A poet of very considerable eminence, was son of Dr. Stephen Philips, arch deacon of Salop, and born at Brampton in Oxfordshire, December 30, 1676. After he had received a grammatical education at home, he was sent to Winchester school, where he made himself master of the Latin and Greek languages, and was soon distinguished for an happy imitation of the excellencies which he discovered in the best classical authors. With this foundation he was removed to Christ's Church in Oxford, where he performed all his university exercises with applause, and besides other valuable authors in the poetical way, he became particularly acquainted with, and studied the works of Milton. The ingenious Mr. George Sewel, in his life and character of our author, observes, "that there was not an allusion in Paradise Lost, drawn from the thoughts and expressions of Homer or Virgil, which Mr. Philips could not immediately refer to, and by that he perceived what a peculiar life and grace their sentiments added to English poetry; how much their images raised its spirit, and what weight and beauty their words, when translated, gave to its language: nor was he less curious in observing the force and elegance of his mother tongue; but by the example of his darling Milton, searched backwards into the works of our old English poets, to furnish him with proper sounding, and significant expressions, and prove the due extent, and compass of the language. For this purpose he carefully read over Chaucer and Spenser, and afterwards, in his writings, did not scruple to revive any words or phrases which he thought deserved it, with that modesty, and liberty which Horace allows of, either in the coining of new, or the restoring of ancient expressions." Our author, however, was not so much enamoured of poetry, as to neglect other parts of literature, but was very well acquainted with the whole compass of natural philosophy. He seems in his studies, as well as his writings, to have made Virgil his pattern, and often to have broken out with him in the following rapturous wish, in the Second Book of the Georgics, which, for the sake of the English reader, we shall give in Mr. Dryden's translation.
Give me the ways of wand'ring stars to know,
The depths of heav'n above, or earth below;
Teach me the various labours of the moon,
And whence proceed th' eclipses of the sun.
Why flowing tides prevail upon the main,
And in what dark recess, they shrink again.
What shakes the solid earth, what cause delays
The summer nights, and the short winter days.
Mr. Philips was a passionate admirer of nature, and it is not improbable but he drew his own character in that description which he gives of a philosophical and retired life, at the latter end of the first book of his Cyder.
—He to his labour hies,
Gladsome, intent on somewhat that may ease
Unhealthy mortals and with curious search
Examine all the properties of herbs,
Fossils, and minerals, that th' embowell'd earth
Displays, if by his industry he can
Benefit human race.
Though the reader will easily discover the unpoetical flatness of the above lines, yet they shew a great thirst after natural knowledge, and we have reason to believe, that much might have been attained, and many new discoveries made, by so diligent an enquirer, and so faithful a recorder of physical operations. However, though death prevented the hopes of the world in that respect, yet the passages of that kind, which we find in his Poem on Cyder, may convince us of the niceness of his observations in natural causes. Besides this, he was particularly skilled in antiquities, especially those of his own country; and part of this study too, he has with much art and beauty intermixed with his poetry.
While Mr. Philips continued at the university, he was honoured with the acquaintance of the best and politest men in it, and had a particular intimacy with Mr. Edmund Smith, author of Phaedra and Hippolitus. The first poem which got him reputation, was his Splendid Shilling, which the author of the Tatler has stiled the best burlesque poem in the English Language; nor was it only, says Mr. Sewel, "the finest of that kind in our tongue, but handled in a manner quite different from what had been made use of by any author of our own, or other nation, the sentiments, and stile being in this both new; whereas in those, the jest lies more in allusions to the thoughts and fables of the ancients, than in the pomp of expression. The same humour is continued thro' the whole, and not unnaturally diversified, as most poems of that nature had been before. Out of that variety of circumstances, which his fruitful invention must suggest to him, on such a subject, he has not chosen any but what are diverting to every reader, and some, that none but his inimitable dress could have made diverting to any: when we read it, we are betrayed into a pleasure which we could not expect, tho' at the same time the sublimity of the stile, and the gravity of the phrase, seem to chastise that Laughter which they provoke." Mr. Edmund Smith in his beautiful verses on our Author's Death, speaks thus concerning this poem;
In her best light the comic muse appears,
When she with borrow'd pride the buskin wears.
This account given by Mr. Sewel of the Splendid Shilling, is perhaps heightened by personal friendship, and that admiration which we naturally pay to the productions of one we love. The stile seems to be unnatural for a poem which is intended to raise laughter; for that laboured gravity has rather a contrary influence; disposing the mind to be serious: and the disappointment is not small, when a man finds he has teen betrayed into solemn thinking, in reading the description of a trifle; if the gravity of the phrase chastises the laughter, the purpose of the poem is defeated, and it is a rule in writing to suit the language to the subject. Philips's Splendid Shilling may have pleased, because, its manner was new, and we often find people of the best sense throw away their admiration on monsters, which are seldom to be seen, and neglect more regular beauty, and juster proportion.
