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ATTHEW PRIOR was born on 1 July 26, 1664. His birthplace is uncertain, though evidence N seems to favour the truth of local tradition that he was a native of Wimborne Minster in East Dorset." The absence of his name from the parish registers may be accounted for by the fact that his parents were Dissenters:—
So at pure barn of loud Non-con,
In the register of St. John's College he is styled “Filius Georgii Prior generosi,” though it is probable that his father was a joiner, and that he went to the village free school founded by Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby. Possibly, as Dr. Johnson suggests, the diplomatist was a little ashamed of his birth and purposely left these details in obscurity. The matter is not of great importance and may be studied by the curious in Hutchin’s “History and Antiquities of Dorset,” ii. pp. 73,578-9; in the “Gentleman's Magazine,” 1791, p. 802; in “Longman's Magazine,” Oct. 1884; or in Mr. Dobson's summary of these articles. In the account of himself that Prior is supposed to have prepared for Jacob's Lives of the English Poets, his father is described as a citizen of London, and we must therefore conclude that the family moved to town—to Stephen's Alley, Westminster, apparently— when he was a boy. He went to Westminster School under Dr. Busby until his father's death, when he was transferred to the care of his uncle, Samuel Prior, a respectable vintner, the proprietor of the Rhenish Wine House in Channel (now Cannon) Row, Westminster, and also, either then or later, of the Rummer Tavern at Charing Cross." It was at the Rhenish Wine House that Prior was set to help his uncle in the bar for which he retained a fondness throughout life, though he may afterwards have stood more frequently before than behind it. His rise in life began through his genuine fondness for the classics, which he read for his own amusement in the intervals of business. Taverns were then the resort of the patrons of genius, and the Earl of Dorset, “bon poète lui-même et un peu ivrogne,” as Voltaire says, was inquiring at Samuel Prior's house for another habitué, Fleetwood Shepherd, when he came upon the lad Matthew, Horace in hand. The intelligent nobleman was interested and asked him to translate, and the request was often repeated for the entertainment of customers. Thus Defoe wrote that Prior—
* In the college registers, he described himself at one period as Dorcestriensis but later as Middlesexiensis. The President entered him as of Middlesex, but added “natus infra Winburne,” which is evidently inaccurate. Fellowships in those days were often attached to particular counties, and Prior's ambiguous source may have served him well.
* Prior refers familiarly to both houses in his poems. The Rummer, two doors from Locket's, between Whitehall and Charing Cross, was removed to the water side of Charing Cross in 1710 and burnt down Nov. 1750. Jack Sheppard committed his first crime here by stealing two spoons. It is introduced into Hogarth's picture of “Night.” —Cunningham.
As to villains it has often chanc'd,
Dorset's friendship subsequently assumed a practical shape and he offered to help the boy to a few more years’ schooling at Westminster. His generosity was accepted and Prior became in due course a King's scholar of that institution. He would naturally have proceeded from thence to Christ Church, Oxford, with the good wishes of his patron, but circumstances arose which made him risk Dorset's displeasure by accepting one of the Duchess of Somerset's scholarships at St. John's College, Cambridge.
The fact was that he was unwilling to be separated from two of his school-intimates. These were the Montagues, the grandsons of the first Earl of Manchester. They lived at “a great house then called Manchester House opposite the Rhenish Wine House,” and the three boys contracted a friendship which lasted through life. One of the Montagues had already gone to Cambridge, attracted thither by his friend Stepney, the other was to follow shortly, and Prior determined not to be left out in the cold.
Charles Montague, the elder brother, afterwards became the Earl of Halifax, the celebrated Whig financier who founded the National Debt and the Bank of England. He also, as Swift has it,
claim'd the station To be Maecenas of the nation,
though the same authority maintains that “his encouragements were only good words and dinners; I never heard him say one good thing or seem to taste what was said by others.” But this was of course a Tory opinion. James, the younger brother, wrote the memoir of Prior described in the Preface. Prior was finally elected a fellow of St. John's College, and was doubtless not undistinguished among his Cambridge contemporaries, though the pleasant legend that he designed the laying out of the trees in St. John's Wilderness in the form of a cathedral is contradicted by the college records. We know nothing of his life there but that he wrote two college exercises, to one of which, the Ode to the Deity, belongs Humphrey's more or less probable anecdote that it was imposed on him for missing morning chapel, with the quaint comment, “he acquitted himself so well on this occasion, that the world would hardly have been angry with him had he been guilty of more transgressions of the same nature and atoned for them by so polite and amiable a penance.” If this story is true, the poem, in which his biographers severally detect the promise of his Solomon and the influence of Horace, served two useful ends ; for it was also sent to the Earl of Exeter as the annual poetical tribute of the College to one of its benefactors. When at Cambridge he also wrote The Country and the City Mouse, with Charles Montague. (See Appendix A.) This burlesque is said with great improbability, although on good authority, to have reduced Dryden to tears. It is by no means the only or perhaps the best satire that was written on The Hind and Panther, and lives to-day rather by the fame of its authors than by its intrinsic merit. In the first instance, however, it helped to make the very fame on which it lives. If we are to accept Sir James Montague's evidence in the matter, we must believe that this impertinent satire on the Poet Laureate by two youthful members of the University, resulted in the worldly establishment of both of them.