Matthew Prior (1664–1721)
Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
The tercentenary of the death of Matthew Prior went by in September 2021 almost without notice. But at the time of his passing, the event came as a severe shock to people in the upper echelons of society. He had served as a diplomat at a very senior level, despite suffering the handicap of lowly birth, which effectively squashed any chance of formal promotion in his career. More importantly, he was generally recognised as the most important English poet of his generation. Anne Finch had recently died; Jonathan Swift had not yet written most of the major poems that are highly admired today; John Gay was shifting his main attention to drama; and James Thomson was still on the brink of his career. In the opinion of good judges, only one writer at this date would have higher claims to a preeminent standing in any branch of literature, and that was Alexander Pope. Subsequently, Prior remained a model for many of the most distinguished verse practitioners in the language. It is only within the last hundred years that his stock has fallen, for reasons that are not all readily explicable.
Matthew was born around 21 July 1664 in Stephens Alley, a short lane leading into King Street at the foot of Whitehall, a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament. His parents were George, a joiner from the county of Dorset, and his wife Elizabeth Prior, while two uncles kept taverns, one in nearby Channel Row, and the other not far off near Charing Cross. George earned a good enough living to send his bookish son to Westminster School at the age of about nine. By sheer good luck, this was currently the most renowned school in the nation, presided over by its famous master Richard Busby and the alma mater of a host of celebrated former pupils: just as fortuitously, it stood within five minutes’ walk of the Priors’ home.
Unfortunately, George died before Matthew had advanced far up the ladder in his studies. The boy was taken to live with his uncle in Channel Row, while his mother apparently gave up his custody for good. With his sharp mind he began to make himself useful at the Rhenish tavern, indulging his taste for reading classical texts while perched behind the bar. The story goes that the sixth Earl of Dorset, well known both as poet and patron, came into the tavern and observed Matthew busy construing his texts. A rapid test was enough to convince the Earl of his ability, and an offer was made to pay for the young scholar’s tuition at his old school. Whether every detail of this account is true, we cannot be sure. But it is certain that Matthew returned to Dr. Busby’s charge aged about twelve, that he prospered there, and that he remained on the good terms with the Earl until the latter’s death in 1706. Prior paid tribute to the Earl in the dedication to his first collection of poems three years later. By the time that he graduated from Westminster at eighteen, he was well qualified for one of the coveted awards as a King’s Scholar. However, rejecting the usual passage to Christ Church, Oxford, that had been followed by so many of the nation’s leaders, he chose to proceed to St. John’s College, Cambridge. Here was an early sign of the independent streak, amounting at times to contumacy, that would mark his character throughout life.
Prior spent four years at Cambridge, diversifying his studies in traditional subjects such as mathematics, logic and rhetoric with the composition of poetry in both English and Latin, almost all unpublished at the time. His schoolfriend Charles Montagu, later Lord Halifax, was a fellow student at the adjoining college, Trinity, and the two young men began their lasting association with a burlesque of The Hind and the Panther, the poem that John Dryden published in May 1687, marking his conversion to the Catholic faith after James II became king. The riposte by Prior and Montagu, The Hind and the Panther Transvers’d to the Story of the Country Mouse and the City-Mouse, quickly followed in July of the same year, and brought both of its authors to general attention. A few months before, Prior had graduated among the twenty candidates of his year for the B.A. degree. He would remain in the University as a “medical Fellow” and subsequently as Linacre lecturer, a benefaction founded by one of Henry VIII’s doctors. Biographers have found it odd that Prior was required to provide teaching on the ancient Greek physician Galen. However, he had probably absorbed as much knowledge of the workings of the human body as some of the eminent London practitioners who took the degree of M.D. at Cambridge and Oxford after a strangely circumscribed education—the curriculum consisted of detailed studies of the classics, with some anatomy but amazingly no other medical science. Prior must have picked up something, as we can see from the jocular use he makes of the subject in his great comic poem Alma. Meanwhile he spent part of the year as tutor to the sons of the Earl of Exeter, but this did not lead to any prospect of other employment.
In fact, he had still failed to reach a decision on his future career. While the literary life may have beckoned, little of his poetry was seen in print, although some items such as Journey to Copt Hall (c. 1688) give signs of the free idiomatic style that would characterise the major work to come. He had begun to identify graceful vers de société as a suitable mode for his talents, but as yet he had not found a ready market for his writings. It was not until 1690 that Prior was launched into the role in which he spent the next quarter of a century, when a fortuitous event gave him the opportunity to serve in a diplomatic capacity. This was a role for which he seemed to be fitted by his diligence, his linguistic ability and a natural charm that showed through in spite of his slightly reserved manners. He was appointed private secretary to the British ambassador at the Hague, a main hub of international relations as the War of the League of Augsberg dragged out its slow course. Prior would remain in this post for seven years, three of them as acting chargé d’affaires, and he then served as the principal lieutenant to the new ambassador, Lord Jersey, from 1695. The high regard in which he was regarded by his superiors is shown by his appointment as secretary to the embassy in Paris when the Peace of Rijswijk was concluded in 1697. From now on, he would enjoy the reputation in governmental circles of a safe pair of hands for state negotiations.
