Katherine Philips Philips, Katherine (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Katherine Philips 1632-1664

English poet and translator.

At the time of her death, Philips was considered the first British woman poet of high regard. Her verses on friendship and royalist politics earned her the respect and admiration of such contemporaries as Sir Charles Cotterell and Jeremy Taylor. Having no model of prescribed women's poetry, Philips borrowed ideas popular among male poets of the time, such as platonic love, but soon shifted her focus to an unconventional theme: love between women friends. Scholars' regard for her declined in the late eighteenth century as critics dismissed her significance. However, modern feminist scholars have reinvigorated an interest in her poetry, particularly her verse regarding love among women.

Biographical Information

Philips was born in London in 1632, the daughter of a prosperous cloth merchant, John Fowler. Her maternal uncle, John Oxenbridge, befriended poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell. Evidence indicates that Philips was a talented child, reading the Bible in its entirety by age four and committing sermons to memory when she was ten years old. She is reputed to have started writing poetry at an early age although no evidence of this survives. Philips attended Mrs. Salmon's Presbyterian boarding school in Hackney. Following her widowed mother's marriage to Sir Richard Philips, fifteen-year-old Philips joined her mother in rural Wales. A year later, she married the widowed son of her stepfather. John Philips was a fifty-four-year-old Parliamentarian. Despite their age difference and conflicting political views, they appear to have enjoyed an amicable marriage, producing one son, who died in childhood, and a daughter. Philips formed intense friendships with both men and women, giving them fanciful pseudonyms and referring to them as her “Society of Friendship.” Whether the society was mostly a figment of Philips's imagination or if it ever met is a subject of debate. Many of her poems are written to and in honor of these figures with the purpose of being circulated among her friends. In 1660, following the Restoration, Philips's husband began to experience career difficulties, which his wife endeavored to improve via her field of influence. While in Dublin seeing to his affairs, Philips was encouraged by Roger Boyle, the Earl of Orrery, to complete a translation of Corneille's La Mort de Pompee. In addition, she began writing politically based poetry advocating the Royalist position. In 1664, Philips went to London to attempt to suppress a pirated publication of her poetry from appearing; publication by a gentlewoman could have resulted in social scandal and ruin. While there, she succumbed to smallpox.

Major Works

Because of the brevity of Philips's life, she left a small volume of poetry. In the first part of her writing career, Philips focused on the theme of love among friends. Specifically, she advocated a true form of friendship between women, a philosophical concept unaccepted among men at the time. Her best known and most highly regarded works consist of odes to her female friends, such as “Friendship in Emblem, or the Seale, to my dearest Lucasia.” She wrote most of her verse in rhyming couplets with attention to regular meter. As she grew older, Philips wrote more about the political events of the day. In her later poems honoring public figures and events such as the coronation, she promoted a Royalist view. In addition, Philips completed the translation of Corneille's play La Mort de Pompee and left a translation of his Horace unfinished at her death.

Critical Reception

At the time of her death, Philips was one of the most highly regarded women writers in Britain. John Keats and John Dryden paid tribute to her. But Philips's reputation as a first-rate poet and pioneer of the genre faltered, primarily due to unflattering reviews in the late eighteenth century. Literary critics agree that Philips was generally viewed as a minor figure in British literature during the next two centuries. However, by the end of the twentieth century, Philips was garnering renewed interest. Paula Loscocco (1993) argues that Philips had declined in popularity when critics began to ignore the masculine aspects of her writing, focusing entirely on her femininity and then dismissing her as therefore insignificant. Scholars such as Kathleen M. Swaim (1997) and Lucy Brashear (1979) have questioned how a woman of Philips's social position and geographic isolation could have established herself as a prominent national poet. Through their research, they stress that Philips self-consciously created her reputation as a reluctant poet who merely circulated verse among her friends in order to promote her position and secure a popular standing. They warn readers to remember that Philips could only operate within the boundaries of the social confines of her day. Literary critics link Philips with Aphra Behn because of their shared interest in love among women and their groundbreaking work as British women writers. Debate continues over the nature of Philips's prescribed love between women, with some scholars arguing that she is advocating lesbian relationships, and others claiming that Philips referred to a type of intense friendship. Travis Dupriest (1992) maintains that both readings of her work are credible.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Poems. By the Incomparable Mrs. K. P. 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 1667

