Our wonderful English language is like a sponge, drawing in influences from wherever it can. I suppose it could be considered a feather in one’s cap to have a word or a phrase named after you. I’m not sure that Ambrose Philips saw it that way. The phrase in which he is immortalised is namby-pamby, used pejoratively these days to describe something or someone who is overly sentimental or insipidly pretty.
Shropshire born Ambrose Philips (1674 – 1749) was a pastoral poet and a staunch Whig supporter to boot. A feud developed between him and Alexander Pope, fuelled by articles in the Guardian in 1713 praising Philips’ work and calling him the only extant poet fit to fill the size nines left by Edmund Spenser. What particularly appealed to Philips’ admirers was his simple style and his avoidance of classical mythology.
Pope responded by writing anonymously an article published in the Guardian in which he censured his own pastoral style and lauded the worst passages from Philips’ work. Philips saw through this rather thin satire and threatened to hit Pope on the head with a rod which he kept in Button’s coffee house for that express purpose. These poets! Samuel Johnson described relations between the two poets as “a perpetual reciprocation of malevolence.” He also thought that Philips was hard done by.
Philips did have a certain style and some of his worst excesses, usually prompted by attempts to ingratiate himself with the great and the good by lauding their kiddywinks, opened him up to ridicule. Take this, for example; “thou, thy parents pride and care/ fairest offspring of the fair/…when again the lambkins play/ pretty sportlings, full of May.” In technical terms, his style generally consisted of three trochees, followed by an extra-stressed monosyllabic foot.
And ridiculed Philips was. In 1725 Henry Carey wrote a poem called Namby-Pamby; or a panegyrick on the new versification address’s to A___ P___. It didn’t take a genius to work out that A P was Ambrose Philips and that Namby-Pamby was a play on his Christian name. Carey did not hold back; “All ye poets of the age/ all ye writings of the stage../ Namby-Pamby is your guide/ Albion’s joy, Hibernia’s pride/ Namby-Pamby, pilly-piss/ Rhimy-pim’d on Missy Miss/ Tartaretta Tartaree/ From the navel to the knee;/ That her father’s gracy, grace/ might give him a placy place.”
Philips’ enemies were pleased with the new coinage which, in their eyes, in its childish reduplication, gave vent to their disgust at the excesses of his style. Pope couldn’t resist poking fun at his foe and he duly appears in one of Pope’s greatest works, The Dunciad, published in 1728; “beneath his reign, shall…Namby Pamby be prefer’d for Wit”. Johnathan Swift called Philips’ works “little flams.”
But Johnson stuck up for him, calling Philips’ best works “those which from Pope or Pope’s adherents procured him the name of Namby-Pamby, the poems of short lines by which he paid his court to all ages and characters, from Walpole, the steerer of the realm, to Miss Pulteney in the nursery.” It is all a question of taste, after all.
The phrase namby-pamby was too good to be wasted on the specific and soon moved to a broader application. In 1745, William Ayre in his Memoirs of the life and writings of Alexander Pope, used it to describe an ineffectual form of writing, typified by Philips; “he used to write verses on Infants, in a strange Stile, which Dean Swift calls the Namby Pamby stile.” And by 1774 it became a pejorative term referring to anything weak or ineffectual, the Westmoreland Magazine in that year describing someone as “a namby pamby Duke.”
While Philips and his pastoral poetry have been lost in the mists of time, namby-pamby soon augmented the ranks of words to be used to insult someone.