Matthew Prior was born in 1664
. He was educated at a middle-class level, supposedly enough to work with his uncle, a vintner
, but met up with the earl
and impressed him enough that the earl paid for Prior's university
education. Prior wrote poetry while at Cambridge
and thereafter, including the satire
"The Country Mouse and the City Mouse
" with Charles Montagu, but he also went to London
and in 1691
was appointed the secretary to the British embassy
to the Hague
Prior continued to be a part of government, being made one of King William's retinue, and also a poet. He became a member of Parliament in 1701, and later went back to diplomacy. In 1713 he negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, probably the height of his career.
However, the next year, his political party, the Tories, lost power in England, and Prior was recalled from Europe, placed under house arrest for more than a year, and interrogated in hopes that the Whigs now in power could find some excuse to try the earl of Oxford, leader of the Tories, as a traitor. Prior passed the time writing the philosophical but witty Alma.
Eventually he was released, but was out of his former positions and without money. His friends Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope enabled him to publish a second volume of his poetry in 1718, which was a great success and kept him in financial comfort for the remaining three years of his life. He died in 1721 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Samuel Johnson would say of his work, "Prior has written with great variety, and his variety has made him popular. He has tried all styles, from the grotesque to the solemn, and has not so failed in any as to incur derision or disgrace." His humorous and lyric poems are the most remembered now and considered much more readable than many of the poems of his contemporaries.
Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets,
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th edition, 1986