1720 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Matthew Prior

Giles Jacob, in Historical Account of the Lives and Writings of our most considerable English Poets (1720) 152-65.



A Poet likewise now living, of the greatest Eminence. He is the Son of Mr. George Prior, Citizen of London; who dying while he was very young, left him to the Care of his Uncle, which prov'd Paternal, as Mr. Prior through the Course of his Life has always acknowledged with the greatest Gratitude. He was bred at Westminster School, where, as Dr. Sprat says of Mr. Cowley, he early obtained and increased the noble Genius peculiar to that Place. He was thence removed to St. John's College in Cambridge, of which Society soon after he had taken the Degree of Batchelor of Arts, he was made Fellow, and retains the same Honour to this Day. He wrote several Copies of Verses when very Young, as appears by the first in his Printed Poems. In the Reign of King James II. jointly with Mr. Montague, since Earl of Halifax, he wrote the Poem call'd, The City Mouse and Country Mouse, in Answer to the famous Hind and Panther of Mr. Dryden. Upon the Revolution he was brought to Court by the late Earl of Dorset, that great Patron of all polite Learning, by whom from his Infancy he was beloved and encouraged, and as he grew up to Manhood, had a great Share in his Intimacy and Friendship. Under this noble Lord's Patronage he enter'd into publick Business, and was first made Secretary of the Embassy to the present Earl of Pembroke, the late Earl of Jersey, and Sir Joseph Williamson, Ambassadors at the Peace of Reswick; was likewise Secretary to the late Earls of Portland and Jersey. He was Secretary of State in the Kingdom of Ireland, then one of the Commissioners of Trade and Plantations, and by her late Majesty made one of the Commissioners of the Customs, and her Majesty's Plenipotentiary Minister in France, 1711. So that going into publick Business very young, and having continued therein for Seven and Twenty Years, his Poetry (to use his own Words in his Preface to his Poems) was only the Product of his leisure Hours, who had Business enough upon his Hands, and was only a Poet by Accident. In all his Employments he has acquitted himself with great Fidelity, and sufficiently shewn his uncommon Abilities, to which his fine Learning hath not a little contributed. Tho' used to a Court, he is unskill'd in Flattery, and averse to Grandeur. His Sincerity is very extraordinary; and his his Generosity and Good-nature are the most extensive, so are his Principles of Humanity. For his Talents, he is a Man of great Wit and Vivacity; admirable at Invention. His Thoughts are new and pleasing, and happily work'd up: His Tales are inimitable; his Lines easy and harmonious, and a Masterly Judgment is discoverable in all his Performances. Upon the whole, he is the Cowley of this Age. The pieces written by this Gentleman are,

I. An Ode on Exodus iii. 14. "I Am that I am." Written in 1688, as an Exercise at St. John's College Cambridge. This is an admirable Piece, and a discerning Eye might in this alone have seen the Promises of a Solomon.

II. To the Countess of Exeter playing on the Lute. In this Piece the Poet speaking of the Beauty of this Lady, and her great Influence by her Qualifications, has this excellent Simile.

The Persians thus first gazing on the Sun,
Admir'd how high 'twas plac'd, how bright it shone;
But, as his Pow'r was known, their Thoughts were rais'd,
And soon they worshipp'd when at first they prais'd.

III. On the Picture of Seneca dying in a Bath, by Jordan. At the Right Honourable the Earl of Exeter's at Burleigh-House.

IV. An Ode. This Piece seems to be writ to the Author's Mistress. It begins thus:

While blooming Youth and gay Delight
Sit on thy rosy Cheeks confest,
Thou hast, my Dear, undoubted Right
To triumph o'er this destin'd Breast.
My Reason bends to what thy Eyes ordain;
For I was born to Love, and thou to Reign.

V. An Epistle to Fleetwood Shepherd, Esq; This is a very humorous Piece; it has finely expos'd our Modern Poets, Criticism, and the Manner of forming of Poems.

VI. To the Countess of Dorset. Written in her Milton. VII. To the Lady Dursley on the same Subject. Both these Pieces are very much admir'd. In the first, to the Lady Dorset, (speaking of Eve in the Creation) the Author has these Lines:

Yours, the best Copy of th' Orig'nal Face,
Whose Beauty was to furnish all the Race.

And in the last to the Lady Dursley.

