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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 im
patience, the return of Mr. Prio!, 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 inust give a different turn to our parliament and our people, ac“cording 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 werenct punctually made.
On the first of August, 1714, ensued the downfall 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 Here 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 asking questions sometimes vague, some-, times 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 be bad ever come before a legal judicature, he should have contradicted or explained away. The oath was admin nistered by Boscawen, a Middlesex justice, who at last was going to write his attestation on the wrong side of the paper.
They were very industrious to find some charge against Oxford ; and asked Prior, with great earnestness, who was present when the preliminary articles
X x 2
were talked of or signed at his house? He told them, that either the earl of Oxford or the duke of Shrewsbury was absent, but he could not remember which ; an answer which perplexed them, because it supplied no accusation against either. “ Could any thing be more absurd,” says he, “ or more in
human, than to propose to me a question, by the answering of which I .“ might, according to them, prove myself a traitor? And notwithstanding “their solemn promise, that nothing which I could say should hurt myself, “I had no reason to trust them: for they violated that promise about five " hours after. However, I owned I was there present. Whether this was
wisely done or no, I leave to my friends to determine.”
When he had signed the paper, he was told by Walpole, that the committee were not satisfied with his behaviour, nor could give such an account of it to the Commons as might merit favour; and that they now thought a stricter confinement necessary than to his own house. ! Here,” says he, “ Boscawen played the moralist, and Coningsby the christian, but both very Ļaukwardly.” The messenger, in whose custody he was to be placed, was then called, and very decently asked by Coningsby,." if his house was secur" ed by bars and bolts ?” The messenger answered, “ No," with astonishment. At which Coningsby very angrily said, “Sir, you must secure this
prisoner; it is for the safety of the nation : if he escape, you shall answer for it."
They had already printed their report; and in this examination were endeavouring to find proofs.
He continued thus confined for some time, and Mr. Walpole (June 10, 1715) moved for an impeachment against him. What made him so acrimonious does not appear: he was by nature no thirster for blood. Prior was a week after committed to close custody, with orders that “no person should - be admitted to see him without leave from the Speaker."
When, two years after, an Act of Grace was passed, he was excepted; and continued still in c:stody, which he had, made less tedious by writing his Aima. He was, however, soon after discharged.
He bad now his liberty, but he had nothing else, Whatever the profit of his employments might have beun, he had always spent it, and at the age of fifty-three was with all his abilities, in danger of penury, having yet no solid revenue but from the fellowship of his college, which, when in his exaltation he was censured for retaining it, he said, he could live upon at last.
Being however genera!ly known and esteemed, he was encouraged to add other poems to those which he had printed, and to publish them by subscription. The expedient succeeded by the industry of many friends, who circulated the proposals *, and the care of some, who, it it said, withheld the money from him lest he should squander it. The price of the volume was
Swift obrained mary Sub'eriptions for him in Ireland, E.
two guineas; the whole collection was four thousand; to which lord Harley, the son of the earl of Oxford, to whom he had invariably adhered, added an equal sum for the purchase of Down-hall, which Prior was to enjoy during life, and Harley after his decease.
He had now, what wits and philosophers have often wished, the power passing the day in contemplative tranquillity. But it seems that busy men seldom live long in a state of quiet. It is not unlikely that his health declined. He complains of deafness; “ for,” says he, “ I took little care " of my ears while I was not sure if my
was my own.” Of any occurrences in his remaining life I have found no account. letter to Swift, “ I have,” says he, “ treated lady Harriot at Cambridge, " (a Fellow of a College treat!) and spoke verses to her in a gown and cap! "What, the plenipotentiary, so far concerned in the damned peace at " Utrecht! the man that makes up half the volume of terse prose, that "makes up the report of the committee, speaking verses! Sic est homo sum. ”
He died at Wimpole, a seat of the earl of Oxford, on the eighteenth of September 1721, and was buried in Westminster; where on a monument, for which, as the “ last piece of human vanity," he lest five hundred pounds, is engraven this epitaph :
Sui Temporis Historiam meditanti,
Paulatim obrepens Febris
H. S. E.
Hagæ anno 1690 celebrata,
Ad LUDOVICUM XIV. Galliæ Regem
Missus anno 1711
(Pace etiamnum durante
Cum summa potestate Legatus.
Juvenem in Coilegio S'ti Johannis
Virum denique auxit! & perfecit
Ita natus, ita institutus,
Haud infeliciter tentaret,
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 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 intelligence. One of his answers to a boastful French man 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 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 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,
Pannissons la Melancholie. Tradition represents him as willing to descend from the dignity of the poet and stateman to the low delights of mean company. His Chloe probably was sometimes ideal: but the woman with whom he cohabited was a despicable drab f 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 fee Gent. Mag. vol. LVII. p. 1039.]