Ambrose Philips claims that of late pastoral poetry has been "never so much as thought upon." This requires some qualification: pastoral songs were a mainstay of restoration verse, and pastoral romance and pastoral drama were always popular. Moreover, in recent years a number of pastoral elegies had been published by prominent poets. Philips is speaking of the formal eclogue modelled on the collections by Theocritus and Virgil, a form almost as rare as sonnets in mid and late seventeenth-century poetry. The last set of Spenserian eclogues had been Francis Quarles's Shepherds Oracles, written in the 1630s.
The joint appearance of formal eclogues by Ambrose Philips and Alexander Pope in this prominent anthology attracted great attention, not least because both sets had long been circulating in manuscript in elite circles. Within a decade a body of criticism grew up around pastoral larger than that for any genre other than epic and tragedy.
While posterity has granted the palm to Pope, eighteenth-century readers often thought otherwise, preferring Philips's overt rusticity and choice of "British" Spenser as his archetype. Philips became the founder of what amounts to a new genre of eclogue, "British pastoral," in much the same way that Matthew Prior had recently founded a new genre of ode with his Ode to the Queen (1706), also written in imitation of Spenser. With the exceptions of John Gay's Shepherd's Week and Allan Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd, British pastoral did not amount to much. Collectively, however, these poems were of great significance, clearing the ground for Burns, Wordsworth, and a good deal of romantic poetry concerned with folkways and the lives of persons in humble life.
In a letter of 10 March 1705, Joseph Addison describes himself "very pleased with your little essay on Pastoral," apparently a manuscript version of this preface.
Ambrose Philips's remark that "Theocritus, Vergil; and Spencer are the only writers, that seem to have hit upon the true Nature of Pastoral Poems," Sig. B2v, would be taken up by Thomas Tickell in his Guardian essays which, much to Pope's annoyance, declared Philips the true heir of the pastoral tradition.
Richard Steele to Jonathan Swift: "Mr. Philips dined with me yesterday; he is still a shepherd, and walks very lonely through this unthinking crowd in London" 8 October 1709; Works of Swift, ed. Nichols (1801) 11:74.
Henry Felton: "Spencer may, perhaps, dispute the Pastoral, even with Theocritus; for I dare prefer him to Virgil, and in him alone the Sweetness and Rusticity of the Doric Muse was to be found, till of late Years some happy Genius among ourselves have assembled all the Beauties of the Arcadian Poetry, and restored their Simplicity, Language and Manners to the Swains" Dissertation on Reading the Classics (1713; 1715) 269-70.
Samuel Johnson: "Philips thinks it 'somewhat strange to conceive how, in an age so addicted to the Muses, Pastoral Poetry never comes to be so much as thought upon.' His wonder seems very unseasonable; there had never, from the time of Spenser, wanted writers to talk occasionally of Arcadia and Strephon, and half the book in which he first tried his powers consists of dialogues on queen Mary's death, between Tityrus and Corydon or Mopsus and Menalcas. A series or book of Pastorals, however, I know not that any one had then lately published" "Life of Philips" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 3:318.
A Constant Reader: "As in painting, so in pastoral poetry, the country affords the most entertaining scenes and delightful prospects. Philips justly observes, that 'Theocritus, Virgil, and Spencer, are almost the only writers that have hit upon the true nature of pastoral poetry;' and yet Philips himself, in following the same track, has frequently trespassed against character, taste, and probability. He indeed pursued the same plan, with all the slavishness of a professed imitator, but forgot the manners and customs of the people, and even the very scenery of the country in which he wrote" European Magazine 42 (August 1802) 107.
In 1750 Ambrose Philips's papers were acquired from a relative by Sir Edward Littleton, who describes the trove ("as many as two horses could drag along") in a passage transcribed by Sarah Brewer in her edition of Richard Hurd's Early Letters (1992): "There are all his Poems almost intire ... with several Notes & Commentarys both critical & explanatory upon various Authors; add to these a vast collection of State Papers from many of the Nobility" 212n.
It is strange 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 Spencer made use of it as a Prelude to Heroick Poetry. I fear the innocency of the Subject makes it so little inviting at present.
There is no Sort of poetry, if well wrought, but gives Delight: And the Pastoral perhaps may boast of this in a peculiar manner. For, as in Painting, so I believe, in Poetry, the Country affords the most entertaining Scenes, and most delightful Prospects.
Gassendus, I remember, tells us, That Peireskius was a great Lover of Musick, especially that of Birds; because their artless Strains seem to have less of Passion and Violence, but more of a natural Easiness, and therefore do the rather befriend Contemplation. It is after the same manner that Pastoral gives a sweet and gentle Composure to the Mind; whereas the Epick and Tragick Poem put the Spirits in too great a Ferment by the Vehemence of their Motions.
To see a stately, well-built Palace strikes us, indeed, with Admiration, and swells the Soul, as it were, with Notions of Grandeur. But when I view a little Country Dwelling, advantageously situated amidst a beautiful Variety of Fields, Woods, and Rivers; I feel and unspeakable kind of Satisfaction, and cannot forbear wishing, that my good Fortune would place me in so sweet a Retirement.
Theocritus, Virgil, and Spencer are the only Writers, that seem to have hit upon the true Nature of Pastoral Poems. So that it will be Honour sufficient for me, if I have not altogether fail'd in my Attempt.