Sir John Davies Davies, Sir John - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

*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.

Elias Hershey Sneath (essay date 1903)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 introduction to the second. In it the poet takes an exceedingly discouraging view of human knowledge and of the mind's capacity to know. Knowledge is mixed with error and man's reason is dark. This fact admits of explanation. It was not always so. Once man possessed a God-infused knowledge, surpassing anything he has since acquired. Once Reason's eye was “sharpe and cleere,” capable of approaching very near to the “Eternal Light.” Thus it was in man's paradisiacal state. This was his intellectual status before the Fall. But the “Spirit of Lyes” suggested that he was blind because he knew not evil. The Devil could not show evil in the works of God while man stood in his perfection. If man was to know evil he must first do evil. This he did, and the result was fatal. Man “made Reason blind” “to give Passion eyes.” Through these eyes he first saw the foul forms of misery and woe, of nakedness and shame. Reason grew dark and could no longer discern the fair forms of Good and Truth. An impaired intellectual and moral vision was the outcome of man's fatal desire to know:—

“Battes they became, that eagles were before:
And this they got by their desire to learne.”

And we are no better than they. We continue to eat of the forbidden fruit. We continue to indulge a desire to learn. We turn with vain curiosity to find hidden knowledge in “bookes prophane.” And what, indeed, is this knowledge we seek? It is a poor, vain, empty affair. What is it—

                                                            “but the sky-stolne fire,
For which the thiefe still chain'd in ice doth sit?
And which the poore rude Satyre did admire,
And needs would kisse but burnt his lips with it.
“What is it? but the cloud of emptie raine,
          Which when Ioue's guest imbrac't, hee monsters
          Or the false payles which oft being fild with paine,
          Receiv'd the water, but retain'd it not!
“Shortly, what is it but the firie coach
          Which the Youth sought, and sought his death
          Or the boye's wings, which when he did approch
          The sunne's hot beames, did melt and let him fall?”

Thus fruitless is our search for knowledge. After perusing “all the learned Volumes,” what can we know or discern—

“When Error chokes the windowes of the minde?”

What can we know when Reason's lamp which, before man's Fall, shone throughout his small world, like the sun in the sky, has become merely a half-extinct sparkle under ashes! How, under such conditions, can we recall the knowledge which was man's original possession by grace? A man painfully earning “a groate a day,” might as well hope to replace the large patrimony wasted by a profligate father. The utter vanity of human efforts after knowledge is affirmed by those who have most profoundly considered man's capacity to know. They have found that with us—

“Skill comes so slow, and life so fast doth flie,
We learne so little and forget so much.”

It was for this reason that the Greek philosopher said,—

“‘He knew nought, but that he nought did know.’”

And there was no mocking when “the great mocking-Master” said that “‘Truth was buried deepe below.’” Furthermore, how can we expect to know things, when no one understands himself—his own soul? Why should we accept the judgments of the soul concerning things, when it is unable to give a judgment concerning itself—as to the how, whence, where, and what of its own existence? We seek to know all things without, but are strangers to that within which constitutes our real self. Why is this so? Is it because the mind is like the eye, which fails to see itself in seeing other things? No! For the mind, while being the knowing subject, can also be the object of its own knowledge. The real trouble lies in the corruption of the mind. “She is so corrupt, and so defac't,” that she becomes frightened at her own image. Just as the fair lady in the fable, who was transformed into a cow because of her lust, became startled and fled in terror on beholding her changed self reflected in the stream, loathing “the watry glasse wherein she gaz'd,” so it is with man's soul. Once she bore the image of God, being fair, and good, and pure. Now her beauties are marred by sin, and she—

“Doth of all sights her owne sight least endure.”

This unsightliness of the soul leads her to turn away from herself, to seek delight in other things. And the prospect of external things is so inviting, so fair and agreeable, so sweet and alluring, that the mind succeeds in completely escaping from herself:—

“These things transport, and carry out the mind,
That with her selfe her selfe can neuer meet.”

There is one thing, however, which brings the soul back to herself. It is affliction. Just as spiders seek the inmost part of their webs when touched; and bees return to their hives in case of storm; and the blood gathers to the heart when danger appears; and men seek the towns when foes burn the country,—so the mind leaves the things which are without, and returns to herself within, when affliction's wars begin. These menacings of affliction, which drive the mind back to herself,—

“Teach vs to know our selues beyond all bookes,
Or all the learned Schooles that euer were.”

Our poet, referring doubtless to the...

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Clare Howard (essay date 1941)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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G. A. Wilkes (essay date 1962)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Sarah Thesiger (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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J. R. Brink (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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James L. Sanderson (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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,...

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R. J. Manning (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Hans S. Pawlisch (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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...

(The entire section is 187 words.)