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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

§ 8. His light Satirical Verse and its excellence

It was inevitable that a poet who rejoiced when he could turn to verse-writing from his political work at home and abroad should have transferred much of its spirit into his poetry, and contributed his share to the pindaric odes and other panegyrical writing of his age. But, though Carmen Seculare may, from the point of view of length, be singled out among his pieces in praise of William or of Anne, no part of it can claim enduring remembrance for its own sake: it varies from the out-rageous to the insipid. His genius for persiflage suggested to him the notion, when the tide of success had turned, of turning with it upon Boileau, who had sung the earlier success of the French arms, and made him repeat the experiment after Blenheim.

Of satires in verse, properly so called, no complete examples are to be found among his poems, though he seems in his early days to have thought of attempting this form of composition and left one or two fragmentary pieces of the kind behind him. On the other hand, he was fertile in a wide variety of light satirical narrative in verse, from the familiar fabliau to the humorous ballad or character-sketch, and to epigrammatic sallies and vers de société of all sorts. In many of these pieces, his lightness of touch, combined with a singular gift of saying, in language as clear and simple as prose, and yet rarely devoid of wit, and still more rarely without grace, exactly what he wanted to say, brought him much nearer to classical examples, above all to that of his favourite Horace, than the more elaborate didactic or semi-didactic efforts mentioned above. The best instances of Prior’s success in the fabliau are An English Padlock and Hans Carvel, both of which are seasoned with the gros sel characteristic of the species; but they do not stand alone. To the humorous character-sketch, there are some admirable approaches in Down-Hall, a Ballad, where the figure of the landlady at the Bull in Hendon, bent on business, first, and the sorrows of memory, afterwards, stands forth for all time, and the still more famous Secretary, an autobiographical reminiscence. But by far the best example of this class, a masterpiece in its way, is the poem which A. R. Waller was fortunate enough to discover among the Longleat MSS., and to which, in his edition, he has given the name Jinny the Just. The insight into character here displayed is equalled by the nicety of nuance with which it is expressed; and the twinkle of humour which animates the life-like portrait is absolutely irresistible. Almost equally good is the earlier epitaph on “Saunt’ring Jack and Idle Joan”—which, indeed, reaches a higher plane in its scorn of the mental or moral apathy it depicts:

  • Without Love, Hatred, Joy, or Fear,
  • They led—a kind of—as it were;
  • Nor wish’d, nor lov’d, nor Cough’d, nor Coy’d;
  • But so They liv’d; and so They dy’d.
  • Among Prior’s vers de société proper, in which the wit is always playful and the flattery kept within the bounds of actual life, a high place has always been assigned to his verses to children, or concerned with them. The cult, it must be allowed, is not one that makes for sincerity, though Prior was a genuine child-lover. His songs are rarely of high excellence; but in an intermediate kind of lyric, half song, half poesy, he remains unsurpassed, with an inimitable—albeit, at times, a kind of wax flower—prettiness. Cloe Hunting, To Cloe Weeping and many another example of this style might be cited; but its acme is reached in A Better Answer to Cloe Jealous, which ends with the most exquisite grammatical faux-pas:
  • Then finish, Dear Cloe, this Pastoral War;
  • Now let us like Horace and Lydia agree;
  • For Thou art a Girl as much brighter than Her,
  • As He was a Poet Sublimer than Me.