« PreviousContinue »
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 Bolingbroke, 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 get much in telligence. One of his answers to a boastful Frenchman has been related, and to an impertinent 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 French man çeasing 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 that," says the ambassador, " mais il chante si haut, que je ne scaurois vous entendre.”
In a gay French company, where every one sung a little song or stanza, of which the burden was, “ Bannisons 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 celle voix, et ces beaux yeux,
Tradition represents him as willing to descend from the dignity of the poet and stateman to the low delights of mean company. His Chloe probabiy was sometimes ideal: but the woman with whom he cohabited was a despicable drab t 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 re
Spence;, [and see Gent, Mag. yol. LVII. p. 1039.)
lated by a woman who had been his servant. Of this propensity to sordid converse I have seen an account só seriously ridiculous, that it seems to deserve insertion :
“ I have been assured that Prior, after having spent the evening with Ox* ford, Bolingbroke, Pope, and Swift, would go and smoke a pipe, and " drink a bottle of ale, with a common soldier and his wife, in Lor-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,
Poor Prior, why was he so strained, and in such want of repair, after a conversation with men, not, in the opinion of the world, much wiser than himself? But such are the conceits of speculatists, who strain their facullies 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 tas 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 spriteliness; 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 por 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 Pretogenes and Apelles, an old story, mingled, by an affectation not disa greeable, with modern images. The Young Gentleman in Love has hardly a just ciaiin 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 factions 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 dạrts to Ganymede; then Yupiter 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 laugbs at the blunder. All this is surely despicable ; and even when he tries to act the lovery without the help of gods and 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 to dious 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 nécessarily 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 Teaders, 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 you g 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, thirty-five times repeated, inconsequential and slightly connected, must weary both the ear and the understanding. His imitation of Spencer, which consists principally in 1 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 Troynovant, and the teeth of Cadmus, with his si. milies of the raven and eagle, and wolf and lion. By the help of such easy fictions, and vulgar topicks, without acquaintance with life, and without knowiedge 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 happily facetious; but in the Prologue before the Qucen, the pedant has found his way, with Minerya, Perseus, and Andromeda. Vol. I.
His epigrams and lighter pieces are, like those of others, sometimes elzgant, sometimes trifting, and sometimes dull; among the best are the Camelion and the epitaph on John and Joan.
Scarcely any one of our poets has writter. so much and translated so little: the version of Callimachus is sufficiently licentious ; the paraphrase on St. Paul's Exhortation to Charity is eminently beautiful.
Alma is written in professed imitation of Hudibras, and has at least one accidental resemblance : Hudibras wants a plan, because it is left imperfect; Alma is imperfect, because it seems never to have had a plæn. Prior appears not to have proposed to himself any drift or design, but to have written the casual dictates of the present moment.
What Horacé said when he imitated Lucilius might be said of Butlet by Prior, his numbers were not smooth or neat: Prior excelled him in versitcarion ; but he was, like Horace, inventore minor; he had not Butler's efuberance of matter and variety of illustration. The spangles of wit which He could afford, he knew how to polish ; but he wanted the bullion of his inaster. Butler pours out a negligent profusion, certain of the weight, but rarcless of the stamp. Prior has comparatively licte, but with that little he makes a fine shew. Alma has many admirers, and was the only piece among Prior's works of which Pope said he should wish to be the author.
Solomon is the work to which he entrusted the protection of his name, and which he expected succeeding ages to regard with veneration: His affection was natural; it had undoubtedly been written with great labour, and who is willing to think that he has been labouring in vain? He had infused into it much knowledge and much thought'; had often polished it to ele. gance, often dignified it with splendour, and sometimes heightened it to sub. limity: he perceived in it many excellences, and did not discover that it wanted that without which all others are of small avail, the power of engaging attention and alluring curiosity.
Tediousness is the most fatal of all faults ; negligences or errors are single and local, but tediousness pervades the whole ; other faults are censured and forgotten, but the power of tediousness propagaces itself. He that is weary the first hour is more weary the second; as bodies forced into motion, contrary'to their tendency, pass more and more slowly through every successirc interval of space.
Unhappily this pernicious failure is that which an anthor is least able to discover. We are seldom tiresome to ourselves ; and the act of composition fills and delights the mind with change of language and succession of images; every couplet when produced is new, and novelty is the great source of pleasure. Perhaps no man ever thought a line superfluous when he first wrote it, or contracted his work till his ebullitions of invention had subsided. And even if he should controul his desire of immediate renown, and keeep his work nine years unpublished, he will be still the author, and still in danger of deceiving himself: and if he consults his friends, he will probably find men who have more kindness than judgement, or inore fear to offend than desire to instruct. .. The tediousness of this poem proceeds not from the uniformity of the subject, for it is sufficiently, diversified, but from the continued tenour of the narration; in which Solomon relates the successive vicissitudes of his own mind, without the intervention of any other speaker, or the mention of any other agent, unless it be Abra ; the reader is only to learn what he thoughi, and to be told that he thought wrong. The event of every experiment is foreseen, and therefore the process is not much regarded.
Yet the work is far from deserving to be neglected. He that shall peruse it will be able to mark many passages, to which he may recur for instruction or delight: many from which the poet may learn to write, and the philosopher to reason.
If Prior's poetry be generally considered, his praise will be that of correctness and industry, rather than of compass of comprehension, or activity of fancy. He never made any effort of invention : his greater pieces are only tissues of common thoughts; and his smaller, which consist of light images or single conceits, are not always his own. I have traced him amongst the French epigrammatists, and have been informed that he poached for prey among obscure authors. The Thief and Cordelier is, I suppose, generally considered as an original production ; with how much justice this Epigram may tell, which was written by Georgius Sabinus, a poet now little known or read, though once the friend of Luther and Melancthon.
De Sacerdote Furem consolante.
Huc ubi dat sontes carnificina neci,
Jam cum coelitibus (si modo credis) erisa
Hospes apud superos sis meus oro, refert.
Ducere, jejunans hac edo luce nihil.
What he has valuable he owes to his diligence and his judgment. His diligence has justly placed him amongst the most correct of the English poets; and he was one of the first that resolutely endeavoured at correctness. He never sacrifices accuracy to haste, nor indulges himself in contemptuous negligence, or impatient idleness; he has no careless lines, or entangled sentiments ; his words are nicely selected, and his thoughts fully expanded. If this part of his character suffers any abatement, it must be from the disproY y 2