MATTHEW PRIOR, a distinguished poet, was born in 1664, in London according to one account, according to another at Winborne, in Dorsetshire. His father dying when he was young, an uncle, who was a vintner, or tavern-keeper, at Charing-cross, took him under his care, and sent him to Westminster-school, of which Dr. Busby was then master. Before he had passed through the school, his uncle took him home, for the purpose of bringing him into his own business; but the Earl of Dorset, a great patron of letters, having found him one day reading Horace, and being pleased with his conversation, determined to give him an university education. He was accordingly admitted of St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1682, proceeded bachelor of arts in 1686, and was won after elected to a fellowship. After having proved his poetic talents by some college exercises, he was introduced at court by the Earl of Dorset, and was so effectually recommended, that, in 1690, be was appointed secretary to the English plenipotentiaries who attended the congress at the Hague. Being now enlisted in the service of the court, his productions were, for some years, chiefly directed to courtly topics, of which one of the most considerable was an Ode presented to King William an 1695, on the death of Queen Mary. In 1697, he was nominated secretary to the commissioners for the treaty of Ryswick; and, on his return, was made secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He went to France in the following year, as secretary, first to the Earl of Portland, and then to the Earl of Jersey; and being now regarded as one conversant in public affairs, he was summoned by king William to Loo, where he had a confidential audience. In the beginning of 1701 he sat in Parliament for East Grinstead.
Prior had hitherto been promoted and acted with the Wings: but the Tories now having become the prevalent party, he turned about, and ever after adhered to them. He even voted for the impeachment of those lords who advised that partition treaty in which he had been officially employed. Like most converts, he embraced his new friends with much zeal, and from that time almost all his social connections were confined within the limits of his Party.
The successes in the beginning of Queen Anne's reign were celebrated by the poets on both sides; and Prior sung the victories of Blenheim and Ramilies: he afterwards, however, joined in the attack of the great general who had been his theme. It will not be worth while here to take notice of all his changes in the political world, except to mention the disgraces which followed the famous congress of Utrecht, in which he was deeply engaged. For the completion of that business he was left in France, with the appointments and authority of an ambassador, though without the title, the proud Duke of Shrewsbury having refused to be joined in commission with a man so meanly born. Prior, however, publicly assumed the character till he was superseded by the Earl of Stair, on the accession of George I. The Whigs being now in power, he was welcomed, on his return, by a warrant from the House of Commons, under which he was committed to the custody of a messenger. He was examined before the Privy Council respecting his share in the peace of Utrecht, was treated with rigour, and Walpole moved an impeachment against him, on a charge of high treason, for holding clandestine conferences with the French plenipotentiary. His name was excepted from an act of grace passed in 1717; at length, however, he was discharged, without being brought to trial, to end his days in retirement.
We are new to consider Prior among the poetical characters of the time. In his writings is found that incongruous mixture of light and rather indecent topics with grave and even religious ones, which was not uncommon at that period. In the faculty of telling a story with ease and vivacity, he yields only to Swift, compared to whom his humour is occasionally strained and quaint. His songs and amatory pieces are generally elegant and classical. The most popular of his serious compositions are Henry and Emma, or the Nut-brown Maid, modernised from an antique original; and Solomon, the idea of which is taken from the book of Ecclesiastes. These are harmonious in their versification, splendid and correct in their diction, and copious in poetical imagery; but they exert no powerful effect on the feelings or the fancy, and are enfeebled by prolixity. His Alma, a piece of philosophical pleasantry, was written to console himself when under confinement, and displays a considerable share of reading. As to his elaborate effusions of loyalty and patriotism, they seem to have sunk into total neglect.
The life of Prior was cut short by a lingering illness, which closed his days at Wimpole, the seat of Lord Oxford, in September, 1721, in the 58th year of his age.