Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 4. Prior under Queen Anne

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

§ 4. Prior under Queen Anne

He writes formal odes to the queen, twits, not very worthily, his fellow panegyrist Boileau with the victory of Blenheim—

  • Since, hir’d for Life, Thy servile Muse must sing
  • Successive conquests, and a glorious King—
  • and gains increasing mastery over the heroic couplet, as may be seen by An Ode Inscribed to the Memory of the Honourable Colonel George Villiers, accidentally drowned in a river near Friuli in 1703—which contains some of his finest lines, beginning:
  • Some from the stranded Vessel force their Way:
  • Fearful of Fate, they meet it in the Sea:
  • Some who escape the Fury of the Wave,
  • Sicken on Earth, and sink into a Grave.
  • After Blenheim came Ramillies, to which, in An Ode Humbly Subscrib’d to the Queen, Prior, as he says, went out of his way to pay the tribute of some—not very successful—Spenserian stanzas. But, in 1707, he was compelled by the whig leaders to give up his public employment, and was imperfectly consoled by a secretaryship to the bishop of Winchester. In 1709, he published a first collection of his verse writings, which he describes as the product of his leisure hours, as he was only a poet by accident. Next year, upon the fall of the whigs, he joined Swift, Freind and others, under the aegis of St. John, in setting up The Examiner, in which he wrote an early paper. His Fable from Phaedrus also appeared here. He soon came into frequent contact with Swift, of not a few of whose lampoons he had the first credit among their friends. Prior, who had been expelled from the Kitcat club in 1707, was now hailed as one of the seventeen “brothers,” who formed an intimate tory club under that name. A more substantial recognition soon followed, when, his unusual proficiency in languages having been noted by St. John, he was made a commissioner of customs. In March, 1711, he celebrated Harley’s escape from the knife of the assassin, and before and afterwards eulogised the minister in various strains of verse. In June of this year, he was sent across the water to notify England’s preliminary demands. On his return, accompanied by the two French agents, Mesnager and Gaultier, he was arrested at Canterbury by mistake. In September, Swift brought out a fanciful relation of Prior’s journey by which the plenipotentiary’s vanity was much incensed. Frequent secret conferences about the conditions of peace now took place—the first at Prior’s house on 20 September. He was nominated plenipotentiary in November; but, to appease the offended pride of Lord Strafford, another of the plenipotentiaries, the appointment was cancelled. In August, 1712, however, Prior went to France with Bolingbroke, and was raised to the position of ambassador, though he did not assume the title until Shrewsbury’s return in the following year. He was equally popular with Anne and Louis and managed a personal correspondence between them. The peace was signed in April, 1713, and Prior lingered on in Paris, a prey to intense uneasiness as to the future of his party, and as to his own. He was in the midst of an ode imploring a gift of Anne’s portrait when the news of her death reached him. He was at once deprived of his commissionership. In due course, the earl of Stair, who had been appointed ambassador in Prior’s place, arrived and impounded such of his papers as he had not previously secured. When, after his salary (as plenipotentiary) and debts had been paid, he returned to England, in March, 1715, he was arrested by order of the Commons, and, in June, impeached and handed over to the custody of the serjeant at arms. Nothing incriminating either Bolingbroke or Oxford could be extracted from him, and, after two years of detention, he was released in 1717. During his confinement, he wrote his second-longest poem, called Alma: or, the Progress of the Mind. To ease his pecuniary difficulties, his friends Arbuthnot, Gay and others, but especially Lords Harley and Bathurst, devised the plan of printing his poems in a sumptuous folio, three feet by one. All the notabilities subscribed to this edition, which appeared in 1718. Swift collected many guineas (four thousand were obtained in all) and took five copies himself. Lord Harley added another four thousand, for the purchase of Down hall in Essex. He paid several visits to this house, for the purpose of superintending alterations; but most of the time remaining to him he spent at the houses of friends, especially at Lord Harley’s seat, Wimpole, with an occasional visit to St. John’s college. He was harassed by his confinement at the messenger’s house, and by the thought that the manœuvres of his enemies might end in some betrayal by him of his friends. Yet, during this period, he touched some of the lightest strings in Alma (the more didactic Solomon on the Vanity of the World had been originally composed at an earlier date); and, after his release, he could break forth into almost buoyant gaiety in the ballad Down-Hall, in which he describes his search for his future residence as
  • A Place where to Bait, ’twixt the Court and the Grave;
  • Where joyful to Live, not unwilling to Die.