Katherine Philips Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Katherine Philips 1632–1664

(Born Katherine Fowler; also wrote under pseudonym Orinda) English poet and translator.

Although Philips was hailed by her contemporaries as a "model" woman poet and was acclaimed for her translations of French poetry and drama, her work fell into obscurity by the end of the seventeenth century and subsequently attracted little critical attention until recent years. She is best known for her ardent poetry on the theme of friendship between women, her translations of plays by Corneille, and her letters, published posthumously, to her friend Sir Charles Cotterell.

Biographical Information

Born in London in 1632, Philips was the daughter of John Fowler, a successful cloth merchant, and his wife, Katherine Oxenbridge. A maternal uncle, John Oxen-bridge, was a Parliamentarian who counted among his friends the poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell. Philips attended Mrs. Salmon's Presbyterian boarding school in Hackney, but at fifteen, following her mother's marriage to Sir Richard Philips, she moved to her stepfather's family home in Pembrokeshire, Wales. In 1648, when she was sixteen, she married John Philips, a relative of her stepfather and a Parliamentarian then aged fifty-four. Despite their age difference and conflicting political views—Katherine was a staunch Royalist—their relationship appears to have been amicable. They had two children: a son, Hector, who died within six weeks of birth, and a daughter, also named Katherine, who survived and later bore fifteen children. Extremely important to Philips was her network of acquaintances, female and male, whom she designated her "Society of Friendship" and to whom she assigned fanciful pseudonyms, taking the name "Orinda" for herself. Much of her poetry was written for circulation among this select group, which included, in addition to her many female friends, such prominent men of letters as the theologian Jeremy Taylor (designated "Palaemon") and Sir Charles Cotterell ("Poliarchus"), master of ceremonies at the court of Charles II. Following the Restoration in 1660, which put an end to her Parliamentarian husband's political career, Philips began to take a more active role in the management of his estate. She also began to enter a more public realm of literary expression. With the encouragement of Roger Boyle, the Earl of Orrery, whom she met during a stay in Ireland, she wrote a translation of Corneille's La Mort de Pompée that was performed in Dublin in 1663. She also addressed to members of the royal family a number of poems expressing her longstanding loyalty to the Royalist

cause. She was at work on a translation of Corneille's Horace when she succumbed to smallpox in London in 1664.

Major Works

While she first came to the public notice with the performance of Pompey in 1663, Philips had been writing poetry for private circulation for many years. Her works include marriage poems (addressing the bride rather than, as was customary, the groom), poems of parting, elegies and epitaphs marking private family occasions, and poems of praise and thanksgiving directed to the royal family, as well as numerous translations of French verse. Particularly noted are her many poems celebrating her friendships with women, in which she adopts many of the conventions of seventeenth-century love poetry. Philips maintained that her poetry was not intended for publication, and when a pirated edition of her poems appeared early in 1664, she reacted with dismay, claiming that she "never was more vexed." Some critics suggest, however, that this public reticence may have been a ploy to avoid censure for seeking public attention. Her translation of Corneille's Horace, left unfinished at her death later that year, was completed by John Denham and was performed at the Theatre Royal from 1667 to 1669. The sometimes gossipy Letters from Orinda to Poliarchus (1705), published three years after Sir Charles Cotterell's death, chronicle the progress of her translation of Corneille, reveal Philips's support for the Restoration, and echo her poetry's preoccupation with female friendship.

Critical Reception

On the title page of the 1664 edition of her poems Philips is called "the Incomparable," and on that of 1667 "the Matchless Orinda." Such florid praise is characteristic of early responses to her work; the 1667 edition includes a series of poems by other poets in praise of the recently deceased Orinda, including verses by Thomas Flatman, James Tyrell, and Abraham Cowley. However, in his "Bibliotheca: a poem occasioned by the sight of a modern library" (1712), Thomas Newcomb complained that Philips's poems "Instead of Rapture, give us Sleep." This attack on her work, Paula Loscocco suggests in a 1993 essay, is symptomatic of a general decline in Philips's fortunes at the hands of eighteenth-century Neoclassical aesthetics. Despite sporadic critical attention in intervening years, most notably an essay published by Edmund Gosse in 1881 and a 1931 biography by Philip Webster Souers, her work attracted little critical attention until the late 1970s. Much recent criticism examines Philips's negotiations with the nearly exclusively male literary milieu of her time and the development of her literary persona and poetic style. Lucy Brashear (1979) suggests that the strategies Philips adopted in order to gain acceptance as a female poet ironically made it more difficult for subsequent women poets to win literary recognition. Elaine Hobby (1988) and Celia A. Easton (1990) view Philips's poetic persona as a creation intended to circumvent contemporary strictures against female literary production. Study of Philips's adaptation of the conventions of courtly love poetry has led some critics, such as Hobby and Harriette Andreadis (1989), to perceive a homoerotic element in her poems on female friendship, but Claudia Limbert (1991) finds this interpretation at odds with the reactions of Philips's contemporaries, and argues that the question of her sexuality should be secondary to an understanding of her efforts to preserve her reputation while breaching social norms through her professional writing activities. In an essay published in 1991, Maureen E. Mulvihill examines Philips's use of her friendships with contemporary men of letters to gain acceptance of her work and to advance her literary career.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Pompey: A Tragedy [translator] (drama) 1663

Poems. By the Incomparable Mrs. K.P. (poetry) 1664

Poems. By the Most Deservedly Admired Mrs. Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda. To Which is Added, Monsieur Corneille 's Pompey and Horace, Tragedies. With Several Other Translations out of French (poetry) 1667

Horace [translator; completed by John Denham] (drama) 1668*

Letters from Orinda to Poliarchus (letters) 1705

The Collected Works of Katherine Philips: The Matchless Orinda 3 vols, (poetry, letters, and drama) 1990–93

*Philips's incomplete translation was included...

