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PRIOR, GAY, AND POPE
and lucky wits of the auspicious reign of
Queen Anne, whose name it behoves us not to pass over. Mat was a world-philosopher of no small genius, good nature, and acumen. He loved, he drank,
1 Gay calls him — “Dear Prior ... beloved by every muse.” – Mr. Pope's Welcome from Greece.
Swift and Prior were very intimate, and he is frequently mentioned in the “ Journal to Stella.” “Mr. Prior,” says Swift, “walks to make himself fat, and I to keep myself down. We often walk round the park together.”
In Swift's works there is a curious tract called “Remarks on the Characters of the Court of Queen Anne ” [Scott's edition, vol. xii.] The “Remarks are not by the Dean; but at the end of each is an addition in italics from his hand, and these are always characteristic. Thus, to the Duke of Marlborough, he adds, “ Detestably covetous,” &c. Prior is thus noticed
“MATTHEW PRIOR, Esq., Commissioner of Trade. “On the Queen's accession to the throne, he was continued in his office ; is very well at court with the ministry, and is an entire creature of my Lord Jersey's, whom he supports by his advice; is one of the best poets in England, but very facetious in conversation. A thin, hollowlooked man, turned of forty years old. This is near the truth.”
“Yet counting as far as to fifty his years,
His virtues and vices were as other men's are.
In a life party-coloured — half pleasure, half care.
He strove to make interest and freedom agree;
And alone with his friends, Lord, how merry was he!
Both fortunes he tried, but to neither would trust;
PRIOR's Poems. (For my own monument.]
he sang. He describes himself, in one of his lyrics, “ in a little Dutch chaise on a Saturday night; on his left hand his Horace, and a friend on his right," going out of town from the Hague to pass that evening, and the ensuing Sunday, boozing at a Spielhaus with his companions, perhaps bobbing for perch in a Dutch canal, and noting down, in a strain and with a grace not unworthy of his Epicurean master, the charms of his idleness, his retreat, and his Batavian Chloe. A vintner's son in Whitehall, and a distinguished pupil of Busby of the Rod, Prior attracted some notice by writing verses at St. John's College, Cambridge, and, coming up to town, aided Montague in an attack on the noble old English lion John Dryden; in ridicule of whose work, “The Hind and the Panther,” he brought out that remarkable and famous burlesque, “ The Town and Country Mouse.” Are n't you all acquainted with it? Have you not all got it by heart? What! have you never heard of it? See what fame is made of! The wonderful part of the satire was, that, as a natural consequence of “ The Town and Country Mouse,” Matthew Prior was made Secretary of Embassy at the Hague! I believe it is dancing, rather than singing, which distinguishes the young English diplomatists of the present day; and have seen them in various parts perform that part of their duty very finely. In Prior's time it appears a different accomplishment led to preferment. Could you write a copy of Alcaics? that was the question. Could you turn out a neat epigram or two? Could you com
1“ They joined to produce a parody, entitled the 'Town and Country Mouse,' part of which Mr. Bayes is supposed to gratify his old friends, Smart and Johnson, by repeating to them. The piece is therefore founded upon the twice-told jest of the 'Rehearsal.' There is nothing new or original in the idea. In this piece, Prior, though the younger man, seems to have had by far the largest share.". Scott's Dryden, vol. i. p. 330.
pose “The Town and Country Mouse?” It is manifest that, by the possession of this faculty, the most difficult treaties, the laws of foreign nations, and the interests of our own, are easily understood. Prior rose in the diplomatic service, and said good things that proved his sense and his spirit. When the apartments at Versailles were shown to him, with the victories of Louis XIV. painted on the walls, and Prior was asked whether the palace of the King of England had any such decorations, “The monuments of my master's actions," Mat said, of William whom he cordially revered, "are to be seen everywhere except in his own house." Bravo, Mat! Prior rose to be full ambassador at Paris,' where he somehow was cheated out of his ambassadorial plate; and in an heroic poem, addressed by him to her late lamented Majesty, Queen Anne, Mat makes some magnificent allusions to these dishes and spoons, of which Fate had deprived him. All that he wants, he says, is her Majesty's picture; without that he can't be happy.
“ Thee, gracious Anne, thee present I adore :
The votive tablet I suspend." 1 “He was to have been in the same commission with the Duke of Shrewsbury, but that that nobleman,” says Johnson, “refused to be associated with one so meanly born. Prior therefore continued to act without a title till the Duke's return next year to England, and then he assumed the style and dignity of ambassador.”
He had been thinking of slights of this sort when he wrote his Epitaph :
“Nobles and heralds, by your leave,
Here lies what once was Matthew Prior,
Can Bourbon or Nassau claim higher?”
With that word the poem stops abruptly. The votive tablet is suspended for ever, like Mahomet's coffin. News came that the Queen was dead. Stator Jove, and Phæbus, king of verse, were left there, hovering to this day, over the votive tablet. The picture was never got, any more than the spoons and dishes: the inspiration ceased, the verses were not wanted the ambassador was n't wanted. Poor Mat was recalled from his embassy, suffered disgrace along with his patrons, lived under a sort of cloud ever after, and disappeared in Essex. When deprived of all his pensions and emoluments, the hearty and generous Oxford pensioned him. They played for gallant stakes - the bold men of those days — and lived and gave splendidly.
Johnson quotes from Spence a legend, that Prior, after spending an evening with Harley, St. John, Pope, and Swift, would go off and smoke a pipe with a couple of friends of his, a soldier and his wife, in Long Acre. Those who have not read his late Excellency's poems should be warned that they smack not a little of the conversation of his Long Acre friends. Johnson speaks slightingly of his lyrics; but with due deference to the great Samuel, Prior's seem to me amongst the easiest, the richest, the most charmingly humourous of English lyrical poems.
1 His epigrams have the genuine sparkle:
“THE REMEDY WORSE THAN THE DISEASE
" I sent for Radeliff; was so ill,
That other doctors gave me over :
And I was likely to recover.
“But when the wit began to wheeze,
And wine had warmed the politician,
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. In reading his works, one is struck with their modern air, as well as by their happy similarity to the songs of the charming owner of the Sabine farm. In his verses addressed to Halifax, he says, writing of that endless theme to poets, the vanity of human wishes —
“ So whilst in fevered dreams we sink,
And waking, taste what we desire,
The real draught but feeds the fire,
At objects in an airy height:
To stand aloof and view the flight,
Is all the pleasure of the game.” Would not you fancy that a poet of our own days was singing ? and in the verses of Chloe weeping and reproaching him for his inconstancy, where he says
“ The God of us versemen, you know, child, the Sun
How, after his journeys, he sets up his rest.
“Yes, every poet is a fool;
By demonstration Ned can show it;
Prove every fool to be a poet.”
“ On his death-bed poor Lubin lies,
His spouse is in despair ;
They both express their care.
• The same effect may give;