Davies, Sir John
Sir John Davies 1569-1626
English poet and nonfiction writer.
Sir John Davies is remembered as the author of two works of philosophical poetry: Orchestra, or a Poeme of Dauncing (1596) and Nosce Teipsum. This Oracle Expounded in Two Elegies (1599). A lawyer by profession, Davies composed these works in the fashion of the time, with the goal of promoting himself socially and professionally. Nevertheless, they have been admired by other poets throughout the centuries, and are now valued for their exposition of the Elizabethan view of the world and the human mind and soul.
Davies was born April 1569 at Chicksgrove, Tisbury, Wiltshire, England. His father was a well-to-do tanner, and his mother was from a prominent family. Davies was educated at Winchester and Queen's College, Oxford. Davies left Oxford after a year and a half without taking a degree and went to London to study law at the New Inn and the Middle Temple. He was called to the bar in July 1595. By this time Davies was known for writing poetry and getting into trouble—he was among those who started the Candlemas riots at the Middle Temple in both 1591 and 1593. Davies's early works were mostly sonnets and satires. His first published works appeared in Epigrammes and Elegies (1595?), a collection that also featured the work of Christopher Marlowe. His poetry and his position at the Middle Temple made him known in society, and Orchestra was well received. In 1598 Davies's social and professional standing took a severe downturn, however, when he publicly attacked and humiliated his sometime friend Richard Martin in the Middle Temple, perhaps because Martin had surpassed him in some way. Davies was disbarred and forced to go into retirement for a period, which he probably spent at Oxford. During this time Davies read, reflected, and wrote two of his better-known works: Nosce Teipsum and Hymnes of Astraea, in Acrosticke Verse (1599). In 1601, with the help of these publications and his powerful friends, Davies was reinstated at the Middle Temple and was elected a member of Parliament. In 1603 Davies was a member of the party that went to meet the new king James I in Scotland, where he was favored by the monarch. The king sent Davies to Ireland, where he stayed from 1603 until 1619, during which time he was knighted and served in a number of important posts, including those of solicitor general, attorney general, and king's sergeant. In 1614 Davies was made speaker of the Irish House of Parliament, where he was responsible for shaping English policy in Ireland. During his stay in Ireland Davies wrote two works of nonfiction: A Discoverie of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued, nor Brought under Obedience of the Crown of England untill the Beginning of His Maiesties Happie Raigne. (1612) and “Discourse of the Common Law,” which was published in Le Primer Report des Cases et Matters Resolves en les Courts del Roy en Ireland (1615). After returning to England in 1619, Davies republished his best-known works. He continued to work as a lawyer and was eventually named Lord Chief Justice. Davies died in 1626.
Davies's first important published work of poetry was Epigrammes and Elegies, a collection of forty-eight epigrams that satirized society. This collection earned Davies the nickname “the English Martial,” from critics who compared him to the Roman poet. His more celebrated work, Orchestra, uses dance imagery to advance the theme of the harmony of the cosmos, despite its apparent disorder. Nosce Teipsum, probably composed after the Martin incident, was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth in an attempt to restore his social and professional status. The work consists of two elegies, “Of Human Knowledge” and “Of the Soul of Man, and the Immortality Thereof,” which explore ideas about the soul, human knowledge, the fall of man, and God. At this time Davies also composed Hymnes of Astraea to please the queen. The initial letters of the lines of each of the twenty-six poems spell “Elisabetha Regina,” and praise the queen using the epithet Astraea, after the virgin goddess of spring. While in Ireland, Davies' poetic output seems to have decreased; however, he did write two important nonfiction works there: A Discoverie of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued, which examines English policy in Ireland over the course of several centuries, and “Discourse of the Common Law,” which argues that English common law should extend to Ireland. Both works remained influential for many generations.
