Collected Works of John Wesley, Volume XIII

Contents:
Author: John Wesley

THOUGHTS
on
THE CHARACTER AND WRITINGS OF MR. PRIOR.

[printed in the year 1782.]

1. A very ingenious writer has lately given us a particular account of the character and Works of Mr. Prior. But it was not likely to be a just one, as he formed it chiefly on the testimony of very suspicious witnesses; I mean, Mr. Pope and Mr. Spence. I object both to one and the other. They depreciated him to exalt themselves. They viewed him with no friendly eye; looking upon him (particularly Mr. Pope) as a rival; whom, therefore, they rejoiced to depress.

2. Mr. Pope gives it as his opinion, that he was fit only to make verses. What can be more unjust? He was fit for transactions of the most difficult and delicate nature. Accordingly, he was entrusted with them at Paris, and acquitted himself to the full satisfaction of his employers.

He was really fit for everything; for writing, either in verse or prose; for conversation, and for either public or private business.

3. But Mr. Spence says, "His life was irregular, negligent, and sensual. He descended to the meanest company. The woman with whom he cohabited was a despicable drab of the lowest species. One of his wenches, perhaps Chloe stole his plate, and ran away with it."

I do not believe one word of this: Although I was often in his neighborhood, I never heard a word of it before. It carries no face of probability. Would Bishop Atterbury have kept up an acquaintance with a man of such a character? Would that accomplished nobleman, the then Earl of Oxford, have given him a place even in his friendship? I am well assured, my eldest brother would have had no acquaintance with him, had he been such a wretch as Mr. Spence describes.

4. Others say, his Chloe was ideal. I know the contrary. I have heard my eldest brother say her name was Miss Taylor; that he knew her well; and that she once came to him (in Dean’s Yard, Westminster) purposely to ask his advice. She told him, "Sir, I know not what to do. Mr. Prior makes large professions of his love; but he never offers me marriage." My brother advised her to bring the matter to a point at once. She went directly to Mr. Prior, and asked him plainly, "Do you intend to marry me, or no?" He said many soft and pretty things; on which she said, "Sir, in refusing to answer, you do answer. I will see you no more." And she did see him no more to the day of his death. But afterwards she spent many hours, standing and weeping at his tomb in Westminster Abbey.

5. As to his writings, I cannot but think Mr. Prior had not only more learning, but a stronger natural understanding, than Mr. Pope. But this is the less observable, because Mr. Prior always wrote currente calamo, 43 having little time to correct anything; whereas Mr. Pope labored every line, and polished it with the utmost exactness. Prior’s praise is by no means that of correctness. He has many unpolished, hasty, half-formed lines, which he would not (or did not) take the pains to correct. I can therefore by no means subscribe to that sentence, "What he obtains above mediocrity seems to be the effort of struggle and travail." Surely, no. What he frequently obtains, as far above Pope’s "Messiah," as that is above Quarles’s "Emblems," seems to be the effort of a genius not inferior in strength to any beside Milton. But "his words are put by constraint into their places, where they do their duty, but do it sullenly." Nay, I reply, most of his words are as natural and unconstrained, as even those of Waller; though they would certainly have done their duty better, had he taken more pains with them. "He extends his sense from one couplet to another; but without success." I think, with great success. I will give the first instance that occurs to my memory: —

"Happiness, object of that waking dream,
Which we call life, mistaking; fugitive theme
Of my pursuing verse; ideal shade,
Notional good, by fancy only made,
And by tradition nursed; fallacious fire,
Whose dancing beams mislead out fond desire;
Cause of our care, and error of our mind!
O hadst thou ever been by Heaven design’d
For Adam and his mortal race, the boon
Entire had been reserved for Solomon."

Were ever lines extended from couplet to couplet with more success than these? Is there any constraint here? What lines can flow more free, more easy, more natural?

6. But "his numbers commonly want ease, airiness, lightness, and facility." I cannot possibly be of this opinion. Wherever this is proper, as in all his tales, and in "Alma," his numbers have certainly the greatest airiness, lightness, and facility. Nay, "but even what is smooth is not soft." No? What do you think of "The Lady’s Looking-Glass?" (to take one instance out of fifty.) Where will you show me any softer numbers than these? —

"Celia and I the other day
Walk’d o’er the sand-hills to the sea:
The setting sun adorn’d the coast,
His beams entire, his fierceness lost;
And on the bosom of the deep
The waves lay only not asleep.

