Matthew Prior Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The poet and diplomat Matthew Prior distinguished himself while still a child as a remarkable classical student. He was sent first to Westminster School and then to St. John’s College at Cambridge University. His poetry and his character attracted the notice of patrons, particularly Lord Dorset. Prior’s satires pleased his friends, and his achievements as a diplomat pleased the court. He became employed in a variety of such important situations as secretary to the embassy at The Hague, secretary to the negotiations of the peace of Ryswick in 1697, secretary to the embassy in France in 1698, undersecretary of state in 1699, and member of Parliament in 1701.

Prior’s literary work reflected not only the classical interest of the early eighteenth century but the very specific interest of that age in the art of satire. He won the admiration and friendship of Jonathan Swift for his keen satires on poets and politicians. He shared Swift’s Tory sympathies and while that party was in power had a good deal to do with government affairs in England, especially with negotiations for the Treaty of Utrecht that was concluded in 1713. After 1714, however, the year the Tory Party was replaced by the Whigs, Prior was removed from political office. He was, according to the ferocious political practices of his time, impeached and jailed. While in custody he wrote his most important long poem, “Alma: Or, The Progress of the Mind,” a discussion of humanity and its...

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