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That is to say, his favourite poetical attitude is rather cynical than enthusiastic-rather material than ideal. Now and then, as in the verses To a Child of Quality five years old, he can assume a playful gravity which is altogether charming; but it is in such pieces as The Merchant, to secure his treasure, A Better Answer, A Song, that he shines most equably. As a tale-teller he comes near to La Fontaine for ease of narrative and careless finish; although his themes, like those of his model, are generally more witty than delicate. In his Epistles and pieces like The Secretary and A Simile he is delightful. As an epigrammatist he is unrivalled in English.
But however much one might attempt to define the work of Prior, there would always be a something left undefined,—a something that animates the whole and yet defies the critic, who falls back upon the old threadbare devices for describing the undescribable. His is the 'nameless charm' of Piron's epigram,—that fugitive je ne sais quoi of gaiety, of wit, of grace, of audacity, it is impossible to say what, which eludes analysis as the principle of life escapes the anatomist. In the present case it lifts its possessor above any other writer of familiar verse; but it is a something to which we cannot give a name, unless, indeed, we take refuge in paradox, and say that it is.... MATTHEW Prior.
(Written at the Hague, in the year 1696.]
While with labour assiduous due pleasure I mix,
Lords, knights, and 'squires, the numerous band,
That wear the fair Miss Mary's fetters, Were summoned by her high command,
To show their passions by their letters.
My pen among the rest I took,
Lest those bright eyes that cannot read Should dart their kindling fires, and look
The power they have to be obeyed.
Nor quality, nor reputation,
Forbid me yet my flame to tell ;
And I may write till she can spell.
For, while she 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;
She may receive and own my flame,
For, though the strictest prudes should know it, She'll pass for a most virtuous dame,
And I for an unhappy poet.
Then too, alas ! when she shall tear
The lines some younger rival sends ; She 'll give me leave to write, I fear,
And we shall still continue friends.
For, as our different ages move,
'Tis so ordained, (would Fate but mend it !) That I shall be past making love,
When she begins to comprehend it.
In vain you tell your parting lover,
Be gentle, and in pity choose
TO A LADY : she refusing to continue a dispute with me, and
leaving me in the argument.
Spare, generous Victor, spare the slave,
Who did unequal war pursue ;
In being overcome by you.
In the dispute whate'er I said,
My heart was by my tongue belied ;
How much I argued on your side.
You, far from danger as from fear,
Might have sustained an open fight:
Your eyes are always in the right.
Why, fair one, would you not rely
On Reason's force with Beauty's joined ? Could I their prevalence deny,
I must at once be deaf and blind.
I only to the fight aspired :
Was all the glory I desired.
Contemns the wreath too long delayed ;
Calls cruel silence to her aid.
She drops her arms, to gain the field :
And triumphs, when she seems to yield. So when the Parthian turned his steed,
And from the hostile camp withdrew; With cruel skill the backward reed
He sent; and as he fled, he slew.
The merchant, to secure his treasure,
Conveys it in a borrowed name :
But Chloe is my real flame.
Upon Euphelia's toilet lay;
That I should sing, that I should play, My lyre I tune, my voice I raise ;
But with my numbers mix my sighs : And whilst I sing Euphelia's praise,
I fix my soul on Chloe's eyes.