Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Philips, Ambrose

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PHILIPS, AMBROSE (1675?–1749), poet, born about 1675, is said to have descended from an old Leicestershire family. According to the admission-book of St. John's College he was son of Ambrose Philips ‘pannicularii,’ born in Shropshire, and was in his eighteenth year in June 1693 (Mayor, St. John's College). A Sir Ambrose Phillips became serjeant-at-law on 23 April 1686 (Luttrell, Brief Relation). He was educated at Shrewsbury (‘Admission entry’ and Swift's letters to him in Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. iv. 730–1), and afterwards at St. John's College, Cambridge. He entered as a sizar on 15 June 1693. He graduated B.A. in 1696 and M.A. in 1700, was elected a fellow of his college on 28 March 1699, and held the fellowship till 24 March 1707–8 (Mayor). From other entries he appears to have resided at Cambridge till he resigned his fellowship, and he is said to have written his ‘Pastorals’ while at college. In 1700 he published an abridgement of Hacket's ‘Life of Archbishop Williams.’ He was at Utrecht, whence one of his poems is dated, in 1703, and in 1709 was employed in some mission in the north. He addressed an ‘Epistle to the Earl of Dorset,’ dated Copenhagen, 9 March 1709. It was published by Steele in the ‘Tatler’ (No. 12), with high praise, as a ‘winterpiece’ worthy of the most learned painter. His ‘Pastorals’ appeared this year in Tonson's ‘Miscellany,’ which also included Pope's ‘Pastorals.’ In 1709 he also translated the ‘Contes Persans’ of Petit De la Croix. He was afterwards reproached by Pope with ‘turning a Persian Tale for half-a-crown,’ which, says Johnson, as the book was divided into many sections, was ‘very liberal as writers were then paid.’ After another visit to Denmark in the summer of 1710, he returned to England in October, and was on friendly terms with Swift, who promised in December to solicit Harley for the post of queen's secretary at Geneva for ‘poor pastoral Philips,’ and who said afterwards (Journal to Stella, 27 Dec. 1712), ‘I should certainly have provided for him had he not run party mad.’ He had, in fact, become one of the Addison circle. In 1711–12 he wrote the ‘Distressed Mother,’ a mere adaptation of Racine's ‘Andromaque.’ Its appearance was heralded by a very complimentary notice from Steele in the ‘Spectator’ (No. 290, 1 Feb. 1711–12), and Sir Roger de Coverley was taken by Addison to see a performance on 25 March following (No. 335). An epilogue, attributed to Budgell, is said to have been the most successful ever written. Pope says that the audience was packed by Philips's friends (Dryden, p. 46). In the early numbers of the ‘Guardian’ (1713) some papers upon pastoral poetry, in which Philips was complimented, excited Pope's jealousy, and he wrote a paper (No. 40) with an ironical comparison between Philips's ‘Pastorals’ and his own. Philips was indignant at this attack, inserted through Steele's inadvertence or want of perception, and he hung up a rod at Button's coffee-house, threatening to apply it to Pope [see under Pope, Alexander]. As Philips is reported by Johnson to have been ‘eminent for bravery and skill in the sword,’ and Pope was a deformed dwarf, the anecdote scarcely illustrates Philips's ‘bravery.’ Pope's revenge was taken by savage passages in his satires, which made Philips ridiculous. Philips, said Pope (Dryden, p. 148), was encouraged to go about abusing him, which seems to have been needless; and, in his letters, Pope also insinuated, though he (Works, vi. 209) could hardly have expected to be taken seriously, that Philips had appropriated subscriptions for the ‘Iliad’ from members of the ‘Hanover Club’ (for Philips's denial that he had given any cause for Pope's personalities, see Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. vii. 713). Philips was secretary to this club, formed at the end of Queen Anne's reign for securing the succession. After the accession of George I, he was made justice of the peace for Westminster, and in 1717 a commissioner for the lottery.

