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LIFE OF PRIOR.
BY DR. JOHNSON.
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 Winburn 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.
The difficulty of settling Prior's birth-place is great. In the register of his college he is called, at his admission by the president, Matthew Prior, of Winburn in Middlesex; by himself, next day, Matthew Prior of Dorsetshire, in which county, not in Middlesex, Winborn, or Winborne as it stands in the Villare, is found. When he stood candidate for his fellowship, five years afterwards, he was registered again by himself as of Middlesex. The last record ought to be preferred, because it was made upon oath. It is observable, that, as a native of Winborne, he is stiled filius Georgii Prior, generosi; not consistently with the common account of the meanness of his birth. Dr. J.
2 Samuel Prior kept the Rummer Tavern, near Charing Cross, in 1685. The annual feast of the nobility and gentry living in the parish of St. Martin in the Fields was held at his house, October 14, that year. N.
› He was admitted to his bachelor's degree in 1686; and to his master's, by mandate, in 1700.
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. 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 any thing equal, was formed the grand alliance against Lewis, which at last did not produce effects proportionate to 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 bed-chamber; 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. Maria's praise was not confined to the English language, but fills a great part of the Musa Anglicanæ.
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 vic
He received, in September, 1697, a present of 200 guineas from the lords justices, for his trouble in bringing over the treaty of peace. N
tories 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 every where 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 Loo 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 Wil. liam, 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 societies for peaceful 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 invok'd his aid, or bless'd 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 from 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 had himself 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 versemen, 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 duke of Dorset: it began with the College Exercise, and ended with the Nut-brown Maid.
The battle of Ramilies 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.
Every thing 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 intrusted to the Gazetteer.
The nation, in time, grew weary of the war, and the queen grew weary of her ministers. The war was burthensome, 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 abbé Gaultier, and Mr. 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 that 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 should 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 treating 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 first of January (1711-12), and the English plenipotentiaries arrived on the fifteenth. 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 Lewis, 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 first of August, 1714, ensued the downfall of the Tories, and the degra dation 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