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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Matthew Prior (1664–1721)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
NO one is better qualified to speak of Matthew Prior than the accomplished writer of vers de société (and work of a higher order), Austin Dobson, who brought out in 1889 an edition of ‘Prior’s Selected Poems,’ with an introduction containing several corrections of generally accepted data. He concludes his introductory essay with the words: “Prior has left behind him not a few pieces which have never yet been equaled for grace, ease, good-humor, and spontaneity; and which are certain of immortality so long as there is any saving virtue in ‘fame’s great antiseptic—Style.’”  1
  There is doubt regarding the place of Prior’s birth, on July 21st, 1664; but the evidence points to Wimborne Minster in East Dorset, England. His father is thought to have been a joiner, who removed to London, and sent his son to Westminster. After his parents’ early death, young Matt was adopted by his uncle, a vintner, who lived in Channel (now Cannon) Row; and it was here behind the bar that he attracted the attention of the Earl of Dorset, who found him reading Horace and Ovid. Aided by this rich patron, he returned to Westminster school, forming a friendship with Charles and James Montagu (the former afterwards founder of the Bank of England, and Earl of Halifax,—dubitably Pope’s “Bufo” in the ‘Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot’), and going with them to Cambridge, where he took his bachelor’s degree in 1686. His first piece of clever writing, a parody of Dryden’s poem ‘The Hind and the Panther,’ was executed at this period in collaboration with Charles Montagu, who, like Prior, was freshly wearing his college honors. The greater part was Prior’s, and the jeu d’esprit was published as ‘The Hind and the Panther Transvers’d to the Story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse’ (London, 1687), and bore such mottoes as “Much Malice mingled with a little Wit.” It has no great merit aside from boyish animal spirits, but may be accepted as a prophecy of better work now that we know the better work to have been accomplished. Some idea of the style of its humor—exceedingly like that of the stock newspaper humorist in the American press of to-day—may be appreciated by comparing Dryden’s lines,—
  “A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged,
Fed on the lawns, and o’er the forest ranged;
Without unspotted, innocent within,
She feared no danger, for she knew no sin,”—
with Prior’s corresponding ones, ridiculing the idea of a quadruped guiltless of sin:—
  “A milk-white mouse, immortal and unchanged,
Fed on soft cheese, and o’er the dairy ranged;
Without unspotted, innocent within,
She feared no danger, for she knew no gin.”
  2
  In 1688 Prior obtained a fellowship, and was also made tutor to Lord Exeter’s sons; and having won distinguished patronage, was appointed secretary to the ambassador to Holland. After spending three years at The Hague, he was sent to France in the same capacity. Returning to England in 1701, he entered Parliament, became a Tory, and in 1711 was sent on a secret mission to Paris, where he attracted the favor of Louis XIV. A letter from le Grand Monarque to Queen Anne said at its close: “I expect with impatience the return of Mr. Prior, whose conduct is very agreeable to me;” and the English Queen replied: “I send back Mr. Prior to Versailles, who, in continuing to conduct himself in the manner that shall be entirely agreeable to you, does no more than execute, to a tittle, the orders which I have given him.” Bolingbroke and Swift greatly admired his diplomatic qualities (although Pope sneered at them), and archives exist in Paris that attest his faithful service. One of Prior’s favorite sayings was, “I had rather be thought a good Englishman than be the best poet or greatest scholar that ever wrote.” When the Whigs came into power, Prior returned to England in 1715 to suffer imprisonment; and when discharged he settled at Down-Hall, Essex, on an estate that he had purchased. He died at Lord Harley’s country-seat of Wimpole, Cambridge, September 18th, 1721, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.  3
  Prior considered a long poem, ‘Solomon, or the Vanity of the World,’ his most important work. It was greatly admired by Cowper, but is seldom read to-day. ‘Alma, or the Progress of the Mind,’ is also long, but contains many witty Hudibrastic passages. The ‘Tales’ are rather coarse for modern taste, and Prior’s fame rests upon his lyrics, epigrams, and playful poems. In ‘An English Padlock’ occur the often-quoted lines as advice to a husband:—
  “Be to her virtues very kind;
Be to her faults a little blind;
Let all her ways be unconfined,
And clap your Padlock—on her mind.”
  4
  Prior has always been a favorite with men of letters. Gay said that he “was beloved by every Muse”; Allan Ramsay wrote a pastoral on his death, beginning “Dear, sweet-tongued Matt! thousands shall greet for thee;” Swift was extremely fond of him, and took great trouble to find subscribers for his poems; and Thackeray in his ‘English Humorists’ calls him “a world-philosopher of no small genius, good-nature, and acumen,” and considers his “among the easiest, the richest, the most charmingly humorous of English lyrical poems. Horace is always in his mind,” he continues; “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.” His poem ‘To a Child of Quality’ Swinburne calls “the most adorable of nursery idyls that ever was or will be in our language.” His own estimation of himself may be learned by the following verses from his poem entitled ‘For my Own Monument’:—

  “Yet counting as far as to fifty his years,
  His virtue and vice were as other men’s are;
High hopes he conceived, and he smothered great fears,
  In a life particolored, half pleasure, half care.
  
“Not to business a drudge, not to faction a slave,
  He strove to make int’rest and freedom agree;
In public employments industrious and grave,
  And alone with his friends, Lord! how merry was he!
  
“Now in equipage stately, now humbly on foot,
  Both fortunes he tried, but to neither would trust;
And whirled in the round, as the wheel turned about,
  He found riches had wings, and knew man was but dust.”
  5
 
 
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