Barboy, Scholar, Poet, Spy
The party-colour'd life of Matthew Prior (1664-1721)
Often hailed as the most important poet writing in English between the death of John Dryden and the ascendency of Alexander Pope, Matthew Prior (1664-1721) was also a leading diplomat of his day, whose linguistic abilities and talent for negotiation helped steer the course of European political relations throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His most important diplomatic contribution was arguably his facilitation of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession between England, Holland, Portugal, Prussia, Savoy and France, in 1713. During his lifetime Prior published two substantial collections of verse, and he remains one of the few poets ever to have succeeded in generating a small fortune through a subscription edition of original poems.
Commemorating the 300th anniversary of his death, this exhibition showcases items from the College’s rare book and manuscript collections, to explore how Prior’s politics and poetry shaped his life and legacy.
This is an online exhibition for Lent Term 2021.
Curated by Rebecca Watts, Library Projects Assistant
Ales and odes
Born in London in 1664, Matthew Prior was the only surviving child of a London joiner. He had begun his education at Westminster School, but when his father died, leaving the family in financial hardship, he was sent to work at his uncle’s pub, the Rhenish Tavern on Channel Row.
It was there that Charles Sackville, sixth earl of Dorset, discovered the twelve-year-old Prior reading the Roman poet Horace behind the bar. Impressed and amused, the earl commissioned Prior to translate passages from Horace and other of the Latin poets into English verse – which Prior accomplished with such facility that the earl subsequently offered to fund his return to school. Back at Westminster, Prior distinguished himself in the classical languages and was elected a king’s scholar in 1681.
The images above are taken from Prior’s own copy of the 1642 folio edition of Horace’s works (given its size and quality, presumably not the same copy he had read behind the bar as a boy).
Looking back on Prior’s contribution to English poetry more than 150 years later, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray noted the influence of Horace on his work. ‘Prior's seem to me amongst the easiest, the richest, the most charmingly humorous of English lyrical poems,’ Thackeray wrote in The English Humorists (1853). ‘Horace is always in his mind; and his song, and his philosophy, his good sense, his happy easy turns and melody, his loves and his Epicureanism bear a great resemblance to that most delightful and accomplished master.’
Westminster’s king’s scholars usually proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford; certainly this was what Prior’s patron, the earl of Dorset, and tutor, Dr Busby, were expecting. Prior, however, had other ideas, and instead applied to attend St John’s College, Cambridge, where several of his best friends were already ensconced.
‘Mattheus Prior’ of ‘Dorcestr’ (later corrected to ‘Middlesexiensis’) was entered in the College Admissions Register on 2 April 1683. As one of the first recipients of a Duchess of Somerset scholarship he was exempt from tuition fees, and received 5s living expenses per week (approximately £29 in today’s money). He also had access to a private study, though he shared a bedroom with four other men.
Prior graduated BA (ranked eleventh in his year) in February 1687, and the following year was elected to a Keyton Fellowship at St John’s. Here you can see his declaration in the Register of Fellows, Officers and Scholars, signed on 5 April 1688, in his own hand.
His declaration can be transcribed and translated as follows:
Ego Matthaeus Prior Middlesexiensis juratus et admissus sum in perpetuu[m] Socium hujus Coll[egii]: pro D[octo]re Keyton; decessore Magistro Roper.
I Matthew Prior of Middlesex, am sworn and admitted as a perpetual fellow of this College: for Dr Keyton [i.e. a Keyton Fellowship]; in succession to Master Roper.
Much malice mingled with a little wit
Although the Cambridge curriculum in the late seventeenth century was heavily focused on logic and divinity, Prior continued to develop as a poet while at St John’s, composing more than 40 pieces (in Latin and in English) during his four years as an undergraduate.
His first publication came in July 1687 and was a collaboration (published anonymously) with Charles Montagu, earl of Halifax – one of the school friends whom Prior had followed to St John’s. In a mixture of prose and verse, the work comprised a satirical attack on the Poet Laureate John Dryden’s latest allegorical offering, The Hind and the Panther, which had been published just two months previously.
In Dryden’s poem, an unlikely cast of characters including a hind, a panther, a bear, a wolf, a hare, a fox, an ape and a boar are cast as representatives of the competing religious factions of the day, and engage in a series of lengthy and complex debates concerning matters of church authority and doctrine.
