Sir John Davies (April 16, 1569 – December 8, 1626) was an English poet and lawyer, who became attorney general in Ireland and formulated many of the legal principles that underpinned the British Empire.
Davies was born in Wiltshire, to John and Mary Davies. He was educated at Winchester College for four years, a period in which he showed much interest in literature. He studied there until the age of sixteen and went to further his education at the Queen's College, Oxford, where he stayed for a mere eighteen months, with most historians questioning whether he received a degree. Davies spent some time at New Inn after his departure from Oxford, and it was at this point that he decided to pursue a career in law. In 1588 he enrolled in the Middle Temple, where he did well academically, although suffering constant reprimands for his behavior. Following several suspensions, his behavior cost him his enrollment.
In 1594 Davies' poetry brought him into contact with Queen Elizabeth. She wished him to continue his study of law at the Middle Temple and had him sworn in as a servant-in-ordinary. In the following year, his poem, Orchestra, was published in July, prior to his call to the bar from the Middle Temple.
In February 1598 Davies was disbarred, after having entered the dining hall of the Inns in the company of two swordsmen and striking Richard Martin with a cudgel. The victim was a noted wit who had insulted him in public, and Davies immediately took a boat at the Temple steps and retired to Oxford, where he chose to write poetry. Another of his works, Nosce Teipsum, was published in 1599 and found favour with the queen and with Lord Mountjoy, later lord deputy of Ireland.
Davies became a favourite of the queen, to whom he addressed his work, Hymns of Astraea, in 1599. Later that year, however, his Epigrams was included in a list of published works that the state ordered to be confiscated and burned. In 1601 he was readmitted to the bar, having made a public apology to Martin, and in the same year served as the member of parliament for Corfe Castle. In 1603, he was part of the deputation sent to bring King James VI of Scotland to London as the new monarch. The Scots king was also an admirer of Davies' poetry, and rewarded him with a knighthood and appointments (at Mountjoy's recommendation) as solicitor-general and, later attorney-general, in Ireland.
Davies wrote poetry in numerous forms, but is best known for his epigrammes and sonnets. In 1599 he published Nosce Teipsum (Know thyself) and Hymnes of Astraea. Queen Elizabeth became an admirer of Davies' work, and these poems contain acrostics that spell out the phrase, Elisabetha Regina. A list of his works can be found at https://www.luminarium.org/renlit/daviebib.htm
Davies is a great example of "new" poetry in the 1590s. This was a poetry characterized by a burning delight in intellectual analysis and a pure passion for knowledge. Davies' works are very well represented in Elizabethan anthologies. The last complete edition of his poems appeared in 1876 and is long out of print.
His most famous poem, Nosce Teipsum, was reprinted numerous times, and was one of the first English poems to use the decasyllabic quatrain instead of the heroic couplet for a poem of its scope. It won him the favor of James I, by which he won promotion in Ireland. The poem summarizes the main issues in religious thought in the Elizabethan Era, addressing the relation of body to soul, and of Materialism to Idealism. A.H. Bullen described it as being "singularly readable for such a subject: highly accomplished verse, no Elizabethan quaintness, bothe subtle and terse."
A.H. Bullen also described Davies' Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing as "brilliant and graceful." This poem, formed in tiny octavos, reveals a typical Elizabethan pleasure: comtemplating and trying to understand the relationship between the natural order and human activity.
Much historical knowledge can be gained from the reading of Davies' poetry. Queen Elizabeth's anger at Bishop Fletcher's second marriage, to a beautiful young woman, becomes more understandable after taking into account her loose character explained in Davies' writings. Another epigram speaks of a practice of "masochism" at the time. This is where sexual gratification comes from physical pain and suffering, perhaps being whipped by women.
I KNOW my soul hath power to know all things,
Yet she is blind and ignorant in all:
I know I'm one of Nature's little kings,
Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.
Oh what is man, great Maker of mankind!
That Thou to him so great respect dost bear;
That Thou adorn'st him with so bright a mind,
Why did my parents send me to the Schooles
That I with knowledge might enrich my mind?
Since the desire to know first made men fools,
London now smokes with vapors that arise
From his foule sweat, himselfe he so bestirres :
'Cast out your dead!' the carcase-carrier cries,
Which he by heapes in groundlesse graves interres.—