Matthew Prior is one of those that have burst out from an obscure original to great eminence. He was born July 21, 1664, according to some, at Wimborne, in Dorsetshire, of I know not what parents; others say that he was the son of a joiner of London: he was perhaps willing enough to leave his birth unsettled, in hope, like Don Quixote, that the historian of his actions might find him some illustrious alliance. He is supposed to have fallen, by his father's death, into the hands of his uncle, a vintner near Charing Cross, who sent him for some time to Dr. Busby, at Westminster; but, not intending to give him any education beyond that of the school, took him, when he was well advanced in literature, to his own house, where the Earl of Dorset, celebrated for patronage of genius, found him by chance, as Burnet relates, reading Horace, and was so well pleased with his proficiency, that he undertook the care and cost of his academical education. He entered his name in St. John's College, at Cambridge, in 1682, in his eighteenth year; and it may be reasonably supposed that he was distinguished among his contemporaries. He became a Bachelor, as is usual, in four years, and two years afterwards wrote the poem on the Deity, which stands first in his volume.
It is the established practice of that College to send every year to the Earl of Exeter some poems upon sacred subjects, in acknowledgment of a benefaction enjoyed by them from the bounty of his ancestor. On this occasion were those verses written, which, though nothing is said of their success, seem to have recommended him to some notice; for his praise of the countess's music, and his lines on the famous picture of Seneca, afford reason for imagining that he was more or less conversant with that family.
The same year he published "The City Mouse and Country Mouse," to ridicule Dryden's "Hind and Panther," in conjunction with Mr. Montague. There is a story of great pain suffered, and of tears shed, on this occasion by Dryden, who thought it hard that "an old man should be so treated by those to whom he had always been civil." By tales like these is the envy raised by superior abilities every day gratified. When they are attacked every one hopes to see them humbled; what is hoped is readily believed, and what is believed is confidently told. Dryden had been more accustomed to hostilities than that such enemies should break his quiet; and, if we can suppose him vexed, it would be hard to deny him sense enough to conceal his uneasiness.
"The City Mouse and Country Mouse" procured its authors more solid advantages than the pleasure of fretting Dryden, for they were both speedily preferred. Montague, indeed, obtained the first notice with some degree of discontent, as it seems, in Prior, who probably knew that his own part of the performance was the best. He had not, however, much reason to complain, for he came to London and obtained such notice that (in 1691) he was sent to the Congress at the Hague as secretary to the embassy. In this assembly of princes and nobles, to which Europe has perhaps scarcely seen anything equal, was formed the grand alliance against Louis, which at last did not produce effects proportionate so the magnificence of the transaction.
The conduct of Prior, in this splendid initiation into public business, was so pleasing to King William, that he made him one of the gentlemen of his bedchamber; and he is supposed to have passed some of the next years in the quiet cultivation of literature and poetry.
The death of Queen Mary (in 1695) produced a subject for all the writers–perhaps no funeral was ever so poetically attended. Dryden, indeed, as a man discountenanced and deprived, was silent; but scarcely any other maker of verses omitted to bring his tribute of tuneful sorrow. An emulation of elegy was universal. Mary's praise was not confined to the English language, but fills a great part of the Musae Anglicanae.
Prior, who was both a poet and a courtier, was too diligent to miss this opportunity of respect. He wrote a long ode, which was presented to the king, by whom it was not likely to be ever read. In two years he was secretary to another embassy at the Treaty of Ryswick (in 1697), and next year had the same office at the court of France, where he is said to have been considered with great distinction. As he was one day surveying the apartments at Versailles, being shown the "Victories of Louis," painted by Le Brun, and asked whether the King of England's palace had any such decorations: "The monuments of my master's actions," said he, "are to be seen everywhere but in his own house."
The pictures of Le Brun are not only in themselves sufficiently ostentatious, but were explained by inscriptions so arrogant, that Boileau and Racine thought it necessary to make them more simple. He was in the following year at Leo with the king, from whom, after a long audience, he carried orders to England, and upon his arrival became Under Secretary of State in the Earl of Jersey's office, a post which he did not retain long, because Jersey was removed, but he was soon made Commissioner of Trade.
