1896 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Matthew Prior

Austin Dobson, in "Matthew Prior" Eighteenth-Century Vignettes 3 (1896; 1937) 226-28.



What is vital in Prior to-day is not what he fondly deemed his masterpiece,—

Indeed poor SOLOMON in Rhime
Was much too grave to be Sublime,

he confesses rather ruefully, in his last published poem, The Conversation. It is neither upon Solomon nor the Carmen Seculare for the Year 1700 that Prior's claim to poetic honours is based, but rather upon those light-hearted and whimsical "Vers de Societe" which have charmed alike judges as diverse as Cowper and Thackeray. "Every man," says Cowper, defending his favourite against the "king critic," Johnson, — "every man conversant with verse-writing knows, and knows by painful experience, that the familiar style is of all styles the most difficult to succeed in. To make verse speak the language of prose, without being prosaic, to marshal the words of it in such an order as they might naturally take in falling from the lips of an extemporary speaker, yet without seeming to displace a syllable for the sake of the rhyme, is one of the most arduous tasks a poet can undertake. He that could accomplish this task was Prior; many have imitated his excellence in this particular, but the best copies have fallen far short of the original." "Prior's," says Thackeray again, also putting in his respectful protest against "the great Samuel," "seem to me amongst the easiest, the richest, the most charmingly humorous of English lyrical poems. Horace is always in his mind, and his son, and his philosophy, his good sense, his happy easy turns and melody, his loves, and his Epicureanism, bear a great resemblance to that most delightful and accomplished master." If Prior is to be judged by his peers, we may take the decision of Cowper and Thackeray as one against which there is no appeal. Both were lovers of Horace; both were humorists; both, when they chose, themselves excelled in that "familiar style" of which the art is only hidden. Perhaps, if there be anything in the theory which makes kindliness one of the fundamental characteristics of the Humorist as opposed to the Wit, both Thackeray and Cowper belonged more distinctly to the former class than Prior; but, in any case, both possessed that sympathetic insight into Prior's works without which there can be no real comprehension.