The decade proved a momentous one for Prior as he moved into his thirties. A steadily accumulating record of success in diplomacy had gone along with a growing body of skilful poems in various genres. Among them was An English Ballad, published by Jacob Tonson in 1695, a pungent reply to Boileau’s ode on an earlier French success when the army took the strategically important citadel of Namur during the ongoing war. Characteristically, Prior responds to the sixteen regular strophes of the ode by celebrating the British recapture of the town. This he performs in an equivalent number of looser Pindaric stanzas, domesticating the formal language of Boileau with his usual jaunty idiom. Around the turn of the century his achievements brought new recognition. He was appointed under-secretary of state in 1699, and began a spell as a roving ambassador for William III. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, even though he harboured some doubts about the New Science that was carrying before it. By 1700 he had joined the influential group of politicians and writers known as the Kit Cat Club, along with his old friend Lord Halifax. He served as a commissioner of the important Board of Trade and Plantations, the body that handled most relations with the American colonies. For a few months he even served as a member of parliament. His standing was confirmed by the purchase of a house in Duke Street, Westminster, overlooking the Park. It lay within easy reach of the government offices in Whitehall, and close to the fashionable area of St. James’s, where the social and cultural life of the elite had its centre. Here Prior had his base for the rest of his life.
Things gradually underwent a change in the new century. His political views turned towards the Tory party, which lost him the favour of the Whig leaders such as Halifax, and meant his ejection from the Kit Cat circle. Another result was that Lord Dorset, who had a controlling interest in the constituency that Matthew represented in the House of Commons, looked elsewhere for a docile placeholder. Ultimately he was dumped from his position on the trade commission, when the powerful partnership of Lord Godolphin and the Duke of Marlborough purged official bodies of individuals opposing their ministry.
At the same time his poetic output grew in quality and quantity, leading to the perceived need for a collected edition of his works. The first publisher to seize the chance in 1707 was the opportunistic Edmund Curll, which emboldened Tonson to issue an authorised collection two years later. Along with juvenilia, this volume included many noteworthy items that exhibit for the first time Prior’s mature talents. Among them were his fabliaux, cheerfully bawdy poems such as “Hans Carvel,” Chaucerian in manner and in craftsmanship; the long popular “Henry and Emma,” well known to Jane Austen, which Augustanises a more serious medieval poem; some witty epigrams, a form in which Prior always excelled; and the resonant meditation on history included in the lines on Mézeray’s history.
Another shift in fortune took place in 1710. This time the effects were all in favour of Prior. A new Tory government came in with the aim of ending the War of the Spanish Succession. It was led by Robert Harley and Henry St. John, friends in social life as well as allies in politics. The literary supporters of the ministry now included Jonathan Swift and John Arbuthnot, fellow members of the “Society,” a club composed of likeminded individuals prominent in the party. Prior was already on good terms with these men, helping Swift to set up a weekly journal called The Examiner that backed the peace policy, and he soon got to know Alexander Pope, the poet with the greatest natural affinity for his work.
Over the course of the four short years that the Harley ministry survived, Prior undertook a number of missions in various capacities to negotiate with agents of French government, not least with Louis XIV himself. Their outcome was the successful completion of the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713. It even acquired the popular name of “Mat’s Peace.” By the end of the process Prior had advanced to the role of acting ambassador in Paris: there is virtually no doubt that he would have received the official title, but for the snobbish reluctance of some in high quarters to bestow this honour on a man of lowly birth.
With the collapse of the divided government and the death of Queen Anne in 1714, Matthew’s prospects nosedived once more. Under George I, some aggressively protestant members of the new Whig hierarchy determined to punish anyone who had helped to end a war against the nation’s dangerous Catholic rivals—especially as the conflict had lined the pockets of their own paymasters in the financial sector. They recalled Prior with aim of using him as a witness against the leading Tory ministers. In 1715 parliament set up a committee, headed by the rising politician Robert Walpole, to lay the groundwork for the impeachment of Harley and St. John, now ennobled as Lord Oxford and Lord Bolingbroke. Prior was grilled without mercy by the brutal hatchet man Lord Coningsby, but he refused to betray secrets of the negotiations that might implicate his former masters. Bolingbroke fled to France to join the Stuart Pretender to the throne, while Oxford was committed to the Tower of London to await his full punishment. Prior was himself detained and kept under house arrest for more than a year.
In 1717 Oxford also gained his freedom and no longer faced the threat of a death sentence, to the delight of friends including Matthew—even though both men were spitefully excluded from the royal pardon that was issued in the same year. From this time, the Earl’s son Lord Harley took over as Prior’s most active patron. Together with friends such as Lord Bathurst, Pope, Gay and Dr. Arbuthnot, he organised a massive subscription campaign for a major collection of the poet’s works. Most of those involved in this “amicable conspiracy” had homes within a short distance from Duke Street. In Dublin meanwhile, Swift devoted his canvassing skills to drumming up Irish support for the venture. Over 1,440 names appeared on the list of subscribers when the impressive folio volume was issued by Jacob Tonson in 1719, with a formidable array of the great and good joining in, despite the fact that Prior remained officially persona non grata. It is impossible to calculate exactly how much he earned from the enterprise, but it is likely to have exceeded £3,000 (worth at least seventy-five times as much today). Few literary subscriptions were as successful and, as biographers have pointed out, some of the most famous ones mounted in the period, like those of Dryden and Pope, involved translations of the classics rather than purely original work.