This year (1700) produced one of his longest and most splendid compositions, the "Carmen Seculare," in which he exhausts all his powers of celebration. I mean not to accuse him of flattery; he probably thought all that he writ, and retained as much veracity as can be properly exacted from a poet professedly encomiastic. King William supplied copious materials for either verse or prose. His whole life had been action, and none ever denied him the resplendent qualities of steady resolution and personal courage. He was really in Prior's mind what he represents him in his verses; he considered him as a hero, and was accustomed to say that he praised others in compliance with the fashion, but that in celebrating King William he followed his inclination. To Prior, gratitude would dictate praise, which reason would not refuse.
Among the advantages to arise from the future years of William's reign, he mentions a Society for Useful Arts, and among them:-
"Some that with care true eloquence shall teach, And to just idioms fix our doubtful speech; That from our writers distant realms may know The thanks we to our monarchs owe, And schools profess our tongue through every land That has invoked his aid, or blessed his hand."
Tickell, in his "Prospect of Peace," has the same hope of a new academy:-
"In happy chains our daring language bound, Shall sport no more in arbitrary sound."
Whether the similitude of those passages, which exhibit the same thought on the same occasion, proceeded from accident or imitation, is not easy to determine. Tickell might have been impressed with his expectation by Swift's "Proposal for Ascertaining the English Language," then lately published.
In the Parliament that met in 1701 he was chosen representative of East Grinstead. Perhaps it was about this time that he changed his party, for he voted for the impeachment of those lords who had persuaded the king to the Partition Treaty, a treaty in which he himself had been ministerially employed.
A great part of Queen Anne's reign was a time of war, in which there was little employment for negotiators, and Prior had, therefore, leisure to make or to polish verses. When the Battle of Blenheim called forth all the verse-men, Prior, among the rest, took care to show his delight in the increasing honour of his country by an epistle to Boileau. He published, soon afterwards, a volume of poems, with the encomiastic character of his deceased patron, the Earl of Dorset. It began with the College exercise, and ended with the "Nutbrown Maid."
The Battle of Ramillies soon afterwards (in 1706) excited him to another effort of poetry. On this occasion he had fewer or less formidable rivals, and it would be not easy to name any other composition produced by that event which is now remembered.
Everything has its day. Through the reigns of William and Anne no prosperous event passed undignified by poetry. In the last war, when France was disgraced and overpowered in every quarter of the globe, when Spain, coming to her assistance, only shared her calamities, and the name of an Englishman was reverenced through Europe, no poet was heard amidst the general acclamation; the fame of our counsellors and heroes was entrusted to the Gazetteer. The nation in time grew weary of the war, and the queen grew weary of her ministers. The war was burdensome, and the ministers were insolent. Harley and his friends began to hope that they might, by driving the Whigs from court and from power, gratify at once the queen and the people. There was now a call for writers, who might convey intelligence of past abuses, and show the waste of public money, the unreasonable conduct of the allies, the avarice of generals, the tyranny of minions, and the general danger of approaching ruin. For this purpose a paper called the Examiner was periodically published, written, as it happened, by any wit of the party, and sometimes, as is said, by Mrs. Manley. Some are owned by Swift; and one, in ridicule of Garth's verses to Godolphin upon the loss of his place, was written by Prior, and answered by Addison, who appears to have known the author either by conjecture or intelligence.
The Tories, who were now in power, were in haste to end the war, and Prior, being recalled (1710) to his former employment of making treaties, was sent (July, 1711) privately to Paris with propositions of peace. He was remembered at the French court; and, returning in about a month, brought with him the Abbe Gaultier and M. Mesnager, a minister from France, invested with full powers. This transaction not being avowed, Mackay, the master of the Dover packet-boat, either zealously or officiously, seized Prior and his associates at Canterbury. It is easily supposed they were soon released.
