Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

On Similitudes: Montaigne in Matthew Prior's Alma and the Late "Dialogues of the Dead"

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

On Similitudes: Montaigne in Matthew Prior's Alma and the Late "Dialogues of the Dead"

Article excerpt

The work [of Matthew Prior] is far from deserving to be neglected. He that shall peruse it will be able to mark many passages, to which he may recur for instruction or delight; many from which the poet may learn to write, and the philosopher to reason." Thus Samuel Johnson summed up his account of the merit and faults of Matthew Prior in his Lives of the Poets. (1) And yet, from the vantage point of posterity, Johnsons call to attend to Prior's works appears the first sign of the increasing neglect in which the poet has subsided ever since his death in 1721. The consideration of the justice of Prior's fortunes as a writer lies beyond the scope of this essay, which seeks instead to reclaim him as a figure of importance at least for literary history. The extensive debt to Montaigne that can be traced in Prior's late works attests to his philosophical inclinations, and the study of it enlightens a crucial aspect of the reception of the Essais across the Channel after Charles Cottons English translation (1685-86). (2)

By then (late 1710s), Prior had suffered his fall from grace. His origins were humble and obscure, but his talents had raised him to a position of great political influence in the first two decades of the eighteenth century, and he had been a key figure in the settlement of the peace of Utrecht (1713). However, with the fall of the Tory ministry of Harley and Bolingbroke (to whom Prior was closely associated), his luck ceased, and he was put under house arrest by the new Whig government, which sought (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to impeach him with Robert Harley. He was released, penniless, only a year later, in 1716, but he managed to secure relative economic tranquillity thanks to the charity of his friends (Harley especially), and to the popularity of his poetry (his 1719 Poems, sold by subscription, was one of the most profitable books in eighteenth-century publishing history). (3) The long Hudibrastic poem Alma, or, The Progress of the Mind, written in dialogic form during Priors confinement in 1715-16 and published in 1719, sheds light on a vein of humorous scepticism that descends from Montaigne to Pope and Hume. (4) Equally, the four prose "dialogues of the dead" that he composed in his late years reveal the eclectic nature of Prior's philosophy, and, although they remained in manuscript until 1907, we have evidence for their contemporary circulation. (5) The Dialogue between Mr. John Locke and Seigneur de Montaigne and Alma will be the principal focus of this essay.

In the Dialogue between Locke and Montaigne, (6) Prior stages a dispute between two attitudes to the practice of philosophy. According to Pope, who read the piece in manuscript after Priors death in 1721 and, we are told, much enjoyed it, (7) the opposition is between a "very loose" and a "most regular" way of thinking: Montaigne represents the wide-ranging and copious richness of the gentleman, and Locke the punctilious methodology of the system-building metaphysician. Thus, when Locke accuses Montaigne of pilfering his ideas from other authors, whilst priding himself on "spin[ning] my Work out of my own thoughts," Montaigne retorts:

Spin! so does a Spider out of her own Bowels; and yet a Cobweb is good for Nothing else ... but to catch flies, and Stanch cut Thumbs. I am so far from concealing what you seem to call Thefts that I glory in them.... Let me be Compared to a Bee, who takes Something from every Flower and Shrub, and by that various Labour collects one of the greatest Ingredients of Human health, and the very Emblem of Plenty. (604-13)

Indeed, Prior is not weaving this double simile out of his own thoughts: he is filching it from his friend Swift, who had similarly described the Ancients and the Moderns in his Battel of the Books (1704), thus performing the argument in favor of literary thievery. (8)

But the irony is more complex: throughout the dialogue Prior is reworking into his piece many loci out of Montaigne's "De l'institution des enfants" (1. …

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