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When we reflect, that Dr. Johnson, singly, atchieved more than the whole French Academy to. gether, perhaps we shall excuse the contempt with which he generally speaks of such institutions. He sums up his objections in the Life of Roscommon; who ‘formed (says he) the plan of a society for refining our language, and fixing its standard;' 'in imitation,' says Fenton, of those learned and po. lite societies with which he had been acquainted abroad.' In this design his friend Dryden is said to have assisted him. The same design, it is well known, was revived by Dr. Swift in the university of Oxford; but has never since been publicly mentioned, though at that time great expectations were formed, by some, of its establishment and effects. Such a society, perhaps, might, without much difficulty, be collected; but that it would produce what is expected from it may be doubted.'
• The Italian academy seems to have attained its end. The language was refined, and so fixed that it has changed but little. The French academy thought that they refined their language, and doubtless thought rightly; but the event has not shown that they fixed it; for the French of the present time is very
different from that of the last century. The great philologist proceeds to state how Englishmen would delight in violating the rescripts of such an academy among themselves. We live in an age, (says he,) in which it is a kind of public sport to refuse all respect that cannot be enforced. The edicts of an English academy (he thinks) would probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them. It seems to be idle to talk of their issuing edicts. They would know better than to assume so dictatorial an office; it would not be necessary; nor do we suppose, that such a thing ever entered the head of any literary projector. Dr. Johnson's own success, too, has overturned his theory concerning the untractability of his countrymen; and, if we except the stories of his knocking one man down, with a folio, and throwing another across the stage, for getting into his chair, we know not, that he was accustomed to 'enforce respect,' with any other weapons than logic and good sense.
In the parliament of 1701, Prior was returned as a member from East Grenstead; and it was about the same time, that he changed his Whig principles for Tory. The victory of Blenheim was not passed over by him,-nor by any other person in the kingdom, who could write two lines of verse. About the year 1705, he published a volume of poems; beginning with his College Exercises, and ending with the Nut-brown Maid. The battle of Ramillies, in the following year, furnished him with the next topic of versification; but he wrote nothing more till 1710; when he undertook to ridicule, in the Examiner, Garth’s verses to Godolphin. In July, of the following year, he was despatched privately to Paris with proposals for a peace; and, in about a month, returned with the Abbe Gaultion, and M. Mesanger, a plenipotentiary from the French court. The negociation was commenced at Prior's house ; and he was himself one of the number empowered to sign the treaty.
When the negociations at Utrecht were consuming time without advancing the treaty, Bolingbroke was despatched to Paris to settle matters with less ceremony. Prior followed him; and was left be. hind, in the character of ambassador. It would seem, that Bolingbroke, in his attempt to finish the business in a hurry, committed some mistake, which offended the French court; and he accordingly writes, ' Dear Mat, hide the nakedness of thy country, and give the best turn thy fertile brain will furnish thee with to the blunders of thy countrymen, who are not much better politicians than the French are poets.' The duke of Shrewsbury was,
soon after, sent on a formal embassy to France ; and, refusing to be associated with a person of Prior's low birth, our poet acted without a title, until his high-born grace returned. He had acquir. ed the favour of the king, and the confidence of his ministers. But his dignity seems to have been rather meanly supported. He had no service of plate ; and, when the Tories fell, in August, 1714, he could not return to England, in consequence of the debts, which he had contracted.
He could not release himself, till about March of . the following year; and, as soon as he reached England, he was seized with a warrant; put under custody; and, in due time, examined before a committee of the privy council, respecting the treaty, which had, four years before, been brewed so secretly at his house. His examiners, elate with recent success, interrogated him in the most boisterous manner; and, at length, bullied him into a confession, which, as he afterwards acknowledged, might, in a court of judicature, have been totally contradicted. He was afterwards put under stricter confinement; nor was he included in the Act of Grace, which was passed in 1717. But he wrote his Alma, in the mean time; and was, not long afterwards, set at liberty. He was now, to use an expression of Waller's, 'left like a whale upon the strand;' but, with the assistance of his friends, he soon enabled himself to be once more in motion. He published a volume of poems, with the price of two guineas; and the sale amounted, in all, to about four thousand. Lord Harley, son of his old friend, the Earl of Oxford, purchased and leased to him for life the estate of Down-Hill; and Prior had, at last, a comfortable shelter for his old age. But his health declined; and he grew deaf; for, as he says, 'he took little care of his ears while he was not sure that his head was his own.' He died at
Walpole, September 18th, 1721; and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He left five hundred pounds to buy a monument.
Paulatim obrepens Febris
H. S. E.
Hagæ anno 1690 celebrata,
Missus anno 1711
(Pace etiamnum durante
Cum summa potestate Legatus
Juvenem in Collegis S' ti Johannis
Vurum denique auxit; et perfecit
Ita natus, ita institutus,
Haud infiliciter tentaret,
Quam nullo Illi labore constiterint,
Apte, varie, copioseque alluderet
Ita suos tandem dubios reliquit,
An in Cop victu Comes Jucundior.
Little is known of Prior's domestic habits. He is said to have been very companionable; and so little fastidious in his choice of society, that he was equally at home with a statesman, a soldier, or a drab. A writer in the Gentleman's Magazine,* says, he was assured, that, after spending the evening with Oxford, Bolingbroke, Pope, and Swift, he would go and smoke a pipe and drink ale with a common soldier and his wife. His Chloes were of the lowest order; and one of them is said to have stolen his plate and run away. His jovial disposition may be collected from a letter to Swift. "I have,' says he,) 'treated lady Harriot at Cambridge (a fellow of a College treat!) and spoke verses to
. Vol. lvii. p. 1039.