Matthew Prior's 35 stanzas celebrating the Duke of Marlborough's victory at Ramillies mark a turning point in the Spenserian tradition. For the first time in almost a century an English poet introduced archaisms into a non-burlesque poem deliberately imitating Spenser's manner. The Ode was written as an occasional poem, nor could Prior have anticipated that it would become an object of imitation in its own right. But it did. The ten-line "Prior stanza" was in regular use well into the nineteenth century, with or without archaisms — sometimes in imitations of Spenser, sometimes in what became a recognizably distinct lyric genre for writing about national affairs. That Prior would "refine" Spenser's stanza by giving it an additional line has been criticized as un-Spenserian by those who ought to know better: the Fletchers and Milton varied stanza forms, as, for that matter, did Spenser himself.
Prior's success had much to do with his choice of genre. In the preceding decade Spenser had been several times imitated in pastoral elegies; Prior imitates Spenser in a heroic poem. It was here that opportunity lay, for imitations of classical epic were proving unsatisfactory as mode of recording contemporary events: mythological machinery appeared impious or ridiculous, personal heroism was less important in modern warfare, rules of probability were burdensome, and graphic descriptions of violence were unacceptable. The heroic ode avoided such narrative difficulties by appealing to the patriotic and religious sentiments more appropriate to a modern commercial republic.
Moreover the Ode appeared the same year as Congreve's much-admired essay calling for regularity in the Pindaric ode — the "Prior" stanza could be used in either this sort of formal ode or in the more familiar Horatian mode. Adaptable as it was, the new stanza did much to reintroduce alternating rhymes into several forms of English poetry, thereby making Spenser's prosody more acceptable than it had been for a long while. Joseph Addison, for example, had recently advised Ambrose Philips: "you should only imitate Spenser in his beauties, and never in the rhyme of his verse, for there they think it looks more like a bodge than an imitation" 10 March 1705; in Works (1911) 5:381.
Matthew Prior wrote in his diary, "The Whiggs, tho' they did not openly censure this poem were no way satisfied that I had writt it; they say'd the Imitation was of a verse now grown obsolete, the Style a little hard, &c" Literary Works, ed. H. Bunker Wright and Monroe K. Spears (1971) 2:896n.
Samuel Say: "Mr. Prior, in his Ode on the Battle of Ramellies, (which appears to Me to be the Noblest of all his Poems,) having propos'd the Style and Numbers of Spenser for his Imitation, has admirably varied the Movements in Every Verse, and adapted 'em to the Ideas with the Greatest Propriety" "Remarks on the Numbers in the Argument to Paradise Lost" 1737; Poems (1745) 170-71.
Samuel Johnson: "His poem on the battle of Ramillies is necessarily tedious by the form of the stanza: an uniform mass of ten lines, thirty-five times repeated, inconsequential and slightly connected, must weary both the ear and the understanding. His imitation of Spenser, which consists principally in 'I ween' and 'I weet', without exclusion of later modes of speech, makes his poem neither ancient nor modern. His mention of Mars and Bellona, and his comparison of Marlborough to the Eagle that bears the thunder of Jupiter, are all puerile and unaffecting" "Life of Prior" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 2:204.
Edwin Guest: "Prior professed to follow Spenser 'in the manner of his expression and turn of his number, having only added one verse to his stanza,' which he thought 'made the number more harmonious.' Had he stated facility to be his aim, he had shown more honesty. He has escaped the difficulties of Spenser's stanza, but at the same time has sacrificed all its science and not a little of its beauty. Prior's name gave to this stanza a certain degree of popularity. Among others, it was used by Lowth in his Choice of Hercules, and by Denton in his poem on the Immortality of the Soul" History of English Rhythms (1838) 2:393-94.
William Lyon Phelps: "It is rather singular that Spenserian imitations in the eighteenth century should have been started by an Augustan of the Augustans — the poet Matthew Prior (1664-1721).... His imitation was by no means a perfect one; it was in a ten-lined stanza, riming ab, ab, cd, cd, ee. It is, however, an extremely important poem, being the prototype of a great many of the Spenserian imitations that followed. Indeed, it is probable that some of the poetasters learned all their Spenser through Prior. He seems to have been the originator of this pseudo-Spenserian stanza. Curiously enough, his two masters in this Ode were the extreme leaders and models of the Classic and Romantic schools — Horace and Spenser. It sounds paradoxical to say that a poem can be written after the model of Horace and Spenser, but that is just what Prior attempted to do" Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement (1893) 49-50.
