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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

§ 3. His early official Life and Verse: Carmen Seculare

In 1688, Prior was chosen a fellow of St. John’s, and blossomed forth in An Ode, written as a college “exercise” on the text “I am that I am.” The poem, which, in accordance with custom, was sent to the earl of Exeter, in acknowledgment of a benefaction bestowed upon the college by one of his ancestors, seems to have recommended Prior to the notice of the family, as his verses in the Strephon vein To the Countess of Exeter, Playing on the Lute, and his lines Picture (at Burleigh House) of Seneca dying in a Bath, indicate.

Some recently discovered verses by Prior show that, in the reign of James II, he adhered to the side of the court, without suggesting that there was much depth in his loyalty. At the revolution, he was thrown upon his own resources, and, not unnaturally, appealed to his earliest patron, Dorset, by sending An Epistle to Fleetwood Shephard, the fidus Achates of that nobleman. His reputation as a satirist would appear to have served him in good stead, for, although the other mouse was advanced first, Prior had not to wait long. During the winter of 1690–91, he obtained an appointment in the English embassy at the Hague, the meeting place of the coalition against Louis XIV organised by William of Orange. Prior was secretary to Lord Dursley, envoy extraordinary and plenipotentiary (in whose wife’s copy of Milton he inscribed an extravagant compliment, repeated from one which he had previously paid to Lady Dorset); and the envoy’s gout gave the young attaché many opportunities of personal converse with William. His readiness caused the king to bestow on him, besides the half-serious nickname “Secrétaire du Roy,” the appointment of gentleman of the king’s bedchamber. He began to send contributions to Dryden’s Miscellanies, taking care to publish loyal poems both in pindaric style and in a lighter vein. In 1693, he prepared, for the music of Purcell and the delectation of their majesties, a new year’s Hymn to the Sun, and, in 1695, he was persuaded to take a conspicuous place in the group of bards who, in a black-framed folio, mourned “Dread Maria’s Universal Fall.” His diplomatic Ode Presented to the King on his Majesty’s Arrival in Holland after The Queen’s death is in ballad-metre of eight and eight. In the same metre, he cast, also in 1695, An English Ballad On the Taking of Namur By the King of Great Britain, a sufficient taking off and down of the Ode sur la Prise De Namur by the Boileau gloriosus of 1692. A solemn congratulation in heroic couplets To the King, at his Arrival in Holland, after the Discovery of the Conspiracy, followed in 1696. On the other hand, in The Secretary, written at the Hague in the same year, we get the first real touch of the true quality of Prior’s muse, describing, in the anapaestic metre which he may be said to have perfected, the jocund progress of the “Englischen Heer Secretaris” to a week-end holiday:

  • In a little Dutch-chaise on a Saturday night,
  • On my left hand my Horace, a Nymph on my right …
  • For her, neither visits, nor parties of tea,
  • Nor the long-winded cant of a dull refugee.
  • In 1697, came peace with the treaty of Ryswyk. Prior acted as secretary during the negotiations, and, for a long time, in consequence of intervals between the plenipotentiaryships of Portland, Jersey and Manchester, was virtually in charge. Sir William Trumbull complimented him on his happy blend of poetry and business; but he was not compensated by this for his lack of pay and definite prospect. He felt aggrieved that he was not sent envoy to Nancy on the occasion of the duke of Lorraine’s marriage, and would have now been glad to get back to London; but he was kept until November, 1699, at Paris, where he did useful service and whence he wrote highly diverting letters, mixing persiflage with politics.

    In 1699, Prior was made an under-secretary of state, and, during the latter part of this year, carried on an arduous series of services, including journeys to and from Paris, in connection with the second partition treaty. In December, he produced his most elaborate “pindaric” ode, Carmen Seculare for the year 1700, “To the King,” eulogising William III through forty-two wearisome stanzas, and comparing him to the sun whose sacred light the poet contrasts with the arbitrary blaze of comets and meteors. Honours accumulated upon the poetic official. The university of Cambridge made him an honorary M.A., and he succeeded Locke as a commissioner of trade and plantations. Later in this year, the earl of Manchester was transferred from Venice to Paris, and Prior returned home with Jersey (who had been named one of the secretaries of state and whose protégé Prior now was), to serve under him. In the earlier part of 1701, before Louis XIV irritated the national pride by his recognition of James III and alarmed the city by his plain bid for Spanish trade, a parliamentary storm burst over the partition treaties and culminated in the impeachment of the whig lords, Portland and Oxford, Somers and Halifax, who had been in power during the negotiations. Prior, who was now, for a brief space (February to June, 1701), member for East Grinstead voted for the impeachment. Naturally enough, he was accused of treachery; but he was already showing himself a prerogative and high church man; and, under Anne, he gradually detached himself from his old whig allies in order to act with the tory chiefs Harley and St. John. During the early part of Anne’s reign, we hear little of him save occasional poems and celebrations of English victories and an appeal to Godolphin to settle his debts (£500) and procure him employment abroad. But, meanwhile, he was cultivating his gift of trifling in verse, and producing, among short fabliaux, epigrams and multifarious matter, such little gems as the stanzas, Sir Walter Scott’s favourite, Written in the Beginning of Mezeray’s History of France:

  • Yet for the fame of all these Deeds,
  • What Beggar in the Invalides
  • With Lameness broke, with Blindness smitten,
  • Wished ever decently to die,
  • To have been either Mezeray,
  • Or any Monarch He has written?