Matthew Prior’s political and poetical interests served each other well when special events called for panegyrical poems. Much of Prior’s early poetry is of this kind. His first published poem was an ode, “On the Coronation of the Most August Monarch K. James II, and Queen Mary. The 23rd. of April, 1685.” Prior writes that he cannot prevent his fancy from imagining the king, rowing up the Thames with his company, to be crowned. Prior compares the impending arrival with Jason’s when he bore the golden fleece back to Greece, with the rising of the sun, with a Roman triumph, and with the first coming of Christ. The urge to draw such analogies was typical of Augustan poets, but to do so in praise of the king was to risk seeming self-serving, if not obsequious. Indeed, many writers of birthday odes to the king or queen were exactly that. Prior avoids the trap by framing his praise as a flight of fancy, as a prompting of his soul that he cannot restrain as he anticipates the event.
Prior’s poems of praise do not always take the stricter poetic forms that the term “ode” may imply. His 565-line poem to the king, Carmen Saeculare, for the Year 1700—To the King, is in rhymed quatrains, or linked pairs of couplets. In 1695, he wrote a ballad to celebrate the English recapture of Namur from France, a poem that mocks a French “victory” poem of 1692, stanza by stanza.
Perhaps the best example of Prior’s ability to carry off a difficult task with elegance is his poem “To a Child of Quality of Five Years Old: The Author suppos’d Forty.” To write a poem praising the child of a nobleman (the earl of Jersey) is to risk sentimentality, if not fulsomeness. Prior amuses his readers by amusing himself with the idea that an age difference will always separate this girl from him. He can lament her indifference now, as if he were a Petrarchan lover, and at the same time describe the reality of seeing his verses used to curl her doll’s hair. His regrets are not wholly contrived since, trapped by old age, Prior will indeed “be past making love,/ When she begins to comprehend it.” Unlike the occasional poems, of little interest today, this lyrical ode reveals Prior’s ability to bring freshness to a potentially tedious subject and to execute a difficult task with grace.
Prior wrote numerous love poems that in their use of artificial diction, their shepherds and shepherdesses, and their imaginary, timeless, deity-inhabited landscape of Arcadia, are pastoral. In the last of a sequence of poems about Cloe, his mistress in these poems, he calls their dispute a “Pastoral War”; she is no milkmaid, however, and Prior’s pastorals are personal lyrics as well as exercises within this conventional genre. Prior implies his regard for Cloe in traditional ways: Cupid mistakes Venus for Cloe and shoots his mother, or Venus mistakes a picture of Cloe for one of herself. In “Cloe Hunting,” Apollo mistakes her for his sister Cynthia, only to be chided by Cupid.
In later poems to Cloe, however, the pastoral setting becomes less important, while the relation between Prior and Cloe becomes less convention-bound and more psychologically interesting. In “A Lover’s Anger,” Prior begins peevishly to chide Cloe for being two hours late. Cloe protests that a rosebud has fallen into her dress and invites him to look at the mark it has made on her breast. Prior looks and immediately forgets what he had been about to say, having been drawn from the world of watches and missed appointments into her innocent paradise, where one need worry only about love and, occasionally, a falling rosebud. Clearly, however, the pastoral condition is a temporary and imaginary refuge from the real world, which also exists in the poem.
In “Cloe Jealous,” Prior’s beloved is no longer content to believe in the “pastoral” world that idealized their relationship. Although at first Cloe pretends to weep for “Two poor stragling Sheep,” she quickly reveals that she really worries that she is losing her beauty. Prior’s “Answer to Cloe Jealous, in the same Stile. The Author sick” avoids her concerns as he describes himself as a dying shepherd, never more to torment her with jealousy. “A Better Answer,” he decides, is to treat her as an equal, to flatter her into accepting his infidelities as mere “Art,” whereas his “Nature” is to love Cloe best. “I court others in Verse; but I love Thee in Prose,” he adds, neglecting to point out that this very answer is another set of verse fabrications....
(The entire section is 1874 words.)