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John Davies Biography | Poet

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DAVIES, SIR JOHN (1569-1626), English philosophical poet, was baptized on the 16th of April 1569, at Tisbury, Wiltshire, where his parents lived at the manor-house of Chicksgrove. He was educated at Winchester College, and became a commoner of Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1585. In 1588 he entered the Middle Temple, and was called to the bar in 1595. In his general onslaught on literature in 1599 the archbishop of Canterbury ordered to be burnt the notorious and now excessively rare volume, All Ovid’s Elegies, 3 Bookes, by C. M. Epigrams by J. D. (Middleburgh, 1598?), which contained posthumous work by Marlowe. The epigrams by Davies, although not devoid of wit, were coarse enough to deserve their fate. It is probable that they were earlier in date of composition than the charming fragment entitled Orchestra (1596), written in praise of dancing. The poet, in the person of Antinoüs, tries to induce Penelope to dance by arguing that all harmonious natural processes partake of the nature of a conscious and well-ordered dance. He closes his argument by foreshadowing in a magic mirror the revels of the court of Cynthia (Elizabeth). Orchestra was dedicated to the author’s “very friend, Master Richard Martin,” but in the next year the friends quarrelled, and Davies was expelled from the society for having struck Martin with a cudgel in the hall of the Middle Temple. He spent the year after his expulsion at Oxford in the composition of his philosophical poem on the nature of the soul and its immortality—Nosce teipsum (1599). The style of the work was entirely novel; and the stanza in which it was written—the decasyllabic quatrain with alternate rhymes—had never been so effectively handled. Its force, eloquence and ingenuity, the orderly and lucid arrangement of its matter, place it among the finest of English didactic poems. In 1599 he also published a volume of twenty-six graceful acrostics on the words Elisabetha Regina, entitled Hymns to Astraea. He produced no more poetry except his contributions to Francis Davison’s Poetical Rhapsody (1608). These were two dialogues which had been written as entertainments for the queen, and “Yet other Twelve Wonders of the World,” satirical epigrams on the courtier, the divine, the maid, &c., and “A Hymn in praise of Music.” Ten sonnets to Philomel are signed J. D., and are assigned to Davies (Poetical Rhapsody, ed. A. H. Bullen, 1890). In 1601 Davies was restored to his position at the bar, after making his apologies to Martin, and in the same year he sat for Corfe Castle in parliament. James I. received the author of Nosce teipsum with great favour, and sent him (1603) to Ireland as solicitor-general, conferring the honour of knighthood upon him in the same year. In 1606 he was promoted to be attorney-general for Ireland, and created serjeant-at-arms. Of the difficulties in the way of the prosecution of his work, and his untiring industry in overcoming them, there is abundant evidence in his letters to Cecil preserved in the State Papers on Ireland. One of his chief aims was to establish the Protestant religion firmly in Ireland, and he took strict measures to enforce the law for attendance at church. With the same end in view he took an active part in the “plantation” of Ulster. In 1612 he published his prose Discoverie of the true causes why Ireland was never entirely subdued untill the beginning of his Majestie’s happie raigne.1 In the same year he entered the Irish parliament as member for Fermanagh, and was elected speaker after a scene of disorder in which the 865Catholic nominee, Sir John Everard, who had been installed, was forcibly ejected. In the capacity of speaker he delivered an excellent address reviewing previous Irish parliaments. He resigned his Irish offices in 1619, and sat in the English parliament of 1621 for Newcastle-under-Lyme. With Sir Robert Cotton he was one of the founders of the Society of Antiquaries. He was appointed lord chief justice in 1626, but died suddenly (December 8th) before he could enter on the office. He had married (1609) Eleanor Touchet, daughter of George, Baron Audley. She developed eccentricity, verging on madness, and wrote several fanatical books on prophecy.

In 1615 Davies published at Dublin Le Primer Discours des Cases et Matters in Ley resolues et adjudges en les Courts del Roy en cest Realme(reprinted 1628). He issued an edition of his poems in 1622. His prose publications were mainly posthumous. The Question concerning Impositions, Tonnage, Poundage ... was printed in 1656, and four of the tracts relating to Ireland, with an account of Davies and his services to that country, were edited by G. Chalmers in 1786. His works were edited by Dr A. B. Grosart (3 vols. 1869-1876), with a full biography, for the Fuller Worthies Library.

He is not to be confounded with another poet, John Davies of Hereford (1565?-1618), among whose numerous volumes of verse may be mentioned Mirum in modum (1602), Microcosmus (1603), The Holy Roode (1609), Wittes Pilgrimage (c. 1610), The Scourge of Folly (c. 1611), The Muses Sacrifice (1612) and Wittes Bedlam (1607); his Scourge of Folly contains verses addressed to many of his contemporaries, to Shakespeare among others; he also wrote A Select Second Husband for Sir Thomas Overbury’s Wife (1616), and The Writing Schoolmaster (earliest known edition, 1633); his works were collected by Dr A. B. Grosart (2 vols., 1873) for the Chertsey Worthies Library.


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