Herbert E. Cory: "Mr. Phelps quotes this passage as exhibiting 'that confusion of ideals so often shown by the Augustans.' He smiles at Prior's comparison of Spenser and Horace. But the comparison is perfectly sound. Here is an Augustan who appreciated the moralistic side of Spenser which we romanticists are too likely to neglect or despise" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 144.
George Saintsbury: "The third folio of the Faerie Queene appeared in 1679, and the first critical edition — that of Hughes — in 1715. But the study-stage — not the theatrical, considering a list of adaptations which runs from Ravenscroft through Shadwell up to Dryden — had spared Shakespeare the attentions of the Person of Quality. Before Hughes, Spenser had received those of Prior, a person of quality much greater; but Prior had spoilt the stanza, and had travestied the diction almost worse than he did in the case of the 'Nut Browne Maid.' He would not really count in this story at all if his real services in other respects did not show that it was a case of 'time and the hour,' and if his remarks in the Preface to Solomon did not show, very remarkably, a genuine admiration of Spenser himself, and a strong dissatisfaction with the end-stopped couplet. And so of Hughes' edition: yet perhaps the import of the saying may escape careless readers. At first one wonders why a man like Prior should have taken the trouble even to spoil the Spenserian stanza; why an editor like Hughes should have taken the much greater trouble to edit a voluminous poet whose most ordinary words he had to explain, whose stanza he also thought 'defective,' and whose general composition he denounced as 'monstrous' and so forth; why all the imitators should have imitated what most of them at any rate seem to have regarded as chiefly parodiable. Yet one soon perceives that 'mens agitat molem,' that the lump was leavened, that, as in one case at any rate (Shenstone's), is known to be the fact, 'those who came to scoff remained to pray.' They were dying of thirst, though they did not know how near the fountain was; and though they at first mistook that fountain and even profaned it, the healing virtues conquered them at last" History of English Criticism (1911) 296-97.
Harko Gerrit De Maar: "This rhyme-scheme is like that of Shakespeare's sonnets with the third quatrain omitted. In choosing this form, which is unlike the Spenserian imitations of Giles and Phineas Fletcher or of Donne, Prior set a fashion. Samuel Say (1744) thinks it 'noble' and Prior's poem 'the noblest of the Poems.' It was studied throughout the century. In 1794 Anderson could still write in his life of Prior: 'It is written in Spenser's stanza and is perhaps the only composition produced by the battle of Ramillies which is now remembered'" History of Modern English Romanticism (1924) 91.
Thomas M. Woodman: "The real significance of his imitation lies not in its minor Spenserian trappings but in the fact that Prior is attempting to write high public verse and links Spenser with Horace as a model in this respect" Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 557.
Richard Frushell: "It was often reprinted (for instance, The Grub-Street Journal 153, 30 November 1732, uses lines from it for its motto), and its stanza form was clearly influential" Edmund Spenser in the Early Eighteenth Century (1999) 56.
In his groundbreaking article on the Spenserian stanza, Edward Payson Morton discusses 23 poets who used Prior's variation of Spenser's stanza in 34 poems, "The Spenserian Stanza in the Eighteenth Century" (1913). Morton undercounted these poems; the Prior form was used more frequently than the regular Spenserians until Byron's Childe Harold at last made Spenserian stanzas genuinely fashionable. Indeed, until the regular stanza was popularized by Byron and his many imitators several varieties of "irregular" stanzas were more common than the nine-line form.
When Great Augustus govern'd Antient Rome,
And sent his Conqu'ring Troops to Foreign Wars:
Abroad when Dreaded, and Belov'd at Home,
He saw his Fame encreasing with his Years;
Horace, Great Bard, so Fate ordain'd, arose,
And bold, as were his Countrymen in Fight,
Snatch'd their fair Actions from degrading Prose,
And set their Battels in Eternal Light;
High as their Trumpets Tune, his Lyre he strung,
And with his Prince's Arms He moraliz'd his Song.
