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friends, epilogues to plays, tales, lovesongs, epigrams, riddles, and translations, illustrate, by their titles, the range of his mental travel. The treatment varies with the theme. While, as a rule, his grave and laboured poems, " Solomon," " Henry and Emma," and the odes—where earnestness of thought and feeling was essential to success — are frigidly tame and tedious, all his gayer and lighter efforts, "Alma," the lyrics, tales, and epigrams — where his brain was unfettered by the necessity of assuming a part — are brimful of thought and worldly wisdom, often bright with wit, and always marked by the presence either of humour, fancy, scholarship, or grace. Even when the subject is the most trivial, and the style most artificial, their clear idiomatic English, and easy close-knit versification make them extremely pleasant to read.
The poet's orthodoxy and even devoutness are highly edifying. Commencing with an ode on the name of the Deity, the profane leaves of the volume are intermingled with judicious care. In the lines to Dr. Sherlock, on his discourse concerning Death, that excellent divine is besought to remain on this degenerate earth a little longer: —
"O! want thy Heaven till we have learnt the
Refuse to leave thy destin'd charge too soon;
"Solomon " is as unexceptionable as the Book of Ecclesiastes on which it is founded, and oppressively didactic in its enunciations that all is vanity.
"Ungodly .Woolston," the Deist, is the subject of a side-thrust in another poem ; * and in " A! .1 L." sceptical as it is in tone, aud materialistic in tendency, all risk of serious offence to the Church is removed by the concluding reference to the immortal destiny of the soul. In theory, too, no one can be more moral than Prior. Among the blessed prospects of William III.'s reign, celebrated in the "Carmen Seculare," is the patronage which will be extended to those who —
"To morals shall recall the age, "And purge from vioious dross the sinking stage."
and, in the address to Queen Anne on her birthday, the continent is commanded to witoesa the spectacle of her who —
• "The Old Gantry."
"Gives sacred morals to a vicious age, To temples /.<• d, and manners to the stage; Bids the chaste Muse without a blush appear, And wit be that which Heaven and she may hear."
Prior was not a dramatist and could afford to throw stones at the theatre; but when he talks of the "chaste Muse" we seem to hear him laughing in .his sleeve. I Tales more obscene in motive than his "Dove," " Hans Carvel," and " Paulo Purganti," were never written or printed out of Holywell Street. A large proportion of his fugitive verses and epigrams is devoted to the theme of woman's frailty, especially the infidelity of wives. One of his songs conveys a direct invitation to adultery in as plain words as could well be used. In another poem, a "well-bred wife" is represented as retorting upon some harmless sarcasm of her husband with a repartee too intolerably gross to admit of repetition. Of love in the sense of being "scorched with hot desire," or consumed with " a lingering fever's wasting pain," Prior's conceptions are definite enough. That in any other point of view, "Love is a jest; its vows are wind" — which he proposes as "a posy for a wedding ring " — that the marriage tie is a condition demanded by social laws as a preliminary sanction (or the satisfaction of desire, but that when it becomes irksome, as it is sure soon to do, it may be practically disregarded — such appears to be the gist of his real belief upon the subject which chiefly interests him. That his Chloe was no donna di mente, but a kept mistress we are not left to ascertain from the information of his contemporaries.* The lack of moral refinement which allows him to disclose her real character f contrasts curiously with the intellectual refinement of much of the language addressed to her. His own faithlessness to her and every other mistress in turn, he takes no pains to conceal, and is never more happily inspired than by the theme. If she now and then triumphed over a rival, and was duly flattered by a poem inscribed to her on the occasion,^ she was soon displaced, and a poem scarcely less pretty recording her fall, was dedicated to her rival Lisetta. This and other infidelities, real or boasted having aroused Chloe's jealousy,
he appeased her in the celebrated verses which have charmed hundreds as they charmed Thackeray* by their grace and "modern air" of expression. A stanza or two will recall them to the reader's memory: —
"To be Text at a trifle or two that I writ,
Tour judgment at once, and my passion
you wrong: Ton take that for (act, which will scarce be
Oil's life! must one swear to the truth of a song?
"The God of us Verse-men (you know, child),
How after his journeys he sets up his rest:
If at morning o'er Earth 'tis his fancy to run.
At night he declines on his Thetis's breast.
•' So when I am wearied with wandering all day, To tbee, my delight, in the evening I come; No matter what beauties I saw in my way: They were but my visits, but thou art my home.
"Then finish, dear Chloe, this pastoral war,
And let us, like Horace and Lydia agree; For thou art a girl as much brighter than her, As he was a poet sublimer than me."