More significant than these financial matters is the overall quality of the volume. Few collections published in the eighteenth century display such a wide variety of poems that possess enduring value. Over sixty items had never been in print before this, among them some of Prior’s best. They include the weighty cadences of Solomon, describing the prophet’s uneasy search for human fulfilment, which would influence on Pope’s Essay on Man and Johnson’s Rasselas. More attractive to modern taste is a brilliant philosophic comedy in verse, Alma: or The Progress of the Mind, written during the poet’s spell of confinement. It was regarded by Pope and others in the Harley circle as his masterpiece, and many later writers have shared their admiration for its learned wit and clever exploitation of the Hudibrastic couplet style pioneered by Samuel Butler.
There are many other gems in the collection, several of them delicately managed (though far from innocent) poems addressed to women. Prior never married but he had three long-term relationships. The first went on for more than ten years, starting around the age of thirty, with a woman known as Flanders Jane. She was a widow who acted as his housekeeper in the Hague, Paris, and London. The second, with Anne Durham, began about 1707 and lasted for another decade. Last came Betty Cox, sometimes called “Lisetta,” who was married to a tavern-keeper in Long Acre. This final liaison intensified gossip about Matthew’s allegedly dissolute way of life, including a story of another squalid affair. For her part, Anne inspired some delightful short lyrics under her assumed name of “Chloe.”
It was Jane who prompted Matthew to write the lines on “Jinny the Just,” which Pope and Swift saw in manuscript and which they would have published after the poet’s death in their Miscellanies, if Edward Harley (by now second Earl of Oxford) had agreed. He declined to release them, perhaps because he thought some lines too risqué. As a result, they remained unknown to the world until 1907, a great loss to Prior’s literary legacy. The poem offers as warm and tender a tribute to a domestic goddess as can be found in the language, quite without any hint of condescension, and manages to convey in its bouncing anapestic triplets the affection that Matthew felt for a woman at once practical, sensible, fairminded, generous, spiritual, intelligent, and enduringly beautiful (”The blue was worn off but the plum was well tasted”). A compliment from Pope, according to Charles Lamb, was “worth an estate for life—nay is an immortality.” If these verses had reached the public two centuries earlier, Jane would enjoy her own small share of immortality.
Several other poems of considerable merit were excluded from the collection. A striking example is The Viceroy: A Ballad, which was altogether too hot a property to be published in 1719, and did not see the light of day until the safer climate of 1740. Probably written while Prior was under house arrest, it concerns his main interrogator in the McCarthy-like hearings held by the parliamentary committee. Lord Coningsby had been a lord justice of Ireland, when an attempt was made to impeach him on the grounds of several abuses of power, such as extortion, embezzlement, and collusion in the unjust treatment of a hapless man hanged without trial. Matching in its form the inquisition that its author had undergone, the poem goes through the various charges and indicts Coningsby in fifty-five stanzas of fierce retaliation against the peer. None of the recognised masters of personal calumny in earlier English literature—writers like Marvell, Dryden, or Swift—produced a more lethal character assassination than Prior did here.
When the volume appeared in 1719, its author had only three years to live. There was time and enough money from the proceeds of the book for him to negotiate with Lord Harley for the joint purchase of a property called Down Hall near Harlow in Essex, thirty miles from London. It was an old timber and lath construction in a dilapidated condition, and the new owner spent a year on planned improvements, enlisting the architect James Gibbs to design a new residence with three storeys and the landscaper Charles Bridgeman to lay out the gardens. Neither scheme had got very far when Prior’s death occurred. However, he had written one of his finest and most characteristic tales in verse, Down-Hall: A Ballad, published posthumously in 1723. This describes how Matthew took a coach journey from London spread over two days with his friend John Morley, to explore visit the new house. They encounter a number of surprises and disappointments on their way, and not for the first time the poet casts himself as being outsmarted by his companion.
At the age of fifty-seven, Matthew Prior died quite suddenly on 13 September 1721 while visiting Lord Harley’s home in Cambridgeshire. The cause was given as “cholera morbus,” that is, acute gastroenteritis. His body was taken to lie in state at Westminster Abbey and he was given a grand funeral on 25 September, attended by luminaries and friends including Arbuthnot. Later a resplendent monument was erected in Poets’ Corner, with the tomb designed by Gibbs, its sculptures carved by Michael Rysbrach, a bust by Antoine Coysevox, and a lengthy Latin inscription by the headmaster of Westminster school. In a sense, Prior had come back to his early London roots, not as a poor boy from the wrong side of the local tracks, but as a much honoured member of the cultural establishment in the city and the nation.
