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PREFACE TO PRIOR.
Though this publication is from the same hand as Selections from Dryden, it is upon a quite different principle.
Both poets require abridgment, and for nearly the
But the works of Dryden are much more extensive than those of Prior; and therefore require larger omissions, in order to produce a volume, likely, from its size, to be read in the present generation.
Many of the best productions of Prior are quite short pieces. There is hardly any thing of this in Dryden.
Prior, though a more polished and careful writer in many
instances, was, in others, much more careless than Dryden; or perhaps we might say, that Dryden was naturally much more of a poet, and had a pervading and persisting spirit, which animated, in some degree, even his laziest productions. Prior, in short, seems to have written in a greater variety of different humours, as one may call them, than Dryden. Besides which, he was not merely a poet, but was pretty constantly engaged in public business.
He published, too, many things which he had better have left to their proper oblivion. For these reasons, and perhaps others, instead of printing extracts, as in Dryden, I have here printed entire pieces; and have omitted wholly, such as I thought uninteresting or objectionable.
Prior, I think, combines lightness and airiness with extreme sweetness, more than any other poet. But he has also always appeared to me a peculiarly interesting writer, from the situation which he occupies in the history of literature, coming between Dryden and Pope. His ideas of finish are, upon principle, by no means those of Pope. As to metre, he tells us that “ our rhyming heroic measure, as Dryden perfected it, is too confined. It cuts off the sense at the end of every first line, which must always rhyme to the next following; and, consequently, produces too frequent an identity in the sound, and brings every couplet to the point of an epigram.”
Upon this principle he acted, running his verses and couplets into one another, so as to produce not only variety and spirit, but the extreme of harmony. Two celebrated passages, in his Solomon, are remarkable instances. In his somewhat earlier Henry and Emma they do not so much occur.
This opinion and practice are curious when compared to Pope's; who, soon after, was pulling exactly in the opposite direction.
In the use of parenthesis he is remarkably natural and elegant.
His natural character and habits much more resembled the freedom of Dryden. But, in thirty-three years, the manners of the nation, and the taste in literature, had much altered, and the disposition to imitate the French was increased: while, at the same time, the French writers themselves had become much more regular, or, what some may call, tame.
Prior was a great follower of the French; and, I must think, has sometimes produced small pieces whose lightness and elegance no French writer can surpass. His imitation of Adrian's verses to his soul is not a little superior to that by Fontenelle.
He wrote one very elegant stanza in French, in a company, where they sung in rotation on the burden“ Bannissons la mélancolie," and when it came to his turn to sing after the performance of a young lady who sat next him.
Mais cette voix, et ces beaux yeux,
One may see the resemblance in the verses on his own birth-day.
Prior had none of the elevation of mind or manliness of spirit which shows itself in Dryden.
In his lighter pieces, it is from Swift, rather than Pope, that we have to distinguish him. I believe we may safely claim for him the originality, as between them, in point of date. As to merit, Swift is harder, and more exact : Prior much more easy, natural, gentlemanlike, goodnatured, and pleasant.
He was familiar with the Epigrams, as they are called, of the Greeks, at school: probably cultivated their taste, and translated a few of them
well. It is curious that in his remarks above quoted, written about 1718, he makes no mention of Pope, though in one of his works he greatly praises Eloisa to Abelard.
It has been said that Pope never mentions him; but that is not quite true.
I insert part of the excellent Miss Talbot's observations on Henry and Emma.
“Emma, susceptible of soft impressions beyond what were to be wished in a character, were it set up for a general pattern, her soul entirely turned to those tender attachments, that are not inconsistent with strict virtue, had long been wooed with every irresistible art by an accomplished youth, whose virtues and excellences could not but discover themselves in such a space of time, on a thousand occasions. By the characters given on each side, their passion seems to have been grounded on a just esteem: and the known truth and goodness of Henry had produced in her mind such an unlimited confidence, that it was impossible she could suspect him of any crime. To try her constancy, he accuses himself, in the harshest terms, as a murderer. But it was easy for Emma's heart to furnish him with sufficient excuses. The wild unsettled state of the island, in those early times, torn by so many, and so fierce factions, involved the young and brave in perpetual bloodshed. What was called valour in one party, would, in the other, be branded as murder. In those days, the vast forests were filled with generous outlaws : and the brave mixed with the vile, from a likeness of fortune, not of crimes.
“I have dwelt on this, because, at first reading, it offended me to imagine that Emma should be so unmoved with a supposition of her lover's guilt, and continue her affection when she must have lost her esteem. That point, I think, is now cleared up: but I am extremely sorry that, to prevent all scandal, Prior did not alter a few lines in the answer she makes to his
declaration of inconstancy. In spite of all prejudice, there is certainly a want of all spirit and delicacy in it. If what he told her was fact, he could not be faultless, nor could her affection continue to be innocent. The same mild