"Dan Prior next, belov'd by every Muse."
So sings Gay in that welcome to Pope after his labours of the Iliad. And indeed not every Muse, but all the world seem to have looked kindly on the fortunate young Horatian whom the noble Dorset had taken from the Rummer tavern to be successively a Secretary of Embassy, a Secretary of State, a Commissioner of Trade and Plantations, a Member of Parliament, and, to crown all, an Ambassador. Among the subscribers to that stately folio of 1718, by which its author, happy man! cleared some £4000, are numbered most of the illustrious names of the age, from Newton to Beau Nash, — to say nothing of lively maids of honour like the Honourable Mrs. Mary Bellenden, and bishops like his Right Reverence of Winchester. Bishops and maids of honour would, we imagine, be somewhat embarrassed now-a-days by much of the ingenuous verse which the tall volume contains. But readers under Anna Augusta were either not squeamish, or they confined themselves to the portentous poem of Solomon on the Vanity of the World which occupies its latter pages.
When one looks to the general character of Prior's writings it is hard to understand how he could ever have penned this egregious didactic work. Yet he not only wrote it, but he hoped to live by it, and grew petulant when Pope declined to praise it as a masterpiece.
Indeed, poor Solomon in rhyme
Was much too grave to be sublime,
exclaimed its disappointed author in his last-published piece of The Conversation. Another long poem, the frigid paraphrase of the fine old ballad of The Nut-Browne Maid to which he gave the title of "Henry and Emma," although it contains the oft-quoted (and mis-quoted) "Fine by degrees, and beautifully less," is almost equally unendurable. Nor are the official performances of Prior, — the Carmen Seculare and the rest, always excepting the clever skit upon Boileau's pompous "Ode sur la prise de Namur," likely to attract the modern reader. His distinctive and personal note is to be found in one only of his longer pieces, and in his vivacious tales, songs, epigrams and familiar verses. This long poem is Alma, written in 1715 and 1716 while the author lay in prison under suspicion of high treason. It is a whimsical and delightfully vagrant dialogue between Mat (Prior) and Dick (his friend Mr. Shelton) upon the various speculations of philosophers as to the relations of the soul and the body, and full of fine caprices and fitful fresh departures. Plan there is little or none; but the wayward turns of the humour lure the reader from page to page with all the fascination of a Will o' the Wisp.
We suspect, however, that in spite of its many good things, Alma is more quoted than read. With Prior's minor pieces the case is different. In these he exhibits all the verbal fitness and artful ease of such Latins as Horace and Martial, with both of whom he has considerable affinity. But his continental residence had also made him familiar with their Gallic imitators, and added a French grace and lightness to his already unencumbered muse. In his treatment of love and women he thoroughly follows his masters. However ardent, his adoration of the other sex is always conventional, while his appreciation of their foibles is keen even to malice. He seldom or never writes of them with real respect and deep feeling. What interests him most, it is clear, is not the tender passion in its more refined conditions, but those pretty episodes and accidents at which, they say, Dame Venus laughs,—
Simplices Nymphas, ferus et Cupido
Semper ardentes acuens sagittas
That is to say, his favourite poetical attitude is rather cynical than enthusiastic — rather material than ideal. Now and then, as in the verses To a Child of Quality five years old, he can assume a playful gravity which is altogether charming; but it is in such pieces as The Merchant, to secure his treasure, A Better Answer, A Song, that he shines most equably. As a tale-teller he comes near to La Fontaine for ease of narrative and careless finish; although his themes, like those of his model, are generally more witty than delicate. In his Epistles and pieces like The Secretary and A Simile he is delightful. As an epigrammatist he is unrivalled in English.
But however much one might attempt to define the work of Prior, there would always be a something left undefined, — a something that animates the whole and yet defies the critic, who falls back upon the old threadbare devices for describing the undescribable. His is the "nameless charm" of Prior's epigram, — that fugitive je ne sais quoi of gaiety, of wit, of grace, of audacity, it is impossible to say what, which eludes analysis as the principle of life escapes the anatomist. In the present case it lifts its possessor above any other writer of familiar verse; but it is a something to which we cannot give a name, unless, indeed, we take refuge in paradox, and say that it is ... MATTHEW PRIOR.