The fullest biography is still C.K. Eves, Matthew Prior: Poet and Diplomatist (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939). An updated life is needed, taking account of the splendid edition of the Literary Works by H.B. Wright and M.K. Spears (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2nd ed, 1971). Matthew Prior, by Frances Mayhew Rippy (Boston: Twayne, 1986) is mainly critical, but as a useful short survey of the poet’s life in its opening chapter.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
PRIOR, MATTHEW (1664–1721), poet and diplomatist, was born on 21 July 1664. As to the place of his birth there has been some hesitation, arising chiefly from the contradictory nature of the records which bear upon his subsequent connection with St. John's College, Cambridge. In two of these he is described as ‘Middlesexiensis,’ in a third as ‘Dorcestriensis;’ but the bulk of tradition is in favour of the latter, the exact place of birth being supposed to have been Wimborne, or Wimborne Minster, in East Dorset, where his father, George Prior, is said to have been a joiner (cf. Mayor, Admission to St. John's College, ii. 92–3). There is, however, no record of his baptism at that locality. This has been accounted for by the supposition that his parents were nonconformists, and to this he himself is thought to refer in his first epistle to his friend, Fleetwood Sheppard—
So at pure Barn of loud Non-Con, Where with my Granam I have gone.
Another tradition makes him a pupil at the Wimborne free grammar school; and a third, too picturesque to be neglected, affirms the hole that perforates a copy of Raleigh's ‘History of the World,’ which is, or was, to be found in the church library over the old sacristy of St. Cuthberga in Wimborne, to have been caused by the youthful Prior, who fell asleep over it with a lighted candle. Unfortunately, it has been proved conclusively by Mr. G. A. Aitken (Contemporary Review, May 1890) that the books were placed in the library at a much later date than Prior's boyhood. While he was still very young his father moved to Stephen's Alley, Westminster, either to be near the school or to be near his own brother Samuel, a vintner at the Rhenish Wine House in Channel (now Cannon) Row. George Prior sent his son to Westminster School, then under the rule of Dr. Busby. Dying shortly afterwards, his widow was unable to pay the school fees, and young Prior, who had then reached the middle of the third form, was taken into his uncle's house to assist in keeping the accounts, his seat being in the bar. Here, coming one day to ask for his friend, Fleetwood Sheppard [q. v.], Lord Dorset found the boy reading Horace, and, after questioning him a little, set him to turn an ode into English. Prior speedily brought it upstairs to Dorset and his friends, so well rendered in verse that it became the fashion with the users of the house to give him passages out of Horace and Ovid to translate. At last, upon one occasion, when Dr. Sprat, the dean of Westminster, and Mr. Knipe, the second master at the school, were both present, Lord Dorset asked the boy whether he would go back to his studies. Uncle and nephew being nothing loth, Prior returned to Westminster, the earl paying for his books, and his uncle for his clothes, until such time as he could become a king's scholar, which he did in 1681. It was at this date that Prior made the acquaintance of Charles and James Montagu, the sons of the Hon. George Montagu, whose residence, Manchester House, was in Channel Row, opposite the Rhenish Wine House [see Montagu, Charles, earl of Halifax; and Montagu, Sir James, 1666–1723]. With both of the brothers, but chiefly with the younger, James (afterwards lord chief baron of the exchequer), Prior formed a close friendship. In 1682 Charles Montagu, also a king's scholar, was admitted a fellow commoner of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a year later Prior, finding that James Montagu would probably follow his brother's example, and fearing also that he himself would be sent to Christ Church, Oxford, accepted, against Lord Dorset's wish, one of three scholarships then recently established at St. John's College, Cambridge, by the Duchess of Somerset. Being the only Westminster boy at St. John's, he attracted exceptional notice; but for the time he alienated his patron. In 1686 he took his bachelor's degree, and in the following year made his first literary essay, a reply to Dryden's ‘Hind and Panther.’ This was entitled ‘The Hind and the Panther transvers'd to the Story of the Country-Mouse and the City-Mouse.’ His ostensible collaborator in this satire, which had small literary merit but gave much satisfaction to the ‘no popery’ party, was Charles Montagu; but it is probable that Prior was the active partner (cf. Spence, Anecdotes, ed. Singer, 1858, p. 102; Beljame, Le Public et les Hommes de Lettres en Angleterre, p. 195). In April 1688 Prior obtained a fellowship, and composed the annual poetical tribute which St. John's College paid to one of its benefactors, the Earl of Exeter. This was a rhymed exercise, in the Cowley manner, upon Exodus iii. 14, and is preserved in Prior's poems. One of its results was that Prior became tutor to Lord Exeter's sons. His office, however, was of brief duration, for Lord Exeter broke up his household after the revolution and went to Italy. Thereupon Prior applied to his old patron, Lord Dorset, and ultimately, probably by the good offices of Fleetwood Sheppard, was appointed secretary to Lord Dursley (afterwards Earl of Berkeley), then starting as King William's ambassador to the Hague. This appointment is usually regarded as a reward of literary merit; but apart from his share in the ‘Town and Country Mouse,’ the interest of which was mainly political, Prior had at this date produced nothing of importance, and his post might have been given to any other university man of promise who could command the patronage of Dorset. In Holland he stayed for several years, being made in the interim gentleman of the bedchamber to King William, with whom he found considerable favour, especially during the great congress of 1691. He also at this time wrote several court poems, notably a ‘Hymn to the Sun,’ 1694; memorial verses on Queen Mary's death, 1695; and an admirable ballad paraphrase of Boileau's pompous ‘Ode sur la Prise de Namur,’ which stronghold, it will be remembered, had fallen to the French in 1692, only to be retaken by the English three years later. This last jeu d'esprit was published anonymously in September 1695. Another metrical tribute to William followed the assassination plot of 1696, to which year, in addition, belongs the clever little occasional piece, not printed until long after its author's death, entitled ‘The Secretary,’ and describing his distractions while in Holland. Throughout all this period, Prior was acting diligently as a diplomatist. It has sometimes been considered that his qualifications in this way were slight; but his