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Samuel Johnson
Lives of the English Poets : Prior, Congreve, Blackmore, Pope


When, at the age of sixty-eight, Johnson was writing these “Lives of the English Poets,” he had caused omissions to be made from the poems of Rochester, and was asked whether he would allow the printers to give all the verse of Prior.  Boswell quoted a censure by Lord Hailes of “those impure tales which will be the eternal opprobrium of their ingenious author.”  Johnson replied, “Sir, Lord Hailes has forgot.  There is nothing in Prior that will excite to lewdness;” and when Boswell further urged, he put his questionings aside, and added, “No, sir, Prior is a lady’s book.  No lady is ashamed to have it standing in her library.”  Johnson distinguished strongly, as every wise man does, between offence against convention, and offence against morality.

In Congreve’s plays he recognised the wit but condemned the morals, and in the case of Blackmore the regard for the religious purpose of Blackmore’s poem on “The Creation” gave to Johnson, as to Addison, an undue sense of its literary value.

With his “Life of Pope,” which occupies more than two-thirds of this volume, Johnson took especial pains.  “He wrote it,” says Boswell, “‘con amore,’ both from the early possession which that writer had taken of his mind, and from the pleasure which he must have felt in for ever silencing all attempts to lessen his poetical fame. . . . I remember once to have heard Johnson say, ‘Sir, a thousand years may elapse before there shall appear another man with a power of versification equal to that of Pope.’”

Pope’s laurel, since Johnson’s days, has flourished, without showing a dead bough, for all the frosts of hostile criticism.

H. M.


Matthew Prior is one of those that have burst out from an obscure original to great eminence.  He was born July 21, 1664, according to some, at Wimborne, in Dorsetshire, of I know not what parents; others say that he was the son of a joiner of London: he was perhaps willing enough to leave his birth unsettled, in hope, like Don Quixote, that the historian of his actions might find him some illustrious alliance.  He is supposed to have fallen, by his father’s death, into the hands of his uncle, a vintner near Charing Cross, who sent him for some time to Dr. Busby, at Westminster; but, not intending to give him any education beyond that of the school, took him, when he was well advanced in literature, to his own house, where the Earl of Dorset, celebrated for patronage of genius, found him by chance, as Burnet relates, reading Horace, and was so well pleased with his proficiency, that he undertook the care and cost of his academical education.  He entered his name in St. John’s College, at Cambridge, in 1682, in his eighteenth year; and it may be reasonably supposed that he was distinguished among his contemporaries.  He became a Bachelor, as is usual, in four years, and two years afterwards wrote the poem on the Deity, which stands first in his volume.

It is the established practice of that College to send every year to the Earl of Exeter some poems upon sacred subjects, in acknowledgment of a benefaction enjoyed by them from the bounty of his ancestor.  On this occasion were those verses written, which, though nothing is said of their success, seem to have recommended him to some notice; for his praise of the countess’s music, and his lines on the famous picture of Seneca, afford reason for imagining that he was more or less conversant with that family.

The same year he published “The City Mouse and Country Mouse,” to ridicule Dryden’s “Hind and Panther,” in conjunction with Mr. Montague.  There is a story of great pain suffered, and of tears shed, on this occasion by Dryden, who thought it hard that “an old man should be so treated by those to whom he had always been civil.”  By tales like these is the envy raised by superior abilities every day gratified.  When they are attacked every one hopes to see them humbled; what is hoped is readily believed, and what is believed is confidently told.  Dryden had been more accustomed to hostilities than that such enemies should break his quiet; and, if we can suppose him vexed, it would be hard to deny him sense enough to conceal his uneasiness.

“The City Mouse and Country Mouse” procured its authors more solid advantages than the pleasure of fretting Dryden, for they were both speedily preferred.  Montague, indeed, obtained the first notice with some degree of discontent, as it seems, in Prior, who probably knew that his own part of the performance was the best.  He had not, however, much reason to complain, for he came to London and obtained such notice that (in 1691) he was sent to the Congress at the Hague as secretary to the embassy.  In this assembly of princes and nobles, to which Europe has perhaps scarcely seen anything equal, was formed the grand alliance against Louis, which at last did not produce effects proportionate so the magnificence of the transaction.

