Matthew Prior Prior, Matthew - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Matthew Prior 1664-1721

English poet, essayist, and satirist.

Prior is remembered as the author of some of the finest occasional verse in English and for his love poetry. As England's unofficial poet laureate during the reigns of King William III (1689-1702) and Queen Anne (1702-1714), Prior produced poems on momentous occasions and on demand to commemorate a variety of events. Although Prior wrote during the Augustan Age his verse retains the classical allusions of Restoration lyrics. A master of light verse, an accomplished essayist, and a distinguished wit, Prior became wealthy by selling subscriptions to his 1718 edition of Poems on Several Occasions, demonstrating to fellow poets that there were alternatives to soliciting the support of a wealthy patron.

Biographical Information

Prior was born in 1664 in Westminster, the only child of six to survive infancy. Prior's parents sent him at age eight to Westminster School. The death of his father three years later forced the boy to leave and begin working. While employed by an uncle, Prior met the Earl of Dorset, who paid for his tuition and returned him to school. In 1683 Prior enrolled in St. John's College in Cambridge, taking a bachelor's degree four years later. Prior achieved fame as an undergraduate with The Hind and the Panther Transvers'd to the Story of The Country Mouse and the City-Mouse (1687), a satire written with his friend Charles Montagu ridiculing Poet Laureate John Dryden's The Hind and the Panther. In 1690 Lord Dorset secured for him a minor diplomatic post in The Hague, launching him on a career in public office as a Tory. In 1697 Prior was instrumental in securing the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick. Later he played a central role in ending the War of the Spanish Succession by his secret negotiations with the French government. The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, ending that war, became popularly known as "Matt's Peace." His public life culminated in his being made Plenipotentiary to France in 1712. Following Queen Anne's death in 1714 and the resulting turmoil, Prior was recalled to England. A loyal Tory, Prior was arrested and confined for a year by the newly established Whig government in an unsuccessful attempt to force him to give damaging evidence against his fellow Tory politicians. During this time he wrote "Alma; or the Progress of the Mind" (1718). After his release, Prior retired to Essex, where he died in 1721.

Major Works

From The Hind and the Panther Transvers'd Prior gained a national reputation at the expense of Dryden's poem, which celebrated his recently-acquired Catholic religion; so stinging was Prior's mock-heroic burlesque that reportedly Dryden cried reading it. To comfort William III after the death of Queen Mary, Prior composed "An Ode, Presented to the King, on His Majesty's Arrival in Holland, After the Queen's Death, 1695" (1695). Sometimes considered the best of Prior's occasional or "public" poems, "An Ode" features elaborate construction, sophisticated wordplay, and a careful melding of form and content. Prior's most famous works are contained in his Poems on Several Occasions, particularly in the expanded edition of 1718. Poems on Several Occasions includes what Prior considered his finest works, including light Anacreontics, bawdy verse narratives, and philosophical poems dealing with such topics as the limitations of human reason. "Paulo Purganti and His Wife: An Honest, but a Simple Pair," "Hans Carvel," and "The Ladle" are structured around sexual humor. The long poem "Solomon on the Vanity of the World" illustrates the assertion in Ecclesiastes that "All is vanity." Other notable verses include "Henry and Emma," a sentimental adaptation of the traditional ballad "The Nutbrown Maid," and "Alma," which describes in poetic terms an obscure belief about the location of human mind, soul, and spirit.

Critical Reception

Prior enjoyed an enviable reputation as a poet, wit, and man of letters, and benefited from the devotion of influential literary friends. Some negative critical commentary by his contemporary Samuel Johnson impacted public opinion, but Johnson also praised many of Prior's works. Prior is perhaps most vulnerable to the charge of lack of inventiveness. In his defense, he did not make claims to the contrary and many of his borrowings were openly acknowledged as imitations or adaptations. Prior may have considered his career as a poet to be secondary to his life in politics. Such distinguished critics as F. R. Leavis and R. P. Blackmur have attributed to Prior a significant role in the evolution of a tradition of minor poetry in English. During the twentieth century Prior's work has been the subject of continued study both for it own merits and in order to explore his influence on later writers, including Anne Finch, Thomas Moore, William MakepeaceThackeray, and Oliver Wendell Holmes

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

A Satyr on the modern Translators (satire) 1685

Satyr on the Poets. In Imitation of the Seventh Satyr of Juvenal (satire) 1687

The Hind and the Panther Transvers'd to the Story of The Country Mouse and the City-Mouse [with Charles Montagu] (prose and verse) 1687

