Bampton in Oxfordshire was the birthplace of this poet. He was born on the 30th of December 1676. His father, Dr. Stephen Philips, was archdeacon of Salop, as well as minister of Bampton. John, after some preliminary training at home, was sent to Winchester, where he distinguished himself by diligence and good-nature, and enjoyed two great luxuries, — the reading of Milton, and the having his head combed by some one while he sat still and in rapture for hours together. This pleasure he shared with Vossius, and with humbler persons of our acquaintance; the combing of whose hair, they tell us,
Dissolves them into ecstasies,
And brings all heaven before their eyes.
In 1694, he entered Christ Church, Cambridge. His intention was to prosecute the study of medicine, and he took great delight in the cognate pursuits of natural history and botany. His chief friend was Edmund Smith, (Rag Smith, as he was generally called,) a kind of minor Savage, well known in these times as the author of Phaedra and Hippolytus, and for his cureless dissipation. In 1703, Philips produced The Splendid Shilling, which proved a hit, and seems to have diverted his aspirations from the domains of Aesculapius to those of Apollo. Bolingbroke sought him out, and employed him, after the battle of Blenheim, to sing it in opposition to Addison, the laureate of the Whigs. At the house of the magnificent but unprincipled St. John, Philips wrote his Blenheim, which was published in 1705. The year after, his Cider, a poem in two books, appeared, and was received with great applause. Encouraged by this, he projected a poem on the Last Day, which all who are aware of the difficulties of the subject, and the limitations of the author's genius, must rejoice that he never wrote. Consumption and asthma removed him prematurely on the 15th of February 1708, ere he had completed his thirty-third year. He was buried in Hereford Cathedral, and Sir Simon Harcourt, afterwards Lord Chancellor, erected a monument to his memory in Westminster Abbey.
Bulwer somewhere records a story of John Martin in his early days. He was, on one occasion, reduced to his last shilling. He had kept it, out of a heap, from a partiality to its appearance. It was very bright. He was compelled, at last, to part with it. He went out to a baker's shop to purchase a loaf with his favourite shilling. He had got the loaf into his hands, when the baker discovered that the shilling was a bad one, and poor Martin had to resign the loaf, and take back his dear, bright, bad shilling once more. Length of time and cold criticism in like manner have reduced John Philips to his solitary Splendid Shilling. But, though bright, it is far from bad. It is one of the cleverest of parodies, and is perpetrated against one of those colossal works which the smiles of a thousand caricatures were unable to injure. No great or good poem was ever hurt by its parody: — the Paradise Lost was not by The Splendid Shilling — The Last Man of Campbell was not by The Last Man of Hood — nor the Lines on the Burial of Sir John Moore by their witty, well-known caricature; and if The Vision of Judgment by Southey was laughed into oblivion by Byron's poem with the same title, it was because Southey's original was neither good nor great. Philips's poem, too, is the first of the kind; and surely we should be thankful to the author of the earliest effort in a style which has created so much innocent amusement. Dr. Johnson speaks as if the pleasure arising from such productions implied a malignant "momentary triumph over that grandeur which had hitherto held its captives in admiration." We think, on the contrary, that it springs from our deep interest in the original production, making us alive to the strange resemblance the caricature bears to it. It is our love that provokes our laughter, and hence the admirers of the parodied poem are more delighted than its enemies. At all events, it is by The Splendid Shilling alone — and that principally from its connexion with Milton's great work — that Philips is memorable. His Cider has soured with age, and the loud echo of his Blenheim battle-piece has long since died away.