Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Prior, Matthew
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
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.]