unprinted papers completely negative this impression. He had the good fortune to please both Anne and Louis XIV, as well as William; and the fact that Swift and Bolingbroke later acknowledged his business aptitude and acquaintance with matters of trade may fairly be set against any contention to the contrary on the part of political opponents. In 1697 he was employed as secretary in the negotiations at the treaty of Ryswick, for bringing over the articles of peace in connection with which, ‘to their Excellencies the Lords Justicies,’ he received a gratuity of two hundred guineas. Subsequently he was nominated secretary of state in Ireland, and then, in 1698, he went to Paris as secretary to the embassy, serving successively under the Earl of Portland and the Earl of Jersey, with the latter of whom he returned to England. But he went again to Paris for some time with the Earl of Manchester, and then, after ‘a very particular audience’ with his royal master, in August 1699, at Loo in Holland, was sent home in the following November with the latest tidings of the pending partition treaty. His old master, Lord Jersey, was secretary of state, and Prior became an under-secretary. In the winter of 1699 he produced his ‘Carmen Seculare for the Year 1700,’ a glorification of the ‘acts and gests’ of ‘the Nassovian.’ The university of Cambridge made him an M.A., and upon the retirement of John Locke, invalided, he became a commissioner of trade and plantations, afterwards entering parliament as member for East Grinstead. His senatorial career was but short, as the parliament in which he sat only lasted from February to June 1701. In the impeachment by the tories of Somers, Orford, and Halifax for their share in framing the partition treaty, Prior followed Lord Jersey in voting against those lords; but it is alleged that neither he nor Jersey had ever favoured the negotiation, although they considered themselves bound to obey the king's orders, and this, as far as Prior is concerned, receives support from his own words in the later poem of ‘The Conversation,’ 1720:
Matthew, who knew the whole intrigue, Ne'er much approv'd that mystic league.
The explanation given by his friend, Sir James Montagu—namely, that he had to choose whether to condemn the king or the king's ministers, and that he chose the latter—may perhaps be accepted as the best reason for what has sometimes been regarded as a discreditable political volte-face. However this may be, with the accession of Anne in 1702, he joined the tories, a step which brought him into close relations with Harley, Bolingbroke, and Swift, but landed him on the opposite side to Addison, Garth, Steele, and some others of his literary contemporaries. In 1707 his attachment to the tory party led to his being deprived of his commissionership of trade; but in 1711, a year after the tories' accession to power, he was made a commissioner of customs. In July of the same year he was privately despatched to Paris in connection with the negotiations which preceded the peace of Utrecht—negotiations in which again, if we are to believe the above-quoted poem, he was an obedient rather than a willing agent:
In the vile Utrecht Treaty too, Poor man! he found enough to do.
Upon his return, having assumed a false name for the sake of secrecy, he was stopped at Deal as a French spy by a bungling official, and detained until orders came from London for his release. This accident to some extent revealed his mission; and, to meet the gossip arising therefrom, Swift hastily drew up in September a clever mock account of his journey to Paris—‘a formal grave lie, from the beginning to the end,’ which, besides mystifying the quidnuncs, misled, and did not particularly please, even Prior himself. But Mons. Mesnager and the Abbé Gualtier, who had accompanied him from France, had come fully armed with powers to treat with the English ministry, and after a succession of conferences, many of which took place at Prior's house in Duke Street, Westminster, the preliminaries were signed for what was popularly known as ‘Matt's Peace’ on 27 Sept. Prior's intimate knowledge of these proceedings led to his being named one of the plenipotentiaries on the occasion; but Lord Strafford, it is said, declined to be associated with a colleague of so obscure an origin. His nomination was in consequence revoked, his place being taken by the bishop of Bristol, Dr. John Robinson [q. v.] In August 1712, however, Prior went to Paris with Bolingbroke in connection with the suspension of arms during the progress of the Utrecht conference, and he remained at Paris after Bolingbroke's return to England, ultimately exercising the full powers of a plenipotentiary (cf. Legrelle, La Diplomatie Française et la Succession d'Espagne, vol. iv. passim; Macknight, Life of Bolingbroke). Then, after some months of doubt, tension, and anxiety, preceding and following upon Queen Anne's death in 1714, he was recalled, having already been deprived of his commissionership of customs. As soon as he got back (March 1715), he was impeached by Sir Robert Walpole, ordered into the custody of the sergeant-at-arms, and treated with considerable rigour. He amused himself during his enforced seclusion by composing a long poem in Hudibrastic metre, entitled ‘Alma; or the Progress of the Mind,’ a whimsical and very discursive dialogue on the locality of the soul, supposed to be carried on between himself and his friend and protégé, Richard Shelton. In 1717 he was exempted from the act of grace, but was nevertheless soon afterwards set at liberty. Fortunately, through all his vicissitudes, his foresight had prompted him to retain his St. John's fellowship, or he would have been practically penniless. To increase his means of subsistence, at this juncture Lord Harley and Lord Bathurst, aided by Gay, Arbuthnot, and others, busied themselves in obtaining subscribers for a folio edition of his poems. Already, in 1709, the publication, two years earlier, of an unauthorised issue of his fugitive verse by the notorious Edmund Curll [q. v.] had obliged him to collect from Dryden's ‘Miscellanies’ and other sources a number of his pieces, to which he had added others not previously printed, prefacing the whole by an elaborately written eulogy of his now deceased patron, Charles, earl of Dorset and Middlesex. This he had addressed to Dorset's son Lionel, afterwards the first duke. To the poems in this collection of 1709 he appended, in the edition of 1718, the above-mentioned ‘Alma,’ and a long-incubated effort in heroics and three books, entitled ‘Solomon on the Vanity of the World.’ This volume, which was delivered to its subscribers early in 1719, is said to have brought him in four thousand guineas. ‘Great Mother,’ he had written in some verses printed in it:
Great Mother, let me once be able To have a garden, house, and stable; That I may read, and ride, and plant, Superior to desire, or want; And as health fails, and years increase, Sit down, and think, and die in peace.
