Many of the poems of Matthew Prior are in the pastoral mode: the poet adopts the age-old pretense of being a shepherd who sings, with rustic honesty, of the fortunes and misfortunes of his love. The woman appears as reluctant shepherdess in the pastoral convention, and the poet as a lovesick swain. Such poems as “Love and Friendship: A Pastoral” invoke a vocabulary familiar to early eighteenth century poetry of this kind. The poem, like others by Prior and his contemporaries, begins with a description of the natural setting, the fields and skies of the rural landscape. A mood is the object of the description, and night is chosen as the fit time to discourse on love and hope. A great part of the poem is devoted to the “charms” of the lady—the rest to their effect on the imagination of the swain. Other minor poems, like “To a Lady,” attempt to reinvigorate the ancient poetic metaphor of love as war. The woman is the “victor” and the lover is the “slave.” The poem is, of course, an invitation to love; it finds its central expression when it describes the woman who “triumphs, when She seems to yield.”
The early poems of Prior have a large concentration of this courtly and pastoral type of art. “Celia to Damon” brings out once more the theme of love as a hopeless war, in which the lover is perpetually doomed to servitude and defeat. He describes the “Excess and Fury” of his love, and the beauty that confounds it. The tone of the poem, faithful to its models of hopeless and adoring passion, is intentionally pathetic. The great contrast the poem strives for is that between the humility of the lover and the “raging Love” and “swelling Seas of Rapture” in his soul. The lover assumes the familiar stance of the half-exalted and half-mad figure of romance. In response to worldly wisdom Prior’s “Imitation of Anacreon” states “Love shall be my endless Theme”—and he invites the critics and all other in the community of the sane and responsible to mind their own business while he goes happily to his fate.
Prior did not confine himself to such poetry, which is often imitative. His “An English Ballad” is both heroic and satirical; perhaps its most obvious theme is that of witty skepticism:
If Namur be compar’d to Troy;Then Britain’s Boys excell’d theGreeks:Their Siege did ten long Years employ:We’ve done our Bus’ness in tenWeeks.
The great political and military struggles between England and France, Greece and Troy, are set in the context of parody, a mode which expresses the feeling of the poet that these events are not altogether praiseworthy or even meaningful. The poem is in praise, ostensibly, of William of Orange, but the poem balances “Death, Pikes, Rocks, Arms, Bricks, and Fire” against the Lilliputian moral stature of the combatants. William, of course, comes off much better than his great rival, Louis XIV, but neither comes off very well in terms of the great idea of civilization which the poem raises. If Prior was a parodist of things political, he also was a parodist of matters amatory. Some of his better-known poems satirize the whole institution of love poetry and the courtly conventions to which it subscribed. “An English Padlock” and “Hans Carvel” are both intentionally indecent in that they express a thoroughly Augustan attitude toward romantic love. The first of these is not about pastoral lovers but about a jealous husband. The best way to handle a woman, Prior suggests in this poem, is not to write sonnets, nor is it to declare in limitless hyperbole the nature of one’s passion. It is rather to allow her to see the world in all its false beauty, and to sicken of the truth.
“Paulo Purganti” is another of the poems which attacks romance and puts disillusioned objectivity in its place. The importance of the piece is its explicit...
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