The negotiation was begun at Prior's house, where the queen's ministers met Mesnager (September 20, 1711), and entered privately upon the great business. The importance of Prior appears from the mention made of him by St. John in his letter to the queen:-
"My Lord Treasurer moved, and all my Lords were of the same opinion, that Mr. Prior should be added to those who are empowered to sign; the reason for which is because he, having personally treated with Monsieur de Torcy, is the best witness we can produce of the sense in which the general preliminary engagements are entered into; besides which, as he is the best versed in matters of trade of all your Majesty's servants who have been trusted in this secret, if you shall think fit to employ him in the future treaty of commerce, it will be of consequence that he has been a party concerned in concluding that convention, which must be the rule of this treaty."
The assembly of this important night was in some degree clandestine, the design of treaty not being yet openly declared and when the Whigs returned to power was aggravated to a charge of high treason; though, as Prior remarks in his imperfect answer to the Report of the Committee of Secrecy, no treaty ever was made without private interviews and preliminary discussions.
My business is not the history of the peace, but the life of Prior. The conferences began at Utrecht on the 1st of January (1711-12), and the English plenipotentiaries arrived on the 15th. The ministers of the different potentates conferred and conferred; but the peace advanced so slowly that speedier methods were found necessary, and Bolingbroke was sent to Paris to adjust differences with less formality. Prior either accompanied him or followed him, and after his departure had the appointments and authority of an ambassador, though no public character. By some mistake of the queen's orders the court of France had been disgusted, and Bolingbroke says in his letter, "Dear Mat,–Hide the nakedness of thy country, and give the best turn thy fertile brain will furnish thee with to the blunders of thy countrymen, who are not much better politicians than the French are poets."
Soon after, the Duke of Shrewsbury went on a formal embassy to Paris. It is related by Boyer that the intention was to have joined Prior in the commission, but that Shrewsbury refused to be associated with a man so meanly born. Prior therefore continued to act without a title till the duke returned next year to England, and then he assumed the style and dignity of ambassador. But while he continued in appearance a private man, he was treated with confidence by Louis, who sent him with a letter to the queen, written in favour of the Elector of Bavaria. "I shall expect," says he, "with impatience, the return of Mr. Prior, whose conduct is very agreeable to me." And while the Duke of Shrewsbury was still at Paris, Bolingbroke wrote to Prior thus:- "Monsieur de Torcy has a confidence in you; make use of it, once for all, upon this occasion, and convince him thoroughly that we must give a different turn to our Parliament and our people according to their resolution at this crisis."
Prior's public dignity and splendour commenced in August, 1713, and continued till the August following; but I am afraid that, according to the usual fate of greatness, it was attended with some perplexities and mortifications. He had not all that is customarily given to ambassadors: he hints to the queen in an imperfect poem that he had no service of plate; and it appeared by the debts which he contracted that his remittances were not punctually made.
On the 1st of August, 1714, ensued the downfall of the Tories and the degradation of Prior. He was recalled, but was not able to return, being detained by the debts which he had found it necessary to contract, and which were not discharged before March, though his old friend Montague was now at the head of the Treasury. He returned, then, as soon as he could, and was welcomed on the 25th of March by a warrant, but was, however, suffered to live in his own house, under the custody of the messenger, till he was examined before a committee of the Privy Council, of which Mr. Walpole was chairman, and Lord Coningsby, Mr. Stanhope, and Mr. Lechmere were the principal interrogators, who, in this examination, of which there is printed an account not unentertaining, behaved with the boisterousness of men elated by recent authority. They are represented as asking questions sometimes vague, sometimes insidious, and writing answers different from those which they received. Prior, however, seems to have been overpowered by their turbulence; for he confesses that he signed what, if he had ever come before a legal judicature, he should have contradicted or explained away. The oath was administered by Boscawen, a Middlesex justice, who at last was going to write his attestation on the wrong side of the paper. They were very industrious to find some charge against Oxford, and asked Prior, with great earnestness, who was present when the preliminary articles were talked of or signed at his house? He told them that either the Earl of Oxford or the Duke of Shrewsbury was absent, but he could not remember which, an answer which perplexed them, because it supplied no accusation against either. "Could anything be more absurd," says he, "or more inhuman, than to propose to me a question, by the answering of which I might, according to them, prove myself a traitor? And notwithstanding their solemn promise that nothing which I should say should hurt myself, I had no reason to trust them, for they violated that promise about five hours after. However, I owned I was there present. Whether this was wisely done or no I leave to my friends to determine." When he had signed the paper, he was told by Walpole that the committee were not satisfied with his behaviour, nor could give such an account of it to the Commons as might merit favour; and that they now thought a stricter confinement necessary than to his own house. "Here," says he, "Boscawen played the moralist, and Coningsby the Christian, but both very awkwardly." The messenger, in whose custody he was to be placed, was then called, and very indecently asked by Coningsby "if his house was secured by bars and bolts." The messenger answered, "No," with astonishment. At which Coningsby very angrily said, "Sir, you must secure this prisoner; it is for the safety of the nation: if he escape, you shall answer for it."