Pompey: A Tragedy [translator] (play) 1663

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

Letters from Orinda to Poliarchus (letters) 1705

Elinor M. Buckingham (essay date 1902)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Buckingham, Elinor M. “The Matchless Orinda.” Sewanee Review 10 (1902): 269-84.

[In the following essay, Buckingham relates the significance of Philips's contributions to English poetry.]

Every age has its little lights that burn for a time with more or less brilliancy and then go out. Possibly a memory of them lingers on into the next age or to succeeding generations; but for the most part the memory is dwindled to a mere name, and few stop to inquire what gave the name its meaning. Among the names that have come down to us from the time of Charles II. is that of “The Matchless Orinda,” so called, a lady who passed for a great poetess in her day, and who attracted to her side some of the best and most distinguished men of the Restoration period; whose poetry was read and admired well on into the eighteenth century, but who is remembered now chiefly because Dryden mentioned her in his ode on Mrs. Anne Killigrew, or because Keats praised her in a letter to his friend Reynolds. Yet she was a woman of strong individuality and sprightly wit, the first English woman to make a name for herself in poetry. Her letters and her poems give abundant evidence of the charm which made her so honored in her own day, and well repay a little study in the present time.

Katherine Fowler was born in London January 1, 1631, the daughter of a prosperous merchant. Her mother was Katherine Oxenbridge, daughter of a president of the Plysicians' College, and Aubrey says that her grandmother, a friend of Francis Quarles, was in her day given to poetry. Her family was Presbyterian, evidently of the well-to-do middle class.

She must have been considered especially gifted by her family; for a cousin, who had charge of her until she was eight years old, tells how she had “read the Bible through before she was full four years old.” In those days a boy's training was first the Psalter, then reading the Bible, then his accidence—that is, the Latin grammar—and it was thought worthy of note that Alexander Broome was in his accidence at four years old and a quarter; while Anthony Wood, the antiquarian and scholar, born in 1632, was not put to school even to learn the Psalter till 1637, and only when he was seven years old was he ready to go into his accidence.

Little Miss Fowler had also a remarkable memory. She could repeat whole passages from Scripture, and “enjoyed hearing sermons which she could bring away verbatim, when she was ten years old.” Evidently she was somewhat vain of her precocity. Being brought up in the Presbyterian faith, “she was much against the bishops, and used to pray to God to take them to himself.” She was accustomed to pray aloud by the hour together, “as the hypocritical fashion in those days was,” apparently in the hope of being overheard. Tradition says she wrote verses early, but there is no certain record.

At the age of eight years, she was sent to Hackney, to a fashionable Presbyterian school, kept by a Mrs. Salmon, where presumably she learned dancing, painting, and music, as well as French, in which she became really proficient.

As she grew up, the civil war came on, and as soon as she began to think for herself, which must have been before she was seventeen years old, she adopted the tenets of the Church of England, and became an ardent adherent of the royal family. At seventeen she married, as a second wife, James Philips, Esq., of the Priory, Cardigan, her mother having previously married the father of James Philips.

Whether religious differences made any separation between her and her family, as some writers suppose, is doubtful. She never mentions them in the letters that are preserved, nor in her poems, and none of them apparently belonged to the circle of friends she gathered about her. There is record of a debt contracted by Mr. Philips in 1653, for which her uncle, J. Oxenbridge, was bound, and for which the uncle was thrown into Fleet Prison twenty-eight years later; so that there must have been pretty close friendship with some members of her family.

From the time of her marriage, when she became mistress of a household, it is evident that she began to manage her husband and her acquaintance not domineeringly but capably.

