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.
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.
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.
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