In the preface to their ‘transvers’d’ tale, Prior and Montagu assure the reader that ‘there is nothing Represented here as monstrous and unnatural, which is not equally so in the Original’, pinpointing the perceived absurdity of Dryden’s ‘general design’: ‘Is it not as easie to imagine two Mice bilking Coachmen, and supping at the Devil; as to suppose a Hind entertaining the Panther at a Hermit’s Cell, discussing the greatest Mysteries of Religion, and telling you her son Rodriguez writ very good Spanish?’
Sir James Montagu, brother of Charles and Prior’s lifelong friend, described its composition as follows: ‘The Hind and Panther being at that time in every bodys hands Mr Prior accidently came one morning to make Mr Montagu a visit … and the poem lying upon the table Mr Montagu took it up and read the four first lines … where stopping he took notice how foolish it was … and said the best way of answering that Poem wou’d be to ridicule it by telling Horace’s fable of the City mouse and Country mouse in the same manner’.
Their plan worked: despite having published anonymously, Montagu and Prior were known to be the authors, and the work won them widespread public acclaim, being the vanguard of a volley of pamphlet publications that took issue with Dryden’s theology, if not his verse.
A diplomatic turn
As a Fellow at St John’s, Prior continued to write verse, and worked briefly as tutor to the Marquis of Exeter’s sons. On the whole, he appears to have spent his post-graduation years searching for an opportunity to move into a political career. His opportunity came in 1690, when with the help of his patron, the earl of Dorset, he secured the role of Secretary to the Ambassador at the Hague.
His responsibilities included forwarding to England any relevant newspapers and newsletters (with his own commentary), and relaying details of battles in the Nine Years’ War as well as any local diplomatic gossip.
The letter shown above is one of a series of letters sent by Prior to the earl of Dorset between 1694 and 1698. Written from The Hague on 14/4 May 1694, the letter discusses the death of the Elector of Saxony and French moves in Flanders, and ends with a series of verse prayers ‘for Your Lordship’s Health and Happiness’:
Spare Dorsett’s sacred life, deceiving fate,
And Death shall march thro’ Courts & Camps in state,
Emptying his Quiver on the vulgar Great;
Round Dorsett’s board lett Peace & Plenty dance,
Far off lett Famine Her sad reign advance,
And War walk deep in blood thro’ conquer’d France.
Apollo thus began the Mystic Strain;
The Muses Sons all bow’d and sayd Amen.
The two different dates given on the letters take account of the difference between the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced in Roman Catholic countries from 1582 onwards, and the Julian calendar, which Protestant and Orthodox countries continued to use for another couple of centuries (in England the changeover did not take place until 1752).
The English Mr Secretary
For three of his seven years at The Hague there was no resident English Ambassador, and Prior acted skilfully as chief minister, while only receiving a secretary’s pay. When Edward, Viscount Villiers (later earl of Jersey) – also a St John’s alumnus – assumed the Ambassador’s office at The Hague in 1695, he immediately requested that Prior be kept on and that his salary be doubled.
Much of the poetry Prior wrote in these years focused on public concerns: British war victories, the life of the royal family, and so on. In this poem of 1696, however, Prior offers a rare glimpse of his personal life in The Hague. Where six days out of seven were devoted to the ‘Busyness’ of composing reports, making and hosting visits, attending tea parties and listening to ‘the long winded cant of a dull refugée’, on Saturday nights and Sundays he was free to pursue his own modest pleasures.
From 1697 onwards, while serving as secretary to the earl of Jersey, Prior was involved in the difficult and protracted negotiations that eventually led to the Treaty of Ryswick. This brought an end the Nine Years War – a territorial struggle between Louis XIV’s France and the ‘Grand Alliance’ of England, Spain, Emperor Leopold and the Dutch republic. The peace deal involved Louis XIV agreeing to recognise William III as King of England, to give up his attempts to control Cologne and the Palatinate, to end the French occupation of Lorraine, and to restore Luxembourg, Mons, Courtrai and Barcelona to Spain.
Deploying his formidable language skills, Prior’s role was to check the French and Latin versions of the negotiations. The following publications describing various aspects of the Treaty are among a selection of political documents and pamphlets bound together in a single volume from Prior’s personal library.
