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PRI O R.
Born at Wimborne, in Dorsetshire — Educated at Westminster and Cam
bridge Patronised by the Earl of Dorset - Joins Montague in a Satire on "The Hind and Panther’ – Made Secretary to the English Embassy at the Hague, and a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to William III. · Made Secretary to the Embassy at the Treaty of Ryswick, Under-Secretary of State, and a Commissioner of Trade – Collects his Poems — His future advancement stopped by the meanness of his Birth and the accession of the House of Hanover — His intimacy with Harley, Earl of Oxford — Is taken into custody and examined before the Privy Council — Released - Retires on his Cambridge Fellowship Publishes his Poems by subscription — His Deafness Death, Burial, and Monument in Westminster Abbey -— Works and Character.
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.?
· The difficulty of settling Prior's birth-place is great. In the register of his college (St. John's, at Cambridge] 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 Wimborne, 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 styled Filius Georgii Prior, generosi ; not consistently with the common account of the meanness of his birth.—Johnson.
Prior was born in Abbot Street, one mile from Wimborne Minster, in Dorsetshire. See Wilson's • De Foe,' iïi. 646.
? Swift, in his 'Journal to Stella' (20 Nov. 1711), speaks of Prior's birth;” and Queen Anne, in a letter to Lord Oxford, writes thus:-“ You propose my giving Mr. Prior some inferior character: what that can be I don't know; for I doubt his birth will not entitle him to that of Envoy, and the Secretary of the Embassy is filled. If there be any other you can think of that
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.6
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.
is fit for him, I shall be very glad to do it."-QUEEN ANNE to Lord Oxford, Nov. 16, 1711. Lansdoune MSS. 1236, fol. 153.
3 His uncle, Samuel Prior, kept the Rummer Tavern at Charing Cross. See Rummer Tavern in Cunningham’s ‘Handbook of London,' ed. 1850, p. 433.
My uncle, rest his soul! when living,
Prior to Fleetwood Shephard. 4 Burnet's Own Times,' ed. 1823, vol. vi. p. 65.
6 He was admitted to his Bachelor's degree in 1686, and to his Master's, by mandate, in 1700.
6 i. e. The splendid subscription folio of his works. See p. 213.
? By Jordaens, and still at Burleigh House, the seat of the Earl (now Marquis) of Exeter.
1664-1721. 'THE COUNTRY MOUSE AND THE CITY MOUSE.'
The same year 8 he published • The Country Mouse and the City 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 Country Mouse and the City 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
8 No: in 1687.
9 • The Hind and Panther Transvers’d to the Story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse,' 4to. 1687.
Spence --Johnson. Spence by Singer, p. 61. 11 See vol. i. p. 313 and p. 366.
12 Prior, in a letter to Montague (then Lord Halifax) concerning a spurious edition of his poems, speaks thus of their joint shares in “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse:'-“ Part of the Mouse is likewise inserted, which I had little to say to otherwise than as I held the pen to what Mr. Montagu dictated. I mention this, my Lord, desiring your Lordship to believe this book was printed without my knowledge or consent.”- Prior to Lord Halifax, Feb. 4, 1707. Addit. MS. in British Museum, 7121.
Compare, however, Lord Peterborough's observation in 'Spence by Singer,' p. 136, and “Epistle to Fleetwood Shephard' (the second Epistle) in Works, ed. 1779, vol. ii. p. 109. Let me add here that Prior's first epistle to Shephard opens a volume of Miscellany Poems, published in 1692 by Gildon.
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 · Musæ 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. 16
13 Six poems with Prior's name to them are in Dryden's “Third Miscellany,' 8vo. 1693; and two with his name to them in Dryden's 'Fourth Miscellany,' 8vo. 1694.
14 Except Henry, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of James I.
Queen Mary's death was mourned in verse by Congreve, Dennis, Stepney, Tate, Walsh, Wesley, Arwaker, Dove, Glanvil, Gould, Partridge, John Phillips (not the author of The Splendid Shilling'), a Doctor of Physic, &c.
15. An Ode presented to the King on his Majesty's arrival in Holland, after the Queen's Death,' fol. 1695 (May). This was followed (1696) by Verses humbly presented to the King on his arrival in Holland, after the Discovery of the late horrid Conspiracy against his Most Sacred Person. By Mr. Prior. London: Tonson, 1696,' folio. This poem was afterwards elaborately corrected by its author.
16 The same year (1695) appeared one of his best performances, his 'English Ballad,' in answer to Boileau's 'Ode on the taking of Namur,' on the subject of which the following letter has been discovered since Johnson wrote: Mr. Toxson,
Hague, ye 13 Sep. 95. S-If you think this trifle worth yo' printing, 'tis at yo' service, and I recommend it to yo' care. I would have therefore show it immediately to Mr. Montagu, (Mr. Chancellour of the Cheq') possibly he may alter a line or two in it, as he has either humour or leisure to make it any way intelligible. You must print the French on one side, and with so much room between the stanzas as that the English may answer it, which you see is usually.