1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Matthew Prior

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:535-36.



It was in some respects a disadvantage to the poets of this period that most of them enjoyed a considerable degree of worldly prosperity and importance, such as has too rarely blessed the community of authors. Some filled high diplomatic and official situations, and others were engaged in schemes of politics and ambition, where offices of state and the ascendancy of rival parties, not poetical or literary laurels, were the prizes contended for. Familiar and constant intercourse with the great on the part of authors, has a tendency to fix the mind on the artificial distinctions and pursuits of society, and to induce a tone of thought and study adapted to such associates. Now, it is certain that high thoughts and imaginations can only be nursed in solitude; and though poets may gain in taste and correctness by mixing in courtly circles, the native vigour and originality of genius, and the steady worship of truth and nature, must be impaired by such a course of refinement. It is evident that most of the poetry of this period, exquisite as it is in gaiety, polish, and sprightliness of fancy, possesses none of the lyrical grandeur and enthusiasm which redeem so many errors in the elder poets. The French taste is visible in most of its strains; and where excellence is attained, it is not in the delineation of strong passions, or in bold fertility of invention. Pope was at the head of this school, and was master even of higher powers. He had access to the haunted ground of imagination, but it was not his favourite or ordinary walk. Others were content with humbler worship, with propitiating a minister or a mistress, reviving the conceits of classic mythology, or satirising, without seeking to reform, the fashionable follies of the day. One of the most agreeable and accomplished of the number was MATTHEW PRIOR, born in 1664. Some accounts give the honour of his birth to Wimborne, in Dorsetshire, and others to the city of London. His father died early, and Matthew was brought up by his, uncle, a vintner at Charing Cross, who sent him to Westminster school. He was afterwards taken home to assist in the business of the inn; and whilst there, was one day seen by the Earl of Dorset reading Horace. The earl generously undertook the care of his education; and in his eighteenth year, Prior was entered of St. John's college, Cambridge. He distinguished himself during his academical career, and amongst other copies of verses, produced, in conjunction with the Honourable Charles Montagu, the "City Mouse and Country Mouse," in ridicule of Dryden's "Hind and Panther." The Earl of Dorset did not forget the poet he had snatched from obscurity. He invited him to London, and obtained for him an appointment as secretary to the Earl of Berkeley, ambassador to the Hague. In this capacity Prior obtained the approbation of King William, who made him one of the gentlemen of his bedchamber. In 1697 he was appointed secretary to the embassy on the treaty of Ryswick, at the conclusion of which he was presented with a considerable sum of money by the lords justices. Next year he was ambassador at the court of Versailles; and after some other temporary honours and appointments, was made a commissioner of trade. In 1701, he entered the House of Commons as representative for the borough of East-Grimstead, and abandoning his former friends, the Whigs, joined the Tories in impeaching Lord Somers. This came with a peculiarly bad grace from Prior, for the charge against Somers was, that he had advised the partition treaty, in which treaty the poet himself had acted as agent. He evinced his patriotism, however, by afterwards celebrating in verse the battles of Blenheim and Ramilies. When the Whig government was at length overturned, Prior became attached to Harley's administration, and went with Bolingbroke to France in 1711, to negotiate a treaty of peace. He lived in splendour in Paris, was a favourite of the French monarch, and enjoyed all the honours of ambassador. He returned to London in 1715; and the Whigs being again in office, he was committed to custody on a charge of high-treason. The accusation against Prior was, that he had held clandestine conferences with the French plenipotentiary, though, as he justly replied, no treaty was ever made without private interviews and preliminaries. The Whigs were indignant at the disgraceful treaty of Utrecht; but Prior only shared in the culpability of the government. The able but profligate Bolingbroke was the master-spirit that prompted the humiliating concession to France. After two years' confinement, the poet was released without a trial. He had in the interval written his poem of "Alma;" and being now left without any other support than his fellowship of St. John's college, he continued his studies, and produced his "Solomon," the most elaborate of his works. He had also recourse to the publication of a collected edition of his poems, which was sold to subscribers for five guineas, and realised the sum of £4000. An equal sum was presented to Prior by the Earl of Oxford, and thus he had laid up a provision for old age. He was ambitious only of comfort and private enjoyment. These, however, he did not long possess; for he died on the 18th of September 1721, at Lord Oxford's seat at Wimpole, being at the time in the fifty-seventh year of his age.

The works of Prior range over a variety of style and subject — odes, songs, epistles, epigrams, and tales. His longest poem, "Solomon," is of a serious character, and was considered by its author to be his best production, in which opinion he is supported by Cowper. It is the most moral, and perhaps the most correctly written; but the tales and lighter pieces of Prior are undoubtedly his happiest efforts. In these he displays that "charming ease" with which Cowper says he embellished all his poems, added to the lively illustration and colloquial humour of his master, Horace. No poet ever possessed in greater perfection the art of graceful and fluent versification. His narratives flow on like a clear stream, without break or fall, and interest us by their perpetual good humour and vivacity, even when they wander into metaphysics, as in "Alma," or into licentiousness, as in his tales. His expression was choice and studied, abounding in classical allusions and images (which were then the fashion of the day), but without any air of pedantry or constraint. Like Swift, he loved to versify the common occurrences of life, and relate his personal feelings and adventures. He had, however, no portion of the dean's bitterness or misanthropy, and employed no stronger weapons of satire than raillery and arch allusion. He sported on the surface of existence, noting its foibles, its pleasures, and eccentricities, but without the power of penetrating into its recesses, or evoking the higher passions of our nature. He was the most natural of artificial poets — a seeming paradox, yet as true as the old maxim, that the perfection of art is the concealment of it.