Friday, July 21, 2017

`His Verses Always Roll, but They Seldom Flow'

Like the Arthurian legend and Lana Turner’s discovery at Schwab’s, Matthew Prior’s public entrée to literature stirs the hopes and imaginations of all who feel they have gone unrecognized. In 1675, when Prior was eleven, he worked as a bookkeeper in his uncle Arthur Prior’s Rhenish Tavern in Westminster, London. Pepys was a patron, drinking wine by the pint, eating anchovies, gossiping and eyeing the ladies. In Matthew Prior: Poet and Diplomatist (Columbia University Press, 1939), Charles Kenneth Eves sets the scene:

“Matt from his seat behind the bar had ample opportunity to observe the free, easy manners and conversation of the patrons. Much that came out in his own life and verse afterwards is plainly traceable to the tavern, proving, said Dr. Johnson, the truth of the Horatian aphorism: `The vessel long retains the scent which it first receives’ . . . Yet it is to be questioned whether Prior’s coarseness, his love of drink, his ribaldry, are to be attributed so much to the influence of the tavern as to that of the times.”

Eves tells us Prior’s enemies in later life taunted him with such nicknames as “Matthew, the Pint Boy” and “Matthew Spindleshanks, the Tavern Boy.” Among the patrons of the Rhenish was Charles Sackville, Sixth Earl of Dorset, already the patron of Dryden and Congreve, among others. In his remembrance of the poet, Sir James Montague, who lived across the street from the tavern and remained Prior’s lifelong friend, writes:  

“[Lord Dorset] surprised this youth, Matthew Prior, with a Horace in his hand, which taking from him to see what book he had got, he asked him what he did with it. Young Matthew answered he was looking upon it. How, said Lord Dorset, do you understand Latin? He replied, a little, upon saying which the noble lord tried if he could construe a place or two, and finding he did, Lord Dorset turned to one of the odes, and bid him put it into English, which Matt did in English metre, and brought it up to the company before they broke up, and the company was so well pleased with the performance, and the address of the thing, that they all liberally rewarded him with money; and whenever that company met there, it was certainly part of their entertainment to give Odes out of Horace, and verses out of Ovid to translate.”

Prior became Lord Dorset’s protégé, enabling him to resume study at the Westminster School (Prior had been forced to drop out after his father’s death). Among the school’s distinguished alumni were Jonson, Cowley, Dryden, John Locke and Christopher Wren.
A few years later, Prior won a scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge. While there he wrote occasional poems in English and Latin, and soon became the most accomplished English poet between Dryden and Pope.

Here are two of Prior’s epigrams, a minor but pleasant form in his hands (The Literary Works of Matthew Prior, Vol. I, eds. H. Bunker Wright and Monroe K. Spears, 1959):

“Ovid is the surest Guide,
You can name, to show the Way
To any Woman, Maid, or Bride,
Who resolves to go astray.”

And this:

“No, no; for my Virginity,
When I lose that, says Rose, I’ll dye:
Behind the Elmes, last Night, cry’d Dick,
Rose, were You not extreamly Sick?”

In his “Life of Prior,” Dr. Johnson obviously feels an affinity with the poet when he describes him as “one of those that have burst out from an obscure original to great eminence.” His assessment of Prior’s gift is fair:

“Some of his poems are written without regularity of measures, for when he commenced poet, we had not recovered from our Pindarick infatuation; but he probably lived to be convinced that the essence of verse is order and consonance. His numbers are such as mere diligence may attain; they seldom offend the ear, and seldom sooth it; they commonly want airiness, lightness, and facility; what is smooth is not soft. His verses always roll, but they seldom flow.”

Prior was born on this date, July 24, in 1664, and died on Sept. 18, 1721. Three days later, Jonathan Swift concludes the letter he is writing to William King, the Archbishop of Dublin: “I am just now told from some newspapers, that one of the king’s enemies, and my excellent friend, Mr. Prior, is dead; I pray God deliver me from many such trials. I am neither old nor philosopher enough to be indifferent at so great a loss; and therefore I abruptly conclude, but with the greatest respect, my lord.”

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