Over the next decade, Prior saw diplomatic service in Paris and London, travelling frequently between the two. As secretary to the ambassador in Paris (1698-99), he had few official duties – his main commission essentially being to spy on those in power in France, and on the Jacobites there, on behalf of his superiors in England. On returning to London, he held the positions of under-secretary of state and commissioner of the Board of Trade and Plantations, while continuing to act as a peripatetic diplomatic agent, managing the secret negotiations with Louis XIV that later formed the basis of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713).
While travelling back from France on a false passport in July 1711, Prior was apprehended by an English customs official and briefly jailed. With his cover blown, the negotiations that should have remained classified quickly became common knowledge. In an attempt to divert public attention, Jonathan Swift (writing under the pseudonym ‘Sieur du Baudrier’) published the following mock account of Prior’s dealings with the French. Unfortunately, Swift’s satire drew rather close to the truth in several places, and may in fact have made matters worse for Prior.
A second satirical account inspired by Prior’s diplomatic adventures appeared the following year. Published anonymously, it is generally assumed to be the work of either Daniel Defoe or the French diplomat Nicolas Mesnager.
Despite these setbacks, the negotiations pushed on, and on 11 April 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht was signed by England, France, Holland, Portugal, Prussia and Savoy, bringing an end to the War of the Spanish Succession. Prior’s role in the negotiations was by this time so well known that the preliminary treaties between England and France were referred to by his parliamentary colleagues as ‘Matt’s Peace’.
Following the signing of the treaty, Prior remained in Paris for several months as acting Ambassador. This portrait, painted in 1713/14, shows him in his professional capacity, in the act of conveying a letter, with an official document case on the table beside him.
Although Prior’s costume here contrasts sharply with the bohemian image conveyed in his earlier portrait, the books to his right also nod to his reputation as a poet.
Kit-Cats and ultra-tories
During his decade of intermittent residence in London (between 1699 and 1711), Prior participated actively in British politics. Around 1700 he joined the group of committed whigs known as the Kit-Cat Club, among whose members numbered his friend and former collaborator Charles Montagu, his patron the earl of Dorset, the bookseller and publisher Jacob Tonson, and the writers Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and William Congreve.
Prior’s allegiance with the Kit-Cats was unexpectedly short lived, however. In 1701, while serving as the whig MP for East Grinstead, he found himself siding with the tories in a vote to impeach the four leading whigs responsible for an unpopular partition treaty. The ramifications were complex: Charles Montagu was among the four, and Prior – who later explained that his hand in the vote had been forced – found himself estranged from his whig friends and patron. In 1710, having drifted gradually rightwards, Prior became one of the founding editors of the ‘ultra-tory journal’ The Examiner, whose chief contributor was Jonathan Swift.
Above you can see the first ever number of The Examiner, and below is a later number in which the ‘Articles of a Whig-Creed’ are satirically set down. To compete with the tories’ offering, Kit-Catter Joseph Addison quickly launched his own rival paper, The Whig Examiner – though this ran to only five issues.
Amid the turbulence of his diplomatic and political manoeuvrings, in 1709 Prior succeeded in publishing Poems on Several Occasions – the first of two so-named collections printed during his lifetime.
The volume contains some of his most famous poems – many of which had previously been anthologised or appeared separately elsewhere – as well as a number of previously unpublished pieces. In his Preface, Prior categorises the poems as either ‘Publick Panegyrics, Amorous Odes, Serious Reflexions, or Idle Tales’, and begs the reader to appreciate them as ‘the Product of his leisure Hours, who had commonly Business enough upon his Hands, and was only a Poet by Accident’.
This particular copy bears the inscription ‘Ex dono Authoris’ (‘given by the author’) on the flyleaf.
Loss and profit
Prior’s diplomatic achievements cost him dearly. By 1714, having effectively served as ambassador to Paris without the requisite allowance, he had incurred substantial financial debt. On his return to England, with the whigs now in power, he was held under house arrest for over a year, under the auspices of a secret committee set up to investigate corruption in the tory party (with a particular focus on the preceding negotiations for the Treaty of Utrecht). Unable to receive guests without permission, and forbidden from writing or receiving letters, Prior somehow managed to compose several new poems during this period.
