Of the birth or early part of the life of Ambrose Philips I have not been able to find any account. His academical education he received at St. John’s College in Cambridge, where he first solicited the notice of the world by some English verses, in the collection published by the University on the death of Queen Mary. From this time how he was employed, or in what station he passed his life, is not yet discovered. He must have published his “Pastorals” before the year 1708, because they are evidently prior to those of Pope. He afterwards (1709) addressed to the universal patron, the Duke of Dorset, a “Poetical Letter from Copenhagen,” which was published in the Tatler, and is by Pope, in one of his first Letters, mentioned with high praise as the production of a man “who could write very nobly.”
Philips was a zealous Whig, and therefore easily found access to Addison and Steele; but his ardour seems not to have procured him anything more than kind words, since he was reduced to translate the “Persian Tales” for Tonson, for which he was afterwards reproached, with this addition of contempt, that he worked for half-a-crown. The book is divided into many sections, for each of which, if he received half-a-crown, his reward, as writers then were paid, was very liberal; but half-a-crown had a mean sound. He was employed in promoting the principles of his party, by epitomising Hacket’s “Life of Archbishop Williams.” The original book is written with such depravity of genius, such mixture of the fop and pedant, as has not often appeared. The epitome is free enough from affectation, but has little spirit or vigour.
In 1712 he brought upon the stage The Distressed Mother, almost a translation of Racine’s Andromaque. Such a work requires no uncommon powers, but the friends of Philips exerted every art to promote his interest. Before the appearance of the play a whole Spectator, none indeed of the best, was devoted to its praise; while it yet continued to be acted, another Spectator was written to tell what impression it made upon Sir Roger, and on the first night a select audience, says Pope, was called together to applaud it. It was concluded with the most successful Epilogue that was ever yet spoken on the English theatre. The three first nights it was recited twice, and not only continued to be demanded through the run, as it is termed, of the play, but whenever it is recalled to the stage, where by peculiar fortune, though a copy from the French, it yet keeps its place, the Epilogue is still expected, and is still spoken.
The propriety of Epilogues in general, and consequently of this, was questioned by a correspondent of the Spectator, whose letter was undoubtedly admitted for the sake of the answer, which soon followed, written with much zeal and acrimony. The attack and the defence equally contributed to stimulate curiosity and continue attention. It may be discovered in the defence that Prior’s Epilogue to Phaedra had a little excited jealousy, and something of Prior’s plan may be discovered in the performance of his rival. Of this distinguished Epilogue the reputed author was the wretched Budgell, whom Addison used to denominate “the man who calls me cousin;” and when he was asked how such a silly fellow could write so well, replied, “The Epilogue was quite another thing when I saw it first.” It was known in Tonson’s family, and told to Garrick, that Addison was himself the author of it, and that, when it had been at first printed with his name, he came early in the morning, before the copies were distributed, and ordered it to be given to Budgell, that it might add weight to the solicitation which he was then making for a place.
Philips was now high in the ranks of literature. His play was applauded; his translations from Sappho had been published in the Spectator; he was an important and distinguished associate of clubs, witty and poetical; and nothing was wanting to his happiness but that he should be sure of its continuance. The work which had procured him the first notice from the public was his “Six Pastorals,” which, flattering the imagination with Arcadian scenes, probably found many readers, and might have long passed as a pleasing amusement had they not been unhappily too much commended.
The rustic poems of Theocritus were so highly valued by the Greeks and Romans that they attracted the imitation of Virgil, whose Eclogues seem to have been considered as precluding all attempts of the same kind; for no shepherds were taught to sing by any succeeding poet, till Nemesian and Calphurnius ventured their feeble efforts in the lower age of Latin literature.
At the revival of learning in Italy it was soon discovered that a dialogue of imaginary swains might be composed with little difficulty, because the conversation of shepherds excludes profound or refined sentiment; and for images and descriptions, satyrs and fauns, and naiads and dryads, were always within call; and woods and meadows, and hills and rivers, supplied variety of matter, which, having a natural power to soothe the mind, did not quickly cloy it.
