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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

§ 10. His productions in Prose: Essays, and Dialogues of the Dead

It was neither in the heroic couplet nor in these substituted that Prior achieved eminence, or, as Saintsbury puts it, “the combination of that ease, variety and fluency for which his soul longed.” In a delightful passage of An Essay upon Learning, after observing that those bred at Westminster school (like himself) grew “used very young to what Dr. Sprat calls the Genius of the place which is to Verses made Extempore, and Declamations composed in a very few hours,” he goes on to say that

  • “As to Poetry, I mean the writing of Verses.… I would advise no Man to attempt it except he cannot help it, and if he cannot it is in Vain to diswade him from it.… Cowley felt it at Ten Years old, and Waller could not get rid of it at Sixty.… As to my own part I found This impulse very soon, and shal continue to feel it as long as I can think, I can remember nothing further in my life than that I made Verses.” But, he continues, “I had Two Accidents in Youth which hindered me from being quite possessed with the Muse: I was bred in a College where Prose was more in fashion than Verse, and as soon as I had taken my first Degree was sent the King’s Secretary to the Hague.… So that Poetry which by the bent of my Mind might have become the Business of my life, was by the happyness of my Education only the Amusement of it.…”
  • Here, in a nutshell, we have the history both of his poetry and, more especially, that of his versification. The metres which he chose, because they were congenial to him and to his easy, familiar style of poetic composition, were the octosyllabic couplet and various forms of couplet or stanza in which a large use was made of the anapaest. As to the former, both Swift and Prior, of course, originally modelled their verse on that of Hudibras; but they avoided (Prior perhaps not quite at the outset) what Saintsbury calls “the roughness, the curvets, the extravagances” intentionally introduced by Butler, and aimed at ease and naturalness—a verse as near prose as good verse can be—rather than at sudden and surprising effects. The frequent use of the anapaest in light measures and familiar verse was, apparently, an innovation of Prior’s own designing; certainly, he domesticated it in English verse, and thus definitely enriched English poetry by providing its metrical instrument with a new variety of effect. Prior’s use of this variety was virtually confined to occasions
  • When a man ’s in a humour too merry for prose,
  • but not in an exaltation of spirit very far above it. English poetry, however, dealt freely with the gift, and the use of the anapaestic measure, which he had admirably fitted to his description of the secretary’s délassements, the tribulations of Cloe and the golden mediocrity of Jinny the just, was employed for strains of a very different intensity by the poets of the romantic school. But, though it might be diverted from the use to which he had put it, the best examples of light and inspiriting versification which he produced with its aid must continue to be acknowledged as masterpieces of their kind.

    As a prose writer, Prior might have attained to a high rank, had he cared to cultivate a form of composition which he reserved for the service of the state and for familiar correspondence with his friends. Apart from his share in The Hind and Panther Transvers’d, of which mention has been made above, he is now known to have been the author of prose compositions which, though few in number, are of high merit. They include, besides An Essay upon Learning already cited—which contains some sensible remarks on misapplied and superfluous learning, and some apt remarks on the art of quotation and on conversational wit—a more striking companion Essay upon Opinion. The tone of this essay, half gay, half cynical, is very characteristic of its author: most men, he argues, have no opinion of their own, but, as childless fathers did in ancient Rome, adopt that of the first man they like; others use the simple criterion of success or failure, as in the case (which might be illustrated from Prior’s own verse) of Orange and Monmouth. Together with these essays are preserved Four Dialogues of the Dead, which deserve to be reckoned among the brightest examples of a device which maintained its popularity from Lucian down to Lyttelton, and from Lyttelton up to Landor. The first, between Charles the Emperior and Clenard the Grammarian, is a novel treatment of the old theme that greatness—and happiness with it—is relative only; the second, between Mr. John Lock and Seigneur de Montaigne, is an amusing and extremely voluble reproduction of Montaigne’s concrete though discursive way of thinking, but can hardly have been intended as a serious criticism. In the third Dialogue, between the Vicar of Bray and Sir Thomas Moor, Prior, as he had done in the first, displays considerable historical knowledge; but the talk of More, though it displays the main features of his noble character, lacks playfulness of touch. The fourth, between Oliver Cromwell and his Porter, which turns on the prophet-porter’s contention that the master was ten times madder than the man, is hardly equal to its predecessors.