“Phillips, whose touch harmonious could remove
The pangs of guilty pow'r, and hapless love,
Rest here distress'd by poverty no more,
Find here that calm, thou gav'st so oft before.
Sleep, undisturb'd, within this peaceful shrine,
Till angels wake thee, with a note like thine.”
In his welcome appreciation of Samuel Johnson the poet, Clive Wilmer praises the seldom-anthologized “An Epitaph on Claudy Phillips, a Musician” as a “moving tribute.” In his biography of Johnson, David Nokes identifies Phillips as a Welsh violinist. The never-wealthy poet wishes for the impecunious musician, Nokes says, “a glimpse of posthumous bliss after which both must, if only occasionally, have dreamt.” Johnson’s virtues as a man – compassion, clear-sightedness, outrage at injustice – double as writerly virtues. The elegy and epitaph, poetic tributes and memorials, came as natural impulses to Johnson. Nokes writes:
“As he entered his fourth decade his prospects seemed distinctly gloomy. The men he had cherished for their enlivening wit were either dead like Ford or gone like Savage, and what memorials would ever record them? In the [Gentleman’s] Magazine he turned to epitaphs, which became a favorite subject for him since `every man may expect to be recorded in an epitaph.’ The pyramids of Egypt were epitaphs. Erected by the pharaohs in attempts to preserve their own memory; but `the best subject for epitaphs is private virtue…exerted in the same circumstances in which the bulk of mankind are placed.’ In that conviction he thought not only of the epitaphs of famous men, like Newton, but of Claudy Phillips and even Epictetus, a beggar, cripple, and a slave, remembered as `the favourite of heaven.”
Remembering the praiseworthy dead is among the obligations of the living. Contrasting Johnson’s style with that of Pope’s, Wilmer writes:
“Where Pope is waspish, mordant and suavely elegant, Johnson is grave, compassionate and severe. His poetic style has the same sturdy eloquence as his prose and has been praised for observing the prose virtues, though this should not blind us to his poetic qualities, above all memorability and concision.”
Wilmer includes several of Johnson’s poems and excerpts from others. Go here for the complete text of “London: A Poem,” and here for “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” his masterpieces as a poet.