Was logic even more inconsequent, or flattery more irresistible?
Scarcely less gracefully insincere are the lines addressed to a lady who left him in the midst of an argument: —
•' In the dispute whate'er I said
My heart was by my tongue belied; And in my looks you might have read How much I argued on your side.
"You far from danger as from fear
Might have sustained an open fight;
"Alas! not hoping to subdue,
I only to the fight aspir'd, _
"Deeper to wound she shuns the fight;
She drops her arms to gain the field;
•• So when the Parthian turn'd his steed.
This airy touch and arch assumption of sentiment display Prior in his best mood. Of genuine sentiment he has but little; of
• " English Humorists," .Leat. IV.
real feeling still less. Without being absolutely heartless, he sometimes shows an insensibility truly amazing. In the middle of a Hudibrastic tale, called "The Two Mice," inscribed to his secretary on the subject of their several fortunes, he thrusts in an apostrophe to the spirit of his mother in heaven I Another Hudibrastic poem — hardly less coarse than Chaucer's " Wife of Bath," from which it is imitated — wherein a sparrow tries to comfort a bereaved turtle-dove by recounting its own connubial experiences, he entitles " An Elegiac Tale, occasioned by the Death of Prince George, 1708." Without his own assurance for the fact it would have been incredible that a Court poet could address such consolation to a widowed queen. The bad taste —to use the mildest term of reprobation — whirh actuated him in this instance is exhibited in a less painful but very offensive form, in his " Henry and Emma " wherein the tender, simple pathos of "the Notbroune Mayde" is barbarously travestied into cold, rhetorical sentiment, and its gracious ballad-music formalized into tensyllabled couplets and drawling Alexandrines.
Prior's philosophy of life is not very abstruse, Under the guidance of a "lovely moralist," we may now and then ponder on the transience of beauty and joy; * but /'///'/' vivrt, and by means of such "working hypotheses" as party politics and "public employments" provide, and such solaces as "the mistress, the friend, and the bottle," life, although an illusion, need not be an unpleasant one. "The only wretched are the wise ;" t and the illusion must be kept up. The night cometh when no man can work — or play; therefore, carpe d'tem.% Whether as a diplomatist on foreign service, a placeman in town, or a man of lettered leisure in the country, his life, if we may trust his own chronicles of it, was uniformly easy and sensual. At the Hague he tells us how he he contrived —
"With labour assiduous due pleasure to mix, And in one day atone for the business of six, In a little Dutch chaise on a Saturday night. On my left hand my Horace, a nymph on my right"
"This night and the next shall be hers, shall be
mine, To good or ill fortune the third we resign. §
In town, as he assures his Chloe, her charms seduce him from —
v "Whate'er the world thinks wise or grave,
He seems to have rewarded himself for the heroic self-denial here paraded by sundry festival days with Bolingbroke and kindred spirits at " Erie Robert's table,"t or his own " palace in Duke Street," t where —
"Alone with his friends, lord! how merry was heT" §
His country life, as described in an epistle to one of his patrons, || was not a whit more Spartan. His activity in the pursuit of pleasure and his apprehension of the limits beyond which it became open to ridicule, seem to have been equally keen. For the fashionable round of frivolity he professes to entertain the profoundest contempt. This "mingled mass " of London society, even when youth and health are at flood-tide, is nothing but —
"A dull farce, an empty show,
While for the miserable slaves of the world who have outgrown their attractions, he has no shafts of satire too galling. The woes of ladies whose mouse-skin eyebrows have been left behind with their "complexion at Calais," or purloined by the kitten, "as fees belonging to her prey; " and the yet sadder fate of those like " poor Nell, " who —
"Was painting her cheeks at the time her nose fell"
or Baron Le Cras" glass-eyed mistress, who just after his reflection on the frailty of beauty —
"Dropt the eye and broke it,"
furnish the materials for a score of epigrams.
Prior was too doughty a sportsman to spend all his shot on such poor game as the dupes of Madame Rachel's predecessors in the art of "beautifying for ever."
• "Iteanty: a Riddle."
t "Erie ltobert'8(Kobert lUrley'i) Mice."
* " Kor my own Monument."
I "To Kleptwood Shephard, Etq."
