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

§ 9. His Versification

Prior’s epigrams are not uniformly good and, occasionally, wanting in restraint; perhaps, his genius as a writer lacked the concentration necessary for the epigram proper; his happiest effort in this direction, the celebrated lines Written in the Beginning of Mezeray’s History of France, part cited above, is, after all, less an epigram than a train of thought suggested by the subject. As a whole, Prior’s shorter poems, of which the entire series seems at last to be in our hands, mark him as the earliest, as he was one of the most consummate, masters of English familiar verse. In his own age, he had no rival in this kind of composition but Swift; that his success in it was more rapid and more widespread than Swift’s may be attributed to his greater sympathy with the ordinary moods of the human mind, though it was primarily due to his more diversified skill in the management of metre and to his originality in the use of it.

In his History of English Prosody, Saintsbury has entered very fully into this aspect of Prior’s poetic genius, which, though it had of course not escaped the attention of critics, had hardly before received full consideration. He has directed attention to the fact that, though Prior wrote, not only his Henry and Emma and not a little of his other amorous poetry, but, also, his Solomon, which he esteemed his masterpiece, in the heroic couplet, he was far from entertaining a preference for the metre to which Dryden had assured its prerogative position. In the Preface to Solomon, he goes out of his way to dwell on its shortcomings. He explains how the “Heroic with continued Rhime,” as used by Donne and his contemporaries “carrying the Sense of one Verse most commonly into another, was found too dissolute and wild, and came very often too near Prose.” On the other hand, the same couplet “as Davenant and Waller corrected, and Dryden perfected it,” appears to him “too confined” for the freedom, and “too broken and weak” for the grandeur, of epic, as well as tedious in a poem of any considerable length. These objections he endeavoured, in his own practice, to meet in various ways. Like most of the poets of his own age and of that immediately preceding it, he sought refuge in the wide haven of pindarics, not without a certain amount of success, but without leaving his mark upon this measure, of which the day was on the wane in English poetry. In the conviction that he who “writes in Rhimes, dances in Fetters,” he also essayed blank verse; but his efforts in this metre cannot be called successful; they comprise his translations of The First and Second Hymns of Calliomachus, as well as the Prelude to a Tale from Boccace and another fragment from The Georgics. The characteristic mark of his blank verse in the longer pieces is an excessive use of double-endings, which arrest, rather than promote, its flow. Of more significance is his endeavour to employ, and to improve, the Spenserian stanza, for which, in the preface to his Ode to the Queen, he expresses high admiration, however imperfect may be the parallel which he draws between the genius of Spenser and that of Horace. The change introduced by him into the scheme of rimes cannot be said to contribute to sustain the rise of the stanza towards its close; but the comparative failure of the attempt was mainly owing to Prior’s inability to rise, even with the help of an occasional archaism, to the grand manner of Spenser.