26 APRIL 1890, Page 15


verses in the language, could not have a more appreciative editor than Mr. Dobson, who has himself achieved a large success in this department of poetry. Although Dr. Johnson, in a fit of forgetfulness or perversity, declared Prior's poems to be a book which no lady was ashamed to have in her library, the editor who wishes to present his poems for family reading must do so in a selection. He was not a very voluminous writer, and two of his longest and most pretentious poems are now unreadable. That "splendid composition," as Johnson calls it, the "Carmen Seculare," will excite no enthusiasm in the modern reader ; and although there are some good rhetorical lines in "Solomon," no one is likely to echo John Wesley's praise of that poem as one of the noblest in the language. In an essay in defence of this poet, Wesley does not stint his praise, but declares that at his best Prior is not inferior in strength to any besides Milton, and that "never man wrote with more tenderness—witness the preface to Henry and Emma,' with the whole inimitable poem." Alas ! even that "inimitable poem" is now laughed to scorn, and nothing, as Mr. Dobson says truly, "can revitalise the hope- less dried-specimen into which Prior flattened out the fine old ballad of The Nut-Brown Maid.' " The truth is, that when Prior laboured to establish his fame as a poet, he failed ; when he wrote society verses, which he regarded as trivial in comparison with his "Solomon," his success was assured. He is far from being a great poet, but he is a delightful versifier, and in his own graceful and humorous art has never been surpassed.

Like many a famous Englishman, Prior rose from the lowest rang of the social ladder. Verse in those fortunate days opened the door to official life. A happy simile was the foundation upon which Addison rose to be Secretary of State; Tickell praised Addison in verse, and was made Under- Secretary. Prior, starting with a burlesque, attained the post of an Ambassador. His promotion began early. At twenty-six he was made secretary to Lord Dursley, William's Ambassador to the Hague, and both there, and later on still more con- spicuously at Paris, seems to have acquitted himself well.

Indeed, both Swift and Bolingbroke have testified to his capacity as a man of affairs. Prior kept verse for his play-hours, and it was not until a reverse of fortune, due to a change of Ministry, that he endeavoured to make a business use of his poetical genius. The poet's success was eminent. He published his works by subscription, and having sold the colossal folio at two guineas a copy, netted £4,000 and over, which was only exceeded in those days by the splendid honorarium Pope received for the translation of Homer. He did not live long to enjoy the good things brought by his Muse, but died in 1721, in his fifty-eighth year. Prior seems to have been an easy, kind-hearted man of the world, restrained by no high principle, either political or moral, and with faults more openly tolerated in his day than they are in ours :—

" It is needless," Mr. Dobson writes, "to enlarge upon the chapter of his frailties. It is pleasanter to think of him as the friendly, genial, companionable man whom two generations of Dorsets and Oxfords delighted to honour, and whom the Duchess of Portland, the noble, lovely little Peggy,' of one of his most charming minor pieces, described as making 'himself beloved by every living thing in the house,—master, child, and servant, human creature or animal."

This is the minor piece addressed to the lady when a child, to which the editor refers :—

"My noble, lovely little Peggy,

Let this my first epistle beg ye, At dawn of morn and close of even, To lift your heart and hands to Heaven.

In double beauty say your prayer, Our Father first,—then Notre Pere; And, dearest Child, along the day, In everything you do and say, Obey and please my lord and lady, So God shall love and angels aid ye.

If to these precepts you attend, No second letter need I send, And so I rest your constant friend."

One cannot but wish that Prior had written more frequently • Selected Poems of Matthew Prior. With an Introduction and Notes by Austin Dobson. London : Segan Paul, Trench, and Co.

in this vein, for of all the charming verses addressed to dhildren, we know none more charming than his famous lines addressed "To a Child of Quality," the child being five years of age, and her poet forty. They are too familiar to quote, but if any reader has forgotten them, we recommend him, upon opening Mr. Dobson's choice little volume, to turn in the first instance to page 33. Strange to say, we do not know the name of the happy child to whom these stanzas were addressed.

The verses which keep Prior's fame alive are all occasional, and written with the apparent lightness of touch that indi- cates consummate art. "Nothing," Thomas Moore wrote to Lord Lansdowne, "could be more gracefully light and gallant" than the "Answer to Cloe Jealous ;" and Moore might well admire it, since by frequently writing in the same strain, he acknowledges Prior as his master. We quote the three last stanzas :—

"The god of us verse-men (you know, Child), the sun, How after his journeys he sets up his rest, If at morning o'er earth 'tis his fancy to roam, At night he reclines on his Thetis's breast.