It is with reserve we offer this criticism against she authority of Dr. Sewel, and the Tatler, but we have resolved to be impartial, and the reader who is convinced of the propriety and beauty of the Splendid Shilling, has, no doubt as good a right to reject our criticism, as we had to make it.
Our author's coming to London, we are informed, was owing to the persuasion of some great persons, who engaged him to write on the Battle of Blenheim; his poem upon which introduced him to the earl of Oxford, and Henry St. John, esq; afterwards lord viscount Bolingbroke, and other noble patrons. His swelling stile, it must be owned, was better suited to a subject of this gravity and importance, than to that of a light and ludicrous nature: the exordium of this piece is poetical, and has an allusion to that of Spenser's Fairy Queen:
From low and abject themes the grov'ling muse
Now mounts aerial to sing of arms
Triumphant, ant emblaze the martial arts
Of Britain's hero.
The next poem of our author was his Cyder, the plan of which he laid at Oxford, and afterwards compleated it in London. He was determined to make choice of this subject, from the violent passion he had for the productions of nature, and to do honour to his native country. The poem was founded upon the model of Virgil's; Georgics, and approaches pretty near it, which, in the opinion of critics in general, and Mr. Dryden in particular, even excels the Divine Aeneid: He imitates Virgil rather like a pursuer, than a follower, not servilely tracing, but emulating his beauties; his conduct and management are superior to all other copiers of that original; and even the admired Rapin (says Dr. Sewel) is much below him, both in design and success, "for the Frenchman either fills his garden with the idle fables of antiquity, or new transformations of his own; and in contradiction of the rules of criticism, has injudiciously blended the serious, and sublime stile of Virgil, with the elegant turns of Ovid in his Metamorphoses; nor has the great genius of Cowley succeeded better in his Books of Plants, who, besides the same faults with the former, is continually varying his numbers from one sort of verse to another, and alluding to remote hints of medicinal writers, which, though allowed to be useful, are yet so numerous, that they flatten the dignity of verse, and sink it from a poem, to a treatise of physic." Dr. Sewel has informed us, that Mr. Philips intended to have written a poem on the Resurrection, and the Day of Judgment, and we may reasonably presume, that in such a work, he would have exceeded his other performances. This awful subject is proper to be treated in a solemn stile, and dignified with the noblest images; and we need not doubt from his just notions of religion, and the genuine spirit of poetry, which were conspicuous in him, he would have carried his readers through there tremendous scenes, with an exalted reverence, which, however, might not participate of enthusiasm. The meanest soul, and the lowest imagination cannot contemplate these alarming events described in Holy Writ, without the deepest impressions: what then might we not expect from the heart of a good man and the regulated flights and raptures of a christian poet? Our author's friend Mr. Smith, who had probably seen the first rudiments of his design, speaks thus of it, in a poem upon his death.
O! had relenting Heaven prolong'd his days,
The tow'ring bard had sung in nobler lays:
How the last trumpet shakes the lazy dead;
How saints aloft the cross triumphant spread;
How opening Heav'ns their happier regions shew,
And yawning gulphs with flaming vengeance glow,
And saints rejoice above, and sinners howl below.
Well might he sing the day he could not fear,
And paint the glories he was sure to wear.
All that we have left more of this poet, is a Latin Ode to Henry St. John, esq; which is esteemed a master-piece; the stile being pure and elegant, the subject of a mixt nature, resembling the sublime spirit, and gay facetious humour of Horace. He was beloved, says Dr. Sewel, "by all who knew him; somewhat reserved and silent amongst strangers, but free, familiar, and easy with his friends; he was averse to disputes, and thought no time so ill spent, and no wit so ill used, as that which was employed in such debates; his whole life was distinguished by a natural goodness, and well-grounded and unaffected piety, an universal charity, and a steady adherence to his principles; no one observed the natural and civil duties of life with a stricter regard, whether a son, a friend, or a member of society, and he had the happiness to fill every one of these parts, without even the suspicion either of undutifulness, insincerity, or disrespect. Thus he continued to the last, not owing his virtues to the happiness of his constitution, but the frame of his mind, insomuch that during a long sickness, which is apt to ruffle the smoothest temper; he never betrayed any discontent or uneasiness, the integrity of his life still preserving the chearfulness of his spirits; and if his friends had measured their hopes of his life, only by his unconcern in his sickness, they could not but conclude, that either his date would be much longer, or that he was at all times prepared for death." He had long been troubled with a lingering consumption, attended with an asthma; and the summer before he died, by the advice of his physicians, he removed to Batly, where he got only some present ease, but went from thence with but small hopes of recovery; and upon the return of the distemper he died at Hereford the 15th of February, 1708. He was interred in the Cathedral church of that city, with an inscription upon his grave-stone, and had a monument erected to his memory in Westminster-abbey by Sir Simon Harcourt, afterwards lord chancellor; the epitaph of which was written by Dr. Friend.