They had already printed their report; and in this examination were endeavouring to find proofs.
He continued thus confined for some time; and Mr. Walpole (June 10, 1715) moved for an impeachment against him. What made him so acrimonious does not appear; he was by nature no thirster for blood. Prior was a week after committed to close custody, with orders that "no person should be admitted to see him without leave from the Speaker." When, two years after, an Act of Grace was passed, he was excepted, and continued still in custody, which he had made less tedious by writing his "Alma." He was, however, soon after discharged. He had now his liberty, but he had nothing else. Whatever the profit of his employments might have been, he had always spent it; and at the age of fifty-three was, with all his abilities, in danger of penury, having yet no solid revenue but from the fellowship of his college, which, when in his exaltation he was censured for retaining it, he said he could live upon at last. Being, however, generally known and esteemed, he was encouraged to add other poems to those which he had printed, and to publish them by subscription. The expedient succeeded by the industry of many friends, who circulated the proposals, and the care of some who, it is said, withheld the money from him lest he should squander it. The price of the volume was two guineas; the whole collection was four thousand; to which Lord Harley, the son of the Earl of Oxford, to whom he had invariably adhered, added an equal sum for the purchase of Down Hall, which Prior was to enjoy during life, and Harley after his decease. He had now, what wits and philosophers have often wished, the power of passing the day in contemplative tranquillity. But it seems that busy men seldom live long in a state of quiet. It is not unlikely that his health declined, he complains of deafness; "for," says he, "I took little care of my ears while I was not sure if my head was my own."
Of any occurrences of his remaining life I have found no account. In a letter to Swift, "I have," says he, "treated Lady Harriet, at Cambridge (a Fellow of a College treat!) and spoke verses to her in a gown and cap! What, the plenipotentiary, so far concerned in the damned peace at Utrecht; the man that makes up half the volume of terse prose, that makes up the report of the committee, speaking verses! Sic est, homo sum."