The nymph did like the scene appear,
Serenely pleasant, calmly fair:
Soft fell her words, as flew the air."

In truth, the general fault of Prior’s poetry is this: It is not too much, but too little, labored. Pope filed and polished every line; Prior set his words down as fast as he could write, and scarce polished any of them with any accuracy, at least only here and there. And the reason is plain: Pope lived by his writings; Prior did not. And again: Pope was a man of much leisure; Prior a man of much business.

7. But to descend from generals to particulars: His tales are certainly the best told of any in the English tongue. And it matters not, whether they were ever told before or no. They never were in the English language. I instance only in two of them, — "The Lady’s Looking Glass," (mentioned before,) and "The English Padlock." In both the diction is pure, terse, easy, and elegant, in the highest degree. And the moral both of one and the other may be of excellent use; particularly that of the latter: —

"Be to her virtues very kind;
Be to her faults a little blind;

Let all her ways be unconfined,
And clap your padlock on her mind."

8. But "his amorous effusions have neither gallantry nor tenderness. They are the dull exercises of one trying to be amorous by dint of study. When he tries to act the lover, his thoughts are unaffecting and remote. In his amorous pedantry he exhibits the College."

Surely, never was anything more distant from the truth! "Neither gallantry, nor tenderness!" For gallantry, I know not well what it means. But never man wrote with more tenderness. Witness the preface to "Henry and Emma," with the whole inimitable poem: Witness the story of "Abraham." Are these "the dull exercises of one trying to be amorous by dint of study?" Are the thoughts in these "unaffecting and remote?" yea, "amorous pedantry of a College?" O no! They are the genuine language of the heart. "Unaffecting!" So far from it, that I know not what man of sensibility can read them without tears.

9. But it is said, "’Henry and Emma’ is a dull and tedious dialogue, which excites neither esteem for the man, nor tenderness for the woman." Does it not? Then I know not with what eyes, or with what heart, a man must read it. "Dull and tedious!" See how Doctors differ! One who was no bad poet himself, and no bad judge of poetry, describing love, says, —

"The’ immortal glories of the nut-brown maid
Emblazon’d lively on his shield appear;"

and always spoke of this very poem as one of the finest in the English language.

10. However, "’Alma’ never had a plan, nor any drift or design." The drift and design of it is tolerably plain. It is a strong satire on that self conceited tribe of men, who pretend to philosophize upon everything, natural or spiritual. It keenly exposes those who continually obtrude their own systems upon the world and pretend to account for everything. His design is, if possible, to make these men less wise in their own conceit, by showing them how plausibly a man may defend the oddest system that can be conceived; and he intermixes many admirable reflections, and closes with a very striking conclusion; which points out, where one would least expect it, that "all is vanity."

11. The strangest sentence of all is that which is passed upon a "Solomon:" "It wants the power of engaging attention. Tediousness is the most fatal of all faults. The tediousness of this poem" — Did any one ever discern it before? I should as soon think of tediousness in the second or sixth Aeneid! So far from it, that if I dip in any of the three books), I scarce know where to leave off. No! This poem does not "want the power of engaging the attention" of any that have a taste for poetry; that have a taste for the strongest sense expressed in some of the finest verses that ever appeared in the English tongue.

I cite but one passage for all. It stands in the first book: —

"Now, when my mind has all the world survey’d,
And found that nothing by itself was made;

When thought has raised itself by just degrees,
From valleys crown’d with flowers, and hills with trees, -

From all the living that four-footed rove
Along the shore, the meadow, or the grove;

From all that can with fins or feathers fly
Through the aerial or the watery sky;

From the poor reptile with a reasoning soul,
That miserable master of the whole;

From this great object of the body’s eye,
This fair half-round, this ample azure sky.

Terribly large and wonderfully bright,
With stars unnumber’d and unmeasured light;

From essences unseen, celestial names,
Enlightening spirits, ministerial flames,

Angels, dominions, potentates, and thrones,
All that in each degree the name of creature owns; -

Lift we our reason to that sovereign Cause,
Who blessed the whole with life, and bounded it with law

Who forth from nothing called this comely frame,
His will and act, his word and work, the same;

To whom a thousand years are but a day,
Who bade the light her genial beams display,
And set the Moon, and taught the Sun his way;

Who, waking Time, his creature, from the source
Primeval, order’d his predestined course;

Himself, as in the hollow of his hand,
Holding obedient to his high command

The deep abyss, the long continued store,
Where months, and days, and hours, and minutes pour
Their floating parts, and thenceforth are no more.

