Context: English poet and diplomat, Matthew Prior is known chiefly for his epigrams, satires, and society verse. With his Tory party affiliation, he was thrown into close literary association with Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot. In his public life, he took part in several important European treaty negotiations, including the Treaty of Ryswick and the Treaty of Utrecht. "On Exodus 3:14: I am That I am: An Ode," written in 1688, originated as an exercise at St. John's College, Cambridge. In many ways it anticipates in a limited fashion Pope's An Essay on Man. Prior berates "foolish man," who scarce knows himself, for his presumptuous curiosity–his "daring Pride and insolent Delight"–which would attempt to fathom the mysteries of God's universe. He avers that God's laws will never submit to "Reason's Batteries, or the Mines of Wit." The perspective of faith is man's only recourse; as Pope was to describe it: "Whatever is, is right." At one point Prior takes to task the petty knowledge of the schools and laboratories, always claiming the answers to some enigma of the universe or of human nature, yet ever replacing the "answers" of yesterday with the new hypotheses and theories of today:
Man does with dangerous Curiosity
These unfathom'd Wonders try:
With fancy'd Rules and arbitrary Laws
Matter and Motion he restrains;
And study'd Lines and fictious Circles draws:
Then with imagin'd Soveraignty
Lord of his new Hypothesis he reigns.
He reigns: How long? 'till some Usurper rise;
And he too, mighty Thoughtful, mighty Wise,
Studies new Lines, and other Circles feigns.
From this last Toil again what Knowledge flows?
Just as much, perhaps, as shows,
That all his Predecessor's Rules
Were empty Cant, all Jargon of the Schools;
That he on t'other's Ruin rears his Throne;
And shows his Friend's Mistake, and thence confirms his own.