1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Philips

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 24:455-58.



JOHN PHILIPS, an English poet, was son of Dr. Stephen Philips, archdeacon of Salop; and born at Bampton in Oxfordshire, Dec. 30, 1676. After some domestic education, he was sent to Winchester, where, as we are told by Dr. Sewel, his biographer, he was soon distinguished by the superiority of his exercises; and, what is less easily to be credited, so much endeared himself to his schoolfellows, by his civility and good-nature, that they, without murmur or illwill, saw him indulged by the master with particular immunities. It is related, that, when he was at school, he seldom mingled in play with the other boys, but retired to his chamber; where his sovereign pleasure was to sit, hour after hour, while his hair was combed by somebody, whose service he found means to procure.

From school, where he became acquainted with the poets ancient and modern, and fixed his attention particularly on Milton, he was, in 1694, removed to Christ church, Oxford, where he performed all his university exercises with applause. Following, however, the natural bent of his genius to poetry, he continued the study of his favourite Milton, so intensely, that it is said there was not an allusion in "Paradise Lost," drawn from any hint in either Homer or Virgil, to which he could not immediately refer. Yet he was not so much in love with poetry, as to neglect other branches of learning, and, having some intention to apply to physic as a profession, he took much delight in natural history, particularly botany; but he appears to have relinquished these pursuits when he had begun to acquire poetical fame. While he was at Oxford, 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 the tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolitus. The first poem which distinguished him, in 1703, was his "Splendid Shilling;" his next, entitled "Blenheim," he wrote, as a rival to Addison's on the same subject, at the request of the earl of Oxford, and Mr. Henry St. John, afterwards lord Bolingbroke, on occasion of the victory obtained at that place by the duke of Marlborough in 1704. It was published in 1705; and the year after he finished a third poem, upon "Cyder," the first book of which had been written at Oxford. It is founded upon the model of Virgil's "Georgics." All that we have more by Philips is, a Latin "Ode to Henry St. John, esq.;" which is also esteemed a master-piece. He was meditating a poem on the "Last Day," when illness obliged him to relinquish all pursuits, except the care of his health. His disorder, however, became-a lingering consumption, attended with an asthma, of which he died at Hereford, Feb. 15, 1708, when he had not reached his thirty-third year. He was interred in the cathedral there, with an inscription over his grave; and had a monument erected to his memory, in Westminster-abbey, by sir Simon Harcourt, afterwards lord chancellor, with an epitaph upon it, written by Dr. Atterbury, though commonly ascribed to Dr Freind. Philips was one of those few poets, whose Muse and manners were equally excellent and amiable; and both were so in a very eminent degree.

Dr. Johnson observes, that "Philips has been always praised, without contradiction, as a man modest, blameless, and pious; who bore a narrow fortune without discontent, and tedious and painful maladies without impatience; beloved by those that knew him, but not ambitious to be known. He was probably not formed for a wide circle. His conversation is commended for its innocent gaiety, which seems to have flowed only among his intimates; for I have been told, that he was in company silent and barren, and employed only upon the pleasures of his pipe. His addiction to tobacco is mentioned by one of his biographers, who remarks that in all his writings, except 'Blenheim,' he has found an opportunity of celebrating the fragrant fume. In common life, he was probably one of those who please by not offending, and whose person was loved, because his writings were admired. He died honoured and lamented, before any part of his reputation had withered, and before his patron St. John had disgraced him. His works are few. The 'Splendid Shilling,' has the uncommon merit of an original design, unless it may be thought precluded by the ancient Centos. To degrade the sounding words and stately construction of Milton, by an application to the lowest and most trivial things, gratifies the mind with a momentary triumph over that grandeur which hitherto held its captives in admiration; the words and things are presented with a new appearance, and novelty is always grateful where it gives no pail). But the merit of such performances begins and ends with the first author. He that should again adapt Milton's phrase to the gross incidents of common life, and even adapt it with more art, which would not be difficult, must yet expect but a small part of the praise which Philips has obtained; he can only hope to be considered as the repeater of a jest."

"There is a Latin 'Ode' written to his patron St. John, in return for a present of wine and tobacco, which cannot be passed without notice. It is gay and elegant, and exhibits several artful accommodations of classick expressions to new purposes. It seems better turned than the odes of Hannes. To the poem on 'Cider,' written in imitation of the 'Georgicks,' may be given this peculiar praise, that it is grounded in truth; that the precepts which it contains are exact and just; and that it is therefore at once a book of entertainment and of science. This I was told by Miller, the great gardener and botanist, whose expression was, that 'there were many books written on the same subject in prose, which do not contain so much truth as that poem.' In the disposition of his matter, so as to intersperse precepts relating to the culture of trees with sentiments more generally pleasing, and in easy and graceful transitions from one subject to another, he has very diligently imitated his master; but he unhappily pleased himself with blank verse, and supposed that the numbers of Milton, which impress the mind with veneration, combined as they are with subjects of inconceivable grandeur, could be sustained by images which at most can rise only to elegance. Contending angels may shake the regions of heaven in blank verse; but the flow of equal measures, and the embellishment of rhyme, must recommend to our attention the art of engrafting, and decide the merit of the redstreak and pearmain. What study could confer, Philips had obtained; but natural deficience cannot be supplied. He seems not born to greatness and elevation. He is never lofty, nor does he often surprise with unexpected excellence; but perhaps to his last poem may be applied what Tully said of the work of Lucretius, that 'it is written with much art, though with few blazes of genius.'" Of the "Cider," an excellent edition, with notes and illustrations, was published by Mr. Dunster in 1791, 8vo.

It is remarkable, that there were two poets of both the names of this author, who flourished in his time: one the nephew to Milton, already mentioned. The other was the author of two political farces, both printed in 1716; 1. "The Earl of Marr marred, with the Humours of Jocky the Highlander." 2. "The Pretender's Flight or, a Mock Coronation, with the Humours of the facetious Harry St. John."