Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 9. A Poetical Rapsody; Francis Davison; “A.W.”; Sir Edward Dyer

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Song-Books and Miscellanies

§ 9. A Poetical Rapsody; Francis Davison; “A.W.”; Sir Edward Dyer

The last of the Elizabethan anthologies which need be seriously considered is A Poetical Rapsody issued by two brothers, Francis and Walter Davison, in 1602. Francis Davison was the eldest son of the secretary Davison who was Elizabeth’s scapegoat in the matter of the execution of Mary queen of Scots. In his youth, Francis was sent to travel with his tutor, and it was while abroad that he wrote a prose work, the Relation of Saxony, which was highly praised by Anthony Bacon, and also (according to his letter to the reader) the poems which are collected in the Rapsody. Walter, his younger brother, became, it appears, a soldier in the Low Countries and died young.

The volume opens with a dedicatory sonnet to William Herbert earl of Pembroke; and the first contributor is Sir John Davies, whose work is considered in another chapter of this volume. Then comes the poem called The Lie, which is commonly, but erroneously, supposed to have been written by Ralegh on the eve of his execution; and then two pastorals by Sidney. Soon after these follows a Dialogue between two shepheards, Thenot and Piers in praise of Astrea, which was written by Mary countess of Pembroke, patron and friend of all the poets of the day, the “Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother” of William Browne’s immortal epitaph. It is possible that this dialogue was written for one of queen Elizabeth’s visits to Wilton. Francis and Walter Davison themselves contribute a large number of poems: eclogues, “sonnets,” odes, elegies, madrigals and epigrams, translations from Horace, Martial, Petrarch, Jodelle and others—the work, mainly, of persons of taste and education rather than of poets born, though one song, In praise of a beggar’s life, has become familiar to many through its quotation by Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler, as “Frank Davison’s song, which he made forty years ago.” One of Francis Davison’s eclogues—written in a form of the long and elaborate stanza over which the poets of the day had great mastery—is a specially good example of the ease with which they moved amid the conventions of pastoralism. The shepherd Eubulus is no other than Elizabeth’s late counsellor, secretary Davison, and his cruel mistress is the queen. It is a touching and manly plea for the poet’s own disgraced father, written in form which could deceive nobody. A specimen of unusual ingenuity is the long poem called Complaint, ascribed, in the Rapsody, to Francis Davison, and, in Davison’s own manuscript, to “A. W.” Not only the eight rime-endings, but the actual words that compose them, are the same in each of the eight stanzas. The age delighted in echoes, and was constantly experimenting in metre and rime, but, usually, with more artistic purpose than in this instance. The madrigals of the brothers were very popular and are found in many of the song-books.

The miscellaneous contributors to A Poetical Rapsody include Greene (with a translation of Anacreon, from Orpharion) Campion, Henry Wotton, T[homas] S[pilman] or Spelman (a kinsman of the Davisons, who also translated Anacreon), Spenser, Constable and Charles Best, with, possibly, Joshua Sylvester and Ralegh (to the dialogue, “Shepherd, what’s Love, I pray thee tell,” we have referred before, and the volume contains another of the many poems which the opinion of the time was ready to attribute to Ralegh). But the largest and the most remarkable contributor is the mysterious “A. W.,” whom all efforts have failed to identify, but whose songs worthily found place in many anthologies and song-books of the age. The earlier part of the volume contains a number of eclogues, the name of the shepherd being Cuddy. In these, the author shows himself a close student and follower of Spenser. Rustic or antique phraseology is almost unknown in England’s Helicon. Of the thirty-five words and phrases given by Bullen in the glossarial index to his edition of that book, four, at the most, were not in common use in the educated speech of the time. “A. W.” delights in flavouring his eclogues, like Spenser, with words that shall be racy of the soil. Later in the volume we find a number of anonymous poems, heralded by three admirable Petrarchian sonnets, all of which are attributed to “A. W.” in the manuscript list compiled by Francis Davison. There is a wide difference between these poems. It is difficult to believe that the three sets of hexameters on the death of Sidney are the work of the same author as The Tomb of Dead Desire or the madrigal, “Thine eyes so bright”; and it is not impossible that the “A. W.” of Francis Davison’s list stands, not for the initials of a single poet, but for the words, “anonymous writers.” A curious fact is that the poem mentioned above, which Izaak Walton ascribes to Davison himself, is initialled “A. W.” by Davison in his list, and appears among the group in the Rapsody ascribed to that author. If these poems were, indeed, the work of a single author, he is sufficiently interesting to demand further research. His range is wide—from the solemn measures of a poem to Time, which, with others, recalls strongly the antithetical, paradoxical work of years before, to the sweetest of little madrigals, that sing themselves irresistibly. He indulges, too, in some use of classical metres. To his hexameters we have referred. He uses, also, a metre which he calls the Phaleuciack:

  • Time nor place did I want, what held me tongue-tied?
  • and, on one occasion, he rimes the lines of this structure, prefixing an apology to his lady for “so strange a metre.” A set of sapphics upon the passion of Christ shows, also, that he was affected by the movement which started with Spenser and Gabriel Harvey and led even Campion astray for a while. His translations from Anacreon can hardly be set beside Thomas Stanley’s.

    In treating the lyrics of the song-books and miscellanies we have dealt almost exclusively with what may be called the renascence elements in them, the gaiety, the paganism, the use of mythology and classical allusion. It must not be supposed, however, that the more peculiarly English note, as it is commonly considered—the reflective, religious and didactic note—is absent. It is frequent even in the song-books, William Byrd in particular having, clearly, a fondness for sad subjects as vehicles for his music. In his First Book we find the famous poem by Sir Edward Dyer, “My mind to me a kingdom is,” a perfect type of the moral poetry—the poetry of independence of character and sobriety of life—which was common at the time, and of which Samuel Daniel’s poem To the Lady Margaret Countess of Cumberland, beginning “He that of such a height hath built his mind,” Campion’s The man of Life upright, Sir Henry Wotton’s “How happy is he born and taught,” are other notable instances. Byrd’s Second Book is largely composed of short moral and didactic poems; and it is plain that this reflective vein ran as steadily in the heyday of Elizabethan glory as in earlier years. Barnfield’s Ganymede is treated in The Affectionate Shepheard to a discourse on morality in the second day’s lament which gives, perhaps, a truer picture of the genuine sentiments and character of that respectable man and good poet than the remainder of the poem. And, as the heyday passed towards sunset, as the ebullient joy in life and love died down, and the glory of the reign was clouded by troubles and shadows of coming evils, this note is heard more clearly. The last decade of Elizabeth’s reign was a time of thought and reflection, even of apprehension; and instead of, or side by side with, the notes of apparently “careless rapture,” we find the graver poetry of men of piety and philosophy.