Poems on Several Occasions (poetry) unauthorized edition, 1707; authorized edition, 1709; revised and enlarged edition, 1718

A Second Collection of Poems on Several Occasions (poetry) 1716

A Supplement to Mr. Prior's Poems (poetry) 1722

The Poetical Works of Matthew Prior (poetry) 1777

Matthew Prior: Dialogues of the Dead, and Other Works in Prose and Verse (poetry and essays) 1907

The Shorter Poems of Matthew Prior (poetry) 1923

The Literary Works of Matthew Prior. 2 vols. (poetry, essays, drama, letters, satire, and fragments) 1959

The Literary Works of Matthew Prior. Enlarged edition, (poetry, essays, drama, letters, satire, and fragments) 1971

Reverend George Gilfillan (essay date 1858)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Life of Matthew Prior," in The Poetical Works of Matthew Prior, pp. v-xx. Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1858.

[In the following excerpt from an introduction to a nineteenth-century edition of Prior's poetry, Gilfillan offers his opinion regarding Prior's most popular and accomplished works.]

His writings have been accurately and comprehensively divided by Dr Johnson into his "Tales," his "Occasional Poems," "Alma," and "Solomon." His "Tales" are, so far as the incidents are concerned, in general, borrowed, but the handling is Prior's own. They are sprightly and amusing, and have been compared to the productions of that "fable tree," Fontaine. He that touches pitch must run his chance of being defiled, but Prior carries away less of it from his rather ticklish themes than might have been expected. Should anyone insist that two or three of these stories are blots, he must, at the same time, admit that they are small in size; that they bear no proportion to the mass of his poetry; and that, as compositions, they are too clever and characteristic to be omitted. His "Occasional Poems" are of unequal merit. His love verses are often graceful and often very trifling. His translations from Callimachus are called by Johnson "licentious"—i. e., too free in their rendering—and by other critics, stiff and hard. To us they read very much like a portion of Cowper's "Homer," and, like it, are full of a grave and true, if somewhat faint and sluggish, fire. His war poetry is, to a great extent, spoiled by its classical allusions, which are dragged in as by cart-ropes, instead of flowing naturally from the poet's memory or imagination. Johnson calls his "Henry and Emma" a "dull and tedious dialogue," and by doing so has subjected himself to the poetical anathema of Cowper. Certainly, as compared with the ancient ballad of the "Nut-brown Maid," "Henry and Emma" is artificial and poor; but this arises not from the subject, but from Prior's treatment of it. There is no task more difficult, and few more invidious, than that of modernising an ancient and favourite poem. It may be doubted if any one save Dryden has fully succeeded in it. Pope, in his "Temple of Fame," certainly has not; nor has Prior, in "Henry and Emma," in which, if the numbers are smoother than in the ancient poem, much of the race, and freshness, and the wild woodland charm, is lost. We cannot but count Johnson's criticism exceedingly prosaic and hypercritical, when he says, "The example of Emma, who resolves to follow an outlawed murderer wherever fear and guilt shall drive him, deserves no imitation; and the experiment, by which Henry tries the lady's constancy, is such as must end either in infamy to her or in disappointment to himself." We suspect none ever thought that the Poet meant to recommend Emma's conduct as a model, and few were likely to follow it even though he had. The story is simply an ingenious artifice, such as Malcolm, in Macbeth, employs in blackening his own character to Macduff; and the object of the Poet is to shew how love, in certain circumstances, spurns the bounds of prudence, and sets "infamy" at defiance.

"Alma" is said, by Johnson, to be imitated from Butler's "Hudibras," although Cowper, on the contrary, says, "They were both favourites of mine, and I often read them, but never saw in them the least resemblance to each other; nor do I now, except that they are composed in the same measure." "Hudibras" has a story, although a very slight one, and one that fades away and is lost in the thick...

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Oswald Doughty (essay date 1922)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Augustans: Prior," in English Lyric in the Age of Reason, pp. 46-56. London: Daniel O'Connor, 1922.

[In the following excerpt, Doughty discusses the influence of earlier poets on Prior as well as works by Prior that display a striking modernity.]

