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LIFE OF MATTHEW PRIOR.
The witty and ingenious author of “Alma” and “Solomon” was born of obscure parents. His father is said to have been a joiner either in London or in Winburn; for if seven cities contended for the honour of bearing Homer, two counties— Middlesex and Dorsetshire—have put in their claims to Prior. He was born 21st July 1664. In the College register, he is styled Filius Georgii Prior generosi—a term which would intimate that his father was in respectable circumstances. He is supposed to have had some property in Winburn, but perhaps had lost it, and been obliged to subsist by a mechanical profession. He died when Matthew was very young, and the boy was cast on the care of his uncle, Samuel Prior, who kept a respectable tavern near Charing Cross. His uncle treated him with much kindness, and sent him for some time to the famous Dr Busby of Westminster School. He seems to have made there considerable proficiency, but was soon taken back to his uncle's house, who proposed breeding him to his own trade. Genius has sometimes, though seldom, been developed in a tavern atmosphere—an atmosphere which, if coarse, is genial, and favourable to the observation of character in all its varieties. This, besides, was not an ordinary inn. The annual meeting of the nobility and gentry of the parish was sometimes held at “The Rummer,” which was frequented, too, by many of the leading wits and literary patrons of the day. Among these was the Earl of Dorset, who, on one occasion, having started a question about the meaning of a passage in the Odes of Horace, a keen discussion arose in the company. At length, a gentleman remarked, “I find we are not likely to agree in our criticisms; but if I am not mistaken, there is a young fellow in this house who is able to set us right.” Prior is forthwith produced— explains the passage to the satisfaction of all present—and Dorset on the spot determines to send him to the University. He was sent to St John's College, Cambridge, and supported partly at his patron's expense. He entered College in 1682, in his eighteenth year; he took his degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1686; and soon afterwards, having much distinguished himself, was elected a Fellow, a position he retained to the last. When afterwards chosen Ambassador, some one hinted that he should relinquish his Fellowship; but he very wisely replied, “that everything else he had was precarious, and when all failed, that would be bread and cheese at the last, and therefore he did not mean to part with it.” Most prudential of poets! Two years after he was appointed Fellow, he wrote a poem on the Deity. It was the custom of this College, in acknowledgment of some ancient benefactions from his family, to send to the Earl of Exeter every year certain copies of sacred verses; and with this custom Prior complied in the above poem. It is thought that this led to some intercourse between the noble family of Exeter and our poet; but this is uncertain. During his residence at Cambridge, he became intimate with Charles Montague, afterwards the Earl of Halifax, and in company with him produced the “Country and City Mouse,” in ridicule of Dryden’s “Hind and Panther.” It was published in 1687, and hailed with general laughter and applause by the Whig party. That Prior wrote the greater and better part of this clever brochure is probable; but the exact proportions belonging to each author are unknown. Spence represents himself as asking at Lord Peterborough, “Did not Halifax write the ‘Country Mouse' with Mr Prior?” “Yes; just as if I was in a chaise with Mr Cheselden here, drawn by his fine horse, and should say, Lord, how finely we draw this chaise.” Both authors having hit a particular taste of the public mind “between wind and water,” became popular favourites, and were speedily promoted—Prior grumbling somewhat that Montague (the “City Mouse”) had the start of the “Country.” His time, however, came; and in 1690–1, he was appointed secretary to the embassy which joined the Congress at the Hague. To this office, in which he was attached to the Earl of Berkeley, he was appointed by his old friend Dorset, who had been lord of the bedchamber to Charles II., and had now become chamberlain of the household to William and Mary. Here our poet conducted himself with such sense and skill, that King William made him one of the gentlemen of the bedchamber, in which office he remained for several years, quietly following his chosen pursuits of literature and poetry. He at this time, too, became acquainted with Mrs Elizabeth Singer, afterwards Mrs Elizabeth Rowe, and fascinated by her charms, poured out his passion in divers versicles. This lady’s “Letters from the Dead to the Living,” used to be very popular with that portion of the religious public which relished Hervey’s “Meditations,” and they somewhat resembled that famous production in rhapsodical language, and in pious sentimentalism. They are now nearly forgotten. In 1695, Queen Mary, the good and amiable descendant of a long line of tyrants and fools—the one sensible and patriotic Stewart—a woman of whom her husband said, “She had no faults—none”—died, and what Johnson calls an “emulation of elegy” was the result. Dryden, indeed, old, neglected, driven from the Laureateship, had no poetical tears to shed; but most of the other poets, or poetasters, of the period, from Prior and Montague to Shadwell and Sacheverell, wrote verses on the occasion—some of them in English, and others in Latin —and all vieing with each other in melodious grief. Prior's were presented to his Majesty; but it is not likely that the stern and silent widower-king, sunk in sorrow, and loaded with affairs, found leisure to read them. 1697 was a busy and a prosperous year with our poet. He was nominated principal Secretary of State in Ireland; he was employed as secretary to the English negotiations at the treaty of Ryswick, and so successfully did he conduct his share of the negotiations, that in September the Lord Justices made him a present of 200 guineas. In 1698 he went to Paris, as secretary to the embassy to France, and continued there performing valuable service, and receiving high distinctions, both under the Earl of Portland and Lord Jersey, and for some time after the arrival of the Earl of Manchester. In August 1699 he went to Loo in Holland, and had a private interview with King William, and thence returned to England, to be Under Secretary in the room of Earl Jersey. He was soon, however, ordered back to Paris to assist the ambassador. It is recorded, that one day, surveying at Versailles the victories of Louis, painted by Lebrun, and accompanied by boastful inscriptions, and being asked whether the King of England's palace had any such decorations, he replied, “The monuments of my master's actions are to be seen everywhere but in his own house.” This is, perhaps, the best rebuke, in the shape of a bon-mot, that biography recounts. The details of Prior's diplomatic career are not traced fully in any of his biographies which we have seen; but, as connected with the general politics of the period, will be found in the common histories, and are likely to be given in Macaulay's next volumes. In the close of 1699 he produced his “Carmen Seculare,” a long and glowing panegyric on the king—ranking in power and in truth with Waller's “Panegyric to my Lord Protector.” Even Dr Johnson, greatly as he was prejudiced against William, calling him once to Boswell, “One of the most . worthless rascals that ever existed,” admits Prior's sincerity in this poem, and concedes to the king “the resplendent qualities of steady resolution and personal courage.” It is not now, especially after Macaulay's recent full-length portraiture, necessary to enlarge on the calm yet daring courage, the decisive insight and inexorable purpose, the “silent magnanimity,” the sublime fate-like coolness, the sense of duty, the solemn Calvinism of spirit and purpose, which dwelt in the poor, prematurely-old, and cough-shattered frame of the Orange-King; who never knew when he was beat, and in whom defeat always developed new resources and new greatness, and who, with all his faults of temper and outward phlegm, of firmness bordering on obstinacy, and severity