Matthew Prior (1664-1721) was a diplomat first and a poet second; at least that’s what his mother used to say to her friends. Somehow he found the time to write copious occasional poetry. He excelled at French and so accompanied the English ambassador to France. His political acumen was imperfect, it would seem, as Robert Walpole had him impeached from his ambassadorial post, resulting in his house arrest from 1715-1717. His fortune thus diminished, the printer Jacob Tonson arranged for his popular Poems on Several Occasions, which had been originally published in 1707, to be printed in folio, and his fortune was restored; the list of subscribers to the 1718 edition contained over 1,000 names.
What struck me in reading through this edition was how remarkably Byronic his poetry sounded, albeit a century early. A brief quotation will serve to illustrate:
Richard, who now was half a-sleep,
Rous’d; nor would longer Silence keep:
And Sense like this, in vocal Breath
Broke from his twofold Hedge of Teeth.
Now if this Phrase too harsh be thought;
Pope, tell the World, ’tis not my Fault.
Old Homer taught us thus to speak:
If ’tis not Sense; at least ’tis Greek. (p. 359; Alma, canto III)
Prior here mocks the Homeric formula “the fence of his teeth” (ἕρκος ὀδόντων), a reference sure to make his more erudite readers chuckle, their egos having been tickled. Byron was, I think, a little fonder of Pope than was Prior. The mode of humor, though, abstracting and digressing from the story to make a punning literary reference, is as Byronic as it gets. Did Byron read Prior? I don’t have Cochran’s catalogue of Byron’s library to hand. Even more intriguing is the prologue to Solomon, another of the long poems in the Poems on Several Occasions, in which Prior discussed the refraction of heroism through the epics from Homer to Vergil to Milton (and including Gerusalemme Liberata); doubtless Byron’s Don Juan sits in that same line. I suppose we’ll just have to wait for Dr. Camilleri’s forthcoming book on the subject…
Folio (13 7/16” x 8 1/2”, 343mm x 214mm). π2 A2 a-c2 d2(–d2) e-i2 B-6O2 [$1; –3R1; +3R2]. 277 leaves, pp. blank, frontispiece, title, blank, , 1 2-51 52-53 54-132 133 134-154 155 156-182 183 184-199 200 201-214 215 216-244 245, blank, 247-249, blank, 251 252-308 309 310-315, blank, 317, blank, 319 320-381, blank, 383, blank, 385-395, blank, 397 398-425, blank, 427-429, blank, 431 432-468 469-471, blank, 473 474-506, . With an engraved frontispiece and several engraved initials and head- and tail-pieces.