Philips started the ‘Freethinker’ in March 1718. It is one of the numerous imitations of the ‘Spectator,’ and the first number explains that the name is not to be taken as equivalent to ‘atheist,’ but in the proper sense. His chief colleagues were Hugh Boulter [q. v.], Richard West (afterwards Irish chancellor), and Gilbert Burnet, son of the bishop [see under Burnet, Gilbert]. It ran through the next year, and was republished in three volumes (3rd edit. 1739). Philips published some ‘Epistles’ and a couple of plays (see below), which, being original, had little success. His friend Boulter was made archbishop of Armagh in August 1724, and in November took Philips with him to Ireland as secretary. Swift, in his correspondence with Pope, refers contemptuously to Philips's position as a dependant upon Boulter and to his ‘little flams on Miss Carteret’ (29 Sept. and 26 Nov. 1725). Philips represented the borough of Armagh in the Irish parliament; was made secretary to the lord chancellor in December 1726, and in August 1733 was appointed judge of the prerogative court. Boulter died in 1742, and in 1748 Philips, who had bought an annuity of 400l., returned to London. He is said to have collected his poems in a volume which was dedicated to the Duke of Newcastle. He also collected Boulter's correspondence, which, however, did not appear until 1769. Philips died at his house in Hanson Street of paralysis on 18 June 1749, ‘in his seventy-eighth year.’ A portrait by Ashton, engraved by T. Cooke, is mentioned by Bromley.

Mr. Gosse observes that Philips's ‘Epistle to the Earl of Dorset,’ declared by Goldsmith to be ‘incomparably fine,’ strikes us as ‘frigid and ephemeral;’ while the odes to children are charming from their simplicity and fancy (Ward, English Poets, 1880, iii. 130). The ‘Epistle,’ however, is a very genuine description of nature, remarkable for its time. The title of ‘namby-pamby’ was first used by Henry Carey (d. 1743) [q. v.] in a parody mentioned by Swift in 1725. Three poems to the infant daughters of Lord Carteret, lord lieutenant, and of Daniel Pulteney, one of which begins ‘Dimply damsel, sweetly smiling,’ provoked this ridicule. Philips was apparently rather dandified in appearance and pompous in conversation. His ‘red stockings’ were ridiculed in Pope's ‘Macer’ (Works, iv. 467). Pope also satirises his slowness in composition. He appears, however, to have been an honourable man, respected by his friends, and of some real poetical sensibility. His works are:

  1. ‘Life of John Williams … [abridged from Hacket] with appendix giving a just account of his benefactions to St. John's College, Cambridge,’ 1700.
  2. ‘Pastorals’ in Tonson's ‘Miscellany’ (p. vi), 1709.
  3. ‘Persian Tales,’ from the French of P. De la Croix,’ 1709; also in 1722, 12mo.
  4. ‘The Distressed Mother,’ 1712.
  5. ‘Odes of Sappho’ in ‘Anacreon’ (translation of 1713; see also Spectator, Nos. 223, 229).
  6. Epistle to Charles, lord Halifax, ‘On the accession of George I,’ 1714.
  7. ‘Epistle to James Craggs,’ 1717.
  8. Papers in the ‘Freethinker,’ 1718–19, collected in three vols.
  9. ‘The Briton’ (tragedy), 1722.
  10. ‘Humfrey, duke of Gloucester’ (tragedy), 1723. This, the ‘Briton,’ and the ‘Distressed Mother’ were published together as ‘Three Tragedies’ in 1725.

Several small poems to children, on the death of Lord Halifax, and the departure of Lord Carteret from Dublin were printed separately in 1725 and 1726. He is also said to have been editor of the ‘Collection of Old Ballads, corrected from the best and most ancient copies extant, with introductions historical and critical,’ 1726–38. His ‘Pastorals,’ with other poems, were published separately in 1710. He published his poems, with a dedication to the Duke of Newcastle, in 1748. They appeared again in 1765, and are in various collections of English poets.

[Cibber's Lives; Johnson's Lives of the Poets; Pope's Works (see many references in Elwin and Courthope's edition); Minto's Literature of the Georgian Era, 1894; Mayor's St. John's College; Spence's Anecdotes; and see Notes and Queries, 8th ser. ix. 264.]

L. S.