This Alpha and Omega, First and Last,
Who like the potter in a mold has cast

The world’s great frame, commanding it to be
Such as the eyes of sense or reason see;

Yet, if he wills, may change or spoil the whole;
May take you beauteous, mystic, starry roll,
And burn it, like an useless parchment scroll;

May from its basis in one moment pour
This melted earth
Like liquid metal, and like burning ore;

Who sole in power, at the beginning said,
’Let sea, and air, and earth, and heaven be made,

And it was so;’ and when he shall ordain
In other sort, has but to speak again,
And they shall be no more: Of this great theme,
This glorious, hallow’d, everlasting name,
This God, I would discourse."

12. Now, what has Mr. Pope in all his eleven volumes which will bear any comparison with this? As elegant a piece as he ever wrote was, "Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady." But was ever anything more exquisitely injudicious? First, what a subject! An eulogium on a self-murderer! And the execution is as bad as the design: It is a commendation not only of the person, but the act! —

"Is it in heaven a crime to love too sell?
To bear too tender or too firm a heart?
To act a lover’s or a Roman’s part?"

Yes, whatever men may think, it is a crime, and no small one, with Him, that sitteth in heaven, for any worm on earth to violate the canon He hath fixed against self-murder. Nor did any one ever do this out of firmness of heart, but for want of firmness. "A Roman’s part?" Nay, no Roman ever acted this part, but out of rank cowardice. This was the case of Cato in particular. He did not dare to receive a favor from Caesar.

13. But go on: —

"Ambition first sprung from your high abodes,
The glorious fault of angels and of gods."

Consummate nonsense! "Of angels and of gods!" What is the difference? Are not these angels and gods the very same? that is, in plain English, devils! Are these subjects of panegyric, or fit to be recommended to our imitation? And if the fault they were guilty of were so glorious, what cruelty was it to cast them into hell for it!

But what comfort does the poet provide for the woman that was guilty of this glorious fault? Why, this: —

"Yet shall thy grave with rising flowers be dress’d,
And the green turf lie light upon thy breast."

Who would not go to hell, to have the green turf grow upon his grave? Nay, and primroses too! For the poet assures her, —

"There the first roses of the spring shall bloom!"

The conclusion of this celebrated poem is not the least remarkable part of it: —

"Life’s idle business at one gasp be o’er,
The Muse forgot, and thou beloved no more!"

"Idle business" indeed! If we had no better business than this, it is pity that ever we were born! But was this all the business of his life? Did God raise him from the dust of the earth, and breathe into him a living soul, for no other business than to court a mistress, and to make verses? O what a view is here given of an immortal spirit, that came forth from God, and is going back to God!

14. Upon the whole, I cannot but think that the natural understanding of Mr. Prior was far stronger than that of Mr. Pope; that his judgment was more correct, his learning more extensive, his knowledge of religion and of the Scriptures far greater. And I conceive his poetical abilities were at least equal to those either of Pope or Dryden. But as poetry was not his business, but merely the employment of his leisure hours, few of his pieces are so highly finished as most of Mr. Pope’s are. But those which he has taken the pains to polish (as the "Ode to the Memory of Colonel Villiers," the "Paraphrase on the Thirteenth of the Corinthians," and several parts of "Solomon") do not yield to anything, that has been wrote either by Pope, or Dryden, or any English poet, except Milton.

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Chicago: John Wesley, "Thoughts on the Character and Writings of Mr. Prior.," Collected Works of John Wesley, Volume XIII, ed. Thomas Jackson in Collected Works of John Wesley, Volume XIII (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), Original Sources, accessed January 24, 2020, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4KQB8FCN4CWUPR7.

MLA: Wesley, John. "Thoughts on the Character and Writings of Mr. Prior." Collected Works of John Wesley, Volume XIII, edited by Thomas Jackson, in Collected Works of John Wesley, Volume XIII, London, Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872, Original Sources. 24 Jan. 2020. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4KQB8FCN4CWUPR7.

Harvard: Wesley, J, 'Thoughts on the Character and Writings of Mr. Prior.' in Collected Works of John Wesley, Volume XIII, ed. . cited in 1872, Collected Works of John Wesley, Volume XIII, Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, London. Original Sources, retrieved 24 January 2020, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4KQB8FCN4CWUPR7.