With Virtue strong as yours had Eve been arm'd,
In vain the Fruit had blush'd, or Serpent charm'd:
Nor had our Bliss by Penitence been bought;
Nor had frail Adam fall'n, nor Milton wrote.

VIII. To the Lord Buckhurst very young, playing with a Cat. IX. The Despairing Shepherd. X. To the Honourable Charles Montague, Esq;

XI. Hymn to the Sun. Set by Dr. Purcel, and sung before their Majesties on New-Year's-Day, 1694. This excellent Piece begins,

Light of the World, and Ruler of the Year,
With happy Speed begin thy great Career;
And, as thou do'st thy radiant Journies run
Thro' ev'ry distant Climate own,
That in fair Albion thou hast seen
The greatest Prince, the brightest Queen,
That ever sav'd a Land, or blest a Throne,
Since first thy Beams were spread, or genial Pow'r was known.

XII. The Ladies Looking-Glass. XIII. To Mrs. Elizabeth Singer, on her Pastoral call'd Love and Friendship. XIV. Seeing the Duke of Ormond's Picture at Sir Godfrey Kneller's. These Verses describe the Duke of Ormond's glorious Behaviour at the Battle of Landen. XV. Celia to Damon.

XVI. An Ode. Presented to King William on his Majesty's Arrival in Holland, after the Queen's Death, 1695. The Poet sets out thus:

At Mary's Tomb, (sad sacred Place!)
The Virtues shall their Vigils keep:
And ev'ry Muse, and ev'ry Grace
In solemn State shall ever weep.

The future, pious, mournful Fair,
Oft as the rolling Years return,
With fragrant Wreaths, and flowing Hair,
Shall visit her distinguish'd Urn.

For her the Wise and Great shall mourn;
When late Records her Deeds repeat:
Ages to come, and Men unborn
Shall sigh her Name, and bless her Fate.

XVII. In Imitation of Anacreon. XVIII. On the taking of Namur. XIX. A Poem presented to the King at his Arrival in Holland, after the Discovery of the Conspiracy. 1696. XX. To Cloe Weeping. XXI. To Mr. Howard. An Ode. XXII. Love Disarm'd. In this Piece, the Poet makes Cupid sleep on Cloe's Breast, where she takes him Prisoner, and for his Releasement obtains his Bow and Dart, with which she wounds Mankind. XXIII. Cupid and Ganymede. XXIV. Cupid Mistaken. XXV. Venus Mistaken.

XXVI. The Dove a Poem. In this Poem, Venus having lost her favourite Dove, sends Cupid to make a Search for it; who repairing to Cloe, examines her in Bed, and below her Bosom he finds the Feathers of the Dove, as it is thus expressed in the last Stanza.

O! whither do these Fingers rove,
Cries Cloe, treach'rous Urchin, whither?
O Venus! I shall find the Dove,
Says He; for here I touch his Feather.

XXVII. A Lover's Anger. XXVIII. Mercury and Cupid. XXIX. On Beauty, a Riddle. XXX. The Question to Lisetta. And her Reply. XXXI. The Garland. XXXII. Cloe Jealous. And an Answer to it.

XXXIII. Pallas and Venus. An Epigram. Venus naked meeting Pallas clad in shining Armour, boasts how potent she should be if thus dressed, to which Pallas answers,

Thou to be strong must put off every Dress:
Thy only Armour is thy Nakedness:
And more than once, (or thou art much bely'd)
By Mars himself that Armour has been try'd.

XXXIV. To a Young Gentleman in Love. A Tale. This Tale has a very good Moral: And begins,

From publick Noise and factious Strife,
From all the busy Ills of Life,
Take me, my Cloe, to thy Breast;
And lull my wearied Soul to Rest:
For ever, in this humble Cell,
Let thee and I, my Fair one, dwell;
None enter else, but Love — and He
Shall bar the Door, and keep the Key.

To painted Roofs, and shining Spires
(Untimely Seats of high Desires)
Let the unthinking many croud,
That dare be Covetous and Proud;
In Golden Bondage let them Wait,
And Barter Happiness for State:
But Oh! My Cloe, when thy Swain
Desires to see a Court again;
May Heav'n around this destin'd Head
The choicest of his Curses shed:
To sum up all the Rage of Fate,
In the two things I dread and hate,
May'st thou be False, and I be Great.