So when I am wearied with wandering all day, To thee, my delight, in the evening I come ; No matter what beauties I saw in my way, They were but my visits, but thou art my home.

Then finish, dear Cloe, this pastoral war; And let us like Horace and Lydia agree, For thou art a girl so much brighter than her, As he was a poet sublimer than me."

"The grammatical lapse," Mr. Dobson observes, "in these last two lines perhaps calls for correction; but many readers will probably agree with Moore, that it is far prettier as it is.'" Ease and vivacity mark all Prior's shorter pieces. To a lady who refuses to continue an argument, he writes in lines modern enough to appear to-day, if there is any poet who could write them. Take, for example, the following stanzas :—

"In the dispute, whate'er I said,

My heart was by my tongue belied, And in my looks you might have read How much I argued on your side.

Alas ! not hoping to subdue, I only to the fight aspired; To keep the beauteous foe in view Was all the glory I desired.

But she, howe'er of victory sure, Contemns the wreath too long delayed, And armed with more immediate power, Calls cruel silence to her aid.

Deeper to wound, she shuns the fight : She drops her arms to gain the field : Secures her conquest by her flight :

And triumphs when she seems to yield."

In his criticism of Prior, Dr. Johnson seems not to be aware of the peculiar gift which will make these Selected Poems welcome to many readers. "Whatever Prior obtains above mediocrity," he writes, "seems the effort of struggle and of toil. He has many vigorous, bat few happy lines ; he has everything by purchase, and nothing by gift :" and the Doctor adds that he has no "felicities of fancy." This would be a true judgment if applied to "Solomon," a laboured composi- tion which, like Thomson's "Liberty," was beloved by its author and neglected by the public. But Prior's gift lay in the inimitable ease of a poet who, when writing on trivial things, shows in every line the hand of a master. If he had not imagination, he possessed, though Dr. Johnson will not admit it, a graceful fancy which carries him along cheerily. Truly does Mr. Dobson say that he is "as easy as Swift and as polished as Pope." Prior's ease, however, altogether failed him when he attempted to sing. The art, so familiar to the Elizabethans, was unknown to the Queen Anne men, and Prior's twenty-eight songs, "set to music by the most eminent masters," are as worthless, and that is saying a great deal, as the songs of his contemporaries. Mr. Dobson, it is scarcely necessary to add, has left them to slumber with "Solomon," the "Carmen Seculare," and the once famous "Henry and Emma."

We have not yet alluded to Prior's craft as a writer of epigram. The Rev. Henry Dodd, in his work entitled The Epigrammatists, observes that, with few exceptions, Prior's epigrams are "of the very lowest type." We think that he is altogether inaccurate in this statement, and that Mr. Dobson does not exaggerate in saying that "his bright and compact ex- pression makes him one of the best of English epigramraatists." Nothing, as he truly observes, could be neater than the following " Yes ; every poet is a fool; By demonstration Ned can show it; Happy could Ned's inverted rule

Prove every fool to be a poet."

Bishop Atterbury may have been falsely accused of infidelity —one remembers that on bidding Pope farewell he gave him his Bible—but whether just or not, there can be no question about the incisiveness of the lines on the Bishop's burying the Duke of Buckingham :— " have no hopes,' the duke he says, and dies; In sure and certain hope,' the prelate cries. Of these two learned peers, I prithee say, man,

Who is the lying knave, the priest or layman ?

The duke he stands an infidel confest, He's our dear brother,' quoth the lordly priest ; The duke, though knave, still brother dear' he cries, And who can say the reverend prelate lies ? "

We cannot better close this notice of a poet who deserves the discriminative labour bestowed on him in this volume than by quoting the final paragraph of Mr. Dobson's introduction. After mentioning the poem "To a Child of Quality" as the crown of Prior's achievements, and alter quoting the poem to little Peggy already given in this article, Mr. Dobson adds :— " 0 Si sic immix!. clizisset ! If he had oftener written as he has written of these two children of quality '—if he had now and then written of women as reverently—how large would have been his portion in our anthologies ! As it is, he has left behind him not a few pieces which have never yet been equalled for grace, ease, good-humour, and spontaneity, and which are certain of im- mortality so long as there is any saving virtue in fame's great antiseptic,—Style."