Poetry Wednesday: The Ambition of Matthew Prior

Matthew_Prior_by_Jonathan_RichardsonPoets of all religions are the same,
Recanting Settle brings the tuneful ware
Which wiser Smithfield dam’d to Sturbridge Fair,

Protests his tragedies and libels foul,
to yield him paper, penny-loaves and ale;
And bids our youth, by his example, fly
The love of politicks and poetry.

—“The Seventy Satire of Juvenal Imitated: A Satyr on the Poets”

Matthew Prior was born at a time when it was good to be a smartypants poet.

This was fortunate, because his brains were pretty much the only thing he had going for him after his father died and his family couldn’t afford his tuition at Westminister,* where he’d matriculated since he was eight.

So in 1675, at the ripe old age of eleven, he took a job as bookkeeper for his uncle’s bar.

But this wasn’t some nasty old hole-in-the-wall—it was the Rhenish Tavern, and that meant comfort. In fact, a year later, Charles Sackville,** Sixth Earl of Dorset and collector of awesome poets (see several names from *) came through the door hoping for libation and finding a twelve year old reading the lyrical poetry of a chap named Horace.

In the original Latin. Quia iustus.

His skeptical Lordship made young Matthew translate some of ol’ Horace’s stuff into English verse and was so impressed, he brought all his friends in to watch the kid translate Ovid and write odes for selected lines, which was hilarious entertainment in 1676.*** The Earl of Dorset offered to pay Matthew’s school fees to Westminister, if the family could take care of everything else. They could, barely, and five years later, young Matthew was appointed a King’s Scholar, which guaranteed him a full ride, plus room, board, clothing, and beer money.

Not bad.

Though his Lordship was pushing for Oxford, Master Prior won himself another full scholarship to St. John’s in Cambridge, and while there wrote a couple of poems that dissed several well-known poets,^ including Dryden, who was a favorite of the Earl of Dorset. Ouch.

In particular, “Satyr on the Poets” (quoted above), was pretty much one long snarkfest about the horrible state of contemporary poetry  (except perhaps his own, by implication), though he blames this less on the poets than on a society that wouldn’t pay decent poets what they were worth.^^

Master Prior did earn himself a Fellowship at St. John’s and began lecturing on various topics and tutoring the sons of aristocracy on the side.  But, like a MBA blanketing the corporate world with resumes, he fired off a lot of poems to several influential people, King William III among them, hoping that someone would be impressed enough with his wit and insight to offer him a post.

A Fable
(Matthew Prior)

In Aesop’s tales an honest wretch we find,
Whose years and comforts equally declined;
He in two wives had two domestic ills,
For different age they had, and different wills;
One plucked his black hairs out, and one his gray,
The man for quietness did both obey,
Till all his parish saw his head quite bare,
And thought he wanted brains as well as hair.

The Moral

The parties, henpecked William, are thy wives,
The hairs they pluck are thy prerogatives;
Tories thy person hate, the Whigs thy power,
Though much thou yieldest, still they tug for more,
Till this poor man and thou alike are shown,
He without hair, and thou without a crown.

All interesting choices for an ambitious young man who wanted a career in politics, or indeed at all, but Matthew Prior had his opinions and a certain unwillingness to back down from them. And fortune, at this time, did tend to favor the bold.

So it worked, and he was appointed as a secretary to Lord Dursely at The Hague, which was a hot bed of international intrigue. His position was more of a cultural attaché than mere clerk, and was, by his own words, a pretty good gig:

The Secretary

While with labour assiduous due pleasure I mix,
And in one day atone for the business of six,
In a little Dutch chaise, on a Saturday night,
On my left hand my Horace, a W on my right
No memoirs to compose, and no postboy to move,
That on Sunday may hinder the softness of love;
For her, neither visits, nor parties at tea,
Nor the long-winded cant of a dull refugee:
This night and the next shall be here, shall be mine,
To good or ill fortune the third we resign:
Thus scorning the world, and superior to fate,
I drive on my car in processional state;
So with Phia through Athens Pisistratus rode,
Men thought her Minerva, and him a new god.
But why should I stories of Athens rehearse,
Where people knew love, and were partial to verse;
Since none can with justice my pleasure oppose,
In Holland half drown’d in interest and prose?
By Greece and past ages what need I be tried,
When the Hague and the present are both on my side?
And is it enough for the joys of the day
To think what Anacreon or Sappho would say?
When good Vendergoes and his provident Vrow,
As they gaze on my triumph, do freely allow
That search all the province, you’ll find no man dar is
So bless’d as the English heer Secretar’ is.

