Anne Killigrew Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Anne Killigrew 1660-1685

English poet.

For additional discussion of Killigrew's life and career, see LC, Volume 4.

Killigrew produced only one volume of poetry, the posthumously published Poems By Mrs. Anne Killigrew (1686). A maid of honor to the Duchess of York, Killigrew wrote odes, pastorals, and occasional pieces that reflect her experiences at court. She was a painter as well as a poet, and is perhaps best remembered as the subject of an ode by John Dryden, “To the Pious Memory of the Accomplisht Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew, Excellent in the Two Sister-Arts of Poesy and Painting,” which introduces the collection of her verse.

Biographical Information

Killigrew was born in London in 1660, one of several children born to Reverend Henry Killigrew. Reverend Killigrew was a chaplain to the Duke of York, a Master of the Savoy, and a prebendary of Westminster. He also wrote poetry in Latin and at least one play. The Killigrew family had many connections to the royal family and included a number of writers of drama and poetry among its members. Killigrew probably received a typical education for a young woman of the period who was bound for the court, including instruction in painting. By the time she was twenty years old Killigrew was a maid of honor to the Duchess of York, Mary Beatrice of Modena, wife of the future King James II. Killigrew soon began writing poems that reflected her life at court, some of which were circulated in her lifetime. She also painted and drew; nine of her pictures are known, including portraits of the Duke and Duchess of York, a self-portrait, and several paintings on biblical and classical themes. Scholars are divided on her abilities, with some considering her an accomplished artist and others regarding her work as unskilled. Killigrew's life as a poet and artist was cut short when she caught smallpox and died of the disease on June 16, 1685, at her father's lodgings at Westminster Abbey. Killigrew was buried at St. John Baptist's Chapel in the Savoy Hospital. Her poems were collected soon after her death and published by her family. Included in the volume were her self-portrait and Dryden's ode, the popularity and significance of which greatly contributed to the survival of her memory and interest in her poetry.

Major Works

Killigrew's only published work, Poems By Mrs. Anne Killigrew, contains thirty poems and fragments in a variety of types and genres, including pindaric odes and love lyrics. Many of the pieces employ the conventions of courtly love poetry, but use mythological figures and imagery to comment on court affairs and politics. In “Upon the saying that my Verses were made by another,” “On the Birth-Day of Queen Katherine,” and other poems throughout the collection Killigrew addresses the status and position of women at court. In addition to these two works, there are a number of other occasional poems, including “On my Aunt Mrs. A. K. Drown'd under London-bridge,” as well as several epigrams, and three “Pastoral Dialogues.” A number of pieces, including “The Miseries of Man” and “Farewel to Worldly Joys,” treat conventional philosophical themes. Three poems are linked with her own paintings, each spoken by a figure in the corresponding painting.

Critical Reception

Killigrew's poetry appears to have been widely admired by her contemporaries. While Dryden's ode may have been conventionally effusive, its praise is supported by Anthony à Wood's observation that, had Killigrew's poems not been highly regarded, “her Father would never have suffered them to pass the Press” after her death. In the centuries following her death, however, Killigrew's poetry received little critical attention. In the twentieth century feminist critics began to examine her poems for what they reveal about a woman's life at court. Killigrew and others like her have been seen as striving to give meaning to their lives and escape sexual oppression and exploitation through their poetry. “Upon the saying that my Verses were made by another” has received much attention in this regard. Critics have also looked at Killigrew's use of the conventions of courtly love poetry to explore questions of female power and dependence. “Like other women poets of the Restoration,” Carol Barash has observed, “Killigrew often uses mythic stories to embody women's shifting relation to linguistic and political authority.” As the productions of a female member of the nobility, Killigrew's poems are valued as reflections of the literary and social life of the English court in the seventeenth century.