He died at Wimpole, a seat of the Earl of Oxford, on the 18th of September, 1721, and was buried in Westminster; where on a monument, for which, as the "last piece of human vanity," he left five hundred pounds, is engraven this epitaph:-
Sui Temporis Historiam meditanti, Paulatim obrepens Febris Operi simul et Vitae filum abrupit, Sept. 18. An. Dom. 1721. AEtat. 57. H.S.E. Vir Eximius Serenissimis Regi GULIELMO Reginaeque MARIAE In Congressione Foederatorum Hagae anno 1690 celebrata, Deinde Magnae Britanniae Legatis Tum iis, Qui anno 1697 Pacem RYSWICKI confecerunt, Tum iis, Qui apud Gallos annie proximis Legationem obierunt Eodem etiani anno 1657 in Hibernia SECRETARIUS; Necnon in utroque Honorabili consessu Eorum, Qui anno 1700 ordinandis Commercii negotiis, Quique anno 1711 dirigendis Portorii rebus, Praeidebant, COMMISSIONARIUS; Postremo ab ANNA, Felicissimae memoriae Regina, Ad LUDOVICUM XIV. Galliae Regem Missus anno 1711 De Pace stabilienda (Pace etiam num durante Diuque ut boni jam omnes sperant duratura), Cum sunma potestate Legatus; MATTHAES PRIOR Armiger Qui Hos omnes, quibus cumulates est, Titulos Humanitatis, Ingenii, Ereditionis laude Superavit; Cui enim nascenti faciles arriserant Mesae. Hunc Puerum Schola hic Regia perpolivit; Jevenem in Collegio S'ti Johannis Cantabrigia optimis Scientiis instruxit; Virum denique auxit, et perfecit, Multa cum viris Principibus censuetudo; Ita natus, ita institutus, A Vatam Choro avelli numquam potuit, Sed solebat saepe rerum civilium gravitatem Amoeniorum Literarum Studiis condire: Et cum omne adeo Poetices genus Haud infeliciter tentaret, Tum in Fabellis concinne lepideque texendis Mirus Artifex Neminem habuit parem. Haec liberalis animi oblectamenta: Quam nullo illi labore constiterint, Facile ii perspexere, quibus usus est Amici; Apud quos Urbanitatem et Leporum plenus Cum ad rem, quaecunque forte inciderat, Apte varie copioseque alluderet, Interea nihil quaesitum, nihil vi expressum Videbatur, Sed omnia ultro effluere, Et quasi jugi e foote affatim exuberare, Ita suos tandem dubios reliquit, Essetne in Scriptis, Poeta Elegantior, An in Convictu, Comes Jocundior.
Of Prior, eminent as he was, both by his abilities and station, very few memorials have been left by his contemporaries; the account, therefore, must now be destitute of his private character and familiar practices. He lived at a time when the rage of party detected all which it was any man's interest to hide; and, as little ill is heard of Prior, it is certain that not much was known. He was not afraid of provoking censure; for when he forsook the Whigs, under whose patronage he first entered the world, he became a Tory so ardent and determinate. that he did not willingly consort with men of different opinions. He was one of the sixteen Tories who met weekly, and agreed to address each other by the title of Brother; and seems to have adhered, not only by concurrence of political designs, but by peculiar affection, to the Earl of Oxford and his family. With how much confidence he was trusted has been already told.
He was, however, in Pope's opinion, fit only to make verses, and less qualified for business than Addison himself. This was surely said without consideration. Addison, exalted to a high place, was forced into degradation by the sense of his own incapacity; Prior, who was employed by men very capable of estimating his value, having been secretary to one embassy, had, when great abilities were again wanted, the same office another time; and was, after so much experience of his own knowledge and dexterity, at last sent to transact a negotiation in the highest degree arduous and important, for which he was qualified, among other requisites, in the opinion of Bolingbroke, by his influence upon the French minister, and by skill in questions of commerce above other men.
Of his behaviour in the lighter parts of life, it is too late to get much intelligence. One of his answers to a boastful Frenchman has been related; and to an impertinent he made another equally proper. During his embassy he sat at the opera by a man who, in his rapture, accompanied with his own voice the principal singer.
Prior fell to railing at the performer with all the terms of reproach that he could collect, till the Frenchman, ceasing from his song, began to expostulate with him for his harsh censure of a man who was confessedly the ornament of the stage. "I know all that," says the ambassador, "mais il chante si haut, que je ne scaurois vous entendre."
In a gay French company, where every one sang a little song or stanza, of which the burden was "Bannissons la Melancolie," when it came to his turn to sing, after the performance of a young lady that sat next him, he produced these extemporary lines
"Mais cette voix, et ces beaux yeux, Font Cupidon trop dangereux, Et je suis triste quand je crie Bannissons la Melancolie."
Tradition represents him as willing to descend from the dignity of the poet and statesman to the low delights of mean company. His Chloe probably was sometimes ideal: but the woman with whom he cohabited was a despicable drab of the lowest species. One of his wenches, perhaps Chloe, while he was absent from his house, stole his plate and ran away, as was related by a woman who had been his servant. Of his propensity to sordid converse, I have seen an account so seriously ridiculous, that it seems to deserve insertion.
