Matthew Prior

(1664 - 1721 / Dorset / England)

A Letter To Monsieur Boileau Despreaux, Occasioned By The Victory At Blenheim


Since hired for life, thy servile Muse must sing
Successive conquests and a glorious King;
Must of a man immortal vainly boast,
And bring him laurels whatsoe'er they cost,
What turn wilt thou employ, what colours lay,
On the event of that superior day,
In which one English subject's prosperous hand
(So Jove did will, so Anna did command)
Broke the proud column of thy master's praise,
Which sixty winters had conspired to raise?
From the lost field a hundred standards brought
Must be the work of Chance, and Fortune's fault.
Bavaria's stars must be accused, which shone,
That fatal day the mighty work was done,
With rays oblique upon the Gallic sun.
Some demon envying France misled the sight,
And Mars mistook, though Louis order'd right.
When thy young Muse invoked the tuneful Nine,
To say how Louis did not pass the Rhine,
What work had we with Wageninghen, Arnheim,
Places that could not be reduced to rhyme?
And though the poet made his last efforts,
Wurts -- who could mention in heroic -- Wurts?
But, tell me, hast thou reason to complain
Of the rough triumphs of the last campaign?
The Danube rescued and the Empire saved,
Say, is the majesty of verse retrieved?
And would it prejudice thy softer vein
To sing the princes Louis and Eugene?
Is it too hard in happy verse to place
The Vans and Vanders of the Rhine and Maese?
Her warriors Anna sends from Tweed and Thames,
That France may fall by more harmonious names.
Canst thou not Hamilton or Lumley bear?
Would Ingoldsby or Palmes offend thy ear?
And is there not a sound in Marlbro's name
Which thou and all thy brethren ought to claim,
Sacred to verse, and sure of endless fame?
Cutts is in metre something harsh to read;
Place me the valiant Gouram in his stead;
Let the intention make the number good;
Let generous Sylvius speak for honest Wood,
And though rough Churchill scarce in verse will stand,
So as to have one rhyme at his command.
With ease the bard reciting Blenheim's plain,
May close the verse, remembering but the Dane.
I grant, old friend, old foe, (for such we are
Alternate as the chance of peace and war)
That we poetic folks, who must restrain
Our measured sayings in an equal chain,
Have troubles utterly unknown to those
Who let their fancy loose in rambling prose.
For instance, now, how hard is it for me
To make my matter and my my verse agree?
In one great day, on Hochstets fatal plain,
French and Bavarians twenty thousand slain;
Push'd through the Danube to the shores of Styx
Squadrons eighteen, battalions twenty-six;
Officers captive made, and private men,
Of these twelve hundred, of those thousands ten;
Tents, ammunition, colours, carriages,
Cannons, and kettle-drums, -- sweet numbers these
But is it thus you English bards compose?
With Runic lays thus tag insipid prose?
And when you should your hero's deeds rehearse
Give us a commissary's list in verse?
Why, faith, Despreaux, there's sense in what you say;
I told you where my difficulty lay:
So vast, so numerous, were great Blenheim's spoils,
They scorn the bounds of verse, and mock the muse's toils.
To make the rough recital aptly chime,
Or bring the sum of Gallia's loss to rhyme,
'Tis mighty hard: what poet would essay
To count the streamers of my Lord Mayor's day?
To number all the several dishes dress'd
By honest Lamb last coronation-feast?
Or make arithmetic and epic meet,
And Newton's thoughts in Dryden's style repeat?
O Poet, had it been Apollo's will
That I had shared a portion of thy skill;
Had this poor breast received the heavenly beam,
Or could I hope my verse might reach my theme;
Yet, Boileau, yet the labouring muse should strive
Beneath the shades of Marlbro's wreaths to live;
Should call aspiring gods to bless her choice,
And to their favourite's strain exalt her voice,
Arms and a Queen to sing, who, great and good,
From peaceful Thames to Danube's wondering flood,
Sent forth the terror of her high commands,
To save the nations from invading hands,
To prop fair Liberty's declining cause,
And fix the jarring world with equal laws.
The queen should sit in Windsor's sacred grove
Attended by the gods of War and Love;
Both should with equal zeal her smiles implore,
To fix her joys, or to extend her Power.
Sudden the Nymphs and Tritons should appear
And as great Anna smiles dispel their fear;
With active dance should her observance claim:
With vocal shell should sound her happy name;
Their master Thames should leave the neigh'bring shore
