1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Davies

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 1:167-69.



Sir JOHN DAVIES was born at Chisgrove, in the parish of Tysbury in Wiltshire, being the son of a wealthy tanner of that place. At fifteen years of age he became a Commoner in Queen's-college, Oxford, 1585, where having made great progress in academical learning, and taken the degree of Batchelor of arts, he removed to the Middle-Temple, and applying himself to the study of the common law, was called to the bar; but having a quarrel with one Richard Martyn, (afterwards recorder of London) he bastinadoed him in the Temple-hall at dinner-time, in presence of the whole assembly, for which contempt, he was immediately expelled, and retired again to Oxford to prosecute his studies, but did not resume the scholar's gown. Upon this occasion he composed that excellent poem called Nosce Teipsum. Afterwards by the favour of Thomas lord Ellesmere, keeper of the Great Seal, being reinstated in the Temple, he practised as a counsellor, and became a burgess in the Parliament held at Westminster 1601. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth our author, with Lord Hunsdon, went into Scotland to congratulate King James on his succession to the English throne. Being introduced into his Majesty's presence, the King enquired of Lord Hunsdon, the names of the gentlemen who accompanied him, and when his lordship mentioned John Davies, the King presently asked whether he was Nosce Teipsum, and being answered he was, embraced him, and assured him of his favour. He was accordingly made Sollicitor, and a little after Attorney-general in Ireland, where in the year 1606, he was made one of his Majesty's serjeants at law, and Speaker of the House of Commons for that kingdom. In the year following, he received the honour of knighthood from the King at Whitehall. In 1612 he quitted the post of Attorney-general in Ireland, and was made one of his Majesty's English serjeants at law. He married Eleanor Touchet, youngest daughter of George lord Audley, by whom he had a son an idiot who died young, and a daughter named Lucy, married to Ferdinand lord Hastings, and afterwards Earl of Huntingdon. His lady was a woman of very extraordinary character; she had, or rather pretended to have a spirit of prophecy, and her predictions received from a voice which she often heard, were generally wrapped up in dark and obscure expressions. It was commonly reported, that on the sunday before her husband's death, she was sitting at dinner with him, she suddenly burst into tears, whereupon he asking her the occasion she answered, "Husband, these are your funeral tears," to which he replied, "Pray therefore spare your tears now, and I will be content that you shall laugh when I am dead." After Sir John's death she lived privately at Parston in Hertfordshire, and an account was published of her strange and wonderful prophecies in 1609.

In 1626 Sir John was appointed lord chief justice of the King's-bench, but before the ceremony of his installation could be performed he died suddenly of an apoplexy in the fifty-seventh year of his age, and was buried in the church of St. Martin's in the Fields. He enjoyed the joint applauses of Camden, Ben Johnson, Sir John Harrington, Selden, Donne, and Corbet; these are great authorities in our author's favour, and I may fairly assert that no philosophical writers ever explained their ideas more clearly and familiarly in prose, or more harmoniously and beautifully in verse. There is a peculiar happiness in his similies being introduced more to illustrate than adorn, which renders them as useful as entertaining, and distinguishes them from any other author.

In quality of a lawyer Sir John produced the following pieces:

1. A discovery of the true causes why Ireland was never entirely subdued until his Majesty's happy reign; printed in 4to. London 1612, dedicated to the King with his Latin verse only. "Principis est virtus maxima nosse suos."

2. A declaration of our sovereign lord the King, concerning the title of his Majesty's son Charles, the prince and duke of Cornwall; London 1614.

His principal performance as a poet, is a Poem on the Original, Nature, and Immortality of the Soul, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. It was republished by Nahum Tate, 1714, addressed to the Earl of Dorset and Middlesex, who was a great admirer of our poet, and the editor gives it a very just and advantageous character. Without doubt it is the Nosce Teipsum so much admired by King James, printed 1619, and 1622, mentioned by Wood; to which were added by the same hand:

Hymns of Astrea in acrostic verse; and Orchestra, or a poem expressing the antiquity and excellency of dancing, in a dialogue between Penelope and one of her Woers, containing 131 stanzas unfinished. Mr. Wood mentions also epigrams, and a translation of several of King David's Psalms, written by Sir John Davies, but never published.