Page images
PDF
EPUB

delight; many from which the poet may learn to write, and the pbilosopher to reason.

If Prior's poetry be generally considered, bis praise 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 written by Georgius Sabinus, a poet now little known or read, though once the friend of Luther and Me lancthon:

De Sacerdote Furem consolante.

Quidam sacrificus furem comitatus euntem

Huc ubi dat sontes carnificina neci,
Ne sis moestus, ait; summi conviva Tonantis

Jam cum cælitibus (si modo credis) eris.
Ille gemens, si vera mihi solatia præbes,

Hospes apud superos sis meus oro,, refert.
Sacrificus contra ; mihi non convivia fas est

Ducere, jejunas hac edo luce nihil.

What he has valuable he owes to his diligence and his judgment. His diligence has justly placed him amongst the most correct of the English poets; and he was one of the first that resolutely endeavoured at correctness. He never sacrifices accuracy to haste, nor indulges himself in contemptuous negligence, or impatient idleness : he has no careless Jines, or entangled sentiments; his words are nicely selected, and his thoughts fully expanded. If this part of his character suffers an abatement, it must þe from the disproportion of bis rhymes, which have not always sufficient consonance, and from the admission of broken lines into his Solomon; but perhaps he thought, like Cowley, that hemistichs ought to be admitted into heroic poetry.

He had apparently such rectitude of judgment as secured him from every thing that approached to the ridiculous or absurd ; but as laws operate in civil agency not to the excitement of virtue, but the repression of wickedness, so judgment in the operations of intellect can binder faults, but not produce excellence. Prior is never low, nor very often sublime. It is said by Longinus of Euripides, that he forces himself sometimes into grandeur by violence of effort, as the lion kindles his fury by the lashes of his own tail. Whatever Prior obtains above mediocrity seems the effort of struggle and of toil. He has many vigorous, but few happy lines; he has every thing by purchase, and nothing by gift; he has no nightly visitations of the Muse, no infusions of sentiment or felicities of fancy.

His diction, however, is more his own than of any among the successors of Dryden; he borrows no lucky turns, or commodious modes of language, from bis predecessors. His phrases are original, but they are sometimes harsh; as he inherited no elegances, none has he bequeathed. His expression has every mark of laborious study; the line seldom seems to have been formed at once; the words did not come till they were called, and were then put by constraint into their places, where they do their duty, but do it sullenly. In his greater compositions there may be found more rigid stateliness than graceful dignity.

Of versification he was not negligent: what he received from Dryden he did not lose; neither did he increase the difficulty of writing by unnecessary severity, but uses Triplets and Alexandrines without scruple. In his Preface to Solomon he proposes some improvements by extending the sense from one couplet to another, with variety of pauses. This he has attempted, but without success; his interrupted lines are unpleasing, and his sense, as less distinct, is less striking.

He has altered the Stanza of Spenser, as a house is altered by building another in its place of a different form. With how little resemblance he has formed his new Stanza to that of his master, these specimens will show:

SPENSER

She flying fast from Heaven's hated face,
And from the world that her discover'd wide,
Fled to the wasteful wilderness apace,
From living eyes her open shame to hide,
And lurk’d

in rocks and caves long unespy'd.
But that fair crew of knights, and Una fair,
Did in that castle afterwards abide,
To rest themselves, and weary powers repair,
Where store they found of all, that dainty was and rare.

PRIOR.

To the close rock the frighted raven flies,
Soon as the rising eagle cuts the air :
The shaggy wolf unseen and trembling lies,
When the hoarse roar proclaims the lion near.
Ill-starr'd did we our forts and lines forsake,
To dare our British foes to open fight :
Oar conquest we by stratagem should make :
Our triumph had been founded in our flight.
'Tis ours, by craft and by surprise to gain :
'Tis theirs, to meet in arms, and battle in the plain.

By this new structure of his lines he has avoided difficulties; por am I sure that he has lost any of the power of pleasing; but he no longer imitates Spenser.

Some of his poems are written without regularity of measure ; for, when he commenced poet, he had not recovered from our Pindaric 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.

A survey of the life and writings of Prior may exemplify a sentence which he doubtless understood well, when he read Horace at his uncle's: “the vessel long retains the scent which it first receives.” In his private relaxation he revived the tavern, and in his amorous pedantry he exhibited the college. But on higher occasions, and nobler subjects, when habit was overpowered by the necessity of reflection, he wanted not wisdom as a statesman, or elegance as a poet.

ENCOMIUMS ON PRIOR.

VERSES

SENT TO HIM WHEN UNDER CONFINEMENT.

JUNE, 1715.

Car pendet tacita fistula cum lyra ?
Parcentes ego dexteras

Odi : sparge rosas; audiat invidus
Dementem strepitam Lycus.

Could I, great Bard! 0, could I share

Thy genius, as thy grief;
My healing verse should sooth thy care,

And timely give relief.

But vain are my essays to sing,

And impotent my strains ;
The cordials from yourself must spring,

That can allay your pains.

On

your firm heart and honest breast Bend your reflecting eyes; For Socrates, by faction press'd,

To conscious virtue flies.

« EelmineJätka »