Matthew Prior, Poems on several occasions: consisting of odes, satyrs and epistles; with some select translations and imitations1707  

Genre: vers d'société, poems on commonplace occasions and topics, enlivened with sophisticated turns of phrase and shifts of "register" from high to low diction.

Form: "An Epitaph" and "A True Maid" are in the iambic pentameter rhyming couplets Donne and Herrick used for secular songs.  "A Better Answer: To Chloe Jealous" is in four-line stanzas composed of iambs (/^), trochees (reversed iambs), anapests (//^),and dactyls (^//), rhyming loosely abab.  This informal rhythm is well-adapted to capturing colloquial speech and allows Prior to swerve from formal to street diction without pause.

Characters: Prior's works are an example of the movement away from Old-Comedy-style reference to specific persons and toward a New-Comedy use of "types" or frequently encountered examples of human behavior.

Summary:  "Jack" and "Joan" ("An Epitaph") share with countless Londoners the bourgeois resistance to strong passions and fondness for creature comforts.  Their response to great tragedies or triumphs (49-56) establish them as the first generation of "couch potatoes," hearing the evening news unmoved to more than token charity by the most profound horrors or joys.  Similarly, "Dick" and "Rose" ("A True Maid") are the typical courting lovers we've seen since the courtly verse of Wyatt, but modernized by Prior's quick turn of the old "death before dishonor" trope.  (Note: see the link to read the four-line lyric.  Among the Norton 8th edition editors' more curious decisions was the deletion of "A True Maid," a tiny thing, from the Prior selections in the 7th--could it be the poem is no longer proper for a literature anthology?)  Click here to read "A Better Answer: To Chloe Jealous," also cut between the shift from the Norton 7th to 8th editions.  "Chloe" is asked by "I" ("Prior" in some sense) to settle down and avoid histrionics by comparison with the occasions which moved the greater and earlier literary figures of Falstaff and Horace. It also argues for the inherent triviality of verse, as opposed to the real dealings of real people which the speaker casts in prose (15-16).

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. How does Prior's sardonic realism take on the poetic conventions of the previous centuries of English verse?  Consider especially his willingness to mock his own endeavors as a poet in order to achieve a poetic aim.
    • Have we seen other poets who can deliberately mar a rhyme scheme or meter to catch an unexpected affect?
    • How might this poetic pose be related to the way poets of this post-Civil-War era might view their own efforts against the backdrop of the previous century's productivity?  That would be Matthew Prior's response to his own "anxiety of influence."
  2. Prior's themes often involve an emphasis on the resistance to hypocrisy in its most congenial forms, the poetic conceit and the social falsehood that preserves appearances.  He specifically allies himself with Rochester in "A Better Answer" as one who is willing to speak truthfully even when the truth is offensive.  However, Lord Rochester also was capable of deception by this "truth-telling" strategy.
    • Can you see any sophistry in Prior's use of the "truth-telling" trope?
  3. How serious is the satire of "An Epitaph"?  That is, could Jack and Joan be said to damage the culture by their behaviors, or is each of them more properly seen as foolish but "one of us"?  Does your own generation have its Jacks and Joans, and what would a contemporary epitaph say about their behaviors?
  4. For the University of Toronto's representative selection of Prior's works, click here.   You might especially want to see the poem, "A Simile," in which he compares the writers of odes and epics to squirrels running in a circular cage, full of furious motion but getting nowhere.
    • How might that view of poetic ambition also reflect a crisis of ambition in poets of this age?
    • Could the combined weight of works produced by the poets of the previous two hundred years become an impossible burden to their descendants?
    Consider the dramatist confronted with the legacies of Jonson and Shakespeare, the lyric poets trying to outdo Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, Herrick, and the others, and anyone with epic ambitions following Milton.

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