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Prior was born in the Westminster area of London on either 21 or 23 July 1664 to Elizabeth and George Prior, a London joiner (skilled carpenter).He was the fifth of their six children but the only one to survive infancy.Dorset asked him first to construe a passage or two, then asked him to turn an ode into English verse.Prior performed these tasks so well that, on later visits to the tavern, Dorset and his aristocratic friends often asked him to turn Horace or Ovid into English verse.His poems written during the period are chiefly occasional, directed to William III, to members of the family of the earl of Exeter, to Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII and foundress of St.John’s College, and (the most interesting of the lot) four times to Fleet wood Shepherd, the poet and wit who acted as intermediary between the earl of Dorset and the young men he sponsored.The Hague was an important outpost in the War of the Grand Alliance (The War of the League of Augsburg), which was already two years underway when Prior was appointed, and was to go on for almost another seven.The struggle for power between the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs pitted France against England, Spain, Savoy, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire.
Despite the great public acclaim received, Prior found no clear professional direction for over a year after his graduation from St. On 3 April 1688, however, he was entered as a Keyton Fellow at St. In that same month he moved into the Fellows’ quarters at St.
Unable to support Prior in Westminster, his mother withdrew him from school and put him to work keeping the books at his uncle Arthur Prior’s Rhenish Tavern.
A year later, Charles Sackville, Sixth Earl of Dorset and patron to Dryden, William Congreve, Thomas Shadwell, Nathaniel Lee, Thomas Otway, and George Etherege, came into the Rhenish Tavern and found the twelve-year-old Prior behind the bar reading Horace.
Five years later (in 1681) Prior was named a King’s Scholar there—an important award based upon a distinguished command of classical languages—exempting him from tuition and residence fees, giving him a dress allowance and funds for luxuries like holidays and festivals, and conferring upon him a range of ceremonial and practical rights and privileges.
Most Westminster King’s Scholars went to Christ Church, Oxford, but Prior chose instead to try to win one of the five scholarships just established by the duchess of Somerset at St. The scholarship he won paid all his tuition and gave him a living allowance, a shared bedroom, and a private study.
Matthew Prior was the most important poet writing in England between the death of John Dryden (1700) and the poetic maturity of Alexander Pope (about 1712).