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of repair, after a conversation with men not, in the opinion of the world, much wiser than himself? But such are the conceits of speculatists, who strain their faculties to find in a mine what lies upon the surface. His opinions, so far as the means of judging are left us, seem to have been right; but his life was, seems, irregular, negligent, and sensual.
PRIOR has written with great variety, and his variety has made him popular. He has tried all styles, from the grotesque to the solemn, and has not so failed in any as to incur derision or disgrace. His works may be distinctly considered as comprising Tales, Love Verses, Occasional Poems, “Alma,” and “Solomon.”
His tales have obtained general approbation, being written with great familiarity and great sprightliness ; the language is easy, but seldom gross, and the numbers smooth, without appearance of care. Of these tales there are only four : "The Ladle,” which is introduced by a preface, neither necessary nor pleasing, neither grave nor merry.
“ Paulo Purganti,” which has likewise a preface, but of more value than the tale. “ Hans Carvel," not over-decent; and “Protogenes and Apelles," an old story mingled, by an affectation not disagreeable, with modern images. " The Young Gentleman in Love” has hardly a just claim to the title of a tale. I know not whether he be the original author of any tale which he has given us. The adventure of Hans Carvel has passed through many successions of merry wits, for it is to be found in Ariosto's “Satires," and is perhaps yet older. But the merit of such stories is the art of telling them.
In his amorous effusions he is less happy; for they are not dictated by nature or by passion, and have neither gallantry nor tenderness. They have the coldness of Cowley, without his wit, the dull exercises of skilful
versifier, resolved at all adventures to write something about Chloe, and trying to be amorous by dint of study. His fictions, therefore, are mythological. Venus, after the example of the Greek epigram, asks when she was seen naked and bathing. Then Cupid is mistaken ; then Cupid is disarmed ; then he loses his darts to Ganymede ; then Jupiter sends him a summons by Mercury. Then Chloe goes a-hunting with an ivory quiver graceful at her side ; Diana mistakes her for one of her nymphs, and Cupid laughs at the blunder. All this is surely despicable ; and even when he tries to act the lover without the help of gods or goddesses, his thoughts are unaffecting or remote. He talks not “like a man of this world.”
The greatest of all his amorous essays is “ Henry and Emma," a dull and tedious dialogue, which excites neither esteem for the man nor tenderness for the woman. The example of Emma, who resolves to follow an outlawed murderer wherever fear and guilt shall drive him, deserves no imitation; and the experiment by which Henry tries the lady's constancy is such as must end either in infamy to her or in disappointment to himself.
His occasional poems necessarily lost part of their value, as their occasions, being less remembered, raised less emotion. Some of them, however, are preserved by their inherent excellence. The burlesque of Boileau's ode on Namur has in some parts such airiness and levity as will always procure it readers, even among those who cannot compare it with the original. The epistle to Boileau is not so happy. The “Poems to the King” are now perused only by young students, who read merely that they may learn to write ; and of the “ Carmen Seculare," I cannot but suspect that I might praise or censure it by caprice without danger of detection ; for who can be supposed to have laboured through it? Yet the time has been when this neglected work was so
popular that it was translated into Latin by no common master.
His poem on the Battle of Ramillies is necessarily tedious by the form of the stanza. An uniform mass of ten lines thirty-five times repeated, inconsequential and slightly connected, must weary both the ear and the understanding. His imitation of Spenser, which consists principally in I ween and I weet, without exclusion of later modes of speech, makes his poem neither ancient nor modern. His mention of Mars and Bellona, and his comparison of Marlborough to the eagle that bears the thunder of Jupiter, are all puerile and unaffecting ; and yet more despicable is the long tale told by Louis in his despair of Brute and Troynovante, and the teeth of Cadmus, with his similes of the raven and eagle and wolf and lion. By the help of such easy fictions and vulgar topics, without acquaintance with life, and without knowledge of art or nature, a poem of any length, cold and lifeless like this, may be easily written on any subject.
In his epilogues to Phædra and to Lucius he is very happily facetious; but in the prologue before the queen the pedant has found his way with Minerva, Perseus, and Andromeda.
His epigrams and lighter pieces are, like those of others, sometimes elegant, sometimes trifling, and sometimes dull; among the best are the “Chamelion"and the epitaph on John and Joan.
Scarcely any one of our poets has written so much and translated so little : the version of Callimachus is sufficiently licentious; the paraphrase on St. Paul's Exhortation to Charity is eminently beautiful.
“Alma” is written in professed imitation of “Hudibras," and has at least one accidental resemblance : “Hudibras" wants a plan because it is left imperfect; “ Alma” is imperfect because it seems never to have had a plan. Prior appears not to have proposed to himself any drift
or design, but to have written the casual dictates of the present moment.
What Horace said, when he imitated Lucilius, might be said of Butler by Prior; his numbers were not smooth nor neat. Prior excelled him in versification ; but he was, like Horace, inventore minor ; he had not Butler's exuberance of matter and variety of illustration. The spangles of wit which he could afford he knew how to polish ; but he wanted the bullion of his master. Butler pours out a negligent profusion, certain of the weight, but careless of the stamp. Prior has comparatively little, but with that little he makes a fine show. “Alma” has many admirers, and was the only piece among Prior's works of which Pope said that he should wish to be the author.
“Solomon” is the work to which he entrusted the protection of his name, and which he expected succeeding ages to regard with veneration. His affection was natural; it had undoubtedly been written with great labour ; and who is willing to think that he has been labouring in vain ? He had infused into it much knowledge and much thought; had often polished it to elegance, often dignified it with splendour, and sometimes heightened it to sublimity: he perceived in it many excellences, and did not discover that it wanted that without which all others are of small avail — the power of engaging attention and alluring curiosity.
Tediousness is the most fatal of all faults ; negligence or errors are single and local, but tediousness pervades the whole ; other faults are censured and forgotten, but the power of tediousness propagates itself. He that is weary the first hour is more weary the second, as bodies forced into motion, contrary to their tendency, pass more and more slowly through every successive interval of space. Unhappily this pernicious failure is that which an author is least able to discover. We are seldom tiresome to ourselves; and the act of composition fills and
delights the mind with change of language and succession of images. Every couplet, when produced, is new, and novelty is the great source of pleasure. Perhaps no man ever thought a line superfluous when he first wrote it, or contracted his work till his ebullitions of invention had subsided. And even if he should control his desire of immediate renown, and keep his work nine years unpublished, he will be still the author, and still in danger of deceiving himself : and if he consults his friends he will probably find men who have more kindness than judgment, or more fear to offend than desire to instruct. The tediousness of this poem proceeds not from the uniformity of the subject, for it is sufficiently diversified, but from the continued tenor of the narration ; in which Solomon relates the successive vicissitudes of his own mind without the intervention of any other speaker or the mention of any other agent, unless it be Abra ; the reader is only to learn what he thought, and to be told that he thought wrong. The event of every experiment is foreseen, and therefore the process is not much regarded. Yet the work is far from deserving to be neglected. He that shall peruse it will be able to mark many passages to which he may recur for instruction or delight; many from which the poet may learn to write and the philosopher to reason.
If Prior's poetry be generally considered, his praiso will be that of correctness and industry, rather than of compass of comprehension or activity of fancy. He never made any effort of invention : his greater pieces are only tissues of common thoughts ; and his smaller, which consist of light images or single conceits, are not always his own. I have traced him among the French epigrammatists, and have been informed that he poached for prey among obscure authors. The “ Thief and Cordelier” is, I suppose, generally considered as an original production, with how much justice this epigram may tell, which was