Prior Matthew 16641721 Matthew

Prior was born into a poor family in Stephen's Alley, Westminster. While he began school, his father's death left him in the care of an uncle, probably named Arthur, who determined Prior should not complete his education because of a lack of funds. He began writing poetry early, dedicating a poem at age 12 to Arthur Prior. While at his uncle's Rhennish Wine House in Channel (later Cannon) Row, Prior met many patrons from the court of King Charles II. Supposedly Charles Sackville, earl of Dorset, a well-known patron of the arts, "discovered" Prior and sponsored his education and future career. Through the earl's generosity Prior matriculated through St. John's College, Cambridge, completing studies at age 18 and becoming a lifelong fellow in 1688. His publishing career began a year earlier when he attacked John Dryden's The Hind and the PANTHER through satire. His parody coauthored by Charles Montague titled The Hind and the Panther Tranvers'd to the Story of The Country Mouse and the City Mouse was extremely popular. According to Samuel JoHNSoN Dryden stated his distress over the fact that "an old man should be so treated by those to whom he had always been civil." The reference is probably an allusion to the fact that Dryden had included several of Prior's poems in his Miscellanies; Prior became well known, writing simply as "Matt."

In 1690 Prior began service as secretary to the British ambassador at The Hague. His diplomatic career flourished through the reign of William III, who made

Prior a gentleman of his bedchamber and supported the poet's study. Prior enjoyed the life of the courtier and assumed the title commissioner of trade. At the king's death Prior wrote the eulogy, Carmen Secolare (1700). Johnson wrote in his Lives of the English Poets that Prior made public the fact he had "praised others in compliance with the fashion, but . . . in celebrating King William he followed his inclination."

Prior lost his post when Queen Anne ascended the throne, but his career revived through the efforts of Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, a Tory. He contributed to The Examiner, a publication developed for the purpose of revealing government abuses in the hopes of driving the Whigs from power. The Tories proved successful and desired to end the war with France; Prior was dispatched in secret to develop a treaty. His failure in acting as a peace emissary would receive a public accounting by Jonathan Swift, Prior's friend, in his A Journey to Paris (1711).

However, Prior later became an important connection between Britain and France and was named minister plenipotentiary in 1712. When negotiations appeared to be souring, Bolingbroke wrote to Prior, "Dear Mat, hide the nakedness of thy country, and give the best turn thy fertile brain will furnish thee with to the blunders of thy countrymen, who are not much better politicians than the French are poets." The signing of the Treaty of Utrecht gave Prior fame, and he enjoyed the company of luminaries and members of the royal family, including Louis XIV. Not all of his business and political ventures succeeded, and his friend Alexander Pope judged Prior best fit "to make verses." He was known for cohabitating with various women of questionable character. According to Johnson one "despicable drab of the lowest species" stole from Prior, the consequence of his fascination with people of lower social status.

Prior again lost favor when Queen Anne died and she was replaced by the Hanoverian prince George Louis as King George I; he led a Whig administration. After returning to England, Prior was imprisoned for more than a year, mainly as a result of the efforts of Sir Robert Walpole. While in prison Prior wrote Alma, or, the Progress of the Mind (1718), judged "imperfect" by Johnson. After his release at age 53, he retired to pri vate study and writing, working to improve his country house, Down Hall. The efforts of his old supporter Harley prevented his suffering poverty and allowed the purchase of the hall.

A relatively young man, Prior felt his life had all but ended with the loss of his political appointments, evidenced by some remarks in his correspondence. Through the efforts of his friends a plan was created to sell a collection of Prior's works. According to his biographer Francis Bickley, Erasmus Lewis wrote to Swift that he feared "our friend Prior" would "end his days in as forlorn a state as any other poet has done before him, if his friends do not take more care of him than he has done of himself." Those friends included Pope, Pope's friend John Arbuthnot, John Gay, and Mr. Lewis, all of whom would procure subscriptions to print Prior's work.

Prior's collection included epistles, lyrics, odes, ballads, and various imitations of the classics, all of which appeared in the planned 1718 collection, supported by subscriptions and Harley's continued patronage. His Solomon on the Vanity of the World (1718) employed heroic couplets and appeared in three volumes that Prior believed would assure continuing fame after his death but readers found tedious. His lyrics would stand as his best works, judged graceful in their simplicity. He left incomplete imagined dialogues between Montaigne and Locke in Dialogues of the Dead, considered brilliant by later critics. Prior suffered from deafness and poor health in his last years and died of cholera. He was buried as he had famously requested at the feet of Edmund Spenser, many times his poetic model, in Westminster Abbey. Popular anthologized works include "An Epitaph," "A True Maid," and "A Better Answer."

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