XXXV. An English Padlock. The Author fixes the Padlock on the Mind.

XXXVI. Hans Carvel. This is a Tale of great Humour.

XXXVII. Paulo Purganti and his Wife: An honest but a simple Pair. Paulo Purganti is a Physician, who having married a young Wife, is not able to go through the repeated Duty desired by her, whereupon he pretends to be sick, and that 'tis Poyson to her.

What, in your Waters? are you mad!
Why Poyson is not half so bad.
I'll do it — But I give you Warning:
You'll die before to Morrow Morning.—
'Tis kind, my Dear, what you advise,
The Lady with a Sigh replies:
But Life, you know, at best is Pain,
And Death is what we should disdain.
So do it therefore — and adieu,
For I will die for love of you.—
Let other Wives by Death by scar'd,
But, to my Comfort, I'm prepar'd.

XXXVIII. The Ladle, a Tale. This Tale, which seems low and trivial in the Wish for a Silver Ladle, the Husband's wishing it fixed in the Woman's back-side, and afterwards wishing it out again; has an excellent Moral in the natural Propensity of Mankind, to desire something they have not, and which they don't know what to do with when obtained.

That something if we could obtain,
Would soon create a future Pain:
And to the Coffin from the Cradle,
'Tis all a Wish, and all a Ladle.

XXXIX. Verses written in the Beginning of Mezeray's History of France. XL. A Passage in the Moria Encomium of Erasmus imitated. XLI. To Dr. Sherlock, on his Practical Discourse concerning Death.

XLII. Carmen Seculare, for the Year 1700. To the King. This is an excellent Poem, and very much in Praise of King William. The Reverend Mr. Tho. Dibben has given the World an admirable Translation of this Piece in Latin, which Mr. Prior himself owns comes up to the Original. This learned and ingenious Gentleman was bred up in Trinity College, Cambridge, and is now Rector of Fontmel in the County of Dorset. He is likewise Chaplain to the Lord Bishop of London, and attended his Lordship at the Congress at Utrecht in the Year 1711.

XLIII. An Ode inscribed to the Honourable Colonel George Villiers, drowned in the River Piava 1703. This Ode is extremely moving, and concludes with this Request of the Person who should find the Corps.

Who e'er thou art, whom Choice or Bus'ness leads
To this sad River, or the neighb'ring Meads;
If thou may'st happen on the dreary Shores
To find the Object which this Verse deplores;
Cleanse the pale Corps with a religious Hand
From the polluting Weed and common Sand;
Lay the dead Hero graceful in a Grave,
(The only Honour he can now receive)
And fragrant Mould upon his Body throw,
And plant the Warrior Laurel o'er his Brow;
Light lie the Earth, and flourish green the Bough.

So when by the same Sentence breathless thou
And pale shalt lie, as what thou buriest now;
May some kind Friend the piteous Object see,
And equal Rites perform to That which once was Thee.

XLIV. Prologue spoken at Court before the Queen, on her Majesty's Birth-Day 1704. XLV. A Letter to Monsieur Boileau Despreaux, occasioned by the Victory t Blenheim 1704. XLVI. For the Plan of a Fountain, on which is the Effigies of Queen Anne on a triumphal Arch, the Figure of the Duke of Marlborough beneath, and the chief Rivers of the World round the whole Work. XLVII. The Chamelion. XLVIII. A Simile. This is a Comparison of some Poets to Squirrels in a rowling Cage, ever aspiring, but always low.

XLIX. Epigrams, one whereof on a Poet's being called a Fool.

Yes, every Poet is a Fool:
By Demonstration Ned can show it:
Happy, could Ned's inverted Rule
Prove every Fool to be a Poet.

L. The Nut-brown Maid. A Poem written three hundred Years since. LI. Henry and Emma, a Poem upon the Model of the Nut-brown Maid. This Poem finely illustrates the Constancy of Love in the severest Tryal.

LII. An Ode humbly inscribed to Queen Anne, on the glorious Success of her Majesty's Arms 1706, written in Imitation of Spencer's Style. Mr. Prior has made Horace's fourth Ode in the fourth Book (where he wrote in Praise of Drusus after his Expedition into Germany, and of Augustus upon his happy Choice of that General) his Pattern in this Piece, and has shewn a great Excellency throughout.

LIII. Cantata, set by Monsieur Galliard. LIV. A true Maid. LV. A reasonable Affliction. LVI. Phillis's Age. LVII. A Critical Moment. This was a fatal Minute.

How capricious were Nature and Art to poor Nell?

