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H. S. E.
In Congressione Federatorum
Hagæ, anno 1690, celebrata,
Missus anno 1711
(Pace etiamnum durante
Cum summa potestate Legatus;
Juvenem in Collegio Siti Johannis
Virum denique auxit; & perfecit
Ita natus, ita institutus,
Haud infeliciter tentaret,
Hæc liberalis animi oblectamenta,
Quam nullo Illi labore constiterint,
Aptè, variè, copiosèque alluderet,
Ita suos tandem dubios reliquit,
Of Prior, eminent as he was, both by his abilities and station, very few memorials have been left by his contemporaries; the account therefore must now be destitute of his private character and familiar practices. He lived at a time when the
rage of party detected all which it was any man's interest to hide; and, as little ill is heard of Prior, it is certain that not much was known. He was not afraid of provoking censure; for, when he forsook the whigs, under whose patronage he first entered the world, he became a tory so ardent and determinate, that he did not willingly consort with men of different opinions. He was one of the sixteen tories who met weekly, and agreed to address each other by the title of brother; and seems to have adhered, not only by concurrence of political designs, but by peculiar affection, to the Earl of Oxford and his family. With how much confidence he was trusted has been already told.
He was, however, in Pope's opinion, fit only to make verses, and less qualified for business than Addison himself. This was surely said without consideration. Addison, exalted to a high place, was forced into degradation by the sense of his own incapacity; Prior, who was employed by men very capable of estimating his value, having been secretary to one embassy, had, when great abilities were again wanted, the same office another time; and was, after so much experience of his knowledge and dexterity, at last sent to transact a negotiation in the highest degree arduous and important, for which he was qualified, among other requisites, in the opinion of Bolingbrokē, by his influence upon the French minister, and by skill in questions of commerce above other men.
Of his behaviour in the lighter parts of life, it is too late to much intelligence. One of his answers to a boastful Frenchman has been related; and to an impertinent one he made another equally proper. During his embassy, he sat at the opera by a man, who, in his rapture, accompanied with his own voice the principal singer. "Prior fell to railing at the performer with all the terms of reproach that he could collect, till the Frenchman, ceasing from his song, began to expostulate with him for his harsh censure of a man who was confessedly the ornament of the stage. “I know all that,” says the ambassador, “mais il chante si haut, que je ne scaurois vous entendre.”
a little song or stanza, of which the burden was, “Bannissons la Melancholie:" when it came to his turn to sing, after the performance of a young lady that sat next him, he produced these extemporary lines:
Mais cette voix, et ces beaux yeux,
In a gay
Bannissons la Melancholie.
Tradition represents him as willing to descend from the dignity of the poet and statesman to the low delights of mean company. His Chloe probably was sometimes ideal; but the woman with whom he cohabited was a despicable drab of the lowest species. One of his wenches, perhaps Chloe, while he was absent from his house, stole his plate, and ran away; as was related by a woman who had been his servant. Of this propensity, to sordid converse I have seen an account so seriously ridiculous, that it seems to deserve insertion.
"I have been assured that Prior, after having spent the evening with Oxford, Bolingbroke, Pope, and Swift, would go and smoke a pipe, and drink a bottle of ale, with a common soldier and his wife, in Long Acre, before he went to bed; not from any remains of the lowness of his original, as one said, but, I suppose, that his faculties,
Strain'd to the height,
Dazzled and spent, sunk down, and sought repair."
speculatists, who strain their faculties to find in a mine what lies upon the surface.
His opinions, so far as the means of judging are left us, seem to have been right; but his life was, it seems, irregular, negligent, and sensual.
PRIOR has written with great variety; and his variety has made him popular. He has tried all styles, from the grotesque to the solemn, and has not so failed in any as to incur derision or disgrace.
His works may be distinctly considered, as comprising Tales, Love-verses, Occasional Poems, "Alma" and "Solomon."
His Tales have obtained general approbation, being written with great familiarity and great sprightliness; the language is easy, but seldom gross, and the numbers smooth, without appearance of care. Of these Tales there are only four. "The Ladle;" which is introduced by a preface, neither necessary nor pleasing, neither grave nor merry. "Paulo Purganti;" which has likewise a preface, but of more value than the Tale. "Hans Carvel," not over decent; and "Protogenes and Apelles," an old story, mingled, by an affectation not disagreeable, with modern images. "The Young Gentleman in Love" has hardly a just claim to the title of a Tale. I know not whether he be the original author of any Tale which he has given us. The adventure of "Hans Carvel" has passed through many successions of merry wits; for it is to be found in Ariosto's "Satires," and is perhaps yet older. But the merit of such stories is the art of telling them.
In his amorous effusions he is less happy; for they are not dictated by nature or by passion, and have neither gallantry nor tenderness. They have the coldness of Cowley, without his wit, the dull exercises of a skilful versifier, resolved at all adventures to write something about Chloe, and trying to be amorous by dint of study. His fictions therefore are mythological. Venus, after the example of the Greek Epigram, asks when she was seen naked and bathing. Then Cupid is mistaken; then Cupid is disarmed; then he loses his darts to Ganymede; then Jupiter sends him a summons by Mercury. Then Chloe goes a hunting, with an ivory quiver graceful at her side; Diana mistakes her for one of her nymphs, and Cupid laughs at the blunder. All this is surely despicable; and even when he
tries to act the lover, without the help of gods or goddesses, his thoughts are unaffecting or remote. He talks not "like a man of this world."
The greatest of all his amorous essays is "Henry and Emma; a dull and tedious dialogue, which excites neither esteem for the man, nor tenderness for the woman. 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.
His Occasional Poems necessarily lost part of their value, as their occasions, being less remembered, raised less emotion. Some of them, however, are preserved by their inherent excellence. The burlesque of Boileau's Ode on Namur has, in some parts, such airiness and levity as will always procure it readers, even among those who cannot compare it with the original. The epistle to Boileau is not so happy. The poems to the King are now perused only by young students, who read merely that they may learn to write; and of the "Carmen Seculare,' "I cannot but suspect that I might praise or censure it by caprice, without danger of detection; for who can be supposed to have laboured through it? Yet the time has been when this neglected work was so popular, that it was translated into Latin by no common master.
His poem on the battle of Ramillies is necessarily tedious by the form of the stanza: an uniform mass of ten lines thirtyfive times repeated, inconsequential and slightly connected, must weary both the ear and the understanding. His imitation of Spenser, which consists principally in I ween and I weet, without exclusion of later modes of speech, makes his poem neither ancient nor modern. His mention of Mars and Bellona, and his comparison of Marlborough to the eagle that bears the thunder of Jupiter, are all puerile and unaffecting; and yet more despicable is the long tale told by Lewis in his despair, of Brute and Troynovante, and the teeth of Cadmus, with his similies of the raven and eagle, and wolf and lion. By the help of such easy fictions, and vulgar topics, without acquaintance with life, and without knowledge of art or nature, a poem of any length, cold and lifeless like this, may be easily written on any subject.
In his Epilogues to Phædra and to Lucius he is very