Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Philips, John
PHILIPS, JOHN (1676–1709), poet, was born on 30 Dec. 1676 at Bampton, Oxfordshire. His grandfather, Stephen Philips, a devoted royalist, was canon-residentiary of Hereford Cathedral and vicar of Lugwardine, where he died in 1667. His father, Stephen Philips, D.D. (1638–1684), became in 1669 archdeacon of Shropshire and vicar of Bampton, in succession to Thomas Cook, B.D., whose only daughter and heiress, Mary, he had married (Wood, Fasti Oxonienses, ed. Bliss, i. 466, ii. 362–3; Havergal, Fasti Herefordenses, p. 48; Giles, History of Bampton, 1848, p. 37).
John Philips, who seems to have been the fourth of six sons, was at first taught by his father, but he was elected a scholar of Winchester in 1691 (Kirby, Winchester Scholars, pp. 209, 211; Foster, Alumni Oxonienses). At school Philips became a proficient classical scholar, and was treated with special indulgence on account of his personal popularity and delicate health. He had long hair, and he liked, when the others were at play, to retire to his room and read Milton while some one combed his locks. In 1697 he proceeded to Oxford, matriculating at Christ Church on 16 Aug. There he was under Dean Aldrich, and the simplicity of his manners and his poetic gifts made him a general favourite. It had been intended that he should become a physician, and he acquired some knowledge of science, but his devotion to literature led to the abandonment of the design. Edmund Smith [q. v.] was his greatest college friend, and William Brome of Withington, whose family had intermarried with Philips's, was also on intimate terms with him. Philips appears to have been in love with Mary, daughter of John Meare, D.D., the principal of Brasenose College, who, as a Herefordshire man, had made the young student welcome at his house. This lady, who was accomplished and beautiful, was also a flirt, and was believed to have been married secretly; in any case, Philips seems never to have gone beyond hinting at his passion in his verse.
Philips was loth to publish his verses. His ‘Splendid Shilling’ was included, without his consent, in a ‘Collection of Poems’ published by David Brown and Benjamin Tooke in 1701; and on the appearance of another false copy early in 1705, Philips printed a correct folio edition in February of that year. This piece, which Addison (Tatler, No. 249) called ‘the finest burlesque poem in the British language,’ was ‘an imitation of Milton,’ and in playful mock-heroic strains depicted—perhaps for the benefit of his impecunious friend Edmund Smith—the miseries of a debtor, in fear of duns, who no longer had a shilling in his purse wherewith to buy tobacco, wine, food, or clothes. ‘The merit of such performances,’ says Johnson, ‘begins and ends with the first author.’ The most important result of the production of this poem was that Philips was introduced to Harley and St. John, and was employed to write verses upon the battle of Blenheim, which were intended as the tory counterpart to Addison's ‘Campaign.’ ‘Blenheim, a poem, inscribed to the Right Honourable Robert Harley, Esq.’ (1705), has little interest for the reader of to-day; at the end Philips says that it was in the sweet solitude of St. John's ‘rural seat’ that he ‘presumed to sing Britannic trophies, inexpert of war, with mean attempt.’ The piece imitates Milton's verse, and the warfare resembles that of the Iliad or Æneid. In the following year (1706) ‘Cerealia: an Imitation of Milton,’ was published by Thomas Bennet, the bookseller who issued ‘Blenheim;’ and though it was not included in the early editions of Philips's works, there can be no doubt that it is by him.
Early in January 1707–8 Fenton published, in his ‘Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany Poems,’ a short ‘Bacchanial Song’ by Philips. On 24 Jan. following Fenton wrote to Warton (Wooll, Memoirs of Thomas Warton, p. 203): ‘I am glad to hear Mr. Philips will publish his “Pomona.” Who prints it? I should be mightily obliged to you if you could get me a copy of his verses against Blackmore. … I'll never imitate Milton more till the author of “Blenheim” be forgotten.’ The first book of ‘Cyder,’ to which Fenton alluded, had been written while Philips was at Oxford; and on 27 Nov. 1707 Tonson had entered into an agreement with Philips to pay forty guineas for it in two books, with ten guineas for a second edition. There were to be one hundred large-paper copies, and two dedication copies bound in leather. Philips gave a receipt for the forty guineas on 24 Jan. 1707–8 (Johnson, Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, ii. 22n.), and the poem was published on the 29th (Daily Courant). It called forth, in May, a folio pamphlet, ‘Wine,’ the first poem published by John Gay [q. v.], in which ‘Cyder’ is spoken of somewhat disparagingly. The poem, which is the most important of Philips's productions, was written in imitation of Virgil's Georgics, and an exact account of the culture of the apple-tree and of the manufacture of cider is varied by compliments to various friends and patrons, and by many local allusions to Herefordshire, the county of Philips's ancestors, where Withington was specially famous for cider. Philip Miller, the botanist [q. v.], told Johnson that ‘there were many books written on the same subject in prose which do not contain so much truth as that poem.’ But Johnson objected, not without reason, that the blank verse of Milton, which Philips imitated, could not ‘be sustained by images which at most can rise only to elegance.’ And Pope said that Philips succeeded extremely well in his imitation of ‘Paradise Lost,’ but was quite wrong in endeavouring to imitate it on such a subject (Spence, Anecdotes, 1858, p. 131). In ‘Cyder,’ as in nearly everything he wrote, Philips celebrated ‘Nature's choice gift,’ tobacco, a fashion for which had been set at Oxford by Aldrich's example. In a coarse attack, ‘Milton's sublimity asserted … by Philo-Milton’ (1709), ‘Cyder’ is spoken of as an ‘idolised piece.’
