Poet and Diplomat, Matthew Prior was born on July 21, 1664 in the vicinity of Wimborne Minster, Dorset, England the son of a nonconformist joiner.
How Matthew came to be educated at Westminster School is not all together clear. In one version it was his father who moved to London, and sent him to Westminster School. On his father’s death, he left school, and was cared for by his uncle, a vintner in Channel Row, or it was his uncle who sent him following his fathers death. Whatever the truth of the matter it seems that there was not enough money available to keep him there. It was at this point that Prior was allegedly spotted reading Horace in one of his uncle’s pubs by Lord Dorset, and set him to translate an ode. He did so well that the earl offered to contribute to the continuation of his education at Westminster.
One of his schoolfellows and friends was Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax. It was to avoid being separated from Montagu and his brother James that Prior accepted, against Lord Dorset’s wish, a scholarship recently founded at St John’s College, Cambridge. He took his B.A. degree in 1686, and two years later became a fellow. In collaboration with Montagu he wrote in 1687 the City Mouse and Country Mouse, in ridicule of John Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther.
In 1690 he was appointed Secretary to Lord Dursley at The Hague – which was the start of his career as a diplomat. His poem The Secretary (1696) draws upon this experience. After holding various diplomatic posts, in which he showed ability and discretion, he entered Parliament in 1700, and, deserting the Whigs, joined the Tories, by whom he was employed in various capacities, In 1711 he was sent to Paris and played a key role in the negotiations which led in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713).
Following the death of Queen Anne in 1714, he was recalled to England, the Whigs regained power and he was impeached by Robert Walpole and kept in close custody for two years (1715–1717).
During this imprisonment, maintaining his cheerful philosophy, he wrote his longest humorous poem, Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind. This, along with his most ambitious work, Solomon, and other Poems on several Occasions, was published by subscription in 1718. The sum received for this volume (4000 guineas), with a present of £4000 from Lord Harley, enabled him to live in comfort; but he did not long survive his enforced retirement from public life, although he bore his ups and downs with rare equanimity.
Matthew Prior died on September 18, 1721 at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, a seat of the earl of Oxford, and is buried in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. (At the feet of Edmund Spenser, as he requested.) There is also a monument to him featuring a bust by Antoine Coysevox.