The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

DAVID W. ATKINSON


44. The Poetic Voices of Robert Ayton

Perhaps because it is difficult to characterise Ayton as Scottish after his departure from Scodand to the court of james I, he remains, like a number of others who moved south from Scodand, relatively unappreciated and most certainly unstudied. As Rod Lyall has observed, Ayton was one of those Scottish poets who ‘plunged into the larger pool of the English court and vanished almost without trace.’1 At the same time, though, Ayton, unhindered by Scottish parochialism, or any particular nationalistic sentiment, may be viewed as one caught up in the larger movements of English poetry, who constitutes an important, even if a secondary, figure in early seventeenth-century poetry. While one must be cautioned about ‘discovering’ poets who are perhaps best left in obscurity, Ayton is a poet, who, never really accepted as Scottish, and overshadowed by the major English poets of the seventeenth century, ought to be given some new consideration.

Much of Ayton’s English poetry is of a ‘type,’ very often addressed to an ungrateful mistress, and expressing many of the conventions of Petrarchan fashion: the beauty of his mistress, her coldness, the exaggerated torments of the lover, his submissiveness. Most certainly Ayton shared Petrarch’s desire to provide a ‘minute analysis of the sentiments of the heart’.2 At the same time, however, Ayton, while never setting aside his Petrarchan roots, did not always write poetry that could be easily dismissed as imitative. Ayton may never have reached the heights of Donne, or indeed any other of the major English metaphysicals, but his poetry nonetheless goes well beyond the tired Petrarchan norms of the last half of the sixteenth century, and is quite clearly a Stuart poetry that ‘has its voice and quality and something of its own to say’.3 As Mary Jane Scott remarks, Ayton ‘demonstrates the shift from the Elizabethan manner of lyric poetry to the Metaphysical mode, characterized – alongside of its dependence on irony and paradox and its fondness for intellectual conceits – by plain words and strong lines.’4 While one must assume that Ayton, like all poets, writes from experience, it is also the case that his poetry does not so much present a man in love as it does a man writing about love,5 who in his poetry speaks with a voice ranging from the Petrarchan lover with all its excesses to that of a sceptic

1 R. J. Lyall, ‘“A New Maid Channoun”? Redefining the Canonical in Medical and Renaissance Scottish Literature’ Studies in Scottish Literature XXVI (1991), 15.

2 Lu Emily Pearson, Elizabethan Love Conventions (Berkley: University of California Press, 1933), p. 2.

3 A.J. Smith, The Metaphysics of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 41.

4 Mary Jane Wittstock Scott, ‘Robert Ayton: Scottish Metaphysical,’ Scottuh Literary Journal, 2 (1975), 5.

5 Jerome Mazzaro, Transformations in the Renaissance English Lyric (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1970), p. 16.

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