AMBROSE PHILIPS, an English poet, was descended from an ancient family in Leicestershire, and educated at St. John's-college, in Cambridge, where he took his degrees of A.B. in 1696, and A.M. in 1700, at which time he obtained a fellowship. While at college also he is supposed to have written his "Pastorals," which involved him so seriously with the wits and critics of the age. When he quitted the university, and repaired to the metropolis, he became, as Jacob expresses himself, "one of the wits at Button's;" and there contracted an acquaintance with the gentlemen of the belles lettres, who frequented it. Sir Richard Steele was his particular friend, and inserted in his Tatler, No. 12, a little poem of his, called "A Winter Piece," dated from Copenhagen, the 9th of May, 1709, and addressed to the earl of Dorset. Sir Richard thus mentions it with honour: "This is as fine a piece as we ever had from any of the schools of the most learned painters. Such images as these give us a new pleasure in our sight, and fix upon our minds traces of reflection, which accompany us wherever the like objects occur." Pope, too, who had a confirmed aversion to Philips, while he affected to despise his other works, always excepted this out of the number, and mentioned it as the production of a man "who could write very nobly."
Steele was also an admirer of Philips's "Pastorals," which had then obtained a great number of readers; and was about to form a critical comparison of Pope's Pastorals with those of Philips, with a view of giving the preference to the latter. Pope, apprized of Steele's design, and always jealous of his own reputation, contrived the most artful method to defeat it; which was, by writing a paper for the Guardian, No. 40, after several others had been employed there on pastoral poetry, upon the merits of Philips and himself; and so ordering it, as that himself was found the better versifier, while Philips was preferred as the best Arcadian. Upon the publication of this paper, the enemies of Pope exulted to see him placed below Philips in a species of poetry upon which he was supposed to value himself; but were extremely mortified soon after to find that Pope himself was the real author of the paper, and that the whole criticism was an irony. The next work Philips published, according to the common account, was "The Life of John Williams, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Bishop of Lincoln, and Archbishop of York, in the reigns of James and Charles I." He is supposed to have undertaken this, for the sake of making known his political principles, which were those of the Whigs. But we doubt whether this, which was published in 1700, was not prior to the publication of his pastorals.
In the mean time, he fell under the severe displeasure of Pope, who satirized him with his usual keenness. It was said he used to mention Pope as an enemy to the government; and it is certain that the revenge which Pope took upon him for this abuse, greatly ruffled his temper. Philips was not Pope's match in satirical attack, and therefore had recourse to another weapon, for he stuck up a rod at Button's coffee house, with which he threatened to chastise his antagonist whenever he should meet him. But Pope prudently declined going to a place where he must have felt the resentment of an enraged author, as much superior to him in bodily strength, as inferior in genius and skill in versifying.
Besides Pope, there were some other writers who have written in burlesque of 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 style, and which were once thought to be dean Swift's, fixed on that author the name of Namby Pamby. Isaac Hawkins Browne also imitated him in his Pipe of Tobacco. This, however, is written with great good humour, and though intended to burlesque, is by no means designed to ridicule Philips, he having made the same trial of skill on Swift, Pope, Thomson, Young, and Cibber. As a dramatic writer, Philips has certainly considerable merit, and one of his plays long retained its popularity. This was "The Distressed Mother," from the French of Racine, acted in 1711. The others were, "The Briton," a tragedy, acted in 1721; and "Humfrey Duke of Gloucester," acted also in 1721. The "Distrest Mother" was concluded with the most successful Epilogue, written by Budgell, that ever was spoken in the English theatre. It was also highly praised in the "Spectator."
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 honourable Richard West, lord chancellor of Ireland, the rev. Mr. Gilbert Burnet, and the rev. Mr. Henry Stevens, in writing a series of Papers, many of them very excellent, called "The Free-Thinker," which were all published together by Philips, in 3 vols. 8vo. In the latter part of queen Anne's reign, he was secretary to the Hanover club, 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. 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 peace, and in 1717, appointed one of the commissioners of the lottery. On his friend Dr. Boulter's being made primate of Ireland, be accompanied that prelate, and in Sept. 1734, was appointed registrar of the prerogative court at Dublin, had other considerable preferments bestowed on him, and was elected a member of the house of commons there, as representative for the county of Amagh. At length, having purchased an annuity for life, of £400 per annum, he came over to England some time in 1748, but did not long enjoy his fortune, being struck with a palsy, of which he died June 18, 1749, in his seventy-eighth year, at his house in Hanover-street; and was buried in Audley chapel. "Of his personal character," says Dr. Johnson, "all I have heard is, that he was eminent for bravery, and skill in the sword, and that in conversation he was somewhat solemn and pompous." He is somewhere called Quaker Philips, for what does not appear. Paul Whitehead relates, that when Mr. Addison was secretary of state, Philips applied to him for some preferment, but was coolly answered, "that it was thought that he was already provided for, by being made a justice for Westminster." To this observation our author with some indignation replied, "Though poetry was a trade he could not live by, yet he scorned to owe subsistence to another which he ought not to live by."
"Among his poems," says Dr. Johnson, 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 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 be 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 critick would reject."