Sir John Davies’ reputation as a poet has shifted radically, depending on the taste of the reading public. His epigrams and occasional poems were very popular with his contemporaries; they survive in numerous manuscript copies. Nosce Teipsum, his long philosophical poem, went through five editions during his lifetime. Reprinted first by Nahum Tate in 1697, it went through several more editions and remained very popular in the eighteenth century. Alexander Pope paid Davies the compliment of imitating him, and Samuel Johnson praised his skill at arguing in verse. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Biographia Literaria (1817), adapts three stanzas from Nosce Teipsum to explain how the poetic imagination functions. In the modern era, Davies attracted the favorable attention of poets such as T. S. Eliot and Theodore Roethke but has fared less well in academic scholarship.
In his very influential work The Elizabethan World Picture (1943), E. M. W. Tillyard identified Davies as a principal intellectual spokesperson for the Elizabethan “world picture” and described his verse as “typically Elizabethan.” This approach to his poetry established Davies as a poet who should be read for his ideas, for the insights he offered regarding the Elizabethan mind. Davies’ modern editor, Robert Krueger, takes precisely this position when he concludes his critical introduction to The Poems of Sir John Davies with the following statement: “Davies will never again be read for profit or pleasure; his readers will always be students of the Elizabethan world.”
While it would be foolhardy to conclude that Davies is an underestimated “poet’s poet,” the major works of a poet who continued to receive favorable commentary from other practicing poets should not be dismissed as mediocre. His place in political history is assured: He served as attorney general of Ireland under James I and assisted in planning the “Plantation of Ulster.” His literary achievements are more difficult to assess: Popular in his own day as the author of Nosce Teipsum, his long philosophical poem, and of salacious, satirical epigrams, Davies is now mostly remembered for his Orchestra.
Brink, Jean R. “Sir John Davies’ Orchestra: Political Symbolism and Textual Revision.” Durham University Journal 72 (1980): 195-201. Analyzes the way in which Orchestra, Davies’ most important poem, comments both philosophically and politically upon the Elizabethan worldview. The notes offer a useful summary of previous biographical and critical discussions of Davies.
Brooks-Davies, Douglas, ed. Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century: Wyatt, Surrey, Ralegh, Philip Sidney, Mary Sidney, Michael Drayton, and Sir John Davies. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1992. Examines work by Thomas Wyatt; Henry Howard, earl of Surrey; Sir Walter Ralegh, and Davies, including the long philosophical poems Orchestra and Nosce Teipsum.
Davies, John. The Poems of Sir John Davies. Edited by Robert Krueger. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. The standard edition of Davies’ poetry, but as Krueger notes in the introduction, much of Davies’ verse, especially his epigrams and occasional poetry, was still being recovered from manuscript at the time that this edition appeared.
Eliot, T. S. On Poetry and Poets. 1957. Reprint. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Eliot’s essay provides a good critique of Davies’ work, placing it in its time.
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