Whether Matthew Prior was a native of Dorset or of Middlesex, the Son of a joiner or a vintner, is unknown, and it would be of little consequence to ascertain what himself has left doubtful. The conscious humility of birth probably suggested this epigrammatic epitaph:
Heralds and courtiers, by your leave,
Here lie the bones of Matthew Prior;
A son of Adam and of Eve,
Can Bourbon or Nassau go higher?
He was born in 1664, and having lost his father when very young, the care of his education devolved on an uncle, who placed him for some time at Westminster School, under the celebrated Dr. Busby, but not intending him for a learned profession, took him at an early period to his own house, the Rummer Tavern, near Charing Cross, where he accidentally became acquainted with the Earl of Dorset, who sent him to St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1682.
Prior was first brought into notice by The City Mouse and Country Mouse, written in ridicule of Dryden's Hind and Panther. In 1691, he attended the congress at the Hague, as secretary to the embassy; and in this situation ingratiated himself so much with King William, that he made him a gentleman of his bed-chamber. At the treaty of Ryswick, in 1697, he was likewise secretary of embassy; and next year was sent in the same capacity to the court of France. In 1701, he represented East Grinstead in Parliament; and about this time is supposed to hare quitted the Whigs, his first connections, and to have become a Tory, terms so ridiculous, that we cannot refrain from smiling as we pen them.
By Queen Anne he was employed in several important negotiations, and his public talents were as universally acknowledged as the readiness of his wit, and his abilities as a poet. The downfall of the Tories, however, in 1714, brought ruin on Prior, who was imprisoned upwards of two years; and at the age of fifty-three was turned adrift on the world, with little besides his fellowship, which he had wisely retained, even in his highest exaltation, observing, "that every thing else was precarious."
Having finished his Solomon, he was encouraged to collect his poems, and publish them by subscription. This expedient, aided by the liberality of his friends, produced a handsome sum, and contributed to the comfort of his latter days. He died at Wimpole, a seat of the Earl of Oxford, near Cambridge, in 1721, in the 57th year of his age, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Of the private character and familiar habits of Prior, little has been handed down to us. He is said to have been elegant and polite.
Prior has tried every species of poetical composition, "from the grotesque to the solemn, and has not so failed in any as to incur derision or disgrace." This is the opinion of Johnson, and I willingly subscribe to its justice. Prior himself thus accounts for the unarranged manner and matter of his poems.
"The reader will, I hope, make allowance for their having been written at very distant times, and on very different occasions, and take them as they happen to come. Public panegyrics, amorous odes, serious reflections, or idle tales, the product of his leisure hours, who had business enough upon his hands, and was only a poet by accident."
He was however a far better poet by accident in all the diversities of his style, than many others by profession.
Most of his pieces have either wit, humour, or sentiment; and many are eminently beautiful.