Matthew Prior, born July 21, 1664, was himself aware of his limitations as a poet. In his “Essay on Learning,” he observes: “I had two Accidents in Youth which hindred me from being quite possest with the Muse.” One was the accident of his education. He had been singularly fortunate, as the son of a laborer, to have been assisting in his uncle’s tavern one day when Lord Dorset found him reading Horace and asked him to turn an ode into English. Impressed with the result, Dorset undertook to provide for Prior’s subsequent education. Advantageous as this sponsorship proved, Prior lamented that he was “bred in a Colledge where prose was more in fashion than Verse . . . so that Poetry which by the bent of my Mind might have become the business of my Life, was by the Happyness of my Education only the Amusement of it.” The other accident of youth was, likewise, a form of success in activities other than writing poetry. As secretary to the newly appointed ambassador to The Hague for King William in 1691, Prior showed such political and business aptitude that he found himself serving in various diplomatic roles over the next twenty-two years, including negotiator for the Treaty of Utrecht in 1711-1712, a treaty that would become popularly known—especially among Queen Anne’s Whig opposition—as “Matt’s Peace.”
When the queen died in 1714 and the Whigs assumed power, Prior found himself under house arrest. His friends came to his financial rescue after his release in 1716, and Lord Harley helped Prior purchase Down Hall, whose condition he joked about in one of his last poems: “Oh! now a low, ruined white shed I descern/ Until’d, and unglaz’d, I believe ’tis a barn.” After some rebuilding under the direction of the architect James Gibbs, however, Prior was able to spend his last years, like Horace on his Sabine Farm, in rural retirement. Prior died while visiting Lord Harley in 1721, equally famous for his political career as for his poetic one. Even if he was not the foremost poet of his age, Prior is to be admired as a late Renaissance embodiment of the “universal man,” a statesman and a poet.