1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Matthew Prior

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 340.



PRIOR was the nephew of the keeper of a tavern at Charing Cross, where he was found by the Earl of Dorset, and sent at his expense to be educated at Cambridge. By the same nobleman's influence he went as secretary with the Earl of Berkeley, our ambassador at the Hague, where King William was so pleased with his conduct as to appoint him one of the gentlemen of the bedchamber. In 1697 he was secretary of legation at the treaty of Ryswick, and the next year held the same office at the court of France. On his return, after having been with the king at Loo, he was made under secretary of state, and on losing his place at the Earl of Jersey's removal, he was made a commissioner of trade.

He sat in the parliament that met in 1701: but in the progress of Queen Anne's war, though he celebrated Blenheim and Ramillies as a poet, he deserted as a politician to the Tories, and accompanying Bolingbroke to Paris for pacific objects, remained there till he rose to the rank of ambassador, the duties of which office he had for some time previously fulfilled. The vindictive Whigs committed him to custody for two years, after his return, on a charge of high treason. At fifty-three years of age he found himself, after all his important employments, with no other means of subsistence than his fellowship at Cambridge; but the publication of his poems by subscription, and the kindness of Lord Harley, restored him to easy circumstances for the rest of his life.

Prior was one of the last of the race of poets who relied for ornament on scholastic allusion and pagan machinery; but he used them like Swift more in jest than earnest, and with good effect. In his Alma he contrives even to clothe metaphysics in the gay and colloquial charm of his manner.