"I have been assured that Prior, after having spent the evening with Oxford, Bolingbroke, Pope, and Swift, would go and smoke a pipe and drink a bottle of ale with a common soldier and his wife in Long Acre before he went to bed, not from any remains of the lowness of his original, as one said, but I suppose that his faculties –
"'–strained to the height, In that celestial colloquy sublime, Dazzled and spent, sunk down, and sought repair.'"
Poor Prior; why was he so strained, and in such want of repair, after a conversation with men not, in the opinion of the world, much wiser than himself? But such are the conceits of speculatists, who strain their faculties to find in a mine what lies upon the surface. His opinions, so far as the means of judging are left us, seem to have been right; but his life was, it seems, irregular, negligent, and sensual.
Prior has written with great variety, and his variety has made him popular. He has tried all styles, from the grotesque to the solemn, and has not so failed in any as to incur derision or disgrace. His works may be distinctly considered as comprising Tales, Love Verses, Occasional Poems, "Alma," and "Solomon."
His tales have obtained general approbation, being written with great familiarity and great sprightliness; the language is easy, but seldom gross, and the numbers smooth, without appearance of care. Of these tales there are only four: "The Ladle," which is introduced by a preface, neither necessary nor pleasing, neither grave nor merry. "Paulo Purganti," which has likewise a preface, but of more value than the tale. "Hans Carvel," not over-decent; and "Protogenes and Apelles," an old story mingled, by an affectation not disagreeable, with modern images. "The Young Gentleman in Love" has hardly a just claim to the title of a tale. I know not whether he be the original author of any tale which he has given us. The adventure of Hans Carvel has passed through many successions of merry wits, for it is to be found in Ariosto's "Satires," and is perhaps yet older. But the merit of such stories is the art of telling them.
In his amorous effusions he is less happy; for they are not dictated by nature or by passion, and have neither gallantry nor tenderness. They have the coldness of Cowley, without his wit, the dull exercises of a skilful versifier, resolved at all adventures to write something about Chloe, and trying to be amorous by dint of study. His fictions, therefore, are mythological. Venus, after the example of the Greek epigram, asks when she was seen naked and bathing. Then Cupid is mistaken; then Cupid is disarmed; then he loses his darts to Ganymede; then Jupiter sends him a summons by Mercury. Then Chloe goes a-hunting with an ivory quiver graceful at her side; Diana mistakes her for one of her nymphs, and Cupid laughs at the blunder. All this is surely despicable; and even when he tries to act the lover without the help of gods or goddesses, his thoughts are unaffecting or remote. He talks not "like a man of this world."
The greatest of all his amorous essays is "Henry and Emma," a dull and tedious dialogue, which excites neither esteem for the man nor tenderness for the woman. The example of Emma, who resolves to follow an outlawed murderer wherever fear and guilt shall drive him, deserves no imitation; and the experiment by which Henry tries the lady's constancy is such as must end either in infamy to her or in disappointment to himself.
His occasional poems necessarily lost part of their value, as their occasions, being less remembered, raised less emotion, Some of them, however, are preserved by their inherent excellence. The burlesque of Boileau's ode on Namur has in some parts such airiness and levity as will always procure it readers, even among those who cannot compare it with the original. The epistle to Boileau is not so happy. The "Poems to the King," are now perused only by young students, who read merely that they may learn to write; and of the "Carmen Seculare," I cannot but suspect that I might praise or censure it by caprice without danger of detection; for who can be supposed to have laboured through it? Yet the time has been when this neglected work was so popular that it was translated into Latin by no common master.
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 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; and yet more despicable is the long tale told by Louis in his despair of Brute and Troynovante, and the teeth of Cadmus, with his similes of the raven and eagle and wolf and lion. By the help of such easy fictions and vulgar topics, without acquaintance with life, and without knowledge of art or nature, a poem of any length, cold and lifeless like this, may be easily written on any subject.