Petrarch entertained the learned men of his age with the novelty of modern pastorals in Latin. Being not ignorant of Greek, and finding nothing in the word “eclogue” of rural meaning, he supposed it to be corrupted by the copiers, and therefore called his own productions “AEglogues,” by which he meant to express the talk of goat-herds, though it will mean only the talk of goats. This new name was adopted by subsequent writers, and among others by our Spenser.
More than a century afterwards (1498) Mantuan published his Bucolics with such success that they were soon dignified by Badius with a comment, and, as Scaliger complained, received into schools, and taught as classical; his complaint was vain, and the practice, however injudicious, spread far and continued long. Mantuan was read, at least in some of the inferior schools of this kingdom, to the beginning of the present century. The speakers of Mantuan carried their disquisitions beyond the country to censure the corruptions of the Church, and from him Spenser learned to employ his swains on topics of controversy. The Italians soon transferred pastoral poetry into their own language. Sannazaro wrote “Arcadia” in prose and verse; Tasso and Guarini wrote “Favole Boschareccie,” or Sylvan Dramas; and all nations of Europe filled volumes with Thyrsis and Damon, and Thestylis and Phyllis.
Philips thinks it “somewhat strange to conceive how, in an age so addicted to the Muses, pastoral poetry never comes to be so much as thought upon.” His wonder seems very unseasonable; there had never, from the time of Spenser, wanted writers to talk occasionally of Arcadia and Strephon, and half the book, in which he first tried his powers, consists of dialogues on Queen Mary’s death, between Tityrus and Corydon, or Mopsus and Menalcas. A series or book of pastorals, however, I know not that anyone had then lately published.
Not long afterwards Pope made the first display of his powers in four pastorals, written in a very different form. Philips had taken Spenser, and Pope took Virgil for his pattern. Philips endeavoured to be natural, Pope laboured to be elegant.
Philips was now favoured by Addison and by Addison’s companions, who were very willing to push him into reputation. The Guardian gave an account of Pastoral, partly critical and partly historical; in which, when the merit of the modern is compared, Tasso and Guarini are censured for remote thoughts and unnatural refinements, and, upon the whole, the Italians and French are all excluded from rural poetry, and the pipe of the pastoral muse is transmitted by lawful inheritance from Theocritus to Virgil, from Virgil to Spenser, and from Spenser to Philips. With this inauguration of Philips his rival Pope was not much delighted; he therefore drew a comparison of Philips’s performance with his own, in which, with an unexampled and unequalled artifice of irony, though he has himself always the advantage, he gives the preference to Philips. The design of aggrandising himself he disguised with such dexterity that, though Addison discovered it, Steele was deceived, and was afraid of displeasing Pope by publishing his paper. Published however it was (Guardian, No. 40), and from that time Pope and Philips lived in a perpetual reciprocation of malevolence. In poetical powers, of either praise or satire, there was no proportion between the combatants; but Philips, though he could not prevail by wit, hoped to hurt Pope with another weapon, and charged him, as Pope thought with Addison’s approbation, as disaffected to the Government. Even with this he was not satisfied, for, indeed, there is no appearance that any regard was paid to his clamours. He proceeded to grosser insults, and hung up a rod at Button’s, with which he threatened to chastise Pope, who appears to have been extremely exasperated, for in the first edition of his Letters he calls Philips “rascal,” and in the last still charges him with detaining in his hands the subscriptions for “Homer” delivered to him by the Hanover Club. I suppose it was never suspected that he meant to appropriate the money; he only delayed, and with sufficient meanness, the gratification of him by whose prosperity he was pained.
Men sometimes suffer by injudicious kindness; Philips became ridiculous, without his own fault, by the absurd admiration of his friends, who decorated him with honorary garlands, which the first breath of contradiction blasted.
When upon the succession of the House of Hanover every Whig expected to be happy, Philips seems to have obtained too little notice; he caught few drops of the golden shower, though he did not omit what flattery could perform. He was only made a commissioner of the lottery (1717), and, what did not much elevate his character, a justice of the peace.