By his strong anchor known and silver oar;
Should lay his ensigns at his sovereign's feet,
And audience mild with humble grace entreat.
To her, his dear defence, she should complain,
That whilst he blesses her indulgent reign,
Whilst further seas are by his fleets survey'd,
And on his happy banks each India laid,
His brethren Maese, and Waal, and Rhine, and Saar,
Feel the hard burden of oppressive war;
That Danube scarce retains his rightful course
Against two rebel armies' neighbouring force;
And all must weep, sad captive to the Seine,
Unless unchain'd and freed by Britain's queen.
The valiant Sovereign calls her general forth,
Neither recites her bounty nor his worth;
She tells him he must Europe's fate redeem,
And by that labour merit her esteem;
She bids him wait her to the sacred hall,
Shows him Prince Edward, and the conquer'd Gaul;
Fixing the bloody cross upon his breast,
Says he must die, or succour the distrest.
Placing the saint an emblem by his side,
She tells him Virtue arm'd must conquer lawless Pride.
The hero bows obedient, and retires:
The Queen's commands exalt the warrior's fires:
His steps are to the silent woods inclined,
The great designs revolving in his mind,
When to his sight a heavenly form appears,
Her hand a palm, her head a laurel wears.
Me, she begins, the fairest child of Jove,
Below for ever sought, and bless'd above;
Me, the bright source of wealth, and power and fame,
(Nor need I say Victoria is my name)
Me the great Father down to thee has sent;
He bids me wait at thy distinguish'd tent,
To execute what Anna's wish would have;
Her subject thou, I only am her slave.
Dare, then, thou much beloved by smiling Fate;
For Anna's sake, and in her name, be great:
Go forth, and be to distant nations known,
My future favourite, and my darling son:
At Schellenberg I'll manifest, sustain
Thy glorious cause, and spread thy wings again,
Conspicuous o'er thy helm, in Blenheim's plain.
The goddess said, nor would admit reply,
But cut the liquid air, and gain'd the sky.
His high commission is through Britain known,
And thronging armies to his standard run;
He marches thoughtful, and he speedy sails;
(Bless him, ye seas, and prosper him, ye gales!)
Belgia receives him welcome to her shores,
And William's death with lessen'd grief deplores:
His presence only must retrieve that loss;
Marl'brough to her must be what William was:
So when great Atlas, from these low abodes
Recall'd, was gather'd to his kindred gods,
Alcides, respited by prudent Fate,
Sustain'd the ball, nor droop'd beneath the weight.
Secret and swift behold the chief advance;
Sees half the empire join'd, and friend to France:
The British General dooms the fight; his sword
Dreadful he draws: the captains wait the word.
Anne and St. George, the charging hero cries:
Shrill Echo from the neighbouring wood replies,
Anne and St. George -- At that auspicious sign
The standards move, the adverse armies join.
Of eight great hours Time measures out the sands,
And Europe's fate in doubtful balance stands;
The ninth, Victoria comes:-- o'er Marl'brough's head
Confess'd she sits: the hostile troops recede;--
Triumphs the goddess, from her promise freed.
The Eagle, by the British Lion's might
Unchain'd and free, directs her upward flight;
Nor did she e'er with stronger pinions soar
From Tyber's banks, than now from Danube's shore.
Fired with the thoughts which these ideas raise,
And great ambition of my country's praise,
The English Muse should like the Mantuan rise,
Scornful of earth and clouds, should reach the skies,
With wonder (though with envy still) pursued by human eyes.
But we must change the style -- Just now I said
I ne'er was master of the tuneful trade;
Or the small genius which my youth could boast,
In prose and business lies extinct and lost;
Bless'd if I may some younger muse excite,
Point out the game, and animate the flight;
That from Marseilles to Calais France may know,
As we have conquerors, we have poets too,
And either laurel does in Britain grow;
That, though amongst ourselves, with too much heat,
We sometimes wrangle when we should debate,
(A consequential ill, which freedom draws;
A bad effect, but from a nobler cause)
We can with universal zeal advance
To curb the faithless arrogance of France,
Nor ever shall Britannia's sons refuse
To answer to thy Master or thy Muse;
Nor want just subject for victorious strains,
While Marl'brough's arm eternal laurels gains,
And where old Spenser sung a new Eliza reigns.

Submitted: Monday, April 19, 2010

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