Introduction to Philip Ayres


Copied from Minor Poets of the Caroline Period.

ONE may confess an unfashionable, and perhaps perverse, indifference to what have been profanely but ingeniously called the 'washing bills' of poets and men of letters generally--that is to say, to biographical details about them--and yet own that it would be agreeable to know something more than is known of the personality and personalia of Philip Ayres. He was born in 1638, under the old order of things; and he did not die till 1712, when the Spectator was already showing, not the beginning but, the very maturity of the new. He was a friend of Dryden's, as we know from the evidence of a poem given below, and like him went to Westminster School. But, unlike Dryden, he went thence to Oxford (St. John's college); and he is said to have passed the greater part of his life, and to have died as tutor, in the family of the Drakes of Agmondesham, Bucks. Although a fair scholar in the ancient tongues, he seems to have been chiefly devoted to modern languages and literatures--French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese--and his printed works are mainly translations, the most interesting being of the famous Comte de Gabalis of Montfaucon de Villars. There is nothing very extraordinary in all this, which is nearly all we know of him. But there is also something not quite ordinary, especially at this time; and this side of it is brought out when we consider the Lyric Poems, which are given below as a whole, and the Emblemata Amatoria, of which we give the English part. Ayres did not publish either very young; and when he published the Poems his friend Dryden was, in more than popular estimation, in more even than relative excellence, the poet of the day. But even if we take the too much neglected Dryden of the songs and miscellaneous lyrics, and compare him with Ayres, the difference of kind, colour--period, we may almost say--is even more striking than the difference of genius. Ayres is quite a minor poet, as well as parasitic in a way, and he has lost the exquisite poignancy of metre and diction which distinguishes the minor poets of the years of his childhood. But whereas most of the verse-writers of his own day and generation had turned to the stopped couplet in form, to 'prose and sense' in matter, and to the new French school in critical discipleship, Ayres, at the time when the Stuarts were about to be expelled, maintained the tastes, the traditions, the style even to some extent, of the reign of Charles I. He is, it has been said, little parasitic; his own equally ingenious and ingenuous confession and profession in his Preface makes a quite clean breast as to technical 'originality.' I have never myself had much of a fancy for Quellenforschung, and plagiarism-hunting as a sport appears to me to rank only one higher than worrying cats. But, even had I been fond of the occupation, I should consider myself barred from impertinent investigation by Ayres's preliminary statement: and, moreover, by the clear evidence--in divers cases which deal with public and universally known material--his comparative independence. Much of what he takes, besides his acknowledged versions from Petrarch and others, is 'public material'--stuff already handled by scores of poets in English, from Wyatt and Surrey downwards, and by hundreds of poets in other languages. It is in the way in which he deals with this, in his forms, his models, his general spirit, that his interest consists; while sometimes he manages to get out of this 'rascally, comparative' order of appeal, and to do things that are actually attractive in themselves. As I observed by allusion in the General Introduction and as I shall take the liberty to observe again in notes, On a Fair Beggar and Lydia Distracted seem to me the chief instances of this: and to me they are so agreeable, and have such a touch of the real charm of expression in them, that if they turned out to be close translations I should still think highly of them. But there are others--the Cynthia on Horse-back, the pastiched (almost plagiarized, if anybody will have the word) Sonnet on Love, "Love the Jester," the spirited version of Quevedo's "Fly," "New Philosophy," and others still--which have nearly the same charm of expression--never quite consummate, but always appealing, and always showing, as in fact almost the whole book shows, an uncommon, and to me and those who think with me delightful, unfashionableness of tastes. Cotton is the chief contemporary who shares something of this, and Cotton was a rather older man than Ayres, who survived him for a quarter of a century. Moreover, though he has done better things than Ayres ever did, he has more of the comic and less of the serious poet about him.

Ayres loves the sonnet, and the sonnet was just about almost to disappear from English literature for the best part of a century; he loves the peninsular languages (he actually writes Spanish) and is "Don Felipe" with evident relish; he loves Greek, whereas the eighteenth century was about to devote itself mainly, if not wholly, to Latin. Above all, though he has lost the ineffable cadence of expression, and the extremer madness of fancy, he is still essentially "metaphysical": he still knows that if to love and to be sensible are "incompossibles," to write love-poetry and be sensible is more incompossible still. To any one who holds by the immortal refrain of the Pervigilium Ayres will not be an unwelcome poet, though he can hardly seem a great one.

The Emblemata Amatoria is a very pretty and a very quaint book, though its attraction is only partially poetic, and still more partially English-poetic. It is engraved throughout, text and plates, these latter being forty-four in number, and each faced with a set of four copies of verses, Latin, English, Italian, and French, the impartiality being kept up by the imprint, at head and foot of the double page-opening, of Emblemata Amatoria, Emblems of Love, Emblèmes d'Amour, and Emblemi d'Amore. These verses, though always on the same subject, are very far from exact translations of each other, and it is quite possible that Ayres may have taken more or fewer of them from preceding writers. Probably a special student of the large, intricate, and interesting subject of Emblems could resolve the difficulty: but I do not pretend to be such a student. At any rate, if not the plates (we give specimens), the non-English verses are out of our way, though I shall give the first set complete as an example. The opening Sonnet to Chloe, the English verses, and a brief description of the plate which each illustrates, will serve our purpose, and may encourage somebody, now that photographic reproduction is cheap and not ineffectual, to reproduce the little book as a whole, and "dedicate it to the Ladys" afresh.