In his epilogues to Phaedra and to Lucius he is very happily facetious; but in the prologue before the queen the pedant has found his way with Minerva, Perseus, and Andromeda.
His epigrams and lighter pieces are, like those of others, sometimes elegant, sometimes trifling, and sometimes dull; among the best are the "Chamelion" and the epitaph on John and Joan.
Scarcely any one of our poets has written so much and translated so little: the version of Callimachus is sufficiently licentious; the paraphrase on St. Paul's Exhortation to Charity is eminently beautiful.
"Alma" is written in professed imitation of "Hudibras," and has at least one accidental resemblance: "Hudibras" wants a plan because it is left imperfect; "Alma" is imperfect because it seems never to have had a plan. Prior appears not to have proposed to himself any drift or design, but to have written the casual dictates of the present moment.
What Horace said when he imitated Lucilius, might be said of Butler by Prior; his numbers were not smooth nor neat. Prior excelled him in versification; but he was, like Horace, inventore minor; he had not Butler's exuberance of matter and variety of illustration. The spangles of wit which he could afford he knew how to polish; but he wanted the bullion of his master. Butler pours out a negligent profusion, certain of the weight, but careless of the stamp. Prior has comparatively little, but with that little he makes a fine show. "Alma" has many admirers, and was the only piece among Prior's works of which Pope said that he should wish to be the author.
"Solomon" is the work to which he entrusted the protection of his name, and which he expected succeeding ages to regard with veneration. His affection was natural; it had undoubtedly been written with great labour; and who is willing to think that he has been labouring in vain? He had infused into it much knowledge and much thought; had often polished it to elegance, often dignified it with splendour, and sometimes heightened it to sublimity: he perceived in it many excellences, and did not discover that it wanted that without which all others are of small avail–the power of engaging attention and alluring curiosity.
Tediousness is the most fatal of all faults; negligence or errors are single and local, but tediousness pervades the whole; other faults are censured and forgotten, but the power of tediousness propagates itself. He that is weary the first hour is more weary the second, as bodies forced into motion, contrary to their tendency, pass more and more slowly through every successive interval of space. Unhappily this pernicious failure is that which an author is least able to discover. We are seldom tiresome to ourselves; and the act of composition fills and delights the mind with change of language and succession of images. Every couplet, when produced, is new, and novelty is the great source of pleasure. Perhaps no man ever thought a line superfluous when he first wrote it, or contracted his work till his ebullitions of invention had subsided. And even if he should control his desire of immediate renown, and keep his work nine years unpublished, he will be still the author, and still in danger of deceiving himself: and if he consults his friends he will probably find men who have more kindness than judgment, or more fear to offend than desire to instruct. The tediousness of this poem proceeds not from the uniformity of the subject, for it is sufficiently diversified, but from the continued tenor of the narration; in which Solomon relates the successive vicissitudes of his own mind without the intervention of any other speaker or the mention of any other agent, unless it be Abra; the reader is only to learn what he thought, and to be told that he thought wrong. The event of every experiment is foreseen, and therefore the process is not much regarded. Yet the work is far from deserving to be neglected. He that shall peruse it will be able to mark many passages to which he may recur for instruction or delight; many from which the poet may learn to write and the philosopher to reason.
If Prior's poetry be generally considered, his praise will be that of correctness and industry, rather than of compass of comprehension or activity of fancy. He never made any effort of invention: his greater pieces are only tissues of common thoughts; and his smaller, which consist of light images or single conceits, are not always his own. I have traced him among the French epigrammatists, and have been informed that he poached for prey among obscure authors. The "Thief and Cordelier" is, I suppose, generally considered as an original production, with how much justice this epigram may tell, which was written by Georgius Sabinus, a poet now little known or read, though once the friend of Luther and Melancthon:-
"De Sacerdote Furem consolante. "Quidam sacrificus furem comitatus euntem Huc ubi dat sontes carnificina neci. Ne sis moestus, ait; summi conviva Tonantis Jam cum coelitibus (si modo credis) eris. Ille gemens, si vera mihi solatia praebes, Hospes apud superos sis meus oro, refert. Sacrificus contra; mihi non convivia fas est Ducere, jejunas hac edo luce nihil."
