Among the sceptical follies of criticism, is the opinion asserted concerning the subject of the present memoir, that his writings were uninfluenced by that admiration for the Fair, to which they bear unequivocal testimony. If his attachments were not always such as honour would direct, or delicacy sanction, neither was he destitute of those feelings and sentiments which constitute the charm of sexual intercourse.
Matthew Prior was born July 21, 1664. Except from the drolling epitaph on himself, beginning "Nobles and heralds, &c." clearly intimating the obscurity of his ancestorial pretensions, and the epistle to Fleetwood Shephard, Esq. by which it should seem that his parentage was puritannic, nothing is known as to the infancy of the poet. His boyish days were passed with an uncle, master of the Rummer, formerly a celebrated tavern, near Charing Cross; who, after sending him a short time to the neighbouring school of Westminster, recalled him to his house, where he fortunately became known to Shephard, by whom he was introduced to the patronage of Lord Dorset. Prior did not disgrace the generosity of his noble friend. Advanced to notice, he soon attracted attention, and was appointed secretary in several embassies. So perfectly was William III. satisfied with his diplomatic exertions, that he made him one of the gentlemen of the Bed Chamber, on his return from the Hague, after having co-operated in forming the grand alliance against Lewis XIV. During his secretaryship with Earl Portland, as he was one day surveying the apartments at Versailles, being shewn the victories of Lewis, painted by Le Brun, and asked — whether the King of England's palace contained any such decorations? "The monuments of my Master's actions," retorted Prior, "are to be seen every where but in his own house." While, however, he sedulously maintained his public character, no man knew better to relax from the fatigues of duty, and abandon himself to the softness of enjoyment. In his poem entitled The Secretary, written at the Hague, he says.
In a little Dutch chaise, on a Saturday night,
On my left hand my Horace, a Nymph on my right!
No memoirs to compose, and no postboy to move,
* * * * *
I drive on my car in processional state,
Thus scorning the world, and superior to fate.
In 1701, he was elected a member of Parliament for East Grinsted, and, quitting his old allies, joined the Tories. His poems, published first about 1705, were gratefully dedicated to the memory of the Earl of Dorset. Towards the close of the reign of Anne, and a few months after the accession of George I. he sustained the rank of an embassador at the French court. In 1715, he was impeached by Walpole, the minister, but acquitted.
Pecuniary circumstances now compelling him to publish his works by subscription, Lord Harley, son of the Earl of Oxford, munificently added £4000 for the purchase of Downhall in Essex, which Prior was to enjoy during his life. He died at Wimpole, a seat belonging to Lord Oxford, September 18, 1721, of a lingering fever; and was interred in Westminster Abbey, having appropriated £500 for a Monument.
Indifference to human gratification formed no part of Prior's character. Celia, from whom he feigns a poetical epistle, seems to have initiated him in the tender science of love. As her portrait was executed by Kneller, she doubtless lived in some degree of splendor, however disputable her title to respectability. Expressive, indeed, are the apprehensions which her admirer represents her as entertaining, that hereafter
He might neglect, or quench, or hate the flame
Whose smoke too long obscur'd his rising fame.
Chloe, who reigned in her stead, but whose empire became more extensive and durable than that of her predecessor, far from enacting the part of a coy charmer, interested by her ingenuousness and constancy.
Fair Thames she haunts; and every neighbouring grove,
Sacred to soft recess, and gentle love!
It is to this lady that the world is indebted for the revival of the Nut-brown Maid, in the poem of Henry and Emma. The introductory lines, addressed to her, beautifully express the ardour and permanency of affection. A fault, common to men of his temperament, Prior certainly displayed; that of impotently courting those smiles, which he no longer possessed the power to attract. Love had ejected him from his ranks, before he could consent to withdraw from the service.
The following lines present a portraiture of his favourite Nymph:
In ringlets rather dark than fair,
Does down her ivory bosom roll;
And, hiding half, adorns the whole.
In her high forehead's fair half round,
Love sits in open triumph crown'd:
He in the dimple of her chin,
In private state, by friends is seen.
Her eyes are neither black nor grey,
Nor fierce nor feeble is their ray;
Their dubious lustre seems to show
Something that speaks nor yes nor no.
Her lips . . .
Old Homer only could endite
Their fragrant grace, and soft delight
They stand recorded in his book,
When Helen smil'd, and Hebe spoke!
Prior had some failings, but they were counterbalanced with many excellencies. To considerable genius for poetry, he united the industry necessary for business. He was sociable, friendly, grateful. Though volatile, he was not inconstant; though gay, he was not radically licentious.