Prior lives to-day, not even by his clever and formerly much admired Ode sur la Prise de Namur, but by his light occasional verse. Though Johnson failed to do him justice, Cowper at once stepped into the breach, and admirably defended his idol.1 "Prior's," says Thackeray, also picking up the glove which Johnsonhad thrown down, "seem to me amongst the easiest, the richest, the most charmingly...

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Richard Morton (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Matthew Prior's Dialogues of the Dead," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. VIII, No. 3, Summer, 1967, pp. 73-8.

[In the following essay, first presented as a lecture in 1964, Morton contrasts the approach to the dialogue des morts ("dialogue of (or with) the dead") taken by various seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers with that of Prior in his Dialogues of the Dead. Morton focuses particularly on Prior's use of irony, his subtlety, and effective portrayal of setting.]

"I shall be transported into the company of wise and just gods," said Socrates of his approaching death, "and of dead men greater than those left alive. You may be...

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Otis Fellows (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

"Prior's 'Pritty Spanish Conceit'," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 87, No. 6, November, 1972, pp. 3-11.

[In the following essay, Fellows posits a Spanish source for a poetical concept developed in Prior's Alma.]

"Dediti ventri et turpissimae parti corporis"
(Sallust, Bellum Jugurthinum, Chapter 85)

Matthew Prior's ancestors were, for the most part, farm laborers. His father, however, was a carpenter, and his uncle a prosperous tavern keeper. Upon his father's death, the uncle took young Matthew into his employ as a waiter at the Rhenish Wine Tavern. There the earl of Dorset discovered the boy...

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John Higby (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

"Idea and Art in Prior's Dialogues of the Dead," in Englightenment Essays, Vol. V, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 62-9.

[In the essay below, Higby eschews comparisons with Prior's contemporaries who also wrote dialogue of the dead in order to examine what Prior's work in this subgenre reveals about his intellect and artistic gift.]

Matthew Prior's Dialogues of the Dead are like the young woman who is admired by all but courted by none. Since their first publication well over a half century ago, they have been favorably but always briefly treated by Prior's biographers and by some of the more comprehensive literary histories. But apart from one or two short...

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Ronald Rower (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Pastoral Wars: Matthew Prior's Poems to Cloe," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Spring, 1968, pp. 39-49.

[In the following essay, Rower explains that, while Prior's early poems are typical of the Restoration, his later lyrics addressed to Cloe feature an enlarged context in which he achieves previously unattained levels of characterization and realism.]

There is no love poetry of the English Augustan Age quite like Matthew Prior's. With the possible exception of Swift, whose Cadenus and Vanessa and birthday poems to Stella1 are not totally unlike Prior's love poems in their subtle delineations of a relationship between a man...

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Frances Mayhew Rippy (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Major Impact of a Minor Poet," in Matthew Prior, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 119-34.

[In the following essay, Rippy summarizes Prior's contributions to British literature and describes his influence on Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and other writers.]

This study began by asking the question raised by Prior's impressive monument in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey: in what sense may a so-called minor poet have made a major contribution to literature? Matthew Prior's contribution to British literature was a major one in at least four senses.

First, Prior produced a respectable body of literary work, in prose...

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Nicolas H. Nelson (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

"Dramatic Texture and Philosophical Debate in Prior's Dialogues of the Dead," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 427-41.

[In this essay Nelson supplies an overview of what he considers Prior's unique contributions to the "dialogues of (or with) the dead" literary form.]

Since ancient times, the dialogue has proven itself one of the most versatile of all the forms of literature. One offshoot of this form, the dialogue of the dead, has had, however, a much less fertile literary history.1 The three most eminent writers of this more restricted form are probably Lucian, Fontenelle, and Fenelon, but there is...

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Arthur S. Williams (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

"Making 'Intrest and freedom agree': Matthew Prior and the Ethics of Funeral Elegy," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 431-45.

[In the following essay the critic suggests that Prior's personal and professional values and beliefs made him reluctant to write an elegy on the death of Queen Mary in 1694.]

Queen Mary's death in December 1694 called forth the British muse. While the likes of Dennis, Walsh, Stepney, Congreve, and Steele rose—or sank—to the literary occasion, the diplomat and poet Matthew Prior remained conspicuously silent for more than two months after Mary's funeral. As the leading English poet in public life...

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Nicolas H. Nelson (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The English Horace in Defense of Literature: Matthew Prior's Early Satires," in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 19-37.

[In the following essay, Nelson traces the development of Prior's satires, which began as expressions of personal invective and evolved into more considered satiric commentary on human types rather than specific individuals and often included elements of self-deprecation.]

