1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Matthew Prior

Isaac D'Israeli, "Illusions of Writers in Verse" in Calamities of Authors (1812); Works (1881) 5:215-18.



In this calamity of authors I will show that a great poet felicitated himself that poetry was not the business of his life; and afterwards I will bring forward an evidence that the immoderate pursuit of poetry, with a very moderate genius, creates a perpetual state of illusion and pursues grey-headed folly even to the verge of the grave.

Pope imagined that PRIOR was only fit to make verses, and less qualified for business than Addison himself. Had Prior lived to finish that history of his own times he was writing, we should have seen how far the opinion of Pope was right. Prior abandoned the Whigs, who had been his first patrons, for the Tories, who were now willing to adopt the political apostate. This versatility for place and pension rather shows that Prior was a little more "qualified for business than Addison."

Johnson tells us "Prior lived at a time when the rage of party detected all which was any man's interest to hide; and, as little ill is heard of Prior, it is certain that not much was known:" more, however, than Johnson supposes. This great man came to the pleasing task of his poetical biography totally unprepared, except with the maturity of his genius, as a profound observer of men, and an invincible dogmatist in taste. In the history of the times, Johnson is deficient, which has deprived us of that permanent instruction and delight his intellectual powers had poured around it. The character and the secret history of Prior are laid open in the State Poems; a bitter Whiggish narrative, too particular to be entirely fictitious, while it throws a new light on Johnson's observation of Prior's "propensity to sordid converse, and the low delights of mean company," which Johnson had imperfectly learned from some attendant on Prior.

A vintner's boy, the wretch was first preferr'd
To wait at Vice's gates, and pimp for bread;
To hold the candle, and sometimes the door,
Let in the drunkard, and let out —.
But, as to villains it has often chanc'd,
Was for his wit and wickedness advanc'd.
Let no man think his new behaviour strange,
No metamorphosis can nature change;
Effects are chain'd to causes; generally,
The rascal born will like a rascal die.

His Prince's favours follow'd him in vain;
They chang'd the circumstance, but not the man.
While out of pocket, and his spirits low,
He'd beg, write panegyrics, cringe, and bow;
But when good pensions had his labours crown'd,
His panegyrics into satires turn'd;
O what assiduous pains does Prior take
To let great Dorset see lie could mistake!
Dissembling nature false description gave,
Show'd him the poet, but conceal'd the knave.

To us the poet Prior is better known than the placeman Prior; yet in his own day the reverse often occurred. Prior was a State Proteus; Sunderland, the most ambiguous of politicians, was the Erle Robert to whom he addressed his Mice; and Prior was now Secretary to the Embassy at Ryswick and Paris; independent even of the English ambassador — now a Lord of Trade, and, at length, a Minister Plenipotentiary to Louis XIV.

Our business is with his poetical feelings.

Prior declares he was chiefly "a poet by accident;" and hints, in collecting his works, that "some of them, as they came singly from the first impression, have lain long and quietly in Mr. Tonson's shop." When his party had their downfall, and he was confined two years in prison, he composed his Alma, to while away prison hours; and when, at length, he obtained his freedom, he had nothing remaining but that fellowship which, in his exaltation, he had been censured for retaining, but which he then said he might have to live upon at last. Prior had great sagacity, and too right a notion of human affairs in politics, to expect his party would last his time, or in poetry, that he could ever derive a revenue from rhymes!

I will now show that that rare personage, a sensible poet, in reviewing his life in that hour of solitude when no passion is retained but truth, while we are casting up the amount of our past days scrupulously to ourselves, felicitated himself that the natural bent of his mind, which inclined to poetry, had been checked, and not indulged, throughout his whole life. Prior congratulated himself that he had been only "a poet by accident," not by occupation.

In a manuscript by Prior, consisting of An Essay on Learning, I find this curious and interesting passage entirely relating to the poet himself:

"I remember nothing farther in life than that I made verses; I chose Guy Earl of Warwick for my first hero, and killed Colborne the giant before I was big enough for Westminster School. But I had two accidents in youth which hindered me from being quite possessed with the Muse. I was bred in a college where prose was more in fashion than verse, — and as soon as I had taken my first degree, I was sent the King's Secretary to the Hague; there I had enough to do in studying French and Dutch, and altering my Terentian and Virgilian style into that of Articles and Conventions; so that poetry, which by the bent of my mind might have become the business of my life, was, by the happiness of my education, only the amusement of it; and in this, too, having the prospect of some little fortune to be made, and friendships to be cultivated with the great men, I did not launch much into satire, which, however agreeable for the present to the writers and encouragers of it, does in time do neither of them good; considering the uncertainty of fortune, and the various changes of Ministry, and that every man, as he resents, may punish in his turn of greatness and power."

Such is the wholesome counsel of the Solomon of Bards to an aspirant, who, in his ardour for poetical honours, becomes careless of their consequences, if he can but possess them.