1783 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ambrose Philips

T. P., "Character of Ambrose Philips as a Pastoral Writer" in European Magazine 3 (January 1783) 21-22.



It is commonly the fate of those authors who are so unfortunate, as to attract the censure of men of great satirical talents, to have themselves and their works consigned to promiscuous oblivion by the hasty decisions of a prejudiced public: often without the slight privilege of perusal: or, if a perusal be granted their readers sit not down with that becoming candour, which, considered as critics, or as gentlemen, every author has an undoubted right to expect from them, they peruse with an intention to condemn, they catch with eagerness at every fault, and remain insensible to every beauty. Those few who see for themselves, and refuse to float along with the current of popular partiality, venture not openly to enter the controversial lists in defence of the author, whose cause they secretly espouse.

No person can be a more rapturous admirer of that inimitable satire, the Dunciad, than the Writer of this small Essay; he thinks also, that most of the objects of it deservedly smarted under the satirical lash, yet he at the same time confesses, that he has always considered the insertion of poor Ambrose Philips with concern, and that he thinks Mr. Pope has, in many of his writings, treated him with a severity, which could arise only from personal malevolence. The Author of this paper does not, however (as vindicators commonly do) esteem himself bound to extenuate every fault, and to exhibit only the flattering side of the picture, he means to delineate a character of him equally candid and correct; but he begs to observe, that his remarks are confined to Philips solely as a pastoral writer, to speak of his writings in general, would be too diffuse an undertaking; in most of his smaller pieces, he unfortunately made choice of a measure, which was of itself sufficient to give them an air of puerility, which, however, has been censured with a degree of severity at least adequate to the defect.

As a pastoral poet he had a considerable share of merit, and some imperfections: he seems always to pay a strict attention to simplicity and characteristic sentiment, which he often pursues with success, but in his invariable adherence to these indispensable requisites of pastoral poetry, he sometimes degenerates into vulgarism, and copies nature without even concealing her defects. The general plans of his pastorals, I shall forbear to canvass, that species of poetry affords but little scope for invention in that particular, a pipe, a goblet, or a crook, are usually assigned as rewards to the rural victor, and the cruelty of some obdurate nymph, or a monody on the untimely death of some unfortunate swain, are subjects commonly made use of by pastoral writers of every age and every language. His descriptions are often picturesque and beautiful: though he seldom presents his readers with a complete simile, he abounds with metaphors and allusions, conceived with fertility of imagination and propriety; his epithets are frequently figurative and descriptive, but sometimes crude and unpoetical. In the general style of his versification, he affects an air of extreme negligence, "Affecting to be unaffected." I am the more inclined to this opinion, as his lines are commonly so wrought, that, notwithstanding they offend the polished ear with their harshness, a slight transposition of the words, can often reduce them to the agreeable harmony of correct composition: To this I might add, his injudicious choice of antiquated terms, which not a little contributes to that ruggedness and obscurity, which too commonly disfigures his versification. Theocritus appears to be his model in the conception of his sentiments, Spenser in the expression of them; the phrases of the latter he pursues with a slavish tenacity, forgetting that words then perhaps in general use, are by length of time rendered unintelligible and absurd, which is the more to be lamented, as whenever he deviates from that adherence, and adapts phrases and epithets of his own, he scarce ever fails of giving complete satisfaction to the candid reader. Upon the whole, I may venture to pronounce it as my opinion, that Philips was an author whose genius was infinitely superior to his judgment, which opinion may, perhaps, not only be applicable to him as to his pastorals, but also as to his writings in general; through the whole of his pastorals, there reigns a kind of classic neatness, which, notwithstanding the invidious construction that has been put upon it, must afford pleasure and satisfaction to the unprejudiced critic. As to those ironical arguments made use of by Mr. Pope, in the fortieth number of the Guardian, it would be a needless amplification of my plan to refute them, since every impartial reader possest of a common share of penetration, at the same time that he confesses the acuteness and poignancy of the wit, must also confess that the charges are often founded on a weak and narrow basis, and even where they are admissible in point of truth, they are in general frivolous, and unworthy of the candid and unbiassed critic. Had Philips lived in an age, when poetical genius had been less common, he would have received a larger portion of commendation: but I protest I can perceive no reason, because the planets shine with a superior lustre, that the lesser stars should pass altogether unnoticed.