When bright Eliza rul'd Britannia's State,
Widely distributing her high Commands;
And boldly Wise and fortunately Great
Freed the glad Nations from Tyrannick Bands;
An equal Genius was in Spencer found:
To the high Theme he match'd his Noble Lays;
He travell'd England o'er on Fairy Ground,
In Mystic Notes to Sing his Monarch's Praise:
And telling wond'rous Truths in pleasing Dreams,
He deck'd Eliza's Head with Gloriana's Beams.
But, Greatest Anna! while Thy Arms pursue
Paths of Renown, and climb Ascents of Fame
Which nor Augustus, nor Eliza knew;
What Poet shall be found to sing Thy Name?
What Numbers shall record? What Tongue shall say
Thy Wars on Land, Thy Triumphs on the Main?
O Fairest Model of Imperial Sway!
What Equal Pen shall write Thy wond'rous Reign?
Who shall Attempts and Victories rehearse,
By Story yet untold, unparallel'd by Verse?
Me all too mean for such a Task I weet:
Yet if the Sovereign Lady deigns to Smile,
I'll follow Horace with impetuous Heat,
And cloath the Verse in Spencer's Native Stile.
By these Examples rightly taught to Sing,
And Smit with Pleasure of my Country's Praise,
Stretching the Plumes of an uncommon Wing,
High as Olympus I my Flight will raise:
And latest Times shall in my Numbers read
Anna's Immortal Fame, and Marlb'rough's hardy Deed.
As the strong Eagle in the silent Wood,
Nor seeking Battel, nor intent on Harms,
Plays round the rocky Cliff, or Crystal Flood,
'Till by Jove's high Behests call'd out to Arms,
And charg'd with Thunder of his angry King,
His Bosom with the vengeful Message glows:
Upward the Noble Bird directs his Wing;
And tow'ring round his Master's Earth-born Foes,
Swift He collects his fatal Stock of Ire,
Lifts his fierce Talon high, and darts the forked Fire.
In Council Calm and in Discourse Sedate,
Under his Vineyard in his Native Land;
Quiet and safe thus Victor Marlb'rough sate,
'Till Anna gives Her Thunder to his Hand;
Then leaving soft Repose, and gentle Ease,
With swift Impatience seeks the distant Foe:
Flying o'er Hills and Vales, o'er Rocks and Seas,
He meditates, and strikes the wond'rous Blow:
Quicker than Thought he takes his destin'd Aim:
And Expectation flies on slower Wings than Fame.
Untam'd Bavar when on Ramillia's Plain
Afar he did the British Chief behold;
Betwixt Despair, and Rage, and Hope, and Pain,
Something within his warring Bosom roll'd:
He views that Fav'rite of Indulgent Fame,
Whom whilom He had met on Ister's Shoar:
Too well, alas! the Man He knows the same
Whose Prowess there repell'd the Boyan Pow'r,
And sent Them trembling thro' the frighted Lands,
Swift as the Whirlwind drives Arabia's scatter'd Sands.
His former Losses He forgets to grieve,
Absolves his Fate, if with a kinder Ray
It now would shine, and only give him leave
To Balance the Account of Blenheim's Day.
So the fell Lion in the lonely Glade,
His Side still smarting with the Hunter's Spear,
Tho' deeply wounded, no way yet dismay'd,
Roars terrible, and meditates new War;
In sullen Fury traverses the Plain,
To find the vent'rous Foe, and Battel Him again.
Misguided Prince, no longer urge thy Fate,
Nor tempt the Hero to unequal War;
Fam'd in Misfortune, and in Ruin Great,
Confess the Force of Marlb'rough's stronger Star.
Those Laurel Grove, that Harvest of thy Youth,
Which thou from Mahomet didst greatly gain,
While bold Assertor of resistless Truth,
Thy Sword did Godlike Liberty maintain,
Must shed, I ween, its Honours from thy Brow;
And on another Head another Spring must know.
Yet cease the Ways of Providence to blame,
And Human Faults with Human Grief confess:
'Tis Thou art chang'd; while Heav'n is still the same:
In thy ill Conduct seek thy ill Success.
Impartial Justice holds Her equal Scales,
'Till stronger Virtue does the Weight incline:
If over Thee thy glorious Foe prevails;
He now Defends the Cause, that once was Thine.