Much of the critical commentary on Davies's work centers upon the fact that he wrote most of his poems to advance himself socially and professionally, and discusses the effect this intent had on his poetry. Many critics have also explored the ways in which the profession of law influenced his work. The philosophical poems Orchestra and Nosce Teipsum have been particularly studied by a number of modern critics. Scholars have admired the energy and assurance of these poems, their rhetorical style, and their exemplification of the Elizabethan world view. There has been much debate on Davies's sources for Nosce Teipsum, and some critics have detected the influence of Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dante, among others. Critics have also debated the importance of Davies's nonfiction works to the development of English policy in Ireland.
*Epigrammes and Elegies (poetry) 1595?
Orchestra, or a Poeme of Dauncing (poetry) 1596
Hymnes of Astraea, in Acrosticke Verse (poetry) 1599
Nosce Teipsum. This Oracle Expounded in Two Elegies (poetry) 1599
A Discoverie of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued, nor Brought under Obedience of the Crown of England untill the Beginning of His Maiesties Happie Raigne. (nonfiction) 1612
Le Primer Report des Cases et Matters Resolves en les Courts del Roy en Ireland (nonfiction) 1615
Nosce teipsum. … Hymnes of Astraea. Orchestra. Not Finished (poetry) 1622
The Works in Verse and Prose of Sir John Davies. 3 vols. [edited by Alexander B. Grosart] (poetry) 1869-76
The Complete Poems of Sir John Davies. 2 vols. [edited by Alexander B. Grosart] (poetry) 1876
The Poems of Sir John Davies [edited by Clare Howard] (poetry) 1941
The Poems of Sir John Davies [edited by Robert Krueger] (poetry) 1975
*This work also contains elegies by Christopher Marlowe.
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SOURCE: Sneath, Elias Hershey. “Of Human Knowledge.” In Philosophy in Poetry: A Study of Sir John Davies's Poem “Nosece Teipsum,” pp. 49-62. 1903. Reprint. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.
[In the following essay, Sneath argues that Nosce Teipsum is a didactic poem and discusses Davies's philosophy in relation to the theology of his time.]
Having thus briefly studied the history of Davies and the sources of influence upon his thinking, let us next turn to a consideration of his philosophical poem. As has been suggested already, his most elaborate and important poem is Nosce Teipsum. This work is a unique production, presenting as it does, in a formal manner, a complete rational psychology or philosophy of mind in verse. It is, therefore, pre-eminently a didactic poem—the aim being to present systematically the author's speculations on the profound problems of the reality, nature, powers, and destiny of mind. The thought is not so much a means to an end as is the poetry. Poetry is used in the service of philosophy more than philosophy is used in the service of poetry. Light is to be thrown on great and vital problems, and poetry is used as the conduit of light.
The poem is divided into two parts—the first, dealing with human knowledge; the second, with the reality, nature, origin, powers, and immortality of the human soul. The first part serves as an...
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SOURCE: Howard, Clare. Introduction to The Poems of Sir John Davies: Reproduced in Facsimile from the First Editions in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, pp. 3-28. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941.
[In the following essay, Howard provides an overview of Davies's life and works.]
In every generation of poets there is one who is not concerned with his loves and sorrows, or with the shy eglantine, or with lilies and the moaning sea; there is one who longs to put into succinct and lasting form his estimate of the universe. Such a one was Sir John Davies. His Nosce teipsum was to the sixteenth century what Gray's Elegy was to the eighteenth and Tennyson's In Memoriam was to the nineteenth, a contemplation which reflected some of the best thought of the period. Davies's poem went into five editions during his lifetime.
Nor did his accomplishment rest on this alone. Orchestra, a poem of considerable length on the ever-popular subject of dancing, was a remarkable tour de force, combining cosmography with “footing.” Davies's epigrams were among the first to delight the wits in the decade of “mad” John Donne. Davies's “gulling” sonnets led the way to a reaction against the excess of sweetness in this form. His Hymnes of Astraea were the most ingenious of all the praises of Elizabeth. In a word, Sir John Davies was clever....
