Matthew Prior, a native of Dorsetshire, from an obscure origin rose to considerable eminence, both literary and political. In early life he was a Whig, and first came into notice as the author, jointly with Charles Montague, of the City Mouse and Country Mouse. In 1701 he ratted to the Tories , and made himself so useful to the party as to be selected to manage several delicate negotiations with foreign Powers, in particular that which resulted in the treaty of Utrecht. His behaviour on this occasion exposed him, though it would appear unjustly, to heavy charges from the Whig ministry which came into power in 1714, and he was thrown into prison, and kept there for more than two years. His old associates probably considered him as a renegade, and dealt out to him an unusual measure of severity.
There is much that is sprightly and pointed in Prior's loyal odes, which he designed to rival those which Boileau was composing at the same time in honour of the Grand Monarque, Louis XIV. But it is in his epigrams and "verses of society" that Prior is most successful. How charmingly, for instance, has he turned the stanzas in which he describes his doubtful cure by Dr. Radcliffe, or those upon a lady refusing to continue a dispute with him, or the lines upon The Lady's Looking-glass! How manly, English, and sensible is the advice to a jealous husband in the "Padlock" not to immure his wife or set spies over her, as they did abroad, but give her free liberty to range over this wretched world, and see how hollow and false it is! This poem ends with some far-famed lines:
Be to her faults a little blind,
Be to her virtues very kind;
Let all her ways be unconfined,
And clap your padlock — on her mind.
In his longer poems Prior was less successful. His Henry and Emma, an amplified re-cast of the old ballad of The Nut-brown Mayde, is admirably versified, and contains at least one line which is a part of our current sententious or proverbial speech:
That air and harmony of shape express,
Fine by degrees and beautifully less;
but most people would prefer to its artificial strains the greater brevity, directness, and distinctness of the old ballad. But the immense service which Dryden had rendered to English poetry, in imparting to the heroic couplet a smooth rapidity, as well as an air of lofty audacity, which it had not known before, is noticeable in all the best heroics of Prior and Addison. Alma, or the Progress of the Mind, in three cantos, is a satirical account in Hudibrastic verse of the vagaries with which the mind, at different periods of life, and acting through, or controlled by, different parts of the animal economy, troubles her possessor. There is something cynical, and tending to materialism, in the tone of this poem, which was written towards the close of Prior's life. His last and most ambitious effort was Solomon, a didactic poem in three parts. It is a soliloquy, and represents the royal sage as searching by turns through every province, and to the utmost bounds of knowledge, pleasure, and power, and finding in the end that all was "vanity and vexation of spirit."