Davies, Sir John
ireland poet elizabeth college
DAVIES, SIR JOHN (1569-1626), philosophical poet of the age of Elizabeth, was baptized on the 16th of April 1569, at Tisbury, in Wiltshire, where his parents lived in the manor-house of Chicksgrove. He was sent first to Winchester College, and afterwards to New College, Oxford. In 1585 he became a commoner of Queen's College, Oxford, and in 1587 entered at the Middle Temple. Bereft of both his parents at a very early age, he seems to have plunged into all the dissipations that London could offer in those days to a rich young man of fashion. It is amusing to find the future attorney-general of Ireland, and grave Christian poet, connected, beyond all concealment, with one of the worst literary scandals of the period. One would be very glad to know what circumstances led to the publication of the notorious and now excessively rare little volume that bears the title All Ovid's Elegies, 3 Bookes, by C. Al. Epigrams by T. D. At Middleburgh, in which Marlowe had a share, and which was condemned by the archbishop to be burned. The Epigrams are far from edifying or promising, and we may, in the absence of a date, be permitted to put the earliest possible, 1592 or 1593, on their unseemly boisterousness. In 1593 was ready for the printer, though not, it would seem, published till 1596, a far more worthy work, the charming and singular fragment called Orchestra, a little epic written in praise of dancing, in fifteen consecutive days. The poet seeks to prove that every harmonious movement of nature, every action of the elements, every motion in the firmament, is a conscious and well-ordered dance ; also that plants in growing, men in all their familiar and noble exercises, the an-gels themselves, and all the mysterious translunary world effect a solemn dancing in their motion. Orchestra was dedicated to the author's "very friend," Master Richard Martin, a riotous youth whom, in the winter of 1597, Davies, the friends having quarrelled, attacked with a cudgel in the hall of the Middle Temple. For this offence he was expelled and degraded. Rusticating at Oxford, he spent the first year after his expulsion in the composition of his great philosophical poem, Nosce Teipsum, which appeared in 1599. It is on this work that his fame mainly rests. The style was entirely novel in that age ; and its force, eloquence, and ingenuity, no less than the modern and polished tone of the periods, made it at once extremely popular. It was to its own age all that Pope's Essay on Han was to the Georgian period. In the same year, 1599, there saw the light a little book of exquisite lyrics from the same hand, Hymns to Astrcea, twenty-six acrostics on the words Elisabetha Regina, which all warble with the most delightful sweetness. In 1601 Davies was restored to his position at the bar, without loss of seniority. About the same time he sat in Elizabeth's last Parliament, as member for Corfe Castle. At Elizabeth's death he was instantly received with great favour by James I., and sent to Ireland as solicitor-general in 1603. On December 18 of that year he was knighted at Dublin. From this time forth he abandoned poetry in favour of the most active statesmanship. His activities in Ireland were almost ubiquitous. In 1606 he was further promoted to be attorney-general for Ireland, and created sergeant-at-arms. In the disordered condition of the country he was required to be stirring at all times, and his abilities seem to have been as conspicuous as his trustworthiness and uprightness. He married Eleanor, daughter of the earl of Castlehaven, but she unfortunately became insane. In 1612 Davies published his valuable prose work, A Discourse of the True Reasons why Ireland has never been entirely subdued. The same year he represented the county of Fermanagh in the Irish Parliament, and was elected speaker. In 1614 he represented Newcastle-under-Lyne in the English Parliament, and in 1619 he threw up his appointments in Ireland. In 1622 he issued a collected edition of his poetical works. In 1626 Davies was appointed lord chief justice of England, but ere he could enter on the office, he was found dead in his bed (December 8), the victim, it was supposed, of apoplexy.
The prose writings of this remarkable man were mainly posthumous, and no attempt was made to collect them, until they were republished in four volumes by the Rev. A. B. Grosart, in 1876, with a full and interesting biography. The poetical works have often been reproduced since the author's lifetime.
Sir John Davies is not to be confounded with JOIIN DAVIES of Hereford, a contemporary author of a great quantity of verse, of which The Holy Roode (1609), The Scourge of Folly (1611), and The Muses' Sacrifice (161 2) arc fair typical examples. Gifted with extraordinary volubility and self-confidence, but with no delicacy or taste the writings of this John Davies have survived more by reason of their bulk and their accidental interest of reference or dedication than from any intrinsic merit.