A Satyr on the Modern Translators, 1685
Satyr on the Poets: In Imitation of the Seventh Satyr of Juvenal, 1687
An English Ballad, 1695
Carmen Saeculare for the Year 1700 to the King, 1700
Poems on Several Occasions, 1707, 1709
Solomon on the Vanity of the World, 1718
Lyric Poems, 1741
Dialogues of the Dead, 1721
The Literary Works of Matthew Prior, 1959 (H. Bunker Wright and Monroe K. Spears, editors)
The poet and diplomat Matthew Prior distinguished himself while still a child as a remarkable classical student. He was sent first to Westminster School and then to St. John’s College at Cambridge University. His poetry and his character attracted the notice of patrons, particularly Lord Dorset. Prior’s satires pleased his friends, and his achievements as a diplomat pleased the court. He became employed in a variety of such important situations as secretary to the embassy at The Hague, secretary to the negotiations of the peace of Ryswick in 1697, secretary to the embassy in France in 1698, undersecretary of state in 1699, and member of Parliament in 1701.
Prior’s literary work reflected not only the classical interest of the early eighteenth century but the very specific interest of that age in the art of satire. He won the admiration and friendship of Jonathan Swift for his keen satires on poets and politicians. He shared Swift’s Tory sympathies and while that party was in power had a good deal to do with government affairs in England, especially with negotiations for the Treaty of Utrecht that was concluded in 1713. After 1714, however, the year the Tory Party was replaced by the Whigs, Prior was removed from political office. He was, according to the ferocious political practices of his time, impeached and jailed. While in custody he wrote his most important long poem, “Alma: Or, The Progress of the Mind,” a discussion of humanity and its motivations. The tenor is fundamentally skeptical, a tone perhaps to be expected from a man writing while in prison. After 1717, when he was released, he was until his death able to devote himself to those things that mattered greatly to eighteenth century gentlemen: reading, writing, and good living. He was particularly fond of the last and was known as a bon vivant of formidable capacities.
During his lifetime Prior was widely praised for his satire and for his pastoral poems. He stated that poetry was not his principal vocation and that he preferred to think of himself as a man of affairs. Poetry was, he noted, the product of his leisure hours. Later critics tended to grant him qualities that he and his contemporaries seem to have ignored: a high degree of intellectual power and the skill to adapt classical themes and genres to the poetry of his own age. Perhaps the most significant of Prior’s poetic achievements was his reinstatement of the colloquial mode in verse; few other poets were able to take such resolutely commonplace words and make them the substance of art. He experimented in couplets and quatrains, in parodies and pastorals, and proved that, far from being wholly imitative, the early eighteenth century had its share of literary experimentalists.