The success of his first play must naturally dispose him to turn his hopes towards the stage; he did not, however, soon commit himself to the mercy of an audience, but contented himself with the fame already acquired, till after nine years he produced (1722) The Briton, a tragedy which, whatever was its reception, is now neglected; though one of the scenes, between Vanoc the British Prince and Valens the Roman General, is confessed to be written with great dramatic skill, animated by spirit truly poetical. He had not been idle though he had been silent, for he exhibited another tragedy the same year on the story of Humphry, Duke of Gloucester. This tragedy is only remembered by its title.
His happiest undertaking was (1711) of a paper called The Freethinker, in conjunction with associates, of whom one was Dr. Boulter, who, then only minister of a parish in Southwark, was of so much consequence to the Government that he was made first Bishop of Bristol, and afterwards Primate of Ireland, where his piety and his charity will be long honoured. It may easily be imagined that what was printed under the direction of Boulter would have nothing in it indecent or licentious; its title is to be understood as implying only freedom from unreasonable prejudice. It has been reprinted in volumes, but is little read; nor can impartial criticism recommend it as worthy of revival.
Boulter was not well qualified to write diurnal essays, but he knew how to practise the liberality of greatness and the fidelity of friendship. When he was advanced to the height of ecclesiastical dignity, he did not forget the companion of his labours. Knowing Philips to be slenderly supported, he took him to Ireland as partaker of his fortune, and, making him his secretary, added such preferments as enabled him to represent the county of Armagh in the Irish Parliament. In December, 1726, he was made secretary to the Lord Chancellor, and in August, 1733, became Judge of the Prerogative Court.
After the death of his patron he continued some years in Ireland, but at last longing, as it seems, for his native country, he returned (1748) to London, having doubtless survived most of his friends and enemies, and among them his dreaded antagonist Pope. He found, however, the Duke of Newcastle still living, and to him he dedicated his poems collected into a volume.
Having purchased an annuity of 400 pounds, he now certainly hoped to pass some years of life in plenty and tranquillity; but his hope deceived him: he was struck with a palsy, and died June 18, 1749, in his seventy-eighth year.
Of his personal character all that I have heard is, that he was eminent for bravery and skill in the sword, and that in conversation he was solemn and pompous. He had great sensibility of censure, if judgment may be made by a single story which I heard long ago from Mr. Ing, a gentleman of great eminence in Staffordshire. “Philips,” said he, “was once at table, when I asked him, ‘How came thy king of Epirus to drive oxen, and to say, “I’m goaded on by love”?’ After which question he never spoke again.”
Of The Distressed Mother not much is pretended to be his own, and therefore it is no subject of criticism: his other two tragedies, I believe, are not below mediocrity, nor above it. Among the poems comprised in the late Collection, the “Letter from Denmark” may be justly praised; the Pastorals, which by the writer of the Guardian were ranked as one of the four genuine productions of the rustic Muse, cannot surely be despicable. That they exhibit a mode of life which did not exist, nor ever existed, is not to be objected: the supposition of such a state is allowed to be pastoral. In his other poems he cannot be denied the praise of lines sometimes elegant; but he has seldom much force or much comprehension. The pieces that please best are those which, from Pope and Pope’s adherents, procured him the name of “Namby–Pamby,” the poems of short lines, by which he paid his court to all ages and characters, from Walpole the “steerer of the realm,” to Miss Pulteney in the nursery. The numbers are smooth and sprightly, and the diction is seldom faulty. They are not loaded with much thought, yet, if they had been written by Addison, they would have had admirers: little things are not valued but when they are done by those who can do greater.
In his translations from “Pindar” he found the art of reaching all the obscurity of the Theban bard, however he may fall below his sublimity; he will be allowed, if he has less fire, to have more smoke. He has added nothing to English poetry, yet at least half his book deserves to be read: perhaps he valued most himself that part which the critic would reject.
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