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Significant Scots
Ayton, (Sir) Robert

AYTON, (Sir) ROBERT, an eminent poet at the court of James VI., was a younger son of Andrew Ayton of Kinaldie, in Fife, and was born in the year 1570. From the Registers of St Andrews University, it appears that he was incorporated or enrolled as a student in St Leonard’s College, December 3, 1584 and took his master’s degree, after the usual course of study, in the year 1588. Subsequently to this, he resided for some time in France; whence, in 1603 he addressed an elegant panegyric in Latin verse, to king James, on his accession to the crown of England, which was printed at Paris the same year; and this panegyrie had, no doubt, some influence in securing to the author the favour of that monarch, by whom he was successively appointed one of the gentlemen of the bedchamber, and private secretary to his queen, Anne of Denmark, besides receiving the honour of knighthood. He was, at a later period of his life, honoured with the appointment of secretary to Henrietta Maria, queen of Charles I. It is recorded on Ayton’s funeral monument, as a distinction, that he had been sent to Germany as ambassador to the Emperor, with a work published by king James, which is supposed to have been his Apology for the Oath of Allegiance. If this conjecture be correct, it must have been in 1609, when his majesty acknowledged a work published anonymously three years before, and inscribed it to all the crowned heads of Europe. During Ayton’s residence abroad, as well as at the court of England, he lived in intimacy with and secured the esteem of the most eminent persons of his time. "He was acquainted," says Aubrey, "with all the wits of his time in England; he was a great acquaintance of Mr Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, whom Mr Hobbes told me he made use of, together with Ben Jonson, for an Aristarchus, when he made his Epistle dedicatory, for his translation of Thucydides." To this information, we may add, as a proof of this respect on the part of Ben Jonson, that, in his conversations with Drummond of Hawthornden, he said, "Sir Robert Ayton loved him (Jonson) dearly."

Sir Robert Ayton died at London, in March, 1637-8, in the 68th year of his age. He lies buried in the south aisle of the choir of Westminster Abbey, at the corner of King Henry the Fifth’s Chapel, under a handsome monument of black marble, erected by his nephew, David Ayton of Kinaldie; having his bust as brass gilt, which has been preserved, while that of Henry, the hero of Agincourt, (said to have been of a more precious metal,) has long since disappeared.

The poems of Sir Robert Ayton, for the first time published together in the Miscellany of the Bannatyne Club, (from which we derive these particulars of the poet’s life,) are few in number, but of great merit. He composed no Scottish poems, at least none that have come down to our times. He wrote in English, and was, indeed, one of the first of our countrymen who composed in that language with any degree of elegance or purity. It is unfortunate that the most of his poems are complimentary verses to the illustrious individuals with whom he was acquainted, and of course characterised only by a strain of conceited and extravagant flattery. Those, however, upon general topics, are conceived in a refined and tender strain of fancy, that reminds us more of the fairy strains of Herrick than any thing else. John Aubrey remarks, "that Sir Robert was one of the best poets of his time," and adds the more important testimony that "Mr John Dryden has seen verses of his, some of the best of that age, printed with some other verses." According to Dempster, Ayton was also a writer of verses in Greek and French, as well as in English and Latin. Several of his Latin poems are preserved in the work called, "Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum," which was printed in his lifetime (1637) at Amsterdam.

One poem by Ayton, entitled, "Inconstancy Reproved," and commencing with the words, "I do confess thou’rt smooth and fair," was esteemed by Burns worthy of being paraphrased into the native dialect of the author; a process certainly of a very curious nature, as it might have rather been expected that the poet of the eighteenth should have refined upon the poet of the seventeenth century. It may be safely avowed that the modern poet has not improved upon his predecessor. Perhaps the reader will be less familiar with the following equally beautiful poems by Sir Robert Ayton, than with "Inconstancy Reproved,"- which, after all, is not ascertained to be his.


What means this strangeness now of late,
Since time must truth approve?
This distance may consist with state—
It cannot stand with love.

‘Tis either cunning or distrust,
That may such ways allow;
The first is base, the last unjust;
Let neither blemish you.

For if you mean to draw me on,
There needs not half this art;
And if you mean to have me gone,
You overact your part.

If kindness cross your wished content,
Dismiss me with a frown,
I’ll give you all the love that’s spent,
The rest shall be my own.


I loved thee once, I’ll love no more,
Thine be the grief as is the blame;
Thou art not what thou wast before,
What reason I should be the same!
He that can love unloved again,
Hath better store of love than brain:
God send me love my debts to pay,
While unthrifts fool their love away.

Nothing could have my love o’erthrown,
If thou hadst still continued mine:
Yea, if thou hadst remain’d thy own,
I might perchance have yet been thine.
But thou thy freedom did recall,
That if thou might elsewhere enthral;
And then how could I but disdain
A captive’s captive to remain?

When new desires had conquered thee,
And changed the object of thy will,
It had been lethargy in me,
Not constancy to love thee still.
Yea, it had been a sin to go
And prostitute affection so
Since we are taught no prayers to say
To such as must to others pray.

Yet do thou glory in thy choice,
Thy choice of his good fortune boast;
I’ll neither grieve nor yet rejoice,
To see him gain what I have lost:
The height of my disdain shall be,
To laugh at him, to blush for thee;
To love thee still, but go no more,
A begging to a beggar’s door.


Thou that loved once, now loves no more,
For fear to show more love than brain;
With heresy unhatch’d before,
Apostasy thou dost maintain.
Can he have either brain or love
That dost inconstancy approve?
A choice well made no change admits,
All changes argue after-wits.

Say that she had not been the same,
Should thou therefore another be?
What thou in her as vice did blame,
Can thou take virtue’s name in thee?
No, thou in this her captive was,
And made thee ready by her glass;
Example led revenge astray,
When true love should have kept the way.

True love has no reflecting end,
The object good sets it at rest,
And noble breasts will freely lend,
Without expecting interest.
‘Tis merchants’ love, ‘tis trade for gain,
To barter love for love again:
‘Tis usury, yea, worse than this,
For self-idolatry it is.

Then let her choice be what it will,
Let constancy be thy revenge;
If thou retribute good for ill,
Both grief and shame shall check her change,
Thus may’st thou laugh when thou shall see
Remorse reclaim her home to thee;
And where thou begg’st of her before,
She now sits begging at thy door.

We submit that such elegant sentiments as these, expressed in such elegant language, are an honour to their author, to his age, and country.

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