Jove's Handmaid Pow'r must Jove's Behest pursue,
And where the Cause is Just, the Warriour shall Subdue.
Hark! the dire Trumpets sound their shrill Alarms:
Auverquerque, branch'd from the renown'd Nassau's,
Hoary in War, and bent beneath his Arms,
With an Intrepid Hand and Courage draws.
That sword, Immortal William at his Death,
(Who could a fairer Legacy bestow?)
Did to the Part'ner of his Arms bequeath:
That Sword well Louis and his Captains know;
For they have seen it drawn from William's Thigh,
Full oft as he came forth, to Conquer, or to Die.
But brandish'd high, and waving in the Air,
Behold, unhappy Prince, the Master Sword,
Which perjur'd Gallia shall for ever fear:
'Tis that which Caesar gave the British Lord.
He took the Gift; Nor ever will I sheath,
He said (so Anna's high Behests Ordain)
This Glorious Gift, unless by Glorious Death
Absolv'd, 'till Conquest has confirm'd Your Reign.
Returns like these Our Mistress bids us make,
When from a foreign Prince a Gift Her Britons take.
And now fierce Gallia rushes on her Foes,
Her Force augmented by the Boyan Bands:
So Volga's Stream, increas'd by Mountain Snows,
Rolls with new Fury down thro' Russia's Lands.
Like two great Rocks against the raging Tide,
(If Virtue's Force with Nature's we compare,)
The Two great adverse Chiefs unmov'd abide,
Sustain the Impulse, and receive the War:
Round their firm Sides in vain the Tempest beats,
And still the foaming Wave with lessen'd Pow'r retreats.
The Shock sustain'd, the Friendly Pair advance,
With mingl'd Anger, and collected Might,
To turn the War, and tell aggressing France,
How Britain's Sons and Britain's Friends can fight.
Fix'd on Revenge, and covetous of Fame,
Behold 'em rushing thro' the Gallic Host:
Thro' standing Corn so runs the sudden Flame,
Or Eastern Winds along Sicilia's Coast.
They deal their Terrors to the adverse Nation:
Pale Death attends their Deed, and ghastly Desolation.
But oh! while made with Rage Bellona glows,
And Europe rather hopes than fears Her Fate,
While with large Steps to Conquest Britain goes;
What Horror damps the Strong, and quells the Great?
Why do those Warriours look dismay'd and pale,
That, ever Dreadful, never knew to Dread?
Why does the charging Foe almost prevail,
And the Pursuers only not recede?
Their Rage, alas! submitting to their Grief,
Behold, they weep, and croud around their falling Chief!
I thank Thee, Fate, exclaims the fierce Bavar;
Let Boya's Trumpet grateful Io's sound:
I saw him fall, that Thunderbolt of War.
I saw Their Marlb'rough stretch'd along the Ground—
Vain Hope! short Joy! for Marlb'rough mounts again
In greater Glory, and with fuller Light:
The Ev'ning Star so falls into the Main,
To rise at Morn more prevalently bright.
He rises safe: but near, too near his Side,
A good Man's grievous Loss, a faithful Servant dy'd.
And lo! the dubious Battel is regain'd,
The Foe with lessen'd Rage disputes the Field:
The Briton fights, by fav'ring Gods sustain'd:
And Liberty must live; and Gallia yield.
Vain now the Tales which fab'ling Poets tell,
That wav'ring Conquest still desires to rove;
In Marlb'rough's Camp the Goddess knows to dwell:
Long as the Hero's Life remains her Love.
The Foe retires, the Victor urges on,
And Blenheim's Fame again is in Ramillia known.
Great Thanks, Oh Captain great in Arms! receive,
From thy Triumphant Country's publick Voice:
Thy Country greater Thanks can only give
To Anne, to Her who made those Arms Her Choice.
Recording Schellenberg's, and Blenheim's Toils,
We wish'd Thou would'st no more those Toils repeat:
We view'd the Palace charg'd with Gallia's Spoils;
And in those Spoils We thought thy Praise compleat:
For never Greek, we deem'd, nor Roman Knight,
In Characters like these did e'er his Acts indite.
Yet mindless still of Rest Thy Virtue flies
A Pitch, to Old and Modern Times unknown:
Those goodly Deeds which We so highly prize,
Imperfect seem, great Chief, to Thee alone.
