Mr. Ambrose Philips, was descended from a very ancient and considerable Family of that Name in Leicestershire. — He was born, as I should imagine, not much later than 1680, and received his Education at St. John's College, Cambridge; during his Stay at which University he wrote his Pastorals, which acquir'd him so high a Reputation, and concerning the Merits of which the Critical World has since been so much divided; and also a Life of John Williams, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Bishop of Lincoln, and Archbishop of York, in the Reigns of King James and Cha. I. in which are related some remarkable Occurrences in those Times, both in Church and State; with an Appendix, giving an Account of his Benefactions to St. John's College. — This Work Cibber seems to imagine Mr. Philips made Use of the better to make known his own political Principles, which, in the Course of it, he had a free Opportunity of doing, as the Archbishop, who is the Hero of his Work, was a strong Opponent to the High Church Measures.
When he quitted the University, and came to London, he became a constant Attendant at, and one of the Wits of, Button's Coffee-House, where he obtained the Friendship and Intimacy of many of the celebrated Geniuses of that Age, more particularly of Sir Richard Steele, who, in the first Volume of his Tatler, has inserted a little Poem of Mr. Philips's, which he calls a Winter Piece, dated from Copenhagen, and addressed to the Earl of Dorset, on which he bestows the highest Encomiums; and, indeed, so much Justice is there in these Commendations, that even Mr. Pope himself, who, for Reasons that I shall presently mention, had a fixed Aversion for the Author, while he affected to despise his other Works, used always to except this from the Number.
The first Dislike Mr. Pope conceived against Mr. Philips, proceeded from that Jealousy of Fame which was so conspicuous in the Character of that great Poet, for Sir Richard Steele, who, as I have before observed, was an Admirer of Philips, had taken so strong a Liking to the Pastorals of the latter, as to have formed a Design for a critical Comparison of them with those of Pope, in the Conclusion of which the Preference was to have been given to Philips. — This Design, however, coming to Mr. Pope's Knowledge, that Gentleman, who could not bear a Rival near the Throne, determined to ward off this Stroke, by a Stratagem of the most artful Kind, which was not other than taking the same Task on himself, and, in a Paper in the Guardian, by drawing the like Comparison, and giving a like Preference, but on Principles of Criticism apparently fallacious, to point out the Absurdity of such a Judgment. — However, notwithstanding the Ridicule that was drawn on him in Consequence of his standing as it were in Competition with so powerful an Antagonist, I cannot help giving it as my Opinion that there are, in some Parts of Philips's Pastorals, certain Strokes of Nature, and a Degree of Simplicity, that are much better suited than the more correctly turned Periods of Mr. Pope's Versification. — But, as I am on the Subject of Pastoral Writing, I cannot omit observing that we have an Author at present living, who seems, tho' less noticed than either of these Gentlemen, not only to excell them both, but even every other Writer of this or any other Period; nor do I doubt that many of my Readers will join with me in this Opinion, if they either have read, or will give themselves the Pleasure of perusing, Mr. Shenstone's little Pieces, published in the IVth Volume of Dodsley's Collection of Poems, particularly one Poem, entitled a Pastoral Ballad, in four Parts, consisting of Absence, Solitude, Hope, and Disappointment. But to proceed. — Mr. Philips and Mr. Pope being of different Political Principles, was another Cause of Enmity between them, which arose at length to so great a Height, that the former, finding his Antagonist too hard for him at the Weapon of Wit, had even determined on making Use of a rougher Kind of Argument, for which Purpose he even went so far as to hang up a Rod at Button's for the Chastisement of his Adversary, whenever he should come thither, which, however, Mr. Pope declining to do, avoided the "Argumentum baculinum," in which he would, no doubt, have found himself on the weakest Side of the Question.
Besides Mr. Pope, there were some other Writers who have written in Burlesque of Mr. Philips's Poetry, which was singular in its Manner, and not difficult to imitate, particularly Mr. Henry Carey, who, by some Lines in Philips's Stile, and which were for sometime thought to be Dean Swift's, fixed on that Author the Name of Namby-Pamby; and Hawkins Browne, Esq; in his Poem called a Pipe of Tobacco, which, however, is written with great good Humour, and, tho' intended to burlesque, is by no Means designed to ridicule Mr. Philips, he having taken the very same Liberty with Swift, Pope, Thomson, Young, and Cibber.
As a dramatic Writer, our Author has certainly considerable Merit. — All his Pieces of that Kind met with Success, and one of them is at this Time a Standard of Entertainment at both Theatres, being generally repeated several Times in every Season. The Titles of them all, being three in Number, are,
1. The Briton. Trag.
2. Distrest Mother. Trag.
3. Humphry Duke of Gloucester. Trag.
Mr. Philips's Circumstances were in general, through his Life, not only easy, but rather affluent, in Consequence of his being connected, by his political Principles, with Persons of great Rank and Consequence. — He was concerned with Dr. Hugh Boulter, afterwards Archbishop of Armagh, the Right. Hon. Richard West, Esq; Lord Chancellor of Ireland, the Rev. Mr. Gilbert Burnet, and the Rev. Mr. Henry Stevens, in writing a Series of Papers called the Free Thinker, which were all published together by Mr. Philips, in three vol. in 12mo. — In the latter Part of Queen Anne's Reign, he was Secretary to the Hanover Club, who were a Set of Noblemen and Gentlemen who had formed an Association in Honour of that Succession, and for the Support of its Interests, and who used particularly to distinguish in their Toasts such of the Fair Sex as were most zealously attached to the illustrious House of Brunswick. — In Honour of which Ladies our Bard wrote the following Lines,
While these, the chosen Beauties of our Isle,
Propitious on the Cause of Freedom smile;
The rash Pretender's Hopes we may despise,
And trust Britannia's Safety to their Eyes.
Mr. Philips's Station in this Club, together with the Zeal shewn in his Writings, recommending him to the Notice and Favour of the new Government, he was, soon after the Accession of King George I. put into the Commission of the Lottery. — And, on his Friend Dr. Boulton's being made Primate of Ireland, he accompanied that Prelate across St. George's Channel, where he had considerable Preferments bestowed on him, and was elected a Member of the House of Commons there, as Representative for the County of Armagh.
At length, having purchased an Annuity for Life of four hundred Pounds per Annum, he came over to England some Time in the Year 1748, but, having a very bad State of Health, and being moreover of an advanced Age, he died soon after, at his Lodgings near Vauxhall, in Surry.