She was painting her Cheeks at the time her Nose fell.

LVIII. An Epigram written to the Duke de Noailles. LIX. The Thief to the Cordelier. This Piece has a great deal of Humour. LX. An Epitaph, containing a very natural Description of an easy indolent Life. LXI. To the Right Honourable Mr. Harley, in Imitation of Horace, Lib. I. Epist. 9. LXII. To Mr. Harley, wounded by Guiscard, 1711, an Ode. LXIII. Earl Robert's Mice. A famous Tale, in Chaucer's Style. LXV. To the Lady Elizabeth Harley, since Marchioness of Carmarthen, on a Column of her Drawning. LXVI. Protogenes and Apelles. LXVII. For the Author's own Tomb-Stone: An excellent Epigram. LXVIII. Guarlterus Danistonus ad Amicos, imitated. LXX. The second Hymn of Callimachs to Apollo. LXXI. Charity: A Paraphrase on the 13th Chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians. This is an admirable Piece. LXXII. Written in Montaigne's Essays, given to the Duke of Shrewsbury in France, after the Piece, 1713. LXXIII. An Epistle, desiring the Queen's Picture. Written at Paris, 1714. LXXIV. Alma; or the Progress of the Mind. In three Canto's. This Poem has an infinite Variety of Invention.

LXXV. Solomon, on the Vanity of the World. A Poem in three Books: The first Book on Knowledge, the second Pleasure, and the third on Power. This sublime and incomparable Poem begins thus,

Ye Sons of Men, with just Regard attend,
Observe the Preacher, and believe the Friend,
Whose serious Muse inspires him to explain,
That all we act, and all we think is vain:
That in this Pilgrimage of seventy Years,
O'er Rocks of Perils, and thro' Vales of Tears
Destin'd to march, our doubtful Steps we tend,
Tir'd of the Toil, yet fearful of its End:
That from the Womb we take our fatal Shares
Of Follies, Passions, Labours, Tumults, Cares;
And at Approach of Death shall only know
The Truths, which from these pensive Numbers flow,
That we pursue false Joy, and suffer real Woe.

After an Enquiry into, and an excellent Description of the various Operations and Effects of Nature, the System of the Heavens, &c. and not being fully informed of them, the first Book concludes;

How narrow Limits were to Wisdoms giv'n?
Earth she surveys: She thence would measure Heav'n:
Thro' Mists obscure, now Wings her tedious way;
Now wanders dazl'd with too bright a Day;
And from the Summit of a pathless Coast
Sees INFINITE, and in that Sight is lost.

In the second Book the Uncertainty, Disappointments and Vexation attending Pleasure in general are admirably described; and in the Character of Solomon is sufficiently shewn, that nothing debases Majesty, (or indeed any Man) more than an ungovernable Passion.

When thus the gather'd Storms of wretched Love
In my swoln Bosom, with long War had strove;
At length they broke their Bounds; at length their Force
Bore down whatever met its stronger Course:
Laid all the civil Bonds of Manhood waste,
And scatter'd Ruin as the Torrent pass'd.
So from the Hills, when swelling Rain—

The third Book, which takes particular Notice of the Trouble and Instability of Greatness and Power, considers Man through the several Stages and Conditions of Life, and has fine Reasoning upon Life and Death. On the last there are these Lines.

Cure of the Miser's Wish, and Coward's Fear,
Death only shews us what we knew was near.
With Courage therefore view the pointed Hour;
Dread not Death's Anger, but expect its Pow'r;
Nor Nature's Law with fruitless Sorrow mourn;
But die, O mortal Man! for thou wast born.

In another Place;

Joyous of Life, but not afraid to die.

And farther, the Poet has these Simile's on Life.

As Smoke that rises from the kindling Fires
Is seen this Moment, and the next expires:
As empty Clouds by rising Winds are tost,
Their fleeting Forms no sooner found than lost:
So vanishes our State; so pass our Days;
So Life but opens now, and now decays:
The Cradle and the Tomb, alas! so nigh;
To live is scarce distinguish'd from to die.

Solomon at length finding human Reason too imperfect to resolve his Doubts, relating to Death and a future Being, has Recourse to Religion, which ends the Poem.

All these excellent Poems, with some other small Pieces, are lately published in one large Volume, Folio, with a Dedication to the Earl of Dorset and Middlesex, which, I may venture to say, is the best that ever was writ in the English Tongue.