תמונות בעמוד

We know little of his personal appearance save from a few portraits and from Swift's remark to Stella that “he walked in the Park to make himself fat and had usually a cough which he called a cold.” Lord Bolingbroke writes to the Marquis de Torcy of “sa phisionomie, qui n'est pas des plus heureuses” and of “ce visage de bois.” Davis, in Macky's Characters of the Court of Great Britain, describes him as a “thin, hollow-looked man, very facetious in conversation.”

Prior's poetry represents both sides of his character, the official and the social. It exhibits also a conventional piety, of which more hereafter. He calls the Poems on Several Occasions “the product of his leisure hours, who had business enough upon his hands, and was only a poet by accident,” and explains at some length in his unpublished Heads of a treatise wpon learning' that he “had two accidents in youth, which hindered him from being quite possessed with the Muse.” These were the greater value set on prose composition at St. John's College, and his early entry into political business at the Hague. “There I had enough to do in studying my French and Dutch, and altering my Terentian and original style into that of Articles and Convention. So that poetry, which by the bent of my mind might have become the business of my life,

" In an extract printed in Malone's Life of Dryden, p. 545.

was, by the happiness of my education, only
the amusement of it.” He again congratulates
himself upon the practical nature of his life's
work in that patriotic declaration, so often
quoted, to which he gives utterance in the
self-conscious periods of his dedication—“I
had rather be thought a good Englishman than
the best poet or the greatest scholar that ever
All this is no doubt partly affectation, but
not entirely so. For it is a fact that though,
as he says, “I felt this impulse very soon, and
shall continue to feel it as long as I can
think;” though “I remember nothing farther
in life than that I made verses; ” he did not, as
has been shown in the Preface, publish much
in early life, and was very slow to collect under
his name the miscellanies which he had brought
out on various occasions. This was in part
because he was so careful an artist. But he
had no intention of restraining his natural
inclinations altogether, and had doubtless am-
bitions in the matter, as well as a certain good
opinion of his own achievements.
His poetical works generally exhibit a
cynical indifference to the serious aspects of
life that is not essentially inconsistent with
his religious and didactic poems. The latter
are characteristic rather of the age than of the
man, and are entirely formal in their faith.
They seem to have been inspired by the im-
pression that it was desirable, in order to avoid
hell-fire, for a man occasionally to discourse

[ocr errors]

upon the majesty and benevolence of his Creator. Prior probably regarded his Considerations on part of the eighty-eighth Psalm and similar poems as a kind of certificate of that Christianity which he found it more expedient and fashionable to profess than to practise. His Solomon is an intellectual feat which is well executed indeed, but terribly wearisome in effect. It stands among his admirable trifles as a monumental satire on men's ambitions. Prior wished it to be regarded as the corner-stone of his work, the chief expression of his genius; but there is probably no man who would stand up to-day with Cowper' and Wesley against Dr. Johnson in its defence. There was a time when Prior was so proud of this poem that whoever paid him a visit was sure of a dose from Solomon and someglasses of sack, so that “Sack and Solomon" became a proverbial expression among his friends. But later he recognized the popular verdict, saying himself in the Conversation :

Indeed poor Solomon in rhyme
Was much too grave to be sublime.

Voltaire expressed a similar opinion on this subject:—“Notre plenipotentiaire finit par paraphraser en quinze cents vers ces mots attribués à Solomon que tout est vanité. On en pourrait fait quinze mille sur ce sujet; mais malheur à qui dit tout ce qu'il peut dire.” Nevertheless a passage from these fifteen hundred verses appears in the Dict. Phil. under áme. It is taken from Book I. l. 231, and is thus translated :

* Cowper frequently praised Prior, and translated the ode The merchant to secure his treasure into Latin.

Oser-vous assigner, pédans insupportables,
Une cause diverse à des effets semblables?
Avez-vous mesuré cette mince cloison
Qui semble séparer l'instinct de la raison 7
Nous étes mal pourvus et de l'un et de l'autre.
Aveugles insensés, quelle audace est la vötre 2
L'orgueil est votre instinct. Conduirez-vous nos pas
Dans ces chemins glissans que vous ne voyez pas ?

Mr. Dobson also makes a “serious quotation ” from Book II. ll. 110–125.

When Prior asked Pope how he liked his Solomon, he answered, “Your Alma is a masterpiece,” and the reply was suggestive. The same poet said, according to Ruffhead, “that the Alma of Prior was the only work that, abating its excessive scepticism, he could wish to have been the author of.” We do not, however, value this poem for its philosophy, if Prior ever seriously intended it to contain any, but for its witty inconsequence and for the happy epigrams and unexpected similes with which it is crowded. He himself calls it a “loose and hasty scribble,” Goldsmith was worried because he could not understand it, and Woltaire' summarises it in a paragraph. “C'est de Prior, qu’est l’Histoire de l'ame;

1 Dict, Phil. Prior,

cette histoire est la plus naturelle qu'on ait faite jusqu'à présent de cet être si bien senti et si mal connu. L'âme est d'abord aux extrémités du corps, dans les pieds et dans les mains des enfans ; et de là elle se place insensiblement au milieu du corps dans l'âge de puberté ; ensuite elle monte au cœur, et là elle produit les sentiments de l'amour et de l'héroïsme : elle s'élève jusqu'à la tête dans un âge plus mûr, elle y raisonne comme elle peut, et dans la vieillesse on ne sait plus ce qu'elle devient; c'est la séve d'un vieil arbre qui s'évapore et qui ne se répare plus. Peutêtre cet ouvrage est-il trop long ; toute plaisanterie doit être courte, et même le sérieux devrait bien être court aussi." And now Mr. Churton Collins points out in his Illustrations of Tennyson that the first twenty lines of Lady Psyche's lecture in the second part of the Princess are apparently a reminiscence of the learned lady's discourse in canto II. ll. 369-378. Prior's third long poem is unfortunately without any redeeming features. Henry and Emma is a dismal modernization and vulgarization of the Nut-Brown Maid, and it is astonishing to find that Lady Mary Wortley Montague learnt it by heart at the age of fourteen, and that Cowper complained loudly of Dr. Johnson's criticism ofit. We have already hinted at his activity in writing political and complimentary effusions, which may be regarded only as the polite ex

« הקודםהמשך »