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SOURCE: Wilkes, G. A. “The Poetry of Sir John Davies.” Huntington Library Quarterly 25, no. 4 (August 1962): 283-98.
[In the following essay, Wilkes examines Davies's poetry, discusses his ideas, themes, and influences, and surveys the issues debated by his critics.]
There is no justification at present for calling attention to Sir John Davies as a neglected poet, or for claiming any higher position for him than he now enjoys. As the author of Nosce teipsum he has always had a certain repute, and more recently Orchestra has come into prominence as an aid to the exposition of the Elizabethan world picture. We are in no danger of overlooking Davies or of mistaking his stature: the danger is that we may mistake the kind of poet that he was. The isolation of Orchestra and Nosce teipsum from the rest of his work is tending to place Davies' poetry in a false perspective, and even to promote the misinterpretation of these two poems themselves.
When he published the last edition of his verse in 1622, Davies had completed sixteen years as solicitor-general for Ireland, had sat as a member of the House of Commons, and was shortly to be appointed chief justice. The poems themselves, however, had been written a quarter of a century earlier, in his days as a courtier and a law-student, before he settled down to a serious career. Davies was not a professional poet, nor...
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SOURCE: Thesiger, Sarah. “The Orchestra of Sir John Davies and the Image of the Dance.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 36 (1973): 277-304.
[In the following excerpt, Thesiger analyzes the dance metaphor in Davies's poem Orchestra and relates it to the poem's structure and sources.]
Orchestra, a poem of Dancing, was entered on the Stationers Register in June 1594, and first printed in 1596. Its author, Sir John Davies, was at the time a student and lawyer of the Middle Temple, and his poem was later summed up by his fellow student, John Hoskins, in his book Directions for Speech and Style: ‘This only trick made up J.D.'s poem of dancing; all danceth, the heavens, the elements, mens minds, commonwealths, and so by parts all danceth’.1
The poem, which has an ingenious wit, takes the form of a dialogue between Penelope and her suitor Antinous, which, says Davies, Homer forgot to relate in the Odyssey. Antinous—presented as the model of a courtly lover—attempts through his praise of the art of the dance to persuade Penelope to dance with him. He expounds a view of dance as a universal principle of nature. Dancing is co-existent with the universe itself, and indeed is a structural principle in its making; witness the ordered dancing of the four elements, and the dance of the heavenly spheres. He relates how Love, who made...
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SOURCE: Brink, J. R. “The Rhetorical Structure of Sir John Davies's Nosce Teipsum.” Yearbook of English Studies 4 (November 1974): 52-61.
[In the following essay, Brink analyzes the structure of Nosce Teipsum in terms of the rhetorical theory of Davies's day.]
Although respected by poets like Pope, Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, and Theodore Roethke, Sir John Davies's Nosce Teipsum has not fared well in modern academic criticism.1 Scholars have concentrated almost entirely upon identifying possible classical and continental sources for the poem.2 Alexander Grosart, Davies's nineteenth-century editor, initiated this quest for sources by claiming that the content of Nosce Teipsum was highly original. The effect of making originality the central critical issue, however, has been to shift attention from the specific form of the poem to its general intellectual background. In addition, Nosce Teipsum is a very long poem containing one elegy of forty-five stanzas and another of 436 stanzas. Understandably, this length would discourage the kind of close stylistic analysis which might explain the attraction that Nosce Teipsum has had for practising poets. It is important, then, that we discover the principles of structural patterning which organize the poem so that we can divide it into manageable units for literary analysis.
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SOURCE: Sanderson, James L. “The Social Applications of Poetry.” In Sir John Davies, pp. 83-110. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.
[In the following essay, Sanderson analyzes Davies's use of poetry to further his social status.]