The portrait prefixed to her poems shows a rather pretty, exceedingly intelligent face, with a good deal of mild but persistent will force, eminently practical and sensible. Mr. Gosse calls her “a bustling little Welsh lady.” Aubrey says she was “very good-natured, not at all high-minded; pretty fat; not tall, reddish-faced.” If she was like the women of to-day who resemble her portrait, she was probably the most efficient member of the household, with an ability for conducting clubs, reading circles, and evening card parties, an aptitude for drawing about her the best and most aristocratic society of the neighborhood, and for making herself beloved as well as quietly humored in her fads.

One of her fads was Friendship, of the conscious and demonstrative sort. As early as 1651 she had gathered about her a circle of friends, both men and women, who took fanciful names, Calanthe, Lucasia, Regina, etc., by which they were always known among themselves. One imagines her husband, a man older than herself and, if accounts do not misrepresent, a trifle sluggish of temperament, as good-naturedly allowing himself to be dubbed Antenor; but there were other men, men of note, who did not belong to her immediate neighborhood, who also joined the mystic circle. Jeremy Taylor, who was living in Wales, when she went there, became the noble Palæmon; Sir Charles Cotterel was the most generous Poliarchus, and so on. She herself became Orinda the Matchless.

Whether the other members thought so highly as she of this bond of friendship is a question. One after another the ladies married and moved away; but it is quite plain that a large part of her thoughts were devoted to Friendship, friendship in the abstract made concrete in the persons of her neighbors. She was troubled by the sentiment some one expressed that women are incapable of true friendship, and asked the opinion of her friend Palæmon on that and three other points concerning friendship: How far is a dear and perfect friendship authorized by Christianity? How far may it extend? and, How are friendships to be conducted? To which he replied with a most satisfactory and complimentary “Discourse on Friendship,” concluding with the assurance that, though a woman may not assist a friend in just the same way as a man, yet her friendship is as real and comforting.

All these magnanimous and magniloquent sentiments were intended for her private delectation, unless she thought fit that they should pass further than her eye and closet, in which case she was entreated to consign them to Dr. Wedderburne, to whose guidance Dr. Taylor committed himself. This called out an effusion from Mrs. Philips, “To the most noble Palæmon, on his incomparable Discourse on Friendship:”

We had been still undone, wrapt in disguise;
Secure, not happy; cunning, and not wise;
War had been our design, int'rest our trade;
We had not dwelt in safety, but in shade,
Hadst thou not hung out light, more welcome far
Than wand'ring seamen think the northern star.

Apart from these interests she had plenty to occupy her mind in her husband's affairs. As Aubrey says in his succinct note-taking fashion, “He had a good estate, but bought crown lands; he mortgaged,” etc., with all that etc. implies. “His brother Hector took off the mortgages and has the lands.” Mrs. Philips set herself resolutely to disencumbering his estate, and the few letters of hers that are preserved are taken up alternately with poetry, her friends, and the account of how the business prospers. In 1662 she crossed the channel to Ireland, partly to accompany her dear friend, Lucasia, who had just committed the much-to-be-lamented act of marrying. Orinda was sure she would be eternally unhappy. She wrote to Poliarchus: “When I have tarried here awhile, I shall return home with a heavy heart, but with the satisfaction, nevertheless, that I have discharged my duty to my friend, whose loss I shall eternally regret. She tells all of us she is extremely happy, and that all that love her ought to take part in her happiness. If you have written anything to me to Cardigan relating to this affair, pray write again to me to Dublin in Italian, for I know not when I shall receive the letters that will come to Cardigan the latter end of this week, and I am very desirous to know your thoughts on this matter, that, since I cannot bring relief to your sorrows, I may at least share them with you.”

Poliarchus himself had aspired to the hand of the fair Lucasia, who goes by the name of Calanthe in this part of the correspondence; and the good Orinda must have enjoyed to the uttermost her own perspicacity in divining the future wretchedness of Calanthe and the value of her own friendship for Sir Charles in condoling with him, and, if need be, receiving his sighs in Italian, safe from the prying curiosity of others. Bustling, as Gosse imagines her, I do not think she should be called, but active-minded and eager to exert her abilities in all directions she certainly was.

