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.