This celebrated poet was the son of Mr. George Prior, citizen of London, who was by profession a Joiner. Our author was born in 1664. His father dying when he was very young, left him to the care of an uncle, a Vintner near Charing-Cross, who discharged the trust that was reposed in him, with a tenderness truly paternal, as Mr. Prior always acknowledged with the highest professions of gratitude. He received part of his education at Westminster school, where he distinguished himself to great advantage, but was afterwards taken home by his uncle in order to be bred up to his trade. Notwithstanding this mean employment, to which Mr. Prior seemed now doomed, yet at his leisure hours he prosecuted his study of the classics, and especially his favourite Horace, by which means he was soon taken notice of, by the polite company, who resorted to his uncle's house. It happened one day, that the earl of Dorset being at his Tavern, which he often frequented with several gentlemen of rank, the discourse turned upon the Odes of Horace; and the company being divided in their sentiments about a passage in that poet, one of the gentlemen said, "I find we are not like to agree in our criticisms, but, if I am not mistaken, there is a young fellow in the house, who is able to set us all right:" upon which he named Prior, who was immediately sent for, and desired to give his opinion of Horace's meaning in the Ode under consideration; this he did with great modesty, and so much to the satisfaction of the company, that the earl of Dorset, from that moment, determined to remove him from the station in which he was, to one more suited to his genius; and accordingly procured him to be sent to St. John's College in Cambridge, where he took his degree in 1686, and afterwards became fellow of the College.
During his residence in the university, he contracted an intimate friendship with Charles Montague, esq; afterwards earl of Hallifax, in conjunction with whom he wrote a very humorous piece, entitled The Hind and Panther transversed to the story of the Country Mouse, and the City Mouse, printed 1687 in 4to. in answer to Mr. Dryden's Hind and the Panther, published the year before.
Upon the revolution Mr. Prior was brought to court by his great patron the earl of Dorset, by whose interest he was introduced to public employment, and in the year 1690 was made secretary to the earl of Berkley, plenipotentiary to King William and Queen Mary at the Congress at the Hague.
In this station he acquitted himself so well, that he was afterwards appointed secretary to the earls of Pembroke, and Jersey, and Sir Joseph Williamson, ambassadors, and plenipotentiaries, at the treaty of Ryswick 1697, as he was likewise in 1698 to the earl of Portland, ambassador to the court of France. While he was in that kingdom, one of the officers of the French King's household, shewing him the royal apartments, and curiosities at Versailles, especially the paintings of Le Brun, wherein the victories of Lewis XIV. are described, asked him, whether King William's actions are to be seen in his palace? "No Sir," replied Mr. Prior, "the monuments of my master's actions are to be seen every where, but in his own house."
In the year 1697 Mr. Prior was made secretary of state for Ireland, and in 1700 was created master of arts by Mandamus, and appointed one of the lords commissioners of trade and plantations, upon the resignation of Mr. Locke. He was also Member of Parliament for East-Grinstead in Sussex. In 1710 he was supposed to have had a share in writing the Examiner, and particularly a Criticism in it upon a Poem of Dr. Garth to the earl of Godolphin, taken notice of in the life of Garth.
About this time, when Godolphin was defeated by Oxford, and the Tories who had long been eclipsed by the lustre of Marlborough, began again to hold up their heads, Mr. Prior and Dr. Garth espoused opposite interests; Mr. Prior wrote for, and Garth against the court. The Dr. was so far honest, that he did not desert his patron in distress; and notwithstanding the cloud which then hung upon the party, he addressed verses to him, which, however they may fail in the poetry, bear strong the marks of gratitude, and honour.
While Mr. Prior was thus very early initiated in public business, and continued in the hurry of affairs so many years, it must appear not a little surprizing, that he should find sufficient opportunities to cultivate his poetical talents, to the amazing height he raised them. In his preface to his poems, he says, that poetry was only the product of his leisure hours; that he had commonly business enough upon his hands, and, as he modestly adds, was only a poet by accident; but we must take the liberty of differing from him in the last particular, for Mr. Prior seems to have received from the muses, at his nativity, all the graces they could well bestow on their greatest favourite.
We must not omit one instance in Mr. Prior's conduct, which will appear very remarkable: he was chosen a member of that Parliament which impeached the Partition Treaty, to which he himself had been secretary; and though his share in that transaction was consequently very considerable, yet he joined in the impeachment upon an honest principle of conviction, that exceptionable measures attended it.