The success a man like Davies sought in the courtly society of Elizabethan England depended not only upon his means and abilities but also upon his social connections. To stand out in London among so many gifted and ambitious men demanded the support and intercessory talents of a patron (or patrons), one who had made his way up Fortune's hill and was willing to give a hand up to another, perhaps by mentioning his name at an opportune moment, by directing some preferment his way, by introducing him to those who might also interest themselves in his career—or, when one was in difficulty for having attacked a fellow student at the Middle Temple—by exerting the right pressure to restore one's lost opportunities.
We have already seen that Davies had succeeded in enlisting the support of powerful and influential men, but of interest is the part Davies' literary talents played in winning and maintaining that support. The relationship of literature and patronage in this period is very important, and one which has received considerable scholarly attention.1 John F. Danby has formulated an interesting classification of Elizabethan poets in terms of their...
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SOURCE: Manning, R. J. “Rule and Order Strange: A Reading of Sir John Davies' Orchestra.” English Literary Renaissance 15, no. 2 (spring 1985): 175-94.
[In the following essay, Manning examines the cosmological patterns reflected in the structure of Orchestra and argues that the moral implications of these patterns directly affect the tone and meaning of the poem.]
To judge from recent critical responses, Davies' Orchestra is something of an enigma. On the one hand, it has been seen as a solemn statement of the theme of Order;1 on the other, as little more than a chaotically exuberant, if finely executed, jeu d'esprit.2 To support the latter view, Professor G. A. Wilkes has referred to the rather flippant reception Nashe and Marston, among others, first accorded the poem.3 But this offers little help. It would be imprudent to trust such men, to whom ridicule was a stock-in-trade, and whose remarks spring not from sound literary judgment, but from professional rivalry and personal animus. In this essay I wish to draw attention to the way Davies structures his poem according to specific cosmological patterns. While much of this article is necessarily descriptive, I argue that these cosmological schemes carry with them precise moral implications that bear directly on the poem's tone and meaning. The rival tendencies, either to ignore these...
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SOURCE: Pawlisch, Hans S. “Sir John Davies, the Ancient Constitution and Civil Law.” In Sir John Davies and the Conquest of Ireland: A Study in Legal Imperialism, pp. 161-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, Pawlisch looks at legal influences on Davies's Le Primer Report des Cases et Matters Resolves en les Courts del Roy en Ireland, here referred to by the title Irish Law Reports.]
The chapters dealing with the case of the Bann fishery and the case of mixed money have demonstrated how Sir John Davies, as Irish Attorney-General, supported both private and public interests in Irish litigation through argument from Roman law. In these and other cases in the Reports, Davies' use of continental law was so extensive as to cast doubt upon the conventional notions of an insular common law mentality put forward by Professor J. G. A. Pocock. In his well-known study, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, Pocock asserted:
There was no reason why a common lawyer should compare his law with that of Europe except an intellectual curiosity arising and operating outside the everyday needs of his profession.1
This assumption that English lawyers practised their trade in a professional climate devoid of all practical contact with European law, is, however, extremely narrow...
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Grosart, Alexander B. “Memorial-Introduction.” In The Complete Poems of Sir John Davies, edited by Alexander B. Grosart, pp. xi-cxxiv. London: Chatto and Windus, 1876.
Summarizes Davies's life and works and offers criticism of his poetry.
Sanderson, James L. “Bérenger de La Tour and Sir John Davies: Two Poets Who Set the Planets Dancing.” Library Chronicle Vol. 37, no. 2 (spring 1971): 116-25.
Compares Orchestra to Choreïde by de La Tour.
Spencer, Theodore. “Two Classic Elizabethans: Samuel Daniel and Sir John Davies.” In Theodore Spencer: Selected Essays, edited by Alan C. Purves, pp. 100-22. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1966.
Discusses Samuel Daniel and Davies as representatives of the beginning and the end of the English Renaissance.
Taylor, A. B. “Sir John Davies and George Chapman: A Note on the Current Approach to Ovids Banquet of Sence.” English Language Notes 12, no. 4 (June 1975): 261-65.
Considers Davies's comments on George Chapman's poem, Ovids Banquet of Sence.
Additional coverage of Davies's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol....
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