All this time she was taking an interest in the affairs of the world, writing verses on “His Majesty at His Passage into England,” “On the Fair Weather Just at the Coronation,” “To Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of York, on Her Commanding Me to Send Her Some Things I Had Written,” “To Mr. Henry Lawes,” besides many poems to her personal friends in varied meters. At the same time she was learning Italian, and in the course of a few months fitting herself not only to understand the Italian postscripts of Poliarchus, but to insert bits of information in that language in her own letters.

Once in Ireland and with Lucasia determined to be happy, she was turning to her husband's affairs, when she was distracted by a new interest. She had already translated a scene from Corneille's “Pompée,” and, “by some accident or other,” this scene having fallen into the hands of the Earl of Orrery, “he was pleased to like it so well,” she writes, “that he sent me the French original, and the next time I saw him so earnestly importuned me to pursue that translation that, to avoid the shame of seeing him, who had so lately commanded a kingdom, become petitioner to me for such a trifle, I obliged him so far as to finish the act in which that scene is.”

From this auspicious beginning she went on to what was probably the most exciting and happiest year of her life. She was introduced by the Earl of Orrery to the various members of his family in Dublin—the Duke and Duchess of Ormond, the Countess of Cork, and to the Earl of Roscommon, and others. Apparently she stayed with the Countess of Cork. It is the period of her life which we know best, because it was now that she was constantly writing to Sir Charles Cotterel for advice and criticism of her Pompey, which she undertook to translate entire. Not only so, but when it was finished the Earl of Orrery insisted upon having it acted, and “advanced one hundred pounds toward buying Egyptian and Roman habits.” To increase the length of the performance, and add to the brilliancy of the occasion, she wrote five songs to be sung in the intervals of the acts, and was “promised that they should be set by the greatest masters in England.”

One would think that she would have little time for anything else. No sooner was the play acted than it was necessary to publish an edition in Dublin. Then Sir Charles must be commissioned to present a copy to the Duchess of York, but His Majesty having asked for it, the original copy was given to him. Then a dedication to the Countess of Cork must be written. Meanwhile it was publishing in London, under the supervision of Sir Charles, and the poor lady was distracted between the fear that she should not preserve a proper decorum and that something should go astray or amiss.

But at last she had leisure to write about her husband's affairs, and we must suppose that she had not forgotten them all this time. Two or three trials for the possession of lands were coming off, and she was in a great state of mind because her witnesses were not forthcoming and she lost one suit.

In the end, and it was at the end of a full year, she departed from Ireland, having succeeded better than she might have hoped in Antenor's business. One wonders a trifle what he was doing all this while, though we do hear of his carrying Cardigan for Sir Charles in the parliamentary elections. And we wonder still more what was become of the little daughter five years old, whom Mrs. Philips never intrudes upon Poliarchus in her brilliant correspondence. Doubtless she engineered from a distance both the elections and the little girl's education.

No wonder that when she was finally at home in Wales she longed for a more active existence. She apologizes thus for a set of verses sent to Poliarchus: “All I desire is that when you read this poem you will not condemn me for a dullness that you will find growing upon me; but consider that my absence from all the conversation that can refine my wit, the employments of a country life, and the uneasiness of my fortune, are able to blunt a much finer pen than ever I was mistress of. And indeed I...

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Lucy Brashear (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Brashear, Lucy. “The Forgotten Legacy of the ‘Matchless Orinda.’” Anglo-Welsh Review 65 (1979): 68-76.

[In the following essay, Brashear documents how Philips's persona as a reluctantly published gentle-lady was contrived to ensure her own success but prohibited future British women from publishing poetry.]

Virginia Woolf believed that women were “trained” to be novelists rather than poets. In A Room of One's Own she described the restricted background of the “common sitting-room” as the most important influence responsible for the training of women writers at the time of Jane Austen in observing and analysing character. While Woolf's...