(The entire section is 82 words.)

Edmund Gosse (essay date 1881)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Matchless Orinda," in Seventeenth Century Studies: A Contribution to the History of English Poetry, William Heinemann, 1897, pp. 229–58.

[A distinguished English literary historian, critic, and biographer, Gosse wrote extensively on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English literature. In the following excerpt, originally published in Cornhill Magazine in 1881, he seeks to revive interest in Philips's work and provides an overview of her career.]

It was not until the second half of the seventeenth century that women began to be considered competent to under-take literature as a profession.

In the crowded galaxy of Elizabethan...

(The entire section is 6229 words.)

Elizabeth H. Hageman (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Katherine Philips: The Matchless Orinda," in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, The University of Georgia Press, 1987, pp. 566–608.

[In the following excerpt, Hageman provides an overview of Philips's career and works.]

Because her poem "On the First of January 1657" includes the statement that God has "By moments number'd out the precious sands, / Till [the poet's life] is swell'd to six and twenty years," students of Katherine Philips have assumed that her actual birth date was January 1, 1631/1632. The accuracy of that precise date remains unvalidated, but church records do reveal that the future poet was...

(The entire section is 6867 words.)

Elaine Hobby (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Romantic Love—Poetry," in Virtue of Necessity: English Women's Writing, 1649–88, 1988. Reprint by The University of Michigan Press, 1989, pp. 128–42.

[In the following excerpt, Hobby analyzes Philips's public persona as a function of the constraints placed upon women writers in the seventeenth century and examines Philips's reworking of the conventions of courtly love poetry in her poems celebrating female friendship.]

Katherine Philips, 'the Matchless Orinda', the author of a book of poetry, two play translations and some published correspondence, has long been perceived as a model lady poetess, dabbling in versification in a rural Welsh backwater,...

(The entire section is 5458 words.)

Celia A. Easton (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Excusing the Breach of Nature's Laws: The Discourse of Denial and Disguise in Katherine Philips' Friendship Poetry," in Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660–1700, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 1–14.

[In the following essay, Easton associates Philips's strategies of political disguise and sexual repression with her exploration of poetic language.]

In his preface to the first authorized edition of Katherine Philips' Poems, her editor and confidant, Charles Cotter ell, praises the poems that follow by attempting to situate them beyond gender, beyond history, beyond language, beyond geography, and beyond mortal existence:


(The entire section is 6091 words.)

Claudia A. Limbert (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Katherine Philips: Controlling a Life and Reputation," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 56, No. 2, May, 1991, pp. 27–42.

[In the following essay, Limbert discusses Philips's efforts to assert control over aspects of her personal and public life. Limbert questions the validity and relevance of critical preoccupation with Philips's sexual identity and instead examines the socially acceptable methods by which she protected her literary reputation.]

Katherine Philips (1632–64) was, in effect, two women. The first woman was the very conventional product of London's seventeenth-century merchant class, which was firmly Puritan-Presbyterian in religion and staunchly...

(The entire section is 4681 words.)

Maureen E. Mulvihill (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "A Feminist Link in the Old Boys' Network: The Cosseting of Katherine Philips," in Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660–1820, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecelia Macheski, Ohio University Press, 1991, pp. 71–104.

[In the following excerpt, Mulvihill traces the development of Philips's career in the context of the "Orinda" myth and the "old boys' network" that contributed to her popular success.]

The Restoration is significant in the history of English feminism because it witnessed the advance of women playwrights in the professional theater. The first decade of the Restoration was graced by four newcomers: Katherine Philips...

(The entire section is 9387 words.)

Paula Loscocco (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Manly Sweetness: Katherine Philips among the Neoclassicals," in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 259–79.

[In the following excerpt, Loscocco discusses "the decline in Philips's reputation in the eighteenth century," which she explains by "charting the interplay between changes in the reception of her poetry and changes … in neoclassical literary aesthetics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."]

When Katherine Philips's posthumous Poems appeared in 1667, the volume included prefatory verses by Abraham Cowley celebrating her as England's esteemed "Woman Laureat." Few at the time dissented from Cowley's...

(The entire section is 6535 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Brashear, Lucy. "Gleanings from the Orinda Holograph," American Notes and Queries 23, Nos. 7 & 8 (March/April 1985): 100–02.

Discusses the identities of pseudonymous figures in the Philips holograph at the National Library of Wales.

Buckingham, Elinor. "The Matchless Orinda." The Sewanee Review 10, No. 3 (July 1902): 269–84.

A biographical overview addressing the theme of friendship in Philips's life and poetry.

Limbert, Claudia [A.]. "Two Poems and a Prose Receipt: The Unpublished Juvenilia of Katherine Philips (text)." English Literary...

(The entire section is 489 words.)