Matthew Prior’s diplomatic negotiations with France in the period 1711–15 were the most important and worst rewarded of his career. From 1711 the English career-diplomat and poet acted as secret negotiator for the Tory government with enemy France. His journeys and talks were part of wider negotiations that ultimately led to peace and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ending the European War of the Spanish Succession. Prior’s share in drawing up preliminary treaties between England and France in 1711 was so visible – despite the intended secrecy – that opposition Whig politicians mockingly called them ‘Matt’s peace’. The writer Jonathan Swift observed that stocks rose whenever his friend Prior came back to London from Paris, and satirized one of Prior’s trips abroad in A New Journey to Paris: Together with Some Secret Transactions between the Fr–h K–g, and an Eng– Gentleman (1711).
Prior’s political superiors were delighted with his efforts and after the peace he stayed on in Paris with the aim of improving ties between England and France, incurring huge debts as a poorly allowanced and unofficial ambassador. By the time he returned to England in early 1715, it was under the rule of the Whig political party. Peace with France had never been popular with the Whigs, and Prior was so far from being fêted for his work that he was instead arrested for questioning, and retained under house arrest for over a year. Among the Tories his name became synonymous with undeserved political ill treatment – but the Whigs remained in the ascendant under England’s new Hanoverian monarchy.
Luckily, Prior’s poetry began to pay its way just as his diplomatic career died leaving him broke: his first profitable poetry collection was published by subscription in 1718. It contains a poem with the title ‘Written in Montaigne’s Essays, Given to the Duke of Shrewsbury in France, after the Peace, 1713’. Charles Talbot, first duke of Shrewsbury arrived as ambassador in Paris in January 1713 and wrote to the lord treasurer of Prior’s work in glowing terms a couple of months later. The original manuscript inscription of that poem has recently turned up within a private collection of Montaigne-related books donated to Cambridge University Library.
The poem is pictured above, inscribed opposite the title page of a handsome folio edition of Montaigne’s Essais [Essays] printed in Paris in 1595 (pictured right). It is presumably the very same copy that Prior gave to Shrewsbury just after the Peace of Utrecht (April 1713), as the later published version of the poem informs us. The manuscript poem is written in Prior’s neatest italic hand and signed by him. It reads as follows:
To His Grace the Duke of Shrewsbury with Montaignes Essays
Dictate, O mighty Judge, what Thou hast seen
Of Cities, and of Courts, of Books, and Men:
And daign to let Thy Servant hold the Pen.
Thrô Ages thus I might presume to Live;
And from the Transcript of Thy Prose receive,
What my own short Liv’d Verse can never give.
Thus shou’d fair Britain with a gracious Smile
Receive the Work, the Venerable Isle
For more than Treaties shou’d bless my Toil.
Nor longer hence the Gallic Stile preferr’d,
Wisdom in English Idiom shou’d be heard:
While Shrewsbury told the World where Montaign’ Err’d.
Montaigne’s Essais (written between 1570 and 1592) are among the most important achievements of the French Renaissance and they greatly influenced seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature and thought. Predecessors of the modern essay, they inspired a genre; startlingly skeptical for their time, they are the most prominent work of pre-Enlightenment French philosophy. Telling the world where Montaigne erred would indeed be evidence of wisdom and eloquence.
Prior’s gift of the Essais and his dedicatory poem to his diplomatic and party-political superior was undoubtedly intended to elicit political patronage, on which Prior was reliant both for his postings and for reward. Quite apart from the complimentary poem, Prior’s choice of book is a form of delicate literary flattery, since a poem addressed to an earlier member of the Talbot family appeared in the first English translation of Montaigne’s Essais, by John Florio in 1603. That poem promised that ‘OF Honorable TALBOT honor’d-farre, / The forecast and the fortune, by his WORD / Montaigne here descrives’ (fol. Rr3v). Writing poetry for political networking was common practice in the early eighteenth century, but diplomats like Prior were also particularly well placed to source unusual and desirable books from abroad for their patrons. Prior’s diplomatic letters are filled with references to books and poems sent back to England that mediate patron-client socio-political relationships.
‘To His Grace the Duke of Shrewsbury’ gestures towards these wider literary and cultural transactions performed while Prior was on diplomatic service. Like other early modern diplomats, Prior ended up serving as an informal agent in the international circulation of books, manuscripts and literary news. Over the course of his career, he collected and sent home not just many political and diplomatic works, but also much newly published poetry, drama and satirical prose, and many scientific, philosophical or religious works, as well as rare and collectible editions of classical authors and humanist writings. He frequently wrote to tell his English correspondents of the publication or reception of new works on the Continent.
The increasingly established institutional infrastructure of diplomacy provided a practical reason for this phenomenon: it gave diplomats like Prior privileged access to influential readers and writers both abroad and at home. Prior’s poem to Shrewsbury suggests another reason. In the third stanza, Prior claims that the nation will thank him more for the new political ‘Work’ by Shrewsbury that he imagines will be inspired by his imported book, and dictated to him, than for his work making treaties. Writing in the immediate aftermath of his successes on the Treaty of Utrecht, he is unquestionably tongue-in-cheek, but his flattery nevertheless draws a parallel between his official diplomatic duties and his informal agency in literary labours and sending books home.
Prior effectively implies that his informal international circulation of books serves the nation and his fourth stanza explains how. Prior envisions his nation, as represented by Shrewsbury and his composition, anglicising and improving on Montaigne. The re-export of this British bettering of French writing to the listening and reading ‘World’ will provide evidence of Britain’s cultural and intellectual superiority. At the time Prior was writing, French had recently replaced Latin as the international language of Europe and the language of diplomacy. The spread of French books had certainly contributed to its dominance. Languages are one of the means by which communities are constructed and – as Peter Burke has argued – the competition between vernaculars for European hegemony was about political as well as linguistic influence. Prior’s poem (though he would not have guessed it) anticipated the eventual ascendancy of English as the language of international cultural and diplomatic exchange.
The Peace of Utrecht acknowledged the French candidate for the Spanish throne in return for territorial and economic concessions for the other warring parties. Prior’s poem frames another acknowledgement of French authority – the literary recognition of Montaigne’s famed Essais – as ultimately producing British victory.
Peter Burke, Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
John Florio, trans., The essayes or morall, politike and millitarie discourses of Lord Michaell de Montaigne (London: Val. Sims for Edward Blount, 1603)
Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais de Michel seigneur de Montaigne (Paris: Abel L’Anglier, 1595), CUL Montaigne.2.3.2 (currently uncatalogued). Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
Matthew Prior, Poems on Several Occasions (London: Jacob Tonson, 1718)
Jonathan Swift, A New Journey to Paris: Together with Some Secret Transactions between the Fr–h K–g, and an Eng– Gentleman (1711).
Joanna Craigwood, ‘Diplomats and International Book Exchange’, in Cultural Transfers: France and Britain in the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. Ann Thomson, Simon Burrows and Edmond Dziembowski, (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2010), pp. 57-69.
Frances Mayhew Rippy, ‘Prior, Matthew (1664–1721)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006.
With thanks to Tracey Sowerby and Warren Boutcher for their comments and suggestions.