Those Heights, where William's Virtue might have staid,
And on the Subject World look'd safely down,
By Marlb'rough past, the Props and Steps were made,
To lift Great Anna's Glory further on;
Still gaining more, still slighting what He gain'd,
Nothing was done, He thought, while ought undone remain'd.
When swift-wing'd Rumor told the mighty Gaul,
How lessen'd from the Field Bavar was fled;
He wept the Swiftness of the Champion's Fall;
And thus the Royal Treaty-Breaker said:
And lives He yet, the Great, the Lost Bavar,
Ruin to Gallia, in the Name of Friend?
Tell me how far has Fortune been severe?
Has the Foe's Glory, or our Grief an End?
Remains there, of the Fifty Thousand lost,
To save our threaten'd Realm, or guard our shatter'd Coast?
To the close Rock the frighted Raven flies,
Soon as he sees the Eagle cut the Air:
The shaggy Wolf unseen and fearful lyes,
When the hoarse Roar proclaims the Lion near.
Why then did we our Forts and Lines forsake,
To dare our British Foe to open Fight?
Our Conquest we by Stratagem should make,
Our Triumph had been founded in our Flight:
'Tis Our's, by Craft and by Surprize to gain:
'Tis Their's, to meet in Arms, and Battel in the Plain.
The ancient Father of this Hostile Brood,
Their boasted Brute, undaunted snatch'd his Gods
From burning Troy, and Xanthus red with Blood,
And fix'd on Silver Thames his dire Abodes;
And this be Troynovante, he said, the Seat
By Heav'n ordain'd, my Sons, your lasting Place:
Superior here to all the Bolts of Fate
Live, mindful of the Author of your Race,
Whom neither Greece, nor War, nor Want, nor Flame,
Nor Great Peleides' Arm, nor Juno's Rage could tame.
Their Tudor's hence, and Stuart's Off-spring flow:
Hence Edward, dreadful with his azure Shield,
Talbot to Gallia's Pow'r Eternal Foe,
And Seymour fam'd in Council, or in Field;
Hence Nevil, Great to Settle or Dethrone,
And Drake, and Ca'ndish Terrors of the Sea:
Hence Butler's Sons o'er Land and Ocean known,
Herbert's and Churchill's Warring Progeny:
Hence the long Roll which Gallia should conceal:
For, Oh! Who vanquish'd, loves the Victor's Fame to tell?
Envy'd Britannia, sturdy as the Oak,
Which on her Mountain Top she proudly bears,
Eludes the Ax, and sprouts against the Stroke;
Strong from her Wounds, and greater by her Wars.
And as Those Teeth, which Cadmus sow'd in Earth
Produc'd new Youth, and furnish'd fresh Supplies:
So with young Vigor, and succeeding Birth,
Her Losses more than recompens'd arise;
And ev'ry Age She with a Race is Crown'd,
For Letters more Polite, in Battels more Renown'd.
Obstinate Pow'r, whom Nothing can repel,
Not the fierce Saxon, nor the cruel Dane,
Nor deep Impression of the Norman Steel,
Nor Europe's Force amass'd by envious Spain,
Nor France on Universal Sway intent,
Still breaking Leagues, and oft renewing Wars:
Nor (usual Bane of weaken'd Government)
Their own intestine Feuds, and mutual Jars.
Those Feuds and Jars, in which I trusted more,
Than in My Troops, and Fleets, and all the Gallic Pow'r.
To fruitful Rheims, or fair Lutetia's Gate
What Tidings shall the Messenger convey?
Shall the loud Herauld our Success relate,
Or mitred Priest appoint the Solemn Day?
Alas! my Praises they no more must Sing;
They to my Statue now must Bow no more:
Broken, repuls'd is their Immortal King:
Fall'n, fall'n for ever is the Gallic Pow'r—
The Woman Chief is Master of the War:
Earth She has freed by Arms, and vanquish'd Heav'n by Pray'r.
Whilst thus the ruin'd Foe's Despair commends
Thy Council and Thy Deed, Victorious Queen,
What shall Thy Subjects say, and what Thy Friends?
How shall Thy Triumphs in Our Joy be seen?
