1795 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ambrose Philips

Robert Anderson, in Works of the British Poets (1795) 9:381-82.



There is very little transmitted of the personal character of Philips; only it is known that he was distinguished for bravery and skill in the sword. To extreme susceptibility of censure, he added solemnity in conversation. Dr. Johnson relates, that Mr. Ing, a gentleman of great eminence in Staffordshire, happened to be once at table with him, and took occasion to ask him, "How came the King of Epirus to drive oxen, and to say, 'I am goaded on by love?'" After which question, he never spoke again.

He appears, however, to have been a man of integrity; for P. Whitehead relates, that when Addison was Secretary of State, Philips applied to him for some preferment, but was cooly answered, that it was thought he was already provided for by being made a Justice of Westminster. To this observation, Philips, 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."

As a poet, Philips appears not to deserve the contempt with which he has been treated by Pope, nor the praise he has received from Cook, in The Battle of the Poets. In his Pastorals, he takes Spenser for his pattern, and endeavours to be natural. By endeavouring to imitate too servilely, the manners and sentiments of vulgar rustics, he is sometimes flat and insipid. Pope's Pastorals are written in a very different form. He takes Virgil for his pattern, and labours to be elegant; but his topics are beaten, and his chief merit is the smoothness of his versification, which is musical to a degree of which rhyme could hardly be thought capable.

In the passages which Pope has imitated from Virgil, he has merited little applause. The imitations of Philips have all the pastoral simplicity of Spenser, a true Doric dialect, and very lively description. Pope, therefore, may be allowed to be the best versifier, and Philips the better Arcadian.

As a general poet, he appears to disadvantage on a comparison with Pope; but though he is not a very animated or first-rate writer, his first and fifth Pastorals, his Epistle from Copenhagen, his Ode on the Death of Earl Cowper, his translations of the two Odes of Sappho, and the two first Olympic Odes of Pindar, and above all, his pleasing tragedy of The Distrest Mother, are a considerable acquisition to English poetry.