Tuesday, May 30, 2017

`He Has Inherited No Elegances'

Sometimes in the middle of an otherwise dull poem, an image, line or single word used unexpectedly can briefly spark the poem into life and please the nodding reader: “. . . (as old Falstaff says) / Let us e’en talk a little like folks of this world.” The poem is Matthew Prior’s “A Better Answer,” in which the speaker is working hard to soothe a jealous lover. The Falstaff line is a retrofitted version of something he says in Henry IV, Part 2. Falstaff instructs Pistol to deliver the news that Prince Hal is now Henry V “like a man of this world.” Falstaff has great expectations after his former friend’s coronation, but ends up banished. One hopes the speaker’s mistress hasn’t lately brushed up on her Shakespeare.

D.S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes include Prior’s poem in Horace in English (Penguin, 1996), and note that it is a “pendent” to Horace’s Ode III.9, and that the title refers to “Answer to Chloe Jealous.” In their introduction to the poem, the editors write:

“Serving in his uncle’s Rhenish Tavern, Prior was found by Charles Sackville, the Earl of Dorset, sitting behind the bar reading Horace. Dorset asked him to construe a few passages and then to turn an ode into English. The twelve-year-old boy did this so successfully that Dorset offered to pay his tuition fees at Westminster School, from which he passed to St. John’s College, Cambridge.”

Later in “A Better Answer,” Prior comes up with a pair of lines I could have used when I was much younger: “I court others in verse; but I love thee in prose: / And they have my whimsies; but thou hast my heart.” Very smooth, Matt. The lines remind me of something Cowper said of Prior in a 1782 letter to his friend the Rev. William Unwin: Prior could “make verse speak the language of prose without being prosaic.” Prior, I sense, has been forgotten. Dryden, the greater poet, eclipses him. No critic is willing to call him great, but a patient reader will discover small pleasures among the middling lines. In his “Life of Prior,” Dr. Johnson treats him fairly and accurately:

“His phrases are original, but they are sometimes harsh; as he inherited no elegances, none has he bequeathed. His expression has every mark of laborious study; the line seldom seems to have been formed at once; the words did not come till they were called, and were then put by constraint into their places, where they do their duty, but do it sullenly. In his greater compositions there may be found more rigid stateliness than graceful dignity.”

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