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Upon this piece he appears to have set a high value; for he was all his life-tiine improving it by successive revisals, so that there is scarcely any poem to be found of which the last edition differs more from the first. Amongst other changes, mention is made of some compositions of Dryden, which were written after the first appearance of the Essay.
At the time when this work first appeared, Milton's fame was not yet fully established, and therefore Tasso and Spenser were set before him. The two last lines were these. The Epick Poet, says he,
Must above Milton's lofty Aights prevail,
The last line in succeeding editions was shortened, and the order of names continued ; but now Milton is at last advanced to the highest place, and the passage thus adjusted :
Must above Tasso's lofty flights prevail,
Amendments are seldom made without some token of a rent: lofty does not suit Tasso so well as Milton.
One celebrated line seems to be borrowed. The Essay calls a perfect character
A faultless monster which the world ne'er saw.
Scaliger, in his poems, terms Virgil sine labe monstrum. Sheffield can scarcely be supposed to have read Scaliger's poetry, perhaps he found the words in a quotation.
Of this Essay, which Dryden has exalted so highly, it may be justly said that the precepts are judicious, sometimes new, and often happily expressed; but there are, after all the emendations, many weak lines, and some strange appearances of negligence; as, when he gives the laws of elegy, he insists
connection and coherence; without which, says he,
'Tis epigram, 'tis point, 'tis what you will ;
No panegyrick, nor a Cooper's Hill, Who would not suppose that Waller's Panegyrick, and Denham's Cooper's Hill were elegies ?
His verses are often insipid; but his memoirs are lively and agreeable; he had the perspicuity and elegance of an historian, but not the fire and fancy
of a poet.
PRI O R.
MATTHEW PRIOR is one of those that have burst out from an obscure original to great eminence. He was born July 21, 1664, according to some, at Winburn in Dorsetshire, of I know not what parents ; others say, that he was the son of a joiner of London: he was perhaps willing enough to leave his birth unsettled *, in hope, like Don Quixote, that the historian of his actions might find him some illustrious alliance.
* The difficulty of settling Prior's birth-place is great. In the register of his College he is called, at his admission by the President, Matthew Prior of Winburn in Middlesex ; by himself next day, Matthew Prior of Dorsetshire, in which county, not in Middlesex, Winborn, or Winborne as it stands in the Villare, is found, When he stood candidate for his fellowship, five years afterwards, he was registered again by himself as of Middlesex. The last record ought to be preferred, because it was made upon oath. It is observable, that, as a native of Winhorne, he is styled Filius Georgii Prior, generosi; not consistently with the common account of the meanness of his birth. Dr. J,
He is supposed to have fallen, by his father's death, into the hands of his uncle, a vintner* near Charingcross, who sent him for some time to Dr. Busby, at Westminster ; but, not intending to give him any education beyond that of the school, took him, when he was well advanced in literature, to his own house, where the earl of Dorset, celebrated for patronage of genius, found him by chance, as Burnet relates, reading Horace, and was so well pleased with his proficiency, that he undertook the care and cost of his academical education.
He entered his name in St. John's College at Cambridge in 1682, in his eighteenth year; and it may be reasonably supposed that he was distinguished among his contemporaries. He became a Bachelor, as is usual, in four years p; and two years afterwards wrote the poem on the Deity, which stands first in his volume.
It is the established practice of that College, to send every year to the earl of Exeter some poems upon sacred subjects, in acknowledgment of a benefaction enjoyed by them from the bounty of his ancestor. On this occasion were those verses written, which, though nothing is said of their success, seem to have recommended him to some notice ; for his praise of the countess's musick, and his lines on the Jamous picture of Seneca, afford reason for imagining that he was more or less conversant with that family.
* Samuel Prior kept the Rummer Tavern near Charing Cross in 1685. The annual feast of the nobility and géntry living in the parish of St. Martin in the Fields was held at his house, Oct. 14, that
# He was admitted to his Bachelor's degree in 1686; and to his Master's, by mandate, in 1700. N.
The same year he published The City Mouse and Country Mouse, to ridicule Dryden's Hind and Panther, in conjunction with Mr. Montague. There is a story * of great pain suffered, and of tears shed, on this occasion, by Dryden, who thought it hard that
an old man should be so treated by those to whom “ he had always been civil.” By tales like these is the envy, raised by superior abilities, every day gratified: when they are attacked, every one hopes to see them humbled; what is hoped is readily believed ; and what is believed is confidently told. Dryden had been more accustomed to hostilities, than that such enemies should break his quiet; and, if we can suppose him vexed, it would be hard to deny him sense enough to conceal his uneasiness.
The City Mouse and Country Mouse procured its authors more solid advantages than the pleasure of fretting Dryden ; for they were both speedily preferred. Montague, indeed, obtained the first notice, with some degree of discontent, as it seems, in Prior, who probably knew that his own part of the performance was the best. He had not, however, much reason to complain; for he came to London, and obtained such notice, that in 1691) he was sent to the Congress at the Hague as secretary to the embassy. In this assembly of princes and nobles, to which Europe has perhaps scarcely seen any thing equal, was formed the grand alliance against Lewis, which at last did not produce effects proportionate to the magnificence of the transaction.