On his release in 1716, with his political career decidedly over and no immediate source of income, Prior faced a difficult future. To assist him, a group of his friends and admirers – including fellow poet Alexander Pope and the publisher Jacob Tonson – came up with the idea of producing a high-quality subscription edition of Prior’s poems. This was to combine all the poems from his 1709 volume Poems on Several Occasions with a number of new poems, including the long poem ‘Alma, or, The Progress of the Mind’, which he had written while under arrest.
Eventually published in 1719 (though bearing the publication date 1718), this large-format folio edition ran to more than 500 pages, and features a beautifully engraved frontispiece illustration and portrait of the author.
With an astonishing 1445 subscribers (each named at the back of the volume over the course of a 20-page list), the publication reputedly earned Prior the huge sum of 4000 guineas: more than £450,000 in today’s money.
Independently wealthy for the first time in his life, Prior spent his final years collecting books, artefacts and antiquities, writing letters and poems, and planning a country estate – Down Hall, in Essex – which he had co-purchased with his friend Edward Harley, son of the earl of Oxford. As well as commissioning architects and designers to draw up plans for the house and gardens, Prior wrote a long, colloquial poem documenting his excitement and concerns about his ambitious project.
Sadly, during a visit to the Harley seat at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire in September 1721, Prior fell suddenly ill with cholera morbus, a condition from which he had intermittently suffered throughout his adult life. He died two days later, without having seen the completion of his Essex estate, and was eventually interred in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Prior’s reputation as one of the leading public figures, as well as poets, of his day, was sustained by a steady flow of publications in the decades and even centuries following his death. New and supplemented editions of his poetry appeared sporadically throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, published in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Berwick and Manchester as well as London. In 1740, Prior’s literary executor and former amanuensis Adrian Drift oversaw the publication of an authorised memoir, compiled from Prior’s original manuscripts.
The quotation featured on the title page reveals Prior’s attitude to the relative importance of his two careers: ‘I had rather be thought a good ENGLISHMAN than the best POET or greatest SCHOLAR that ever Wrote.’ In the dedication at the front of the volume, Drift is keen to reiterate the image of Prior as an outstanding public servant whose reputation was unfairly damaged as a consequence of complex and localised political machinations beyond his control. The ‘peruser’ of his papers, Drift asserts, ‘will discover the Violence, and at the same Time the Impotence of Party Malice, against a Gentleman whose only Crime was acting up to his Commission, and executing faithfully his Sovereign’s Warrants’.
As a companion volume to The History of His Own Time, in the same year Drift brought out a volume of Prior’s miscellaneous poetical and literary works. The frontispiece engraving to this volume depicts the large marble monument to Prior that stands behind Shakespeare’s memorial in Westminster Abbey. The bust at the centre of the monument had been presented to Prior during his lifetime by the King of France. Standing on either side are the life-size figures of Poetry and History.
Spin-off publications by other editors keen to capitalise on Prior’s popularity as a poet also abounded. This 1741 volume offers a selection of Prior’s lyrics ‘set to music by several eminent masters’.
As ‘The Divided Heart’ (pictured below) demonstrates, the category of poems Prior termed ‘amorous odes’ lend themselves especially well to the song form.
Prior had already gifted several volumes to the College Library during his time as a Fellow. On his death he bequeathed to the College books from his own library to the value of £200. These volumes now reside in the Upper Library at St John’s, and include works on European history and politics, geography and travel, art and architecture, literature, classics and theology.
Among them are three incunabula – books printed before 1500. The image below shows a page from a 1496 Italian edition of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, with hand-coloured initials and marginal annotations (not by Prior).
A second Italian incunable, dating from 1499, consists of collected classical writings (in Latin and ancient Greek) on astronomy, complete with zodiacal illustrations and tables. Born on either 21 or 23 July, Prior might have taken particular interest in the sections on Cancer and Leo.
In keeping with his interest in languages, Prior also owned a copy of the first ever printed edition of the Old Testament in Irish.
Several volumes from Prior’s library bear the French Royal arms in gilt on the binding – having perhaps originally been bound for Louis XIV. Among them is this 1641 edition of Saint Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life, with a beautifully engraved title page illustration.
All Prior’s volumes bear his bookplate, usually pasted in on the verso of the title page.