Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 46.djvu/405

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


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