|1190312. Mon May 02, 2016 12:48 pm
|'Namby Pamby' was a real person; he was briefly in charge of the National Lottery, and he once threatened to hit Alexander Pope with a stick.
His real name was Ambrose Phillips, poet and playwright, darling of the whig party, and a player in the coffee-house political scene at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (1)
The nickname 'Namby Pamby' is intended as a twee, nursery-rhyme distortion of his name, and is the title of a parody by fellow poet Henry Carey, intended to mock the ingratiating poems dedicated by Phillips to the children of potential patrons. (1)(2) Looking through some of these, you can see what Carey was getting at – it's pretty saccharine stuff. Here is an extract from my 'favourite':
Is the silken web so thin
As the texture of her skin?
Can the lily and the rose
Such unsullied hue disclose?
Are the violets so blue
As her veins exposed to view?
Do the stars in wintry sky
Twinkle brighter than her eye?
Has the morning lark a throat
Sounding sweeter than her note?
Who e’er knew the like before thee?
They who knew the nymph that bore thee. (3)
And Carey's response:
Rhimy-pim'd on Missy Miss
From the navel to the knee;
That her father's gracy grace
Might give him a placy place. (4)
To be fair to Phillips, this is probably not his best work, and he certainly wasn't the only poet to sacrifice a little artistic integrity to try and flatter influential people. The reason the nickname stuck seems to have been due as much to politics and personal rivalries as anything else. As a Whig, Phillips had a number of influential friends, who in a addition to securing him various high-profile jobs, such as justice of the peace for Westminster, secretary to the Lord Chancellor, and commissioner for the lottery, also sought to promote his poetry by praising it to a degree that it probably did not deserve. (1) (2) In his Lives of The Poets, Samuel Johnson has some praise for Philips's work, but states that he 'became ridiculous, without his own fault, by the absurd admiration of his friends.' (5)
Phillips's preferential treatment provoked outrage from rival Tory poets, including Alexander Pope, John Gay and Jonathan Swift, who took particular offence at a series of articles in the Guardian, praising Phillips's pastoral poetry and lauding him as the only worthy successor to Edmund Spenser, a comment that was taken as an intended slight on Pope's own pastoral work. Pope retaliated with a passive-aggressive letter written anonymously to the Guardian, full of sarcastic 'praise' for the worst elements of Philips's poetry, and Gay joined the attack by penning his own, deliberately bad, pastoral poetry in mockery of Philips's style, although this fell a little flat when the parody actually received positive reviews from the critics. (1) (2) (5)
Phillips responded to his antagonists in a calm and measured way, by attempting to have Pope reported as a political dissident, and when this failed, he is said to have acquired a big stick and hung it on the wall of the coffee house where he met with fellow Whigs, making sure that everyone knew this was his Alexander Pope Hitting Stick, and that he intended to hit Alexander Pope with it. Whether the stick ever fulfilled it's purpose is not recorded, but presumably Pope would have had little reason to go into a Whig coffee house. (1) (5)
From this point onwards, Phillips and Pope took every opportunity to antagonise one another, with Pope and his Tory allies gladly adopting the 'Namby Pamby' nickname and ensuring that Phillips was stuck with it. (1) (2) (5)
(1) Andrew Varney, ‘Philips, Ambrose (bap. 1674, d. 1749)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22119, accessed 4 March 2016]
(3) Ambrose Phillips, 'To Miss Georgiana Carteret' ll 25-36 , in William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. The Book of Georgian Verse. 1909. http://www.bartleby.com/333/10.html
(4) Henry Carey, 'Namby Pamby: or, A Panegyric on the New Versification, in H. Carey, Poems on Several Occasions, 3rd edn. (London: E. Say, 1729): 55-61. 11632.e.70 British Library. http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/namby-pamby-or-panegyric-new-versification
(5) Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets: Gay, Thomson, Young and Others