Of Philips's minor productions, a clever Latin ‘Ode ad Henricum S. John,’ written in acknowledgment of a present of wine and tobacco, was translated by Thomas Newcomb [q. v.] Philips also contemplated a poem on the ‘Last Day,’ but his health grew worse, and, after a visit to Bath, he died at his mother's house, at Hereford, of consumption and asthma, on 15 Feb. 1708–9 (Underhill, Poems of John Gay, 1893, i. 275).
Philips's mother placed a stone over his grave in the north transept of Hereford Cathedral, with an inscription said to be by Anthony Alsop of Christ Church (Hearne, Collections, ed. Doble, iii. 370). When the present pavement was laid down, a small brass plate in the floor was provided by subscription, a bunch of apples being engraved on it. Philips's mother died on 11 Oct. 1715, and her son Stephen erected a marble slab to her memory (Havergal, Monumental Inscriptions in Hereford Cathedral, pp. xx, xxii, 54). In February 1710 Edmund Smith printed a ‘Poem to the Memory of Mr. John Philips,’ which was reprinted in Lintot's ‘Miscellaneous Poems and Translations’ (1712). Leonard Welsted, too, published in 1710 ‘A Poem to the Memory of the Incomparable Mr. Philips,’ with a dedication to St. John. Tickell, in his ‘Oxford’ (1707), had already compared Philips with Milton, saying he ‘equals the poet, and excels the man.’ Thomson praised him with more discretion. A monument in Philips's memory, with the motto ‘Honos erit huic quoque pomo,’ from the title-page of ‘Cyder,’ was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1710, between the monuments to Chaucer and Drayton, by Simon Harcourt (first viscount Harcourt) [q. v.] The long epitaph was commonly attributed to Robert Freind [q. v.], though Johnson, on hearsay evidence, credited Atterbury with the authorship. Crull said the lines were by Smalridge, and there is a well-known story that the words ‘Uni in hoc laudis genere Miltono secundus’ were obliterated by order of Sprat, who was then dean, but were restored four years later by Atterbury, who did not feel the same horror at Milton's name appearing in the abbey (Stanley, Westminster Abbey, pp. 261–2). An examination of the monument, however, reveals no indication that the words were at any time interpolated.
Philips, according to the testimony of all who knew him, was amiable, patient in illness, and vivacious in the society of intimate friends. His poems, written in revolt against the heroic couplet, between the death of Dryden and the appearance of Pope, occupy an important position in the history of English literature. As author of ‘Cyder,’ Philips was a forerunner of Thomson in his love of nature and country life.
An edition of Philips's ‘Poems,’ with a ‘Life’ by George Sewell, was brought out by Curll in 1715; each part of the volume has a separate register and pagination. There was another edition in 1720, and a third in 1763. In some copies ‘Cyder’ is a reprint, while in others it is the 1708 edition bound up with the other pieces. ‘Il Sidro,’ translated into Tuscan by Count L. Magalotti, appeared in 1749; and an edition of ‘Cyder,’ with very full notes by Charles Dunster, illustrative of local allusions and of Philips's imitations of earlier writers, was published in 1791. Thomas Tyrwhitt translated the ‘Splendid Shilling’ into Latin.
A painting of Philips, by Riley, is in the library at Nuneham-Courtenay (Description of Nuneham-Courtenay, 1806, p. 16); and there are engravings, after Kneller, by M. Vandergucht in Philips's ‘Poems’ (1715), and by T. Cook in Bell's ‘Poets’ (1782). There is also a folio engraving, by Vandergucht, in an oval frame; and a portrait, from a painting in the possession of the Rev. Mr. Lilly, is given in Duncumb's ‘Hereford’ (vol. ii.).
[The first life of Philips was that by Sewell, published in 1715; it was short, and contained little positive information. Further details were added in the article in the Biographia Britannica, in Johnson's Lives of the Poets, and in Cunningham's notes to that work. Besides the books cited, reference may be made to the following: Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xii. 327, 3rd ser. i. 452, 497, ii. 12, 4th ser. v. 582, vi. 37, 5th ser. ix. 258, 397, 8th ser. vii. 242; Gent. Mag. 1780, pp. 280, 365; Bromley's Portraits, p. 236; Noble's Cont. of Granger; Disraeli's Quarrels of Authors, p. 255; Nichols's Lit. Illustr. iv. 98, and Lit. Anecd. iii. 147, v. 102, viii. 164, ix. 593; Duncumb's Collections towards the History of the County of Hereford, i. 572–7, ii. 245–9; Le Neve's Mon. Angl. (1700–15), p. 156; Hackett's Epitaphs, i. 99–103; Spence's Anecdotes (1858), p. 261.]