1902 Encyclopedia > John Philips

John Philips
English man of letters

PHILIPS, JOHN (1676-1708), English man of letter-4, son of Dr Stephen Philips, archdeacon of Salop, was born at Bainpton in Oxfordshire in 1676. After receiviiw private education at home, he went to Winchester School, and in due course became a student of Christ Church, Oxford. At school he showed special aptitude for exact scholarship, and at the university, under Dean Aldrich, he became one of the most remarkable men of his time. He was an ardent and successful student of the ancient classics, and took special pleasure in making himself thoroughly familiar with Virgil. At the same time lie was diligent in his scientific pursuits preparatory to the medical profession he intended to follow, and, although the botany and other branches he made himself familiar with were never actually turned to account in the business of life, his acquired knowledge gave him material for literary- purposes. Put, over and above these studies, Philips was a careful and critical reader of the English poets that fell in with his tastes, and devoted much time to Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton. -When Ile began to write, the influence of the two former told to some extent on his diction, and he was so enamoured of the strenuous movement and the resonant harmonies of -Milton's blank verse that he adapted the form of all his original English writings to that supreme model. Were it for nothing else, John Philips will be remembered as the first to have a genuine literary appreciation of Milton. He was well known in his college for scholarship, taste, and literary resource long before publishing any of his writing:3, but the appearance of The S'plendid Shilling, about the year 1703, at once brought him under the favourable notice of critics and readers of poetry. The Tager (No. 250) hailed the poet as the writer of " the best burlesque poem in the British language," nor will the modern reader care to detract much from this verdict, even granting that the model and the imitation, mutually constituting a great revelation to the literary dictators of the period, would cause them considerable surprise. Philips in this poem showed the dexterous ease that comes of long study and perfect familiarity, combined with fertility- of resource and humorous ingenuity of application. One important result of the work was the interested notice of the earl of Oxford and Lord Bolingbroke. The poet went to London, and was asked to celebrate the victory of I3lenheim, which lie did in his favourite manner, but without conspicuous suc-cess. The Blenheim, published in 1705, lacks, of course, the element of burlesque, and it is difficult to resist the impression that the poet must have felt himself restrained and hampered by the stern necessity of being seriously sublime. A year later (1706) Philips published, in two books, his didactic poem entitled C !Idea., which is his most ambitious work and is written in imitation of Virgil's G eorgics. Wine there is no denying the poet's admirable familiarity with his original, or his skilful employment of the Miltonic blank verse, or the sustained energy and grace of some of the episodes in the second part, or even his intimate knowledge of the minute details connected with the management of fruit, it cannot be said that the work is a notable contribution to English poetry. It is streaked with genius, but, like the Latin Ode to St John (and, for tha.t matter, the author's other works as well), it is little more than the expression of a poetical scholar feeling his way outwards into life. Philips never (rot beyond the enjoyment of his pipe and his study, bothpof which figure prominently in all his poems. He was medi-tating a still further work on the Last Day, when he was cut off by consumption, in 1708, at the early age of thirty-two. His friend Edmund Smith, himself a distinguished scholar and poet, wrote an elegy on the occasion, which Johnson says " justice must place among the best elegies which our language can show." Philips was buried at Hereford, and a inonument to his memory, with an inscription from the pen of Atterbury, was erected between those of Chaucer and Drayton in Westminster Abbey.

See Johnson's Lives of the Poets, including Smith's Prefatory Discourse ; Sewell's Life of Afr John, Phi/ips ; the Taller, &c.

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