His wish, real or feigned, was now to be gratified. To the profits of his great folio Lord Harley added a like sum of 4,000l. for the purchase of Down Hall in Essex, an estate not very far from Harlow, and three miles south-west of the church of Hatfield Broad Oak. It is now in the possession of the Selwyn family, who still preserve Prior's favourite chair; but at the poet's death it reverted, by arrangement, to Lord Harley. In a ballad of ‘Down Hall,’ afterwards published separately, Prior describes charmingly his first visit to his new retreat, in company with Harley's agent, John Morley [q. v.], the notorious land-jobber, of Halstead, and his own Swedish servant, Newman or Oeman. Unhappily his health was already failing, and, like his friend Swift, he suffered from deafness. At Down Hall, however, he continued, for the most part, to reside, amusing himself in the manner of Pope by nursing his ailments and improving his property until his death, which took place on 18 Sept. 1721, at Lord Harley's seat of Wimpole, where he was on a visit. He was in his fifty-eighth year, a circumstance which did not prevent an admirer (Mr. Robert Ingram) from writing:
Horace and He were call'd in haste From this vile Earth to Heaven; The cruel year not fully pass'd Ætatis, fifty-seven.
He was buried, as he desired, ‘at the feet of Spenser,’ on 25 Sept., and left five hundred pounds for a monument. This was duly erected, close to Shadwell's, in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, surmounted with the bust by Antoine Coysevox (misnamed Coriveaux in the poet's will), which had been given to him by Louis XIV. His epitaph was written by the copious Dr. Robert Freind [q. v.] To ‘the College of St. John the Evangelist, in Cambridge,’ he left by will two hundred pounds' worth of books. These, which were to be preserved in the library with some earlier gifts, included the poems of 1718 ‘in the greatest paper’ (there are said to have been three issues of this emphatically ‘tall’ volume). He also left to the college Hyacinthe Rigaud's portrait of his patron, Edward, earl of Jersey, and his own portrait by Alexis-Simon Belle, familiar in Vertue's engraving. There is another well-known likeness of him by Jonathan Richardson in the National Portrait Gallery, which again is a duplicate of one belonging to the Duke of Portland, and this too was engraved by Vertue in 1719 for Lord Harley (Letter to Swift, 4 May 1720). Prior was also painted by Kneller (Stationers' Hall), Michael Dahl, and others, including an unknown artist, whose work is in the Dyce collection at South Kensington. The Dahl portrait, once the poet's own property, and afterwards Lord Oxford's, now belongs to Mr. Lewis Harcourt, of Nuneham Park, and was etched in 1889 by G. W. Rhead for the ‘Parchment Library.’ Besides the Coysevox bust above mentioned, there is one attributed to Roubiliac, which was purchased for one hundred and thirty guineas by Sir Robert Peel at the Stowe sale of 1848 (Illustrated London News, 26 Aug.); in the Portland collection, dispersed in 1786, was an enamel by Boit (Academy, 4 Aug. 1883). The character of Prior has suffered somewhat from Johnson's unlucky application to it of the line in Horace about the cask which retains the scent of its first wine. ‘In his private relaxation,’ says the doctor, ‘he revived the tavern,’ i.e. the Rhenish Wine House of his youth; and certainly some of the stories which have been repeated from Spence, Arbuthnot, and others, of the very humble social status of his Chloes and ‘nut-brown maids’ lend a qualified support to Johnson's epigram (cf. Spence, Anecdotes, 1858, pp. 2, 37; Richardsoniana, 1776, p. 275). But the evidence of his better qualities rests upon a surer foundation. Those who knew him well—and, both by rank and intellect, they were some of the noblest in the land—concur in praising him; and even Johnson rather inconsistently admits that in a scandal-mongering age little ill is heard of him. But, by his, own admission (cf. verses For my own Monument), his standard can hardly have been a very elevated one; and in his official life, although he performed his duties creditably, he was probably an opportunist rather than an enthusiast. In private there can be no doubt that he was a kind friend, and, as far as is possible to a valetudinarian, a pleasant and an equable companion. Swift's picture of him (Journal to Stella, 21 Feb. 1711) as one who ‘has generally a cough, which he only calls a cold,’ and who walks in the park ‘to make himself fat,’ coupled with Davis's ‘thin, hollow-looked man,’ and Bolingbroke's ‘visage de bois,’ may stand in place of longer descriptions. As to his amiability, there is no better testimony than that of Lord Harley's daughter, afterwards the Duchess of Portland, to whom as a child Prior addressed the lines beginning ‘My noble, lovely little Peggy.’ Her recollection of him was that he made ‘himself beloved by every living thing in the house—master, child, and servant, human creature, or animal’ (Lady M. Wortley Montagu, Works, ed. Wharncliffe, 1837, i. 63). Apart from the somewhat full-wigged dedication prefixed to his poems of 1709 and 1718, and his contributions in 1710 to the tory ‘Examiner,’ Prior's known prose works are of slight importance. At Longleat there are, among other things, four ‘Dialogues of the Dead’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. App. p. 194), which, having been greatly praised by Pope, Beattie, Nichols, and others who have seen them; and it is from his original papers that is said to be compiled the dubious ‘History of his Own Time,’ which, with a second volume of ‘Miscellaneous Works,’ including several pieces of verse now reckoned among his accepted efforts, was editorially put forth by one J. Bancks in 1740 . Both volumes purport to be derived from transcripts by Prior's executor, Adrian Drift, who died in 1738. But a letter from Heneage Legge to the Earl of Dartmouth on 6 Nov. 1739 (ib. 11th Rep. App. pt. v. p. 329) throws considerable doubt on these collections, and it is not easy to decide how far they were ‘a trick of a bookseller's.’ It is possible, however, to distrust too much, as they admittedly contain a very great deal that is authentic, and they are certainly not without interest. Of his poems Prior speaks, either affectedly or with sincerity, as ‘the product of his leisure hours, who had commonly business enough upon his hands, and was only a poet by accident;’ and it seems clear that the collection of his fugitive pieces into a volume was precipitated by Curll's unauthorised issue in 1707 of the ‘Poems on Several Occasions,’ just as the larger collection of 1718 was prompted by Prior's necessitous circumstances. As it is, some of his now best known pieces, ‘The Secretary,’ ‘The Female Phaeton,’ ‘To a Child of Quality,’ were not included among his works until after his death. What he considered to be his most successful efforts are at present, as it often happens, the least valued. His three books of ‘Solomon on the Vanity of the World,’ of which he himself ruefully admitted in ‘The Conversation,’
Indeed, poor Solomon in rhyme Was much too grave to be sublime,
although they once found admirers in John Wesley and Cowper, find few readers today; and his paraphrase of the fine old ballad of ‘The Nut-Brown Maid’ as ‘Henry and Emma’ shares their fate. His ‘Alma,’ which he regarded as a ‘loose and hasty scribble,’ is, on the contrary, still a favourite with the admirers of Butler, whose ‘Hudibras’ is its avowed model—a model which it perhaps excels in facility of rhyme and ease of versification. In Prior's imitations of the ‘Conte’ of La Fontaine this metrical skill is maintained, and he also shows consummate art in the telling of a story in verse. Unhappily, in spite of Johnson's extraordinary dictum that ‘Prior is a lady's book’ (Boswell, ed. Hill, 1887, iii. 192), his themes are not equally commendable. But he is one of the neatest of English epigrammatists, and in occasional pieces and familiar verse has no rival in English. ‘Prior's,’ says Thackeray, in an oft-quoted passage (English Humourists, 1864, p. 175) ‘seem to me amongst the easiest, the richest, the most charmingly humourous of English lyrical poems. Horace is always in his mind, and his song, 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.’
[The chief collections of Prior's poems published in his lifetime are: Poems on Several Occasions (1) 1707, (2) 1709, (3) 1716, and (4) 1718. Nos. 1 and 3 were unauthorised, the former being repudiated by Prior in the preface to No. 2, the latter by notice in the London Gazette of 24 March 1716, but both probably contain poems by Prior which ‘he thought it prudent to disown’ (Pope, Corresp. iii. 194–5). The Conversation and Down Hall came out in 1720 and 1723 respectively. Other pieces are included in the Miscellaneous Works of 1740. Of posthumous editions of his poetical works that of Evans (2 vols. 1779) long enjoyed the reputation of being the best. The most complete at present is the revised Aldine edition (also 2 vols.), edited in 1892 by Mr. R. Brimley Johnson. A selection by the writer of this paper, with a lengthy Introduction and Notes, containing fresh biographical material, chiefly derived from an unprinted statement by Prior's friend Sir James Montagu, appeared in the Parchment Library in 1889. Among other sources of information, in addition to Johnson's Lives, Thackeray's Lectures, and the letters of Hanmer, Bolingbroke, and Pope, may be mentioned North British Review, Nov. 1857; Contemporary Review, July 1872; Longman's Magazine, Oct. 1884; Contemporary Review, May 1890, an excellent article by Mr. G. A. Aitken; and Chester's Westminster Abbey Registers, pp. 304, 348.]
Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)
PRIOR, MATTHEW (1664–1721), English poet and diplomatist, was the son of a Nonconformist joiner at Wimborne-Minster, East Dorset, and was born on the 21st of July 1664. His father moved to London, and sent him to Westminster, under Dr Busby. At his father's death he left school, and fell to the care of his uncle, a vintner in Channel Row. Here Lord Dorset found him reading Horace, and set him to translate an ode. He acquitted himself so well that the earl offered to contribute to the continuance of his education at Westminster. One of his schoolfellows and friends was Charles Montagu, afterwards earl of Halifax. It was to avoid being separated from Montagu and his brother James that Prior accepted, against his patron's wish, a scholarship recently founded at St John's College. He took his B.A. degree in 1686, and two years later became a fellow. In collaboration with Montagu he wrote in 1687 the City Mouse and Country Mouse, in ridicule of Dryden's Hind and Panther. It was an age when satirists were in request, and sure of patronage and promotion. The joint production made the fortune of both authors. Montagu was promoted at once, and Prior three years later was gazetted secretary to the embassy at the Hague. After four years of this employment he was appointed one of the gentlemen of the king's bedchamber. Apparently, also, he acted as one of the king's secretaries, and in 1697 he was secretary to the plenipotentiaries who concluded the peace of Ryswick. Prior's talent for affairs was doubted by Pope, who had no special means of judging, but it is not likely that King William would have employed in this important business a man who had not given proof of diplomatic skill and grasp of details. The poet's knowledge of French is specially mentioned among his qualifications, and this was recognized by his being sent in the following year to Paris in attendance on the English ambassador. At this period Prior could say with good reason that “he had commonly business enough upon his hands, and was only a poet by accident.” To verse, however, which had laid the foundation of his fortunes, he still occasionally trusted as a means of maintaining his position. His occasional poems during this period include an elegy on Queen Mary in 1695; a satirical version of Boileau's Ode sur le prise de Namur (1695); some lines on William's escape from assassination in 1696; and a brief piece called The Secretary. After his return from France Prior became under-secretary of state and succeeded Locke as a commissioner of trade. In 1701 he sat in parliament for East Grinstead. He had certainly been in William's confidence with regard to the Partition Treaty; but when Somers, Orford and Halifax were impeached for their share in it he voted on the Tory side, and immediately on Anne's accession he definitely allied himself with Harley and St John. Perhaps in consequence of this for nine years there is no mention of his name in connexion with any public transaction. But when the Tories came into power in 1710 Prior's diplomatic abilities were again called into action, and till the death of Anne he held a prominent place in all negotiations with the French court, sometimes as secret agent, sometimes in an equivocal position as ambassador's companion, sometimes as fully accredited but very unpunctually paid ambassador. His share in negotiating the treaty of Utrecht, of which he is said to have disapproved, personally led to its popular nickname of “Matt's Peace.” When the queen died and the Whigs regained power he was impeached by Sir Robert Walpole and kept in close custody for two years (1715-1717). In 1709 he had already published a collection of verse. During this imprisonment, maintaining his cheerful philosophy, he wrote his longest humorous poem, Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind. This, along with his most ambitious work, Solomon, and other Poems on several Occasions, was published by subscription in 1718. The sum received for this volume (4000 guineas), with a present of £4000 from Lord Harley, enabled him to live in comfort; but he did not long survive his enforced retirement from public life, although he bore his ups and downs with rare equanimity. He died at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, a seat of the earl of Oxford, on the 18th of September 1721, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his monument may be seen in Poet's Corner. A History of his Own Time was issued by J. Bancks in 1740. The book pretended to be derived from Prior's papers, but it is doubtful how far it should be regarded as authentic. Prior had very much the same easy, pleasure-loving disposition as Chaucer (with whose career his life offers a certain parallelism), combined with a similar capacity for solid work. His poems show considerable variety, a pleasant scholarship and great executive skill. The most ambitious, i.e. Solomon, and the paraphrase of the Nut-Brown Maid, are the least successful. But Alma, an admitted imitation of Butler, is a delightful piece of wayward easy humour, full of witty turns and well remembered allusions, and Prior's mastery of the octo-syllabic couplet is greater than that of Swift or Pope. His tales in rhyme, though often objectionable in their themes, are excellent specimens of narrative skill; and as an epigrammatist he is unrivalled in English. The majority of his love songs are frigid and academic, mere wax-flowers of Parnassus; but in familiar or playful efforts, of which the type are the admirable lines To a Child of Quality, he has still no rival. “Prior's”—says Thackeray, himself no mean proficient in this kind—“seem to me amongst the easiest, the richest, the most charmingly humorous of English lyrical poems. Horace is always in his mind, and his song and his philosophy, his good sense, his happy easy turns and melody, his loves and his Epicurianism, bear a great resemblance to that most delightful and accomplished master.”
The largest collection of Prior's verses is that by R. Brimley Johnson in the “Aldine Poets” (2 vols., 1892). There is also a selection in the “Parchment Library,” with introduction and notes by Austin Dobson (1889). (A. D.)