By the early eighteenth century, Matthew Prior had already acquired the title of the "English Horace" because of his evident attraction to the great Latin poet of antiquity and occasional imitation of his work (Goad 90).1...

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Linda E. Merians (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Matthew Prior's Correspondence," in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 304, 1992, pp. 932-33.

[In the following essay, Merians contends that Prior deliberately adopted a style of letter-writing incorporating metaphor and persona. She also explores possible personal, professional, and political reasons for Prior's deliberate adoption of this mode of correspondence.]

The purpose of my paper is to demonstrate how Matthew Prior used his public and private correspondence to become the last English poet-courtier who successfully promoted and maintained himself by linking his poetry and his political friendships. Past commentators on Prior's letters...

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H. Bunker Wright and Deborah Kempf Wright (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "An Autobiographical Ballad by Matthew Prior," in The British Library Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, Autumn, 1992, pp. 163-70.

[In the following essay, Wright and Wright describe and discuss a previously unpublished ballad by Prior.]

In the most recent edition of Prior's works, the editors asserted their confidence that, while Prior was a parliamentary prisoner, he composed a poem reflecting some of the circumstances of his confinement and his first acquaintance with Elizabeth Cox, the mistress of his later years.1 However, the only vestige of such a poem known to the editors was a set of nine untitled stanzas that Joseph Moser had contributed to The...

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Nicolas H. Nelson (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Narrative Transformations: Prior's Art of the Tale," in Studies in Philology, Vol. XC, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 442-61.

[In the following essay, Nelson examines four of Prior's verse tales, comparing them to their sources, and explains how their adaptations benefitted from Prior's "refinements in narrator, theme, and characterization."]

In 1968 Bertrand Bronson published an imaginative dialogue between Matthew Prior and Samuel Johnson called "On Choosing Fit Subjects for Verse; or, Who Now Reads Prior?"1 In their discussion Prior blames Johnson for his low current reputation as a writer, suggesting that it has never recovered from some of Johnson's...

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James L. Thorson (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Matthew Prior's 'An Epitaph'," in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 84-9.

[In the following essay, Thorson offers a close analysis of "An Epitaph."]

Stet quicunque volet potens
Aulae culmine lubrico, &c.

[The epigraph: "Let who will stand firm upon the slippery pinnacle of princely power." Seneca, Thyestes 391-92.]

Interr'd beneath this Marble Stone,
Lie Saunt'ring Jack, and Idle Joan.
While rolling Threescore Years and One
Did round this Globe their Courses run;
If Human Things went Ill or Well;

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Faith Gildenhuys (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Convention and Consciousness in Prior's Love Lyrics," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 35, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 437-55.

[In the following essay, Gildenhuys examines the function of consciousness in Prior's love poetry.]

Critics have always had a difficult time "placing" Matthew Prior's achievement, but, in general, they have chosen to see him as the tail end of the seventeenth-century tradition of love poetry. In his famous essay, "The Metaphysical Poets," T. S. Eliot observes that "'courtly' poetry is derivative from Jonson, who borrowed liberally from the Latin; it expires in the next century with the sentiment and witticism of Prior." In...

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Matthew M. Davis (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "'The Most Fatal of All Faults': Samuel Johnson on Prior's Solomon and the Need for Variety," in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 33, No. 4, Fall, 1997, pp. 422-37.

[In the following essay, Davis examines the negative aspects of Samuel Johnson 's The Life of Prior, in particular focusing on Johnson's assessment that much of Prior's work is tedious. Although the piece focuses on Johnson, it provides insightful analyses of his views on Prior's works.]

As literary critics we are always tempted to blur the categories of instruction and pleasure, to conclude that a work of literature is aesthetically excellent simply because we find it...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Godshalk, William Leigh. "Prior's Copy of Spenser's 'Works' 1679." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 61, No. 1 (January-March, 1967): 52-5.

Examines the marginalia and underlinings in Prior's volume of Spenser's Works.

Wright, H. Bunker. "Ideal Copy and Authoritative Text: The Problem of Prior's Poems on Several Occasions (1718)." Modern Philology XLIX, No. 4 (May, 1952): 234-41.

Discusses the findings of an exhaustive comparison of different copies of Poems on Several Occasions and explains why most are imperfect.

Wright, H. Bunker and P. J. Croft....

(The entire section is 687 words.)