He found less unworthy prey in the chatter-boxes and qnid-nunca of the coffeehouse, the boorish country squire, or the carnal and covetous priest; * and flew at the noblest quarry when attacking Marlborough's rapacity.j or burlesquing Boileau's rhetoric.J His vein of satire is seldom unkindly, and compares favourably with the acrid rancour of Pope, or the savage malignity of Swift. For the bucolic type of mind he had a true townsman's contempt,§ and for the "people" in the abstract a genuine Tory's loathing :|l but like a good many townsmen and Tories modified his theories in practice. His geniality of temper is well reflected in "Down Hall," a narrative in ballad metre of his journey into Essex (accompanied by a country squire) in search of the villa which Lord Oxford had recently given him. How the travellers chatted en route; how at the first inn they rallied the landlady on her youthful looks and her ancient cookery; how she answered their tender enquiries after her relations and neighbours; how one of the travellers (the poet declares it was big friend) " lovingly whispered the maid;" how they lost their way with a guide who depended on his wife's information, and how the poet bantered him in revenge — this and much more is told with such a sprightly humour and bonhomie as to leave the p'easanteat impression of the writer, his comrade, and all with whom they came in contact. Occasional poems addressed to children — one, " To a Child of Quality, five years old," very daintily hn:uorous in its pretence of passion for the " bright eyes that cannot read," and regret that the writer will be —
'• past making love
gossiping epistles to friends, and extempore invitations to patrons, leave the same impression of Prior's good-natured amiability. Though a ready flatterer, he was rarely obsequious, and though raised from a humble station to be domiciled with the Cecils nt Burleigh or the Ilnrlcys at Wimpole, conld write with manly pride as his own epitaph: —
"NoMes and Heralds, by your leave,
Here lies what once was Matthew Prior;
If not too modest a suppliant, he was almost as prompt to beg for needy "Dick Shelton " and "Will Pig-rot" as for himself. Pope, Wycherley, Congreve, Southerne, Kneller, Verelst, Howard, and Vertue, among his contemporaries, all come in for a word of generous praise or friendly recognition. Upon the whole, unearnest and loose-lived as he was, Prior contrives to make his readers part on good terms with him, nor indisposed to comply with the request which he desired should be inscribed on his tomb :—
"If passing thou giv'st him a smile or a tenr, He cares not — yet prithee be kind to his fame."
In the strangely opposed characteristics of his intellectual and moral nature, in his brightness of wit and grace of expression, bis insincerity, impurity, unspirituality, callousness, and bad taste, as well as in his geniality and esprit de corp». Prior Kerns to furnish a very truthful reflection of the age which produced him. An age of splendid achievement — political, military, scientific, literary, and artistic — which numbered men of great intellect by scores, but men of great virtue by units — an age which, with such teachers as Tillotson, Baxter, and Sherlock among divines, and Butler, Yoang. and Pope among moralists, did Dot fail for lack of sound principles, but might have taken for its motto, "Video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor." An age deeply branded wish insincerity, when conspiracy and intrigue were the ordinary tools of statecraft— perfidy and corruption the common •hame of politicians — when officers and statesmen high in place and power, as Jliirlborough, Peterborough, and Russell, Goclolphin, Shrewsbury, and Bolinbroke, were at the same time servants of the reijning and of the dethroned sovereign — when Arians such as Clarke and Whiston held ecclesiastical preferment — a freethinker such as Bolingbroke was a nominal High-Churchman — an apparently independent patriot as De Foe was secretly in the pay of the Government — when great corporations like the City of London and the East India Company could offer bribes, and exalted officials like the Speaker of the House of Commons and the President of the Council could accept them — when a poet so distinguished as Pope could stoop to tricks and lies about •
the publication of his letters, a dignitary of the Church and a writer so eminent as Swift could play false to two fond women at once — when the infection of the coarser vices spread from the Court downward — when four of our kings in succession were notoriously unfaithful husbands — when drunkenness intruded itself on high festivals at the Palace*— when a Princess of Wales, to the "great satisfaction " of her attendants a-id herself, could witness such a play as " The Wanton Wife or Amorous Widow " — " not more obscene than old comedies are, and often bespoke-by the ladies "f— when the supply of such representations was so equal to the demand that Addison could affirm, "Cuckoldom is the basis of most of our modern plays "J—when the stage so far held " the mirror up to nature," that men of high breeding boasted "before women of their intrigues," and (if the novelists are to be trusted) ladies of equal breeding were in the habit of recounting in company the stories of attempts upon their virtue.§ To the prevailing frivolity of the society which enjoyed such literary food as the comedies of Dryden, Wycherley, and Congreve, and the novels of Apbra Behn and Mrs. Manlev, the " Spectator" bears ample witness. The extravagancies of dress and the arts of allurement, the inanities of the idle and the devices of the profligate, are among the tritest themes of its essays and letters. The delicacy of the workmanship only brings out more clearly the flimsiness of the material. Though they doubtless honestly intended to satirize the folly of their time, the writers seem constrained by the necessity of ministering to it. Yet to the same readers whom they amuse with elaborate triflings about "Picts" and "Starers," "Peepers " and " She-romps," the political import of patches and the strategic manipulation of fans, are addressed criticisms so just as those on Milton, such charming sketches of character as those on Sir Roger de Coverley and his country life, and such graceful fictions as " Inkle and Yarico" and "The Vision of Mirza." A society that could appreciate this, and the still more vivid ana sparkling literature which Pope and Swift provided for it, cannot be excused for want of intellectual faculty. Obtuseness in moral sense must surely be predicated of an appetite so per
* Lady Cowppr*B Diary qnoted in For*yth*§ 'Novels and Novelists of the 18th Century," p. 96. t I!'., p. 82. t ' Spectator." 1712. | Fonyth, pp. 24-27.
