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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VI. Lesser Verse Writers

§ 1. Prior’s personal and literary beginnings

JOHNSON, who seems to have disliked Prior for more reasons than one, spoke of his “obscure original.” The poet’s father, George Prior, was a joiner at Eastbrook in Wimborne, Dorset, where Matthew was born on 21 July, 1664. His parents were presbyterians who, in 1662, became nonconformists. Wimborne is famed for its collection of chained books, and one of these, Ralegh’s History of the World, has a circular hole burned with a heated skewer through a hundred pages or so. Some local worthy invented the incredible tale that the damage was caused by a spark from a taper used by young Matthew while diligently reading this monumental work. The elder Prior came to London when his son was a boy, attracted by the prosperity of his brother Samuel, host first of the Rhenish tavern, Channel row, and afterwards (by 1688 at latest), of the Rummer tavern in Charing Cross. Another kinsman, Arthur Prior, who died in 1687, and left the poet £100, seems also to have been a vintner and may have succeeded Samuel at the Rhenish tavern. At one of these houses of resort, Matthew appears to have been apprentice, probably at the last mentioned. There, he was by chance found reading Horace by the earl of Dorset, of whom he always retained the most grateful remembrance. His skill in verse rendering attracted the attention of the Dorset circle. At the earl’s suggestion, he was sent to Westminster in 1680; next year, he became a king’s scholar, and passed under the immediate care of Busby, who, his “little birch” in hand, had fostered the juvenile talent of Dryden and Locke, as well as of South, Atterbury and a score of other bishops. At Westminster, his chief friends were Charles Montague, afterwards earl of Halifax, and his brother, James Montague; objecting to be separated from these confederates, Prior incurred the disapproval of his patron by refusing to go to Christ Church and entering, instead, as a scholar at St. John’s college, Cambridge, in April, 1683. To his school and college, and to his university, he always remained conspicuously loyal.