Oh! daign to let the Eldest of the Nine
Recite Britannia Great, and Gallia Free;
Oh! with her Sister Sculpture let her join,
To raise, Great Anne, the Monument to Thee:
To Thee, of all our Good the Sacred Spring;
To Thee, our dearest Dread; to Thee, our softer King.
Let Europe sav'd the Column high erect,
Than Trajan's higher, or than Antonine's;
Where sembling Art may carve the fair Effect,
And full Atchievement of Thy great Designs.
In a calm Heav'n, and a serener Air,
Sublime the Queen shall on the Summit stand,
From Danger far, as far remov'd from Fear,
And pointing down to Earth Her dread Command.
All Winds, all Storms that threaten Human Woe,
Shall sink beneath Her Feet, and spread their Rage below.
There Fleets shall strive by Winds and Waters tost;
'Till the young Austrian on Iberia's Strand,
Great as Aeneas on the Latian Coast,
Shall fix his Foot: and this, be this the Land,
Great Jove, where I for ever will remain
(The Empire's other Hope shall say) and here
Intomb'd I'll slumber, or Enthron'd I'll Reign—
Oh Virtue to thy British Mother dear!
Like the fam'd Trojan suffer and abide,
For Anne is thine, I ween, as Venus was His Guide.
There, in Eternal Characters engrav'd,
Vigo, and Gibraltar, and Barcelone,
Their Force destroy'd, their Privileges sav'd,
Shall Anna's Terrors, and Her Mercies own:
Spain, from th' Rival Bourbon's Arms retriev'd,
Shall with new Life and grateful Joy appear,
Numb'ring the Wonders which that Youth atchiev'd,
Whom Anna clad in Arms, and sent to War;
Whom Anna sent to claim Iberia's Throne;
And made Him more than King, in calling Him Her Son.
There Ister pleas'd, by Blenheim's glorious Field
Rolling, shall bid his Eastern Waves declare
Germania sav'd by Britain's ample Shield,
And bleeding Gaul afflicted by her Spear:
Shall bid Them mention Marlb'rough, on that Shore,
Leading his Islanders, renown'd in Arms,
Thro' Climes, where never British Chief before
Or pitch'd his Camp, or sounded his Alarms:
Shall bid Them bless the Queen, who made his Streams
Glorious as those of Boyn, and safe as those of Thames.
There Brabant, clad with Fields, and crown'd with Tow'rs,
In decent Joy shall her Deliv'rer meet;
Shall own Thy Arms, Great Queen, and bless Thy Pow'rs,
Laying the Keys beneath Thy Subject's Feet.
Flanders, by Plenty made the Home of War,
Shall weep her Crime, and bow to Charles restor'd;
With double Vows shall bless Thy happy Care,
In having drawn, and having sheath'd the Sword.
From these their Sister Provinces shall know
How Anne supports a Friend, and how forgives a Foe.
Bright Swords, and crested Helms, and pointed Spears
In artful Piles around the Work shall lye;
And Shields indented deep in ancient Wars,
Blazon'd with Signs of Gallic Heraldry;
And Standards with distinguish'd Honors bright,
Marks of high Pow'r and National Command,
Which Valois' Sons, and Bourbon's bore in Fight,
Or gave to Foix', or Montmorancy's Hand:
Great Spoils, which Gallia must to Britain yield,
From Cressy's Battel sav'd, to grace Ramillia's Field.
And as fine Art the Spaces may dispose,
The knowing Thought and curious Eye shall see
Thy Emblem, happy Queen, the British Rose,
Sign of Sweet Pow'r, and gentle Majesty:
The Northern Thistle, whom no Hostile Hand
Unhurt too rudely may provoke, I ween;
And Ireland's Harp, her Emblem of Command,
And Instrument of Joy, should there be seen:
And Gallia's wither'd Lillies pale, and torn,
Should, here and there dispers'd, the lasting Work adorn.
Beneath, Great Queen, Oh! very far beneath,
Near to the Ground, and on the humble Base,
To save Her self from Darkness, and from Death,
That Muse desires the last, the lowest Place;
Who tho' unmeet, yet touch'd the trembling String;
For the fair Fame of Anne and Albion's Land,
Who durst of War and Martial Fury Sing;
And when thy Will appointed Marlb'rough's Hand
To end those Wars, and make that Fury cease,
Hangs up her grateful Harp, to Everlasting Peace.