verse as to devour with equal zest the choicest dainties, the vapidest trash, and the foulest offal. The same explanation will extend to the tone in which, from some of the first wits downward (Steele honourably excepted) men commonly discussed the relations of sex. They "talked of love as something that burns them," and besought "the women of their heart to ease their pains; " * they engraved the name of the "reigning beauty " on drinking glasses, made of her chemise a winestrainer and of her boots a fricassee ; f and yet with this fulsome sentiment were associated such an exaltation of the sensuous, such a depreciation of the spiritual elements of love, that " if a man of any delicacy" (says Steele) "were to attend to the discourse of the young fellows in this age, he would believe that there were none but prostitutes to make the objects of passion." J Prior's strange want of feeling in consoling a widowed queen with an impure tale, may compare with the incongruity of his graver contemporary Young in preluding a solemn elegy on the death of a saint, by complimenting his patroness on her appearance as Cynthia at a recent masquerade.§ The free indulgence in personalities, extending even to the ridicule of physical infirmity, which the critics of that age allowed themselves, indicates yet more plainly the prevalent grossness of taste. No such general expression of surpisc or reprobation as a public breach of good manners is certain to provoke in our own day, appears to have followed the perpetration of these literary indecencies; and it is reasonable therefore to hold the society of the time rather than the individual responsible for the low standard of sensibility that rendered their occurrence possible. In like manner the barbarism which dictated the composition of Prior's "Henry and Emma" was akin to that which induced Dryden and Pope to modernize Chaucer, and the playwrights to employ their unhallowed hands in "improving " the tragedies of Skakespeare.
ii is pleasant to remember that Prior's redeeming qualities were not less representative than his vices and shortcomings. The geniality of temper which distinguished him — always one of our boasted virtues — seems to have specially characterized his epoch, and its development
may be plausibly ascribed to the influence of that great Revolution which had recently united the nation.* In spite of some inevitable reaction, the consciousness of co-operation in the establishment of constitutional liberty, and of satisfaction at the victories which secured it, appears to have diffused a mutual confidence among all classes to which Englishmen had long been strangers. The evidences of national good temper unanimously exhibited in the grave crises of 1696 and 10971—and the light which contemporary literature throws upon the position occupied by the squire in regard to his tenants.t and by the master and mistress in regard to their servants,§ indicate that whatever sectional jealousy and discontent may still have existed in theory, there was in practice a vast preponderance of cordial sympathy. The relations between the aristocratic and the literary class illustrated in Prior's life and writings ought not to be forgotten at a time when the House of Lords is on its trial. With all the inducements to exexclusiveness derived from pride of birth and eligibility without apprenticeship to the highest offices of State, the nobility of this period are memorable not as monopolists and nepotists, but for their eagerness to lavish preferment upon men of the humblest station who gave proof of ability. Wit, not blue blood, was then the passport to place and fortune and the claims of men of letters and artists upon their protection seem to have been recognized by the well-born and wealthy generally as foremost among the liabilities to which "noblesse oblige." This state of things was doubtless healthier for the donors than the donees; but however the Grub Street writers may have merited the censure which Macaulay passes upon the profession of authorship in the reign of Charles II., we are aware of no adequate evidence for charging the great wits of the age of Anne with anything like servility or lack of self-respect. The terms upon which Pope and Swift consorted with Bolingbroke, Oxford, and Peterborough; .VIdison and Steel with Somera and Halifax, were surely mutually honourable. But even if the direct tendency of the system of patronage was to encourage sycophancy, its indirect tendency to obliterate conventional distinctions of rank, and estab