Page images

forced into motion contrary to their tendency, pass more and more slowly through every successive interval of space.

Unhappily this pernicious failure is that which an authour is least able to discover. We are seldom tiresome to ourselves; and the act of composition fills and delights the mind with changes of language and succession of images; every couplet when produced is new, and no-. velty 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 And even if he should controul his desire of immediate renown, and keep his work nine years unpublished, he will be still the authour, and still in danger of deceiving himself: and if he consults his friends, he will probably find men who have more kindness than judgment, or more 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 thought, 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 among the French epigrammatists,

and have been informed that he poached for prey among obscure authours. The Chief and the 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.
Quidam sacrificus furem comitatus euntem

Hnc ubi dat sontes carnificina neci,
Ne sis mæstus, ait; summi conviva Tonantis

Jam cum cælitibus (si modo credis) eris.
llle gemens, si vera mibi solatia præbes,

Hospes apud superog sis meus oro, refert.
Sacrificus contra; mihi non convivia fas est

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 disproportion of his rhymes, which have not always sufficient consonance, and from the admission of broken lines into his Solomon; but perhaps he thought, like Cowley, that hemistichs ought to be admitted into heroick poetry.*

He had apparently such rectitude of judgment as secured him from every thing that approached to the ridiculous or absurd; but as laws operate in civil agency not to the excitement of virtue, but the repression of wickedness, so judgment in the operations of intellect can hinder faults, but not produce excellence. Prior is never low, nor very often sublime. It is said by Longinus of Euripides, that he forces himself sometimes into grandeur by

• The same thought is found in one of Owen's Epigrams, Lib. i. Epig. 193, and in Poggii facchie. J. B.

violence of effort, as the lion kindles his fury by the lashes of his own tail. Whatever Prior obtains above mediocrity seems the effort of struggle and of toil. He has many vigorous but few happy lines; he has every thing by purchase, and nothing by gift; he had no nightly visitations of the Muse, no infusions of sentiment or felicities of fancy.

His diction, however, is more his own than that of any among the successors of Dryden; he borrows no lucky turns, or commodious modes of language, from his predecessors. His phrases are original, but they are sometimes harsh; as he inherited no elegances, none has he bequeathed. His expression has every mark of laborious study; the line seldom seems to have been formed at once; the words did not come till they were called, and were then put by constraint into their places, where they do their duty, but do it sullenly. In his greater compositions there may be found more rigid stateliness than graceful dignity.

Of versification he was not negligent: what he received from Dryden he did not lose; neither did he increase the difficulty of writing by unnecessary severity, but uses Triplets and Alexandrines without scruple. In his preface to Solomon he proposes some improvements, by extending the sense from one couplet to another, with variety of pauses. This he has attempted, but without success; his interrupted lines are unpleasing, and his sense as less distinct is less striking.

He has altered the Stanza of Spenser, as a house is altered by building another in its place of a different form. With how little resemblance he has formed his new Stanza to that of his master, these specimens will shew :


She flying fast from Heaven's hated face,
And from the world that her discover'd wide,
Fled to the wasteful wilderness apace,
From living eyes her open shame to hide,

And lurk'd in rocks and caves long unespy'd.
But that fair crew of knights, and Una fair,
Did in that castle afterwards abide,
To rest themselves, and weary powers repair,
Where store they found of all, that dainty was and rare.

• To the close rock the frighted raven flies,

Soon as the rising eagle cuts the air:
The sbaggy wolf unseen and trembling lies,
When the hoarse roar proclaims the lion near.
Ill-starr'd did we our forts and lines forsake,
To dare our British foes to open fight: .
Our conquest we by stratagem should make;
Our triumph had been founded in our flight.
'Tis ours, by craft and by surprise to gain :
'Tis theirs, to meet in arms, and battle in the plain.

By this new structure of his lines he has avoided diffi. culties; nor am I sure that he has lost any of the power of pleasing ; but he no longer imitates Spenser.

Some of his poems are written without regularity of measure; for, when he commenced poet, we had not recovered from our Pindarick infatuation; but he probably lived to be convinced, that the essence of verse is order and consonance.

His numbers are such as mere diligence may attain; they seldom offend the ear, and seldom sooth it; they commonly want airiness, lightness and facility; what is smooth, is not soft. His verses always roll, but they seldom flow.

A survey of the life and writings of Prior may exemplify a sentence which he doubtless understood well, when he read Horace at his uncle's; “the vessel long retains the scent which it first receives.” In his private relaxation he revived the tavern, and in his amorous pedantry he exhibited the college. But on higher occasions and nobler subjects, when habit was overpowered by the necessity of reflection, he wanted not wisdom as a statesman, nor elegance as a poet.

• Prior was not the first inventor of this stanza; for excepting the Alexandrine close, it is to be found in Churchyard's Worthies of Wales. See his Introduction for Brecknockshire. J. B.


William CongrEVE descended from a family in Staffordshire, of so great antiquity that it claims a place among the few that extend their line beyond the Norman Conquest; and was the son of William Congreve, second son of Richard Congreve of Congreve and Stratton. He visited, once at least, the residence of his ancestors; and, I believe, more places than one are still shewn, in groves and gardens, where he is related to have written his Old Bachelor.

Neither the time nor place of his birth are certainly known: if the inscription upon his monument be true, he was born in 1672.* For the place; it was said by himself, that he owed his nativity to England, and by every body else that he was born in Ireland. Southern mentioned him with sharp censure, as a man that meanly disowned his native country. The biographers assign his nativity to Bardsa, near Leeds in Yorkshire, from the account given by himself, as they suppose, to Jacob.

To doubt whether a man of eminence has told the truth about his own birth, is, in appearance, to be very deficient in candour ; yet nobody can live long without knowing that falsehoods of convenience or vanity, falsehoods from which no evil immediately visible ensues, except the general degradation of human testimony, are very lightly uttered, and once uttered are sullenly supported. Boileau, who desired to be thought a rigorous and steady moralist, having told a petty lie to Lewis XIV. continued it afterwards by false dates; thinking himself obliged in honour, says his admirer, to maintain what, when he said it, was so well received.

• Mr. Malone has ascertained both the place and time of his birth by the register of Bardsey, which is as follows : “ William, the sonne of Mr. William Congrere of Bardsey Grange, was baptized Feb. 10th, 1669." See Malone's Dryden, vol. i. p. 225. J. B.

« PreviousContinue »