To The Honorable Charles Montague, Esq. Quotes

Matthew Prior

"The Only Wretched Are The Wise"

Context: Matthew Prior, like so many of his associates in the eighteenth century, was active both as a man of letters and as a public official. His career as a diplomat in Holland and France was crowned by his acting as plenipotentiary in negotiating the peace of Utrecht, known later among his Whig enemies as "Matt's Peace." His initial fame as a poet came in 1687 when he and his friend Charles Montagu (later Earl of Halifax) burlesqued John Dryden's The Hind and the Panther in their Story of the Country-Mouse and the City-Mouse. Five years later in an epistle to his friend, he enclosed a verse of wry philosophical observation on the vagaries of life, expressing much the same thought that Pope, in An Essay on Man, was to articulate in "Man never is, but always to be blest." Man does not perceive the future, and graciously it is so, for his limited perspective allows him the luxury of anticipating a better day and of rationalizing his present woe in terms of its imagined outcome. "Against experience," the "hoary Fool, who many days/ Has struggl'd with continu'd Sorrow,/ Renews his Hope, and blindly lays/ The desp'rate Bett upon to Morrow." Seen from a distance, objects–like life–are subject to the interpretation of imagination; seen from close range, the same objects are desultory and worthless. In this sense, then, ignorance is bliss:

If We see right, We see our Woes:
Then what avails it to have Eyes?
From Ignorance our Comfort flows:
The only Wretched are the Wise.
We waery'd should lie down in Death:
This Cheat of Life would take no more;
If You thought Fame but empty Breath;
I, Phillis but a perjur'd Whore.