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to have passed some of the next years in the quiet cultivation of literature and poetry.
The death of Queen Mary (in 1695) produced a subject for all the writers; perhaps no funeral was ever so poetically attended. Dryden, indeed, as a man discountenanced and deprived, was silent; but scarcely any other maker of verses omitted to bring his tribute of tuneful sorrow. An emulation of elegy was universal. Maria's praise was not confined to the English language, but fills a great part of the "Muse Anglicanæ."
Prior, who was both a poet and a courtier, was too diligent to miss this opportunity of respect. He wrote a long ode, which was presented to the King, by whom it was not likely to be ever read.
In two years he was secretary to another embassy, at the treaty of Ryswick (in 1697); and next year had the same office at the court of France, where he is said to have been considered with great distinction.
As he was one day surveying the apartments at Versailles, being shewn the victories of Louis, painted by Le Brun, and asked whether the King of England's palace had any such decorations: "The monuments of my master's actions,' "said he, "are to be seen every where but in his own house."
The pictures of Le Brun are not only in themselves sufficiently ostentatious, but were explained by inscriptions so arrogant, that Boileau and Racine thought it necessary to make them more simple.
He was in the following year at Loo with the King; from whom, after a long audience, he carried orders to England, and upon his arrival became under-secretary of state in the Earl of Jersey's office; a post which he did not retain long, because Jersey was removed; but he was soon made commissioner of trade.
This year (1700) produced one of his longest and most splendid compositions, the "Carmen Seculare," in which he exhausts all his powers of celebration. I mean not to accuse him of flattery: he probably thought all that he wrote, and retained as much veracity as can be properly exacted from a poet professedly encomiastic. King William supplied copious materials for either verse or prose. His whole life had been action, and none ever denied him the resplendent qualities of steady resolution and personal courage. He was really in
Prior's mind what he represents him in his verses; he considered him as a hero, and was accustomed to say that he praised others in compliance with the fashion, but that in celebrating King William he followed his inclination. To Prior gratitude would dictate praise which reason would not refuse.
Among the advantages to arise from the future years of William's reign, he mentions a Society for useful Arts, and among them
Some that with care true eloquence shall teach,
That from our writers distant realms may know
And schools profess our tongue through every land
Tickell, in his "Prospect of Peace," has the same hope of a new academy:
In happy chains our daring language bound,
Whether the similitude of those passages, which exhibit the same thought on the same occasion proceeded from accident or imitation, is not easy to determine. Tickell might have been impressed with his expectation by Swift's "Proposal for ascertaining the English Language," then lately published.
In the parliament that met in 1701 he was chosen representative of East Grinstead. Perhaps it was about this time that he changed his party; for he voted for the impeachment of those lords who had persuaded the King to the Partitiontreaty, a treaty in which he had himself been ministerially employed.
A great part of Queen Anne's reign was a time of war, in which there was little employment for negotiators, and Prior had therefore leisure to make or to polish verses. When the battle of Blenheim called forth all the versemen, Prior, among the rest, took care to shew his delight in the increasing honour of his country by an Epistle to Boileau.
He published soon afterwards a volume of poems, with the encomiastic character of his deceased patron, the Duke of Dorset; it began with the College Exercise, and ended with the "Nut-brown Maid."
The battle of Ramillies soon afterwards (in 1706) excited
him to another effort of poetry. On this occasion he had fewer or less formidable rivals; and it would be not easy to name any other composition produced by that event which is now remembered.
Every thing has its day. Through the reigns of William and Anne no prosperous event passed undignified by poetry. In the last war, when France was disgraced and overpowered in every quarter of the globe; when Spain, coming to her assistance, only shared her calamities, and the name of an Englishman was reverenced through Europe, no poet was heard amidst the general acclamation; the fame of our counsellors and heroes was intrusted to the Gazetteer.
The nation in time grew weary of the war, and the Queen grew weary of her ministers. The war was burdensome, and the ministers were insolent. Harley and his friends began to hope that they might, by driving the whigs from court and from power, gratify at once the Queen and the people. There was now a call for writers, who might convey intelligence of past abuses, and shew the waste of public money, the unreasonable conduct of the allies, the avarice of generals, the tyranny of minions, and the general danger of approaching ruin.
For this purpose a paper called "The Examiner" was periodically published, written, as it happened, by any wit of the party, and sometimes, as is said, by Mrs. Manley. Some are owned by Swift; and one, in ridicule of Garth's verses to Godolphin upon the loss of his place, was written by Prior, and answered by Addison, who appears to have known the Author either by conjecture or intelligence.