He immediately started building political clout and, apparently, collecting mistresses.^^^ He wrote a lot of poetry, too, on many different topics from patriotism to flattery to, well . . .

A True Maid
(Matthew Prior)

No, no; for my virginity,
When I lose that, says Rose, I’ll die:
Behind the elms, last night, cried Dick,
Rose, were you not extremely sick?

Oh, you.

But poetry wasn’t just entertainment in the 17th Century—it was a weapon, and Master Prior wielded his to support the Tories and excoriate other groups for reasons I don’t care to get into now, because it’s really complicated, I’m three hundred years, an ocean, and a certain amount of disinterest removed from understanding it or sharing it here, and it’s my blog.

But all the sources agree that his political poetry was explosive stuff and his reputation and career flourished. He had a remarkable talent for diplomacy—at least when he wasn’t writing poetry—and he ended up acting on the King’s behalf in some of the most delicate and controversial treaties of the time. He also began collecting enemies both poetical—Daniel Defoe in particular—and political, which was a sure sign that he’d finally made it.

But fortune, as much as she likes to flirt with confident young men, has a short attention span.

William fell off his horse and died. His successor, Anne Stuart, didn’t like Prior’s style and  benched him.

So he fell back on poetry, which is something of an understatement. This was the time in which he became the most important and influential English poet of the next decade or so—go read some Alexander Pope and tell me differently—and I have to wonder what might have happened if he’d been content with this recognition of his poetic talents.

But he wasn’t. And eventually, Anne needed him to do one or two little things, and he went on one or two last, little secretive missions . . .

And then she died, the Hanovers inherited the Stuart throne, the Whigs came into power, and Prior’s Tory loyalties came back to bite him, hard.

He wrote some lovely stuff in prison.


But shall we take the Muse abroad,
To drop her idly on the road,
And leave our subject in the middle,
As Butler did his Bear and Fiddle?
Yet he, consummate master, knew
When to recede and where pursue:
His noble negligence teach
What others’ toils despair to reach.
He, perfect dancer, climbs the rope,
And balances your fear and hope.
If, after some distinguished leap,
He drops his pole, and seems to slip,
Straight gathering all his active strength,
He rises higher half his length:
With wonder you approve his sleight,
And owe your pleasure to your fright:
But like poor Andrew I advance,
False mimic of my master’s dance;
Around the chord a while I sprawl,
And thence, though low, in earnest fall.

My preface tells you I digress’d;
He’s half absolved who has confess’d.

Prison is never a pleasant place to be, even if one is sent care packages by wealthy friends, and it’s pretty obvious from his writings—even to me—that he was as done with politics as it was done with him by the time he was released.   He left the satire to younger men and lived under a sort of enforced retirement for a few years, until his death in 1721.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of kings, politicos, and literati, in the South Transept called “Poet’s Corner.”

This was, in my opinion, the right choice.
*aka, “Prestigious Poets Prep.” I’m not kidding—the alumni list reads like the first few pages of the Table of Contents of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

**Who deserves far better than cheap Hobbit puns, bless him, but I just couldn’t help myself.

***And would send the average modern college student screaming to the Dean.

^ Much the same as a young rap artist might challenge his better-known peers, though with more references to Greek motifs and fewer overt death threats.

^^No, Virginia, there is nothing new under the sun.

^^^Okay, that isn’t fair. He had three mistresses during his lifetime and they appear to have been consecutive rather than concurrent. His first long-term lady-love was his housekeeper, a convenient arrangement that lasted sixteen years, until she died of a sudden illness. He wrote her a poem that isn’t terribly romantic, but holds, I think, real affection and some of the fun I hope they had together.