There are few books in literature at once so often mentioned and so seldom read as the Pastorals of Ambrose Philips. The controversy in the Guardian, the anger and rivalry of Pope, the famous critique, and the doubt which must always exist as to Steele's share in the mystification, have given to the poor little poems of Philips an historical importance vastly beyond their merits. Published in 1708, the Pastorals were an attempt to revive a form of writing in which Ambrose Philips admired the achievements of Theocritus, Virgil, and Spenser. "It is strange," he says in his preface, "to think, in an age so addicted to the Muses, how pastoral poetry comes to be never so much as thought upon; considering, especially, that it has always been accounted the most considerable of the smaller poems. Virgil and Spenser made it the prelude to heroic poetry, but I fear the innocency of the subject makes it so little inviting at the present." Philips is full of errors and anachronisms; Pope pointed out with great delight that he spoke about wolves, and produced the lily, rose, and daffodil at one season; but he is by no means the worst of writers. There is a passage, — the best I can find, it is true, — at the beginning of the Fourth Pastoral, which distinctly shows an eye for some of the features of an English landscape:—
This place may seem for shepherds' leisure made,
So lovingly these elms unite their shade;
The ambitious woodbine, how it climbs, to breathe
Its balmy sweets around on all beneath!
The ground with grass of cheerful green bespread,
Through which the springing flower uprears its head.
Lo! here the kingcup, of a golden hue,
Medlyed with daisies white and endive blue.
Hark how the gaudy goldfinch and the thrush
With tuneful warblings fill that bramble-bush.
This calls for no very positive praise; but it is one of the first signs extant of the reawakening of naturalistic poetry in England; and it is at least far ahead of anything in the bucolics of Congreve or Sedley.