Those Eclogues Get My Goat

Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets: Ambrose Philips

Philips was now high in the ranks of literature.  His play was applauded; his translations from Sappho had been published in the Spectator; he was an important and distinguished associate of clubs, witty and poetical; and nothing was wanting to his happiness but that he should be sure of its continuance.  The work which had procured him the first notice from the public was his “Six Pastorals,” which, flattering the imagination with Arcadian scenes, probably found many readers, and might have long passed as a pleasing amusement had they not been unhappily too much commended.

The rustic poems of Theocritus were so highly valued by the Greeks and Romans that they attracted the imitation of Virgil, whose Eclogues seem to have been considered as precluding all attempts of the same kind; for no shepherds were taught to sing by any succeeding poet, till Nemesian and Calphurnius ventured their feeble efforts in the lower age of Latin literature.

At the revival of learning in Italy it was soon discovered that a dialogue of imaginary swains might be composed with little difficulty, because the conversation of shepherds excludes profound or refined sentiment; and for images and descriptions, satyrs and fauns, and naiads and dryads, were always within call; and woods and meadows, and hills and rivers, supplied variety of matter, which, having a natural power to soothe the mind, did not quickly cloy it.

Petrarch entertained the learned men of his age with the novelty of modern pastorals in Latin.  Being not ignorant of Greek, and finding nothing in the word eclogue of rural meaning, he supposed it to be corrupted by the copiers, and therefore called his own productions Æglogues, by which he meant to express the talk of goat-herds, though it will mean only the talk of goats.  This new name was adopted by subsequent writers, and among others by our Spenser.

More than a century afterwards (1498) Mantuan published his Bucolics with such success that they were soon dignified by Badius with a comment, and, as Scaliger complained, received into schools, and taught as classical; his complaint was vain, and the practice, however injudicious, spread far and continued long.  Mantuan was read, at least in some of the inferior schools of this kingdom, to the beginning of the present century.  The speakers of Mantuan carried their disquisitions beyond the country to censure the corruptions of the Church, and from him Spenser learned to employ his swains on topics of controversy.  The Italians soon transferred pastoral poetry into their own language.  Sannazaro wrote “Arcadia” in prose and verse; Tasso and Guarini wrote “Favole Boschareccie,” or Sylvan Dramas; and all nations of Europe filled volumes with Thyrsis and Damon, and Thestylis and Phyllis.

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 anyone had then lately published.

Not long afterwards Pope made the first display of his powers in four pastorals, written in a very different form.  Philips had taken Spenser, and Pope took Virgil for his pattern.  Philips endeavoured to be natural, Pope laboured to be elegant.

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