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It is a truism that a man may have had a successful career, yet be, from his own point of view, a failure. I am not sure that Prior did not so regard his literary laurels. Very possibly he would even have deemed the ripple of personal kindliness which still gurgles about his score of gay lyrics, poor compensation for the foundering of his more serious poems in the stream of fame. He himself, under the guise of a would-be intimate, affects to be diverted by the refusal of the public to recognize sublimity in the gravity of dull Solomon :
Indeed, poor Solomon in rhyme
It is more likely that he was sincerely disappointed. Of the epic a single couplet is popularly remembered :
Abra was ready ere I called her name ;
And, though I call’d another, Abra came.? Scarcely so much survives of Henry and Emma.
But he has proved elsewhere that he had a right to feel able to measure swords with masters, as in his youth. To the satiric mockery, excellent of its kind, of the Story, principally his, of the Country-Mouse and the City-Mouse, he added later real fire of fancy in the brilliant ballad on King William's recapture of Namur in 1695. It is a retort to Boileau's paean on its capture by the French in 1692. Every stanza rustles and roars with the whizzing of the
tell us ;
triumphant cannonade. For an instance, not an exceptional one, take the fourth :
Full fifteen thousand lusty fellows
With fire and sword the fort maintain ;
Did death and tombs for foes contrive;
That most of us are still alive.3 Alma in another sort exhibits power to break and ride with a light hand a philosophical theme as bravely. Lines of Prior's are of the substance of our language. Who, for instance, is not familiar, if not with the whole ballad of the thief on his way to be hanged, at any rate with the disagreement between him and his spiritual adviser on the merits of dispatch ; how he
whose good grace was to open the scene, Seem'd not in great haste that the show should begin ; Now fitted the halter, now travers'd the cart;
And often took leave, but was loth to depart. His epigrams gleam even now with not unamiable malice. On the whole, I am willing to believe, and doubtless with his own full concurrence, that, but for the counter attractions of ambition, always social rather than political, he might have attained, as a partisan poet, a position in literary history resembling, with less weight of metal, that occupied by Dryden's self.
As it was, he thought he had earned a monument in Westminster Abbey, and made handsome provision for one by will. Whatever the coolness of contemporary opinion, he looked, I dare say, to posterity to grow enthusiastic over 'poor Solomon' and its like.
Hard as it may be to fix limits to hopefulness in respect of posthumous
fame, there is no reason to suppose that he anticipated immortality for his minor poems. They are the earliest unmistakable vers de société enshrined in classical English literature. Ben Jonson, Donne, Herrick, Suckling, Lovelace, Waller, even Cowley, and saintly Crashaw, had sung the praises of love and wine. Their songs had passion, or ideas. They were impersonal, and were born with an intention of living. It might have been thought that Prior's, which had no lofty pretensions, had answered their purpose if they praised a friend or patron, and brought to their author a momentary vogue.
The coloured bubbles he blew would not have been futile had they burst with the shock of a coffee-house's or a boudoir's applause. Somehow, on they went glittering, fluttering, like butterflies, as with a life of their own; and they flutter and glitter still.
Modern taste braves Johnson's scorn of what he accounted mawkish delicacy,5 and has shelved several poems, once on every one's lips, as too full-flavoured ; but two centuries have not superannuated ‘Kitty, beautiful and young ’, who, overruling Mamma's. judgement in keeping her yet awhile within her nursery,
at heart's desire, Obtain'd the chariot for a day,
And set the world on fire_6
inclusive of the Duke of Queensberry. They have not worn the edge off Cloe's all-sufficient explanation to an Angry Lover of her breach of an appointment ;? Euphelia's very natural displeasure that,
My lyre I tune, my voice I raise,
But with my numbers mix my sighs ;
fix my soul on Cloe's eyes ; 8
Cupid's unfortunately matricidal mistake of Venus for her likeness, the same Cloe ; 9 or the superhuman wisdom of a bachelor's advice to a jealous husband :
Wait on her to the park and play,
And clap your padlock-on her mind.10 He renders a 'blubbered face' still adorable, and his own scandalous grammar in apologizing, in turn, to Cloe, for his miscellaneous amorousness in verse :
Then let us like Horace and Lydia agree :
As he was a poet sublimer than me ! more delightful than good English, as probably it was better in keeping with her own.11
His fancy is an inexhaustible spring. At a touch the fountain plays at love of a five-year-old Lady Mary, who
makes her silk-worms beds With all the tender things I swear; Whilst all the house my passion reads
In papers round her baby's hair.1 An instant, and another Child of Quality draws from the mature, yet never hardened, wit, a gush of honest, thoughtful affectionateness :
My noble, lovely, little Peggy,
Obey and please my lord and lady,
If to these precepts you attend,
And so I rest your constant friend.13 Gaiety, innocence, elegance, neatness, sweetness-even, when required, a passing flush of tenderness—are native to Prior's pen. Note, for a combination of these qualities, the pretty and graceful, but far from profound, Garland —the simple, yet well-dressed ease, 'simplex munditiis,' of the transition from smiles to melancholy :
Ah me! the blooming pride of May,
And that of Beauty are but one ;
Both fade at evening, pale and gone.
The amorous youth around her bow'd ;
and kiss'd her in her shroud.14 The artifice is well known in poetry, a mortal experiment with an infinity of failures. As the reader feels an approach to the attempt, he has an emotion akin to that of an Alpine climber on a slender snow-ledge. There is the perilous, intoxicating joy of being an inch off a violent death-the imminence of a bathos lying in wait for an excess of pathos.
That is the distinction, the wonder, of 'Mat Prior's easy jingle '. At one moment he obliges us to be surprised at the commonplace. At another he appears to be riding for a fall, and does not tumble. One can no more be angry with him for an invitation to a walk on slippery ground than with a child who puts his elders to the blush. The attractiveness, almost the fascination, is certain ; and yet,