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He was thrice married; by his first two wives he had no children; by his third, who was the daughter of king James by the countess of Dorchester, and the widow of the earl of Anglesey, he had, besides other children that died early, a son born in 1716, who died in 1735, and put an end to the line of Sheffield. It is observable, that the duke's three wives were all widows. The duchess died in 1742.
His character is not to be proposed as worthy of imitation. His religion he may be supposed to have learned from Hobbes; and his morality was such as naturally proceeds from loose opinions. His sentiments with respect to women he picked up in the court of Charles; and his principles concerning property were such as a gaming-table supplies. He was censured as covetous, and has been defended by an instance of inattention to his affairs; as if a man might not at once be corrupted by avarice and idle
He is said, however, to have had much tenderness, and to have been very ready to apologise for his violences of passion.
He is introduced into this collection only as a poet; and, if we credit the testimony of his contemporaries, he was a poet of no vulgar rank. But favour and flattery are now at an end; criticism is no longer softened by his bounties, or awed by his splendour, and, being able to take a more steady view, discovers him to be a writer that sometimes glimmers, but rarely shincs, feebly laborious, and at best but pretty. His songs are upon common topics; he hopes, and grieves, and repents, and despairs, and rejoices, like any other maker of little stanzas; to be great, he hardly tries; to be gay, is hardly in his power.
In the essay on satire he was always supposed to have had the help of Dryden. His essay on poetry is the great work for which he was praised by Roscommon, Dryden, and Pope; and doubtless by many more whose eulogies have perished.
Upon this piece he appears to have set a high value; for he was all his life-time improving it by successive revisals, so that there is scarcely any poem to be found of which the last edition differs more from the first. Amongst other changes, mention is made of some compositions of Dryden, which were written after the first appearance of
At the time when this work first appeared, Milton's fame was not yet fully established, and therefore Tasso and Spenser were set before him. The last two lines were these. The epic poet, says he,
Must above Milton's lofty flights prevail,
The last line in succeeding editions was shortened, and the order of names continued; but now Milton is at last advanced to the highest place, and the passage thus adjusted :
Must above Tasso's lofty flights prevail,
Succeed where Spenser, and e'en Milton, fail. Amendments are seldom made without some token of a rent: lofty does not suit Tasso so well as Milton.
One celebrated line seems to be borrowed. The essay calls a perfect character
A faultless monster which the world ne'er saw. Scaliger, in his poems, terms Virgil sine labe monstrum. Sheffield can scarcely be supposed to have read Scaliger's poetry; perhaps he found the words in a quotation.
Of this essay, which Dryden has exalted so highly, it may be justly said that the precepts are judicious, sometimes new, and often happily expressed; but there are, after all the emendations, many weak lines, and some strange appearances of negligence; as, when he gives the laws of elegy, he insists upon connection and coherence; without which, says he,
"Tis epigram, 'tis point, 'tis what you will ;
No panegyric, nor a Cooper's Hill. Who would not suppose that Waller's panegyric and Denham's Cooper's Hill were elegies?
His verses are often insipid; but his memoirs are lively and agreeable; he had the perspicuity and elegance of an historian, but not the fire and fancy of a poet.
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 Winburn 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 bis 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 liter. ature, 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;
The difficulty of settling Prior's birth-place is great. In the register of his college he is called, at his admission, by the president, Matthew Prior of Winburn in Middlesex; by himself next day, Matthew Prior of Dorsetshire, in which county, not in Mid. dlesex, Winborn, or Winborne as it stands in the Villare, is found. When he stood candidate for his fellowship, five years afterwards, he was registered again by himself as of Middlesex. The last record ought to be preferred, because it was made upon oath. It is olservable, that, as a native of Winborne, he is styled filius Georgii Prior, generosi ; not consistently with the common account of the meanuess of his birth.
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 bis 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 bis 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 any thing equal, was formed the grand alliance against Louis, which at last did not produce effects proportionate to 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 bed-chamber; 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. Maria's praise was not confined to the English language, but fills a great part of the Muse Anglicane.
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 shewn 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 every where 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 Loo 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,