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

IX. The Successors of Spenser

§ 5. Sir John Davies

Sir John Davies (not to be confused with John Davies of Hereford) was a man of the same pattern, though without lord Brooke’s memory of “the spacious days” and without his deep austerity. He, too, was a man of affairs, and rose to a high position in the state. His life, however, had not the same great beginning, and his was no smooth passage to fame. Born in 1569, at Tisbury in Wiltshire, he went to Winchester and Oxford (partly, it appears, resident at New college, partly at Queen’s college), and, like the majority of young men of the time, came, in 1587, to study law in London. But he quarrelled with the frend to whom he had dedicated his Orchestra, Richard Martin, and, entering the hall, armed with a dagger, he broke his cudgel over Martin’s head, who was eating dinner at the barristers’ table. In consequence of this outrage on the benchers, he was disbarred. For an orphan, with his way to make, the calamity was heavy. He returned to Oxford in 1598, three years after he had been called, and wrote his great poem Nosce Teipsum. Lord Mountjoy, afterwards earl of Devonshire, approved of it so highly that he advised Davies to publish it, with a dedicatory poem to the queen. This, Davies was not slow to do. The poem appeared the year after his expulsion from the bar, and added largely to his growing reputation as a poet. The Hymns to Astroea appeared in the same year, and Davies’s services were in request to write words for “entertainments” offered to her majesty. A Dialogue between a Gentleman Usher and a Poet, A contention betwixt a Wife, a Widdow and a Maide and A Lottery, are the names of those that are extant. A Lottery gained the queen’s acknowledgment, and, through the influence of lord Ellesmere, Davies, after a formal apology to the benchers and to Richard Martin, was reinstated at the bar in 1601. His career now began. He was among those who went with lord Hunsdon to escort king James to the English throne, and James was sufficiently impressed with him to appoint him solicitor-general for Ireland, under lord Mountjoy, then lord deputy. In December, 1603, on his arrival in Dublin, he was knighted, and, some years later, he married the daughter of lord Audley. One of his children was the famous countess of Huntingdon. His work in Ireland, where he remained until 1619, was distinguished, and how deeply he was interested in Irish affairs may be gathered from his Discourse of the true reasons why Ireland has never been intirely subdued till the beginning of His Majesty’s reign. In 1619, he resumed his seat in the House of Commons as member for Newcastle under Lyme, to which he had been elected in 1614, and, just before he could assume the office of chief justice, to which he had been appointed in 1626, he died suddenly of an apoplexy.

Orchestra or a Poeme on Dauncing was written before June, 1594, although it was not published until 1596. The poem is in the form of a dialogue between Penelope and one of her suitors, and consists of 131 stanzas of seven lines, each riming ababbcc. In the dedicatory sonnet to “his very friend M.A. Richard Martin,” which, in spite of the reconciliation, was omitted from the edition of 1622, Davies describes the poem as “this suddaine, rash half-capreol of my wit,” and reminds Martin how it was written in fifteen days. The fact is worthy of attention because it shows the writer’s ability and mastery over his material. The poem bears no sign of haste in the making. Gallant and gay, it flows with transparent clearness to its conclusion, and the verse has the happy ease which marks all the work of Davies, and makes it comparable with the music of Mozart.

His next work Nosce Teipsum possesses the same fluidity of thought and diction, which is the more remarkable as the poem is deeply philosophical. The sub-title explains the subject: “This oracle expounded in two elegies. 1. Of Human knowledge. 2. Of the Soule of Man and the immortalitie thereof.” The first edition was published in 1599, the second, “newly corrected and amended,” in 1602, the third in 1608, and, of course, the poem was included in the collected edition which Davies himself made of his poems in 1622.

“Wouldst thou be crowned the Monarch of a little world? command thyself,” wrote Francis Quarles, who was certainly well-acquainted with Nosce Teipsum, in the second century of his Enchiridion, and that sentence gives the gist of the first part of the poem on Humane Knowledge. Davies then passes on to examine the nature of the soul, its attributes and its connection with the body; and, having defined with exactness what he means by the soul, proceeds to prove its immortality by means of arguments for and against his proposition. Proof in such a matter is not possible; but a personal answer to the great question, so sincerely thought and so lucidly expressed as is this answer of Davies, will always have its value. Nor is Nosce Teipsum a treatise which ingenuity has fashioned into verse and which more properly would be expressed in plain prose. Davies does not, as it were, embroider his theme with verse, but uses verse, and its beauties of line and metaphor, to make his meaning more clear, and, thereby, gallantly justifies the employment of his medium. This mastery of his is enviously complete; but, perhaps, it is most conspicuous in the Hymns to Astroea which were first published in 1599. As the title-page announces, they are written “in Acrosticke verse.” They are twenty-six in number: each poem is of three stanzas (two of five lines, one of six lines), and each line begins with a different letter of the name Elizabetha Regina. Yet, in spite of this fantastic formality, not a line is forced, and one or two of the poems, notably hymn v, To the Lark,

  • Earley, cheerfule, mounting Larke,
  • Light’s gentle usher, Morning’s clark,
  • are exquisite songs.