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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 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 inhuman, 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 not, 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 awkwardly." The messenger, in whose custody he was to be placed, was then called, and very decently asked by Coningsby, "if his house was secured 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 custody, which he had made less tedious by writing his "Alma." He was, however, soon after discharged.
He had now his liberty, but he had nothing else. Whatever the profit of his employments might have been, 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 generally 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 is said, withheld the money from him lest he should squander it. The price of the volume was 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 of 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 head was my own."
Of any occurrences in his remaining life I have found no account. In a 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, 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 left five hundred pounds, is engraven this epitaph:
Sui Temporis Historiam meditanti,
Paulatim obrepens Febris
Operi simul & Vitæ filum abrupit,
II. S. E.
Regi GULIELMO Reginæque MARLE
Qui anno 1697 Pacem RYSWICKI confecerunt,
Qui apud Gallos annis proximis Legationem Obierunt; eodem ctiam anno 1697 in Hibernia SECRETARIUS;
Necnon in utroque Honorabili consessu
Qui anno 1700 ordinandis Commercii negotiis
Felicissimæ memoriæ Reginâ
De Pace stabilienda,
(Pace etiamnum durante
Diuque ut boni jam omnes sperant duratura) Cum summa potestate Legatus; MATTHEUS PRIOR, Armiger:
Hos omnes, quibus cumulatus est, Titulos Humanitatis, Ingenii, Eruditonis laude Superavit;
Cui enim nascenti faciles arriserant Musæ, Hunc Puerum Schola hic Regia perpolivit; Juvenem in Collegio S'ti Johannis Cantabrigia optimis Scientiis instruxit; Virum denique auxit; & perfecit Multa cum viris Principibus consuetudo; Ita natus, ita institutus,
A Vatum Choro avelli nunquam potuit, Sed solebat sæpe rerum Civilium gravitatem Amoniorum Literarum Studiis condire: Et cum omne adeo Poetices genus Haud infeliciter tentaret,
Tum in Fabellis concinne lepideque texendis Mirus Artifex
Neminem habuit parem.
Hæc liberalis animi oblectamenta,
Quam nullo Illi labore constiterint,
Sed omnia ultro effluere,
Et quasi jugi è fonté affatim exuberâre,
An in Convictu Comes Jucundior.
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 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."
In a gay French company, where every one sang 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,
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,
In that celestial colloquy sublime,
Dazzled and spent, sunk down, and sought repair."
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