Saturday, July 21, 2012

Matthew Prior

Each day brings endings and beginnings.  July 21st was the last day Burns breathed – in 1796.  The same day, in 1664, brought new breath from English diplomat and poet Matthew Prior.  The text below, on Prior, comes from “The Works of Jonathan Swift”; notes by Sir Walter Scott.


"I had rather be thought a good Englishman, than the best poet, or the greatest scholar, that ever wrote."
Prior, Preface to *' Solomon." 

In 1710-11, the Tory ministry, whose principles and situation laid them under a necessity of making peace with France, contrived to open a communication with that country by means of the Abbe Gualtier, an obscure priest, agent for the French prisoners of war. When matters were thus prepared for the intervention of a more accredited envoy, the celebrated Matthew Prior, whose previous acquaintance with diplomacy fitted him for such a trust, and whose rank was not such as to make his motions observed, was dispatched by the British ministry upon a secret embassy to France. It is said, that this step was proposed by Mons. de Torcy, through the medium of the Earl of Jersey, and that Mr. Prior held an interview with that minister at or near Calais, and immediately returned to England. Notwithstanding every precaution which had been taken to prevent discovery, Prior was recognized upon his landing, and detained by the custom-house officers at Deal, until released by orders from their superiors. This discovery was likely to prove embarrassing to the ministers, who neither were in a situation to avow the negotiation, nor durst venture to leave unappeased the feverish thirst for political intelligence which always has characterized the English nation. In this dilemma, Swift, "who oiled many a spring that Harley moved," came to the assistance of his patrons with the following pamphlet, which, without communicating a syllable of real intelligence, had the effect of at once amusing the idle, confusing the suspicious, and sounding the temper of the nation at large upon the subject of a negotiation. He himself gives the following account of the piece:

"I have just thought of a project to bite the town. I have told you, that it is now known that Mr. Prior has been lately in France. I will make a printer of my own sit by me one day; and will dictate to him a formal relation of Prior's Journey, with several particulars, all pure invention; and I doubt not but it will lake."—Journal to Stella, Aug. 31, 1711.

"This morning the printer sent me an account of Prior's Journey; it makes a twopenny pamphlet: I suppose you will see it, for I dare say it will run. It is a formal grave lie, from the beginning to the end. I wrote all but the last page; that I dictated, and the printer wrote. Mr. Secretary sent to me, to dine where he did: it was at Prior's. When I came in, Prior showed me the pamphlet, seemed to be angry, and said, 'Here is our English liberty!' I read some of it; said, 'I liked it mightily, and envied the rogue the thought; for, had it come into my head, I should certainly have done it myself."—Ibid. Sept. 11.

"The printer told me he sold yesterday a thousand of 'Prior's Journey,' and had printed five hundred more. It will do rarely, I believe, and is a pure bite."—Ibid. Sept . 12.

"Prior's Journey sells still; they have sold two thousand, although the town is empty."—Ibid. Sept. 24.

"There came out some time ago an account of Mr. Prior's Journey to France, pretended to be a translation; it is a pure invention from the beginning to the end. I will let your grace into the secret of it. The clamours of a party against any peace without Spain, and railing at the ministry as if they designed to ruin us, occasioned that production/out of indignity and contempt, by way of furnishing fools with something to talk of; and it has had a very great effect."—Letter to Abp. King, Oct. 1, 1711.

Although Swift, even to Stella, represents the "Journey to Paris" as mere pleasantry, it was certainly written with a more serious purpose. The cession of Spain to the House of Austria, upon which the former treaty at Gertruydenberg had broken off, is artfully alluded to; and, from the mode in which that part of Mr. Prior's supposed conference should be received, ministers might be enabled to judge whether they might venture to abandon Spain to the House of Bourbon in the event of a peace. In other respects, the high tone imputed to the British agent was calculated to assure the public, that their rights were under the management of those who would not compromise the national dignity, while the extreme anxiety of the French king and ministers for a peace, necessarily inferred that Britain might have one on her own terms…’

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