The conduct of Prior, in this splendid initiation into public business, was so pleasing to King William, that he made him one of the gentlemen of his bedchamber; and he is supposed to have passed some of the next years in the quiet cultivation of literature and poetry.

The death of Queen Mary (in 1695) produced a subject for all the writers—perhaps no funeral was ever so poetically attended.  Dryden, indeed, as a man discountenanced and deprived, was silent; but scarcely any other maker of verses omitted to bring his tribute of tuneful sorrow.  An emulation of elegy was universal.  Mary’s praise was not confined to the English language, but fills a great part of the Musæ Anglicanæ.

Prior, who was both a poet and a courtier, was too diligent to miss this opportunity of respect.  He wrote a long ode, which was presented to the king, by whom it was not likely to be ever read.  In two years he was secretary to another embassy at the Treaty of Ryswick (in 1697), and next year had the same office at the court of France, where he is said to have been considered with great distinction.  As he was one day surveying the apartments at Versailles, being shown the “Victories of Louis,” painted by Le Brun, and asked whether the King of England’s palace had any such decorations: “The monuments of my master’s actions,” said he, “are to be seen everywhere but in his own house.”

The pictures of Le Brun are not only in themselves sufficiently ostentatious, but were explained by inscriptions so arrogant, that Boileau and Racine thought it necessary to make them more simple.  He was in the following year at Leo with the king, from whom, after a long audience, he carried orders to England, and upon his arrival became Under Secretary of State in the Earl of Jersey’s office, a post which he did not retain long, because Jersey was removed, but he was soon made Commissioner of Trade.

This year (1700) produced one of his longest and most splendid compositions, the “Carmen Seculare,” in which he exhausts all his powers of celebration.  I mean not to accuse him of flattery; he probably thought all that he writ, and retained as much veracity as can be properly exacted from a poet professedly encomiastic.  King William supplied copious materials for either verse or prose.  His whole life had been action, and none ever denied him the resplendent qualities of steady resolution and personal courage.  He was really in Prior’s mind what he represents him in his verses; he considered him as a hero, and was accustomed to say that he praised others in compliance with the fashion, but that in celebrating King William he followed his inclination.  To Prior, gratitude would dictate praise, which reason would not refuse.

Among the advantages to arise from the future years of William’s reign, he mentions a Society for Useful Arts, and among them:—

“Some that with care true eloquence shall teach,
And to just idioms fix our doubtful speech;
That from our writers distant realms may know
   The thanks we to our monarchs owe,
And schools profess our tongue through every land
That has invoked his aid, or blessed his hand.”

Tickell, in his “Prospect of Peace,” has the same hope of a new academy:—

“In happy chains our daring language bound,
Shall sport no more in arbitrary sound.”

Whether the similitude of those passages, which exhibit the same thought on the same occasion, proceeded from accident or imitation, is not easy to determine.  Tickell might have been impressed with his expectation by Swift’s “Proposal for Ascertaining the English Language,” then lately published.

In the Parliament that met in 1701 he was chosen representative of East Grinstead.  Perhaps it was about this time that he changed his party, for he voted for the impeachment of those lords who had persuaded the king to the Partition Treaty, a treaty in which he himself had been ministerially employed.

A great part of Queen Anne’s reign was a time of war, in which there was little employment for negotiators, and Prior had, therefore, leisure to make or to polish verses.  When the Battle of Blenheim called forth all the verse-men, Prior, among the rest, took care to show his delight in the increasing honour of his country by an epistle to Boileau.  He published, soon afterwards, a volume of poems, with the encomiastic character of his deceased patron, the Earl of Dorset.  It began with the College exercise, and ended with the “Nutbrown Maid.”

The Battle of Ramillies soon afterwards (in 1706) excited him to another effort of poetry.  On this occasion he had fewer or less formidable rivals, and it would be not easy to name any other composition produced by that event which is now remembered.


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Lives of the English Poets : Prior, Congreve, Blackmore, Pope

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