1902 Encyclopedia > Matthew Prior

Matthew Prior
English poet
(1664-1721)




PRIOR, MATTHEW (1664-1721), the most distinguished of English society poets, was the nephew, as Chaucer was the son, of a, London vintner, and the lives of the two poets were parallel in a good many other respects. Their art earned for both of them social advancement and political employment ; both had a turn for business and diplomacy; both were employed on embassies, both even in secret missions; both were officers of the royal household, a,nd both were rewarded with posts in Government offices of trade; and there was besides not a little in common between them as poets. There are not two careers in literature that offer more numerous or more curious points of parallelism. The vintner's nephew in the reign of Charles II. (born, July 21, 1644, either, it would appear, at Wimborne in Dorsetshire, or in or near London) attracted the notice of a noble patron while still at school at Westminster, under the fa.mous Dr Busby. The earl of Dorset was with a party at the tavern, and the school-boy was called in to decide some debate that had arisen about a passage in Horace. According to the story, Prior acquitted himself so well that the earl, the Mrecenas of his generation, at once undertook to send him to Cambridge, and he was entered at St John's in 1682. As it happened a fellow schoolboy at -Westminster was Charles -Montague, who afterwards became. earl of Halifax. The two con-tinued comrades at Cambridge, and together wrote in 1687 the City Mouse and Country Mouse, in ridicule of Dryden's Hind and Panther. It was an age when satirists were in request, and sure of patronage and promotion. The joint production made the fortune of both authors. Montague, who was an earl's grandson, was promoted at once, and Prior had to languish only three years as a fellow of his college when he was gazetted secretary to the embassy at The Hague. After four years of this employment he was re-called to England, and appointed one of the gentlemen of the king's bedchamber. Apparently also he acted as one of the king's secretaries, and in 1697 he was secretary to the plenipotentiaries who concluded the peace of Ryswick. Prior's talent for affairs was doubted by Pope, who had no special means of judging, but it is not likely that King William would have employed in this important business a man who had not given proof of diplomatic skill and grasp of details. The poet's knowledge of French is specially men-tioned among his qualifications, and this was recognized by-his being sent in the same year to Paris in attendance on the English ambassador, At this period Prior could say with good reason that " he had business enough upon his hands and was only a poet by accident." To poetry, however, which had laid the foundation of his fortunes, he still occasionally trusted as a means of maintaining his position, and composed odes on various public events that required celebration. His wit made him a favourite as a member of the English legation at Paris, although he used it sometimes in a patriotic manner at the expense of the French.





After-his return from France, and a brief tenure of other offices, Prior succeeded Locke as a commissioner of trade. ln 1701 he sat in parliament for East Grinstead. About the same time for some undiscovered reason he cha,nged his side in politics, and allied himself with Harley and St John. Perhaps in consequence of this for nine years there is no mention of his name in connexion with any public trans-action. But when the Tories came into power in 1710 Prior's diplomatic abilities were again called into action, and till the death of Anne he held a prominent place in all negotiations with the French court-, sometimes as secret agent, sometimes in an equivocal position as am-bassador's companion, sometimes as fully accredited but very unpunctually paid ambassador. From this greatness the poet had a sudden fall when the queen died and the Whigs regained power. He was considered of sufficient consequence not to be allowed to escape into obscurity. He was specially examined by a committee of the privy council, and kept in close custody for three years. During this imprisonment, maintaining his cheerful philo-sophy, he wrote his longest humorous poem, Alma, or The Progress of the Mind. This, along with his most am-bitious work Solomon, and a collection of Poems on several Occasions, was published by subscription in 1718. The poet did not long survive his enforced retirement from public life, although he bore his ups and downs with rare equanimity. He died at -Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, a seat of the earl of Oxford, September 18, 1721, and was buried in Westininster Abbey, where his monument may be seen in Poets' Corner. Prior had very much the same e-asy pleasure-loving disposition as Chaucer, combined with a similar capacity for solid work. Johnson lays stress with justice on the variety and the uniform excellence of Prior's poetry. This distinction may fairly be claimed for a. poet who has received the enthusiastic praise, in different views of his work, of two men so different as John IfVesley and Mr Swinburne. Prior tried many kinds of grave and gay, and in the face of such testimony it would seem as if we ought to reconsider Johnson's verdict that he never rises high above mediocrity in any kind. Johnson might have been more lenient to Prior's love-verses if he had not made so much use in them of classical fictions. This was the one thing that the great critic would on no account tolerate ; frigid allusions to Venus, Cupid, Diana, Ganymede, and such. like "easy fictions and vulgar topics," put him out of temper at once, and excluded the unlucky composition from all chance of fair consideration at his ha.nds. The truth was that what Johnson desiderated in love-verses was honest fervent passion. He had no taste for such elegant trifling as the poems in playful praise of Cloe. Even the pretty compliments in the love-letter to the lady of quality aged five would not have moved him to any ecstasy of admira-tion. "-Whatever Prior obtains above mediocrity," he says, "seems the effort of struggle and of toil. He has many vigorous but few happy lines ; he has everything by purchase, and nothing by gift His expression has every mark of laborious study ; the line seldom seems to have been formed at once; the words did not come till they were called, and were then put by constraint into tireir places, where they do their duty, but do it sullenly." This criticism is too unqualified. It applies very happily to many of Prior's verses, but not to Prior at his best ; and, even when he is at his worst, it strikes us that the failure is rather owing to his not having laboured long enough to conceal the labour. lf Prior has nothing by gift, it is equally true - and Johnson admits this also - that lie has nothing by theft. He is eminently original, and this will probably- help to keep his reputation alive with students of poetry for a very long time. There is a fresh intellectual force and a pregnancy of thought in his writing that has made Prior exceedingly serviceable read-ing for subsequent poets, and there are some of his short poems in which every stanza has been the cause of happy thought and perfect expression in his successors. "Prior is a lady's book," Johnson once said to Boswell. He might have said with more propriety that Prior is a poet's book - a very good book, not exactly to steal from, but to get stimulus from. (w. 31.)







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