How do poets Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681) and Katherine Philips (1632–1664) engage with politics in their poetry in relation to revolutionary retreat as a place (country vs city or country vs court) or as a state of mind (free will, conscience, interiority)? The reference poems are Lucy Hutchinson's "To the Garden at Owthorpe" (Elegy 7) or "Musings in my Evening’s Walks at Owthorpe" (Elegy 12) and Katherine Philips' "Friendship’s Mystery, to my Dearest Lucasia."
Phillips' poem Friendship’s Mystery, To my Dearest Lucasia highlights "retreat" from the dominant heterosexual and patriarchal norms of her time. In this poem, "retreat" is a form of rebellion, an exercise of personal will. Phillips appropriates heterosexual language to express homosexual tendencies.
In the poem, Phillips urges Lucasia to retreat from the "dull, angry world" in order to prove that "there's a religion in our love." In contrast to the "dull, angry world" of men's conflicts, Phillips bids her friend to trust that their "election" to walk divergent paths represents the freedom of the "Angells." Phillips bids Lucasia to retreat from the "fetters whose intent/ Not bondage is, but Ornament." Phillips uses patriarchal language (the "dull, angry world" where men fight and rule) to illustrate the parallel fight for female agency. She bids Lucasia to view their "love" as a new religion of sorts.
In Phillips' opinion, "banishment" represents freedom from having to conform to the status quo of her time. So, the whole poem represents "retreat" as a state of mind, an embracing of interiority as a response to bondage. For more, please refer to the link below.
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To understand "retreat" in relation to political agenda, we first have to understand the historical events that fueled these poems, particularly those by Lucy Hutchinson.
The English Civil War was fought from 1642 to 1651. It was basically a conflict between those who supported the monarchy (Royalists) and those who favored greater rights for Parliament (Parliamentarians). The war encompassed both a class conflict and a struggle for religious freedom. Charles I was supported by those who clung to the dogmatic intransigence (inflexibility) in the Church of England, while Parliamentarians favored greater purging of what they felt were Catholic traditions from the church.
Lucy Hutchinson and her husband, John, were Parliamentarians, firmly on the side of Oliver Cromwell. After Charles I was executed, the Hutchinsons enjoyed a period of great wealth and status. The restoration of Charles II to the throne, however, brought about a change in the Hutchinsons' fortunes. This was because John Hutchinson had been one of the signatories of the late king's (Charles I) death warrant. In 1660, John found himself at a dangerous political impasse. As a result, he decided to recuse himself from political action and to devote himself to scriptural study and his garden at Owthorpe (the Hutchinson estate).
In 1663, John was arrested and sent to the Tower of London; he died there, and Lucy never saw him again. Lucy's poems To the Garden at Owthorpe and Musings in my Evening’s Walks at Owthorpe constituted a bereaved wife's homage to her deceased husband as well as veiled political statements castigating the tyranny of the Royalists. On the surface, Lucy's poems are inward in nature (the idea of "retreat"), highlighting the Parliamentarian forfeiture of power upon the ascension of Charles II and the necessity for enemies of the monarchy to lay low.
The trees about the Gardin Stand
Drooping for want of ye kind hand
That Sett and Cherissht ye before
And praysd ye greatefull fruites They bore
The flowers hang down Their drooping heads
And languish on their Undrest beds
The state of John's garden presents a bleak picture. The Parliamentarians are in retreat and powerless. Lucy proclaims that, perhaps, the garden may yet in "gawdy dresses" to its "next Lord shine." This is Lucy's veiled criticism of the showy religiosity of the Church of England; the Parliamentarians despised what they considered the pageantry of Roman Catholicism and its dominant themes within the Church of England. They favored simplicity in worship. With the death of John Hutchinson and others, the Church was left undefended (the garden untended) against those who would guide the Church of England towards Romish norms in worship. To Hutchinson, "revolutionary retreat" constituted a state of mind, a spiritual withdrawal from earthly warfare. A "retreat" was also a place, in this case, the garden at Owthorpe that John used to tend.
Hutchinson was circumscribed by both her politics and her gender; so, her poems constituted both political statement as well as cathartic device. The state of the garden at Owthorpe represented not just the religious rot within the Church of England but also the loss of one who championed change within the church.
Commentary about Katherine Phillips will follow.
Forms of Engagement: Women, Poetry, and Culture 1640-1680 by Elizabth Scott Baumann
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