself unite
To the transparent air, in all and part;

Still resting whole, when blows the air divide,
Abiding pure, when th’ air is most corrupted,
Throughout the air her beams dispersing wide,
And when the air is tossed, not interrupted:

So doth the piercing soul the body fill,
Being all in all in part diffused,
Indivisible, incorruptible still,
Not forced, encountered, troubled or confused.

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 powers do show.

The line where I got interested was ‘Then dwells she not therein as in a tent’ – call me obsessed with our Bearhunt collapse but I suddenly saw that great marquee  filled with, moved by the wind. Letting that sad image go,  ‘tent’ seemed almost biblical ,  I didn’t imagine a little bivouac in the New Forest, no, rather a huge  desert tent was what I saw, where someone might live for years. The line had connected with me, and now I was willing, able, to read on. I understood – got – all the image-thoughts, the scientific examples of the second stanza, and read on into the third, where, once Davies has thought of  the way a vessel contains water, the  examples get more complicated.

The water leads him to think about the way liquids mix, ‘Nor as one liquor in another shed’, and that seems to lead very quickly to next,’Nor as the heat doth in the fire remain’. I saw clear mental images of ink or wine in a glass of water, spreading slowly, and the slow breath of heat in a dying fire: their movements seemed alike. And then suddenly the most powerful thought so far: ‘Nor as a voice throughout the air is spread’. This is the eighth negative analogy, and Davies has been building to it: is the soul (energy, thought, feeling) like a voice in air?  in some sense , yes. And that potential connection allows the leap to the positive image which expands, to take up as much room in the poem as all the negatives:

But as the fair and cheerful morning light
Doth here and there her silver beams impart,
And in an instant doth herself unite
To the transparent air, in all and part;

Still resting whole, when blows the air divide,
Abiding pure, when th’ air is most corrupted,
Throughout the air her beams dispersing wide,
And when the air is tossed, not interrupted:

Reading these two stanzas I see light, morning, I feel air, the breeze, and even smell stench at ‘corrupted’ and all the time I see his point: you can’t divide light and air. Light,

doth herself unite
To the transparent air, in all and part;

The poem suddenly eems like a very clean sum –  x minus x minus x minus x plus y plus y plus  then a great consolidating equals:

So doth the piercing soul the body fill,
Being all in all in part diffused,
Indivisible, incorruptible still,
Not forced, encountered, troubled or confused.

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 powers do show.

A wonderful certainty fills the penultimate stanza; the soul’s place and way of being seen quite clearly;

Indivisible, incorruptible still,
Not forced, encountered, troubled or confused.

Would a neuroscientist, a human biologist, a mind and body man of our own age, recognise any truth in this?  I think it would be a good poem to read with those  folks.

The last stanza I sort of ignore. For Sir John Davies it is a matter of godhead. As the sun brings light, ‘Though we behold it in the air below’, so ‘th’ eternal Light’ gives us soul, ‘Though in the body she her powers do show.’

I don’t know. I’m thinking of energy and the cosmos – but not very clearly. Scrub that, I am going to stick with the light and air thought.

2 thoughts on “The Soul and the Body by Sir John Davies

  1. Jamie March 5, 2017 / 2:23 pm

    Thank-you so much for introducing me to this wonderful poem! I seem to be going back to the metaphysical poets more recently and it strikes me that quantum science has a fair bit in common with the shape of metaphysical thought – just proves time and disciplines are dangerous dividing lines. The arts/ humanities and the sciences do need each other. Funnily enough when you questioned what such science people of our age might think it put me in mind of an article a friend sent to me this morning:

    https://qz.com/866352/scientists-say-your-mind-isnt-confined-to-your-brain-or-even-your-body/

    I love the image of the soul as sharp and strong and unrelenting – ‘So doth the piercing soul the body fill’ 🙂

    • drjanedavis March 5, 2017 / 2:26 pm

      Thanks for the link, Jamie, and your encouragement.
      I’ll read the article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s