The lord Bolingbroke, who, notwithstanding many exceptions made both to his conduct, and sentiments in other instances, yet must be allowed to be an accomplished judge of fine talents, entertained the highest esteem for Mr. Prior, on account of his shining abilities. This noble lord, in a letter dated September 10, 1712, addressed to Mr. Prior, while he was the Queen's minister, and plenipotentiary at the court of France, pays him the following compliment; "For God's sake, Matt. hide the nakedness of thy country, and give the best turn thy fertile brain will furnish thee with, to the blunders of thy countrymen, who are not much better politicians, than the French are poets." His lordship thus concludes his epistle; "It is near three o' clock in the morning, I have been hard at work all day, and am not yet enough recovered to bear much fatigue; excuse therefore the confusedness of this scroll, which is only from Harry to Matt, and not from the secretary to the minister. Adieu, my pen is ready to drop out of my hand, it being now three o'clock in the morning; believe that no man loves you better or is more faithfully yours, &c. BOLINGBROKE."
There are several other letters from Bolingbroke to Prior, which, were it necessary, we might insert as evidences of his esteem for him; but Mr. Prior was in every respect so great a man, that the esteem even of lord Bolingbroke cannot add much to the lustre of his reputation, both as a statesman, and a poet. Mr. Prior is represented by those who knew, and have wrote concerning him, as a gentleman, who united the elegance and politeness of a court, with the scholar, and the man of genius. This representation, in general, may be just, yet it holds almost invariably true, that they who have risen from low life, still retain some traces of their original. No cultivation, no genius, it seems, is able entirely to surmount this. There was one particular in which Mr. Prior verified the old proverb.
The same woman who could charm the waiter in a tavern, still maintained her dominion over the ambassador at France. The Chloe of Prior it seems, was a woman in this station of life; but he never forsook her in the height of his reputation. Hence we may observe, that associations with women are the most lasting of all, and that when an eminent station raises a man above many other acts of condescension, a mistress will maintain her influence, charm away the pride of greatness, and make the hero who fights, and the patriot who speaks, for the liberty of his country, a slave to her. One would imagine however, that this woman, who was a Butcher's wife, must either have been very handsome, or have had something about her superior to people of her rank: but it seems the case was otherwise, and no better reason can be given for Mr. Prior's attachment to her, but that she was his taste. Her husband suffered their intrigue to go on unnoticed; for he was proud even of such a connexion as this, with so great a man as Prior; a singular instance of good nature.
In the year 1715 Mr. Prior was recalled from France, and upon his arrival was taken up by a warrant from the House of Commons; shortly after which, he underwent a very strict examination by a Committee of the Privy Council. His political friend, lord Bolingbroke, foreseeing a storm took shelter in France, and secured Harry, but left poor Matt in the lurch.
On the 10th of June Robert Walpole, esq, moved the House against him, and on the 17th Mr. Prior was ordered into close custody, and no person was admitted to see him without leave from the Speaker. For the particulars of this procedure of the Parliament, both against Mr. Prior, and many others concerned in the public transactions of the preceding reign, we refer to the histories of that time. In the Year 1717 an Act of Grace was passed in favour of those who had opposed the Hanoverian succession, as well as those who had been in open rebellion, but Mr. Prior was excepted out of it. At the close of this year, however, he was discharged from his confinement, and retired to spend the residue of his days at Downhall in Essex [quotations omitted].
This great man died on the 18th of September, 1721, at Wimple in Cambridgeshire, the seat of the earl of Oxford, with whose friendship he had been honoured for some years. The death of so distinguished a person was justly esteemed an irreparable loss to the polite world, and his memory will be ever dear to those, who have any relish for the muses in their softer charms. Some of the latter part of his life was employed in collecting materials for an History of the Transactions of his own Times, but his death unfortunately deprived the world of what the touches of so masterly a hand, would have made exceeding valuable.
Mr. Prior, by the suffrage of all men of taste, holds the first rank in poetry, for the delicacy of his numbers the wittiness of his turns, the acuteness of his remarks, and, in one performance, for the amazing force of his sentiments. The stile of our author is likewise so pure, that our language knows no higher authority, and there is an air of original in his minutest performances.
It would be superfluous to give any detail of his poems, they are in the hands of all who love poetry, and have been as often admired, as read. The performance, however, for which he is most distinguished, is his Solomon; a Poem in three Books, the first on Knowledge, the second on Pleasure, and the third on Power. We know few poems to which this is second, and it justly established his reputation as one of the best writers of his age [quotations omitted].