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Claudia Limbert (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Limbert, Claudia. “Two Poems and a Prose Receipt: The Unpublished Juvenalia of Katherine Philips.” English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 2 (spring 1986): 383-90.

[In the following essay, Limbert describes a manuscript purported to be the earliest examples of Philips's poetry.]

In his brief biography of the Royalist poet Katherine Philips (1632-1664), known in her time as “The Matchless Orinda,” John Aubrey (the cousin of Philips' lifelong friend and schoolmate, Mary Aubrey Montague) claims that, having been influenced as a small child by her grandmother Oxenbridge's interest in writing poetry, Katherine Philips had “Loved poetry at schoole, and made...

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Harriette Andreadis (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Andreadis, Harriette. “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips, 1632-1664.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15, no. 1 (autumn 1989): 34-60.

[In the following essay, Andreadis traces Philips's conscious use of male Platonic friendships as a model for her homoerotic poetry about friendships between women.]

Katherine Philips, known as “The Matchless Orinda,” was the first English female poet to achieve a considerable reputation in her own time. She was extravagantly praised, indeed lionized, by her male contemporaries: Abraham Cowley, the earl of Roscommon (Wentworth Dillon), Jeremy Taylor, John Dryden, and much later, even John Keats...

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Travis DuPriest (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: DuPriest, Travis. Introduction to Poems: 1667, by Katherine Philips, pp. 3-25. Delmar, New York: Scholars’ Facsimilies & Reprints, 1992.

[In the following essay, DuPriest provides an overview of Philips's career and life, probing the issue of her lack of posthumous popularity.]

With the emergence of feminist criticism has come the reconstruction of history; and with this reconstruction, the awareness that many women writers and thinkers have been forgotten in a largely male canon—some purposefully suppressed; others, consistently allowed, perhaps encouraged, to drop out of the sweep of recorded history and out of the anthologies of intellectual and...

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Paula Loscocco (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Loscocco, Paula. “Manly Sweetness: Katherine Philips among the Neoclassicals.” Huntington Library Quarterly 56, no. 3 (summer 1993): 259-79.

[In the following essay, Loscocco links the decline in popularity of Philip's poetry with changes in gender viewpoints and neoclassicism.]

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.”1 Few at the time dissented from Cowley's assessment, and many—some of them prominent writers—agreed.2 By now, however, as critic Harriette Andreadis remarked in 1989, the...

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Arlene Stiebel (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stiebel, Arlene. “Subversive Sexuality: Masking the Erotic in Poems by Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn.” In Renaissance Discourses of Desire, edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, pp. 223-36. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Stiebel argues that Philips and Aphra Behn employed conventions of the day to protect their respectability while professing their homosexuality.]

Although in recent discourses of desire there has been polite acknowledgment of the importance of relationships among women, much contemporary literary theory and criticism ignores the existence of lesbians.1 Critics tell us that...

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Kathleen M. Swaim (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Swaim, Kathleen M. “Matching the ‘Matchless Orinda’ to Her Times.” In 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era. Vol. 3, edited by Kevin L. Cope, pp. 77-108. New York: AMS Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Swaim compares Philip's poetry with verse by John Milton and John Donne to analyze her unique contribution to English literature.]

Among the most prominent names that literary archaeology into England's earliest women writers has brought forward is that of Katherine Philips (1631/2-64), whose engaging sobriquet, “The Matchless Orinda,” offers a quick glance into the drawing-rooms of a lost cultural moment. Her...

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Stella P. Revard (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Revard, Stella P. “Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, and the Female Pindaric.” In Representing Women in Renaissance England, edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, pp. 227-41. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Revard compares critiques by male contemporaries of Philips and Aphra Behn.]

In 1683, Triumphs of Female Wit appeared on the London scene, a slender volume that contained three Pindaric odes and a “Preface to the Masculine Sex” defending the right of women to