What he has valuable he owes to his diligence and his judgment. His diligence has justly placed him amongst the most correct of the English poets; and he was one of the first that resolutely endeavoured at correctness. He never sacrifices accuracy to haste, nor indulges himself in contemptuous negligence, or impatient idleness; he has no careless lines, or entangled sentiments; his words are nicely selected, and his thoughts fully expanded. If this part of his character suffers an abatement, it must be from the disproportion of his rhymes, which have not always sufficient consonance, and from the admission of broken lines into his "Solomon;" but perhaps he thought, like Cowley, that hemistichs ought to be admitted into heroic poetry.
He had apparently such rectitude of judgment as secured him from everything that approached to the ridiculous or absurd; but as law operates in civil agency, not to the excitement of virtue, but the repression of wickedness, so judgment in the operations of intellect can hinder faults, but not produce excellence. Prior is never low, nor very often sublime. It is said by Longinus of Euripides, that he forces himself sometimes into grandeur by violence of effort, as the lion kindles his fury by the lashes of his own tail. Whatever Prior obtains above mediocrity seems the effort of struggle and of toil. He has many vigorous, but few happy lines; he has everything by purchase, and nothing by gift; he had no nightly visitations of the Muse, no infusions of sentiment or felicities of fancy. His diction, however, is more his own than of any among the successors of Dryden; he borrows no lucky turns, or commodious modes of language, from his predecessors. His phrases are original, but they are sometimes harsh; as he inherited no elegances, none has he bequeathed. His expression has every mark of laborious study, the line seldom seems to have been formed at once; the words did not come till they were called, and were then put by constraint into their places, where they do their duty, but do it sullenly. In his greater compositions there may be found more rigid stateliness than graceful dignity.
Of versification he was not negligent. What he received from Dryden he did not lose; neither did he increase the difficulty of writing by unnecessary severity, but uses triplets and alexandrines without scruple. In his preface to "Solomon" he proposes some improvements by extending the sense from one couplet to another with variety of pauses. This he has attempted, but without success; his interrupted lines are unpleasing, and his sense, as less distinct, is less striking. He has altered the stanza of Spenser as a house is altered by building another in its place of a different form. With how little resemblance he has formed his new stanza to that of his master these specimens will show:-
"She flying fast from Heaven's fated face, And from the world that her discovered wide, Fled to the wasteful wilderness space, From living eyes her open shame to hide, And lurked in rocks and caves long unespied. But that fair crew of knights, and Una fair, Did in that castle afterwards abide, To rest themselves, and weary powers repair, Where store they found of all that dainty was and rare?"
"To the close rock the frightened raven flies, Soon as the rising eagle cuts the air; The shaggy wolf unseen and trembling lies, When the hoarse roar proclaims the lion near. Ill-starred did we our forts and lines forsake, To dare our British foes to open fight: Our conquest we by stratagem should make; Our triumph had been founded in our flight. 'Tis ours by craft and by surprise to gain; 'Tis theirs to meet in arms, and battle in the plain."
By this new structure of his lines he has avoided difficulties; nor am I sure that he has lost any of the power of pleasing, but he no longer imitates Spencer. Some of his poems are written without regularity of measures; for, when he commenced poet, he had not recovered from our Pindaric infatuation; but he probably lived to be convinced that the essence of verse is order and consonance. His numbers are such as mere diligence may attain; they seldom offend the ear, and seldom soothe it; they commonly want airiness, lightness, and facility. What is smooth is not soft. His verses always roll, but they seldom flow.
A survey of the life and writings of Prior may exemplify a sentence which he doubtless understood well when he read Horace at his uncle's, "The vessel long retains the scent which it first receives." In his private relaxation he revived the tavern, and in his amorous pedantry he exhibited the college. But on higher occasions and nobler subjects, when habit was overpowered by the necessity of reflection, he wanted not wisdom as a statesman, or elegance as a poet.