The tories, who were now in power, were in haste to end the war; and Prior, being recalled (1710) to his former employment of making treaties, was sent (July, 1711) privately to Paris with propositions of peace. He was remembered at the French court; and, returning in about a month, brought with him the Abbé Gaultier, and Mr. Mesnager, a minister from France, invested with full powers.
This transaction not being avowed, Mackay, the master of the Dover packet-boat, either zealously or officiously, seized Prior and his associates at Canterbury. It is easily supposed that they were soon released.
The negotiation was begun at Prior's house, where the Queen's ministers met Mesnager (September 20, 1711), and entered privately upon the great business. The importance
of Prior appears from the mention made of him by St. John in his letter to the Queen.
"My Lord Treasurer moved, and all my Lords were of the same opinion, that Mr. Prior should be added to those who are empowered to sign: the reason for which is, because he, having personally treated with Monsieur de Torcy, is the best witness we can produce of the sense in which the general preliminary engagements are entered into; besides which, as he is the best versed in matters of trade of all your Majesty's servants who have been trusted in this secret, if you should think fit to employ him in the future treaty of commerce, it will be of consequence that he has been a party concerned in concluding that convention which must be the rule of this treaty."
The assembly of this important night was in some degree clandestine, the design of treating not being yet openly declared, and, when the whigs returned to power, was aggravated to a charge of high treason; though, as Prior remarks in his imperfect answer to the report of the Committee of Secrecy, no treaty ever was made without private interviews and preliminary discussions.
My business is not the history of the peace, but the life of Prior. The conferences began at Utrecht on the first of January (1711-12), and the English plenipotentiaries arrived on the fifteenth. The ministers of the different potentates conferred and conferred; but the peace advanced so slowly, that speedier methods were found necessary, and Bolingbroke was sent to Paris to adjust differences with less formality: Prior either accompanied him or followed him, and, after his departure, had the appointments and authority of an ambassador, though no public character.
By some mistake of the Queen's orders, the court of France had been disgusted; and Bolingbroke says in his letter, "Dear Mat, hide the nakedness of thy country, and give the best turn thy fertile brain will furnish thee with to the blunders of thy countrymen, who are not much better politicians than the French are poets."
Soon after, the Duke of Shrewsbury went on a formal embassy to Paris. It is related by Boyer, that the intention was to have joined Prior in the commission, but that Shrewsbury refused to be associated with a man so meanly born. Prior therefore continued to act without a title till the Duke
returned next year to England, and then he assumed the style and dignity of ambassador.
But, while he continued in appearance a private man, he was treated with confidence by Lewis, who sent him with a letter to the Queen, written in favour of the Elector of Bavaria. "I shall expect," says he, "with impatience, the return of Mr. Prior, whose conduct is very agreeable to me." And while the Duke of Shrewsbury was still at Paris, Bolingbroke wrote to Prior thus: "Monsieur de Torcy has a confidence in you: make use of it, once for all, upon this occasion, and convince him thoroughly, that we must give a different turn to our parliament and our people according to their resolution at this crisis."
Prior's public dignity and splendour commenced in August, 1713, and continued till the August following; but I am afraid that, according to the usual fate of greatness, it was attended with some perplexities and mortifications. He had not all that is customarily given to ambassadors: he hints to the Queen in an imperfect poem, that he had no service of plate; and it appeared, by the debts which he contracted, that his remittances were not punctually made.
On the first of August, 1714, ensued the downfal of the tories and the degradation of Prior. He was recalled, but was not able to return, being detained by the debts which he had found it necessary to contract, and which were not discharged before March, though his old friend Montague was now at the head of the Treasury.
He returned then as soon as he could, and was welcomed on the 25th of March by a warrant, but was, however, suffered to live in his own house, under the custody of the messenger, till he was examined before a committee of the privy council, of which Mr. Walpole was chairman, and Lord Coningsby, Mr. Stanhope, and Mr. Lechmere, were the principal interrogators; who, in this examination, of which there is printed an account not unentertaining, behaved with the boisterousness of men elated by recent authority. They are represented as asking questions sometimes vague, sometimes insidious, and writing answers different from those which they received. Prior, however, seems to have been overpowered by their turbulence; for he confesses that he signed what, if he had ever come before a legal judicature, he should have contradicted or explained away. The oath was administered by