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AMBROSE PHILIPS, a poet and miscellaneous writer, was born in 1671, claiming his descent from an ancient Leicestershire family. He received his education at St. John's College, Cambridge ; and, attaching himself to the Whig party, he published, in 1700, an epitome of Hacket's life of Archbishop Williams, by which he obtained an introduction to Addison and Steele. Soon after, he made an attempt in pastoral poetry, which, for a time, brought him into celebrity. In 1709, being then at Copenhagen, he addressed to the Earl of Dorset some verses, descriptive of that capital, which are regarded as his best performance; and these, together with two translations from Sappho's writings, stand pre-eminent in his works of this class. In 1712 he made his appearance as a dramatic writer, in the tragedy of “ The Distrest Mother,” acted at Drury-lane with great applause, and still considered as a stock play. It cannot, indeed, claim the merit of originality, being closely copied from Racine's “ Andromacque;" but it is well written, and skilfully adapted to the English stage.
A storm now fell upon him relatively to his pastorals, owing to an exaggerated compliment
from Tickell, who, in a paper of the Guardian, had made the true pastoral pipe descend in succession from Theocritus to Virgil, Spenser, and Philips. Pope, who found his own juvenile pastorals undervalued, sent to the same paper a comparison between his and those of Philips, in which he ironically gave the preference to the latter. The irony was not detected till it encountered the critical eye of Addison; and the consequence was, that it ruined the reputation of Philips as a composer of pastoral.
When the accession of George I. brought the Whigs again into power, Philips was made a Westminster justice, and, soon after, a commissioner for the lottery. In 1718, he was the editor of a periodical paper, called “ The Freethinker.” In 1724, he accompanied to Ireland his friend Dr. Boulter, created archbishop of Armagh, to whom he acted as secretary. He afterwards represented the county of Armagh in parliament; and the places of secretary to the Lord Chancellor, and Judge of the Prerogative Court, were also conferred upon him. He returned to England in 1748, and died in the following year, at the age of seventy-eight.
The verses which he composed, not only to young ladies in the nursery, but to Walpole when Minister of State, and which became known by the ludicrous appellation of namby-pamby, are easy and sprightly, but with a kind of infantile air, which fixed upon them the above name,
TO THE EARL OF DORSET.
Copenhagen, March 9. 1709. From frozen climes, and endless tracts of snow, From streams which northern winds forbid to flow, What present shall the Muse to Dorset bring, Or how, so near the Pole, attempt to sing ? The hoary winter here conceals from sight All pleasing objects which to verse invite. The hills and dales, and the delightful woods, The flowery plains, and silver-streaming floods, By snow disguis'd, in bright confusion lie, And with one dazzling waste fatigue the eye.
No gentle breathing breeze prepares the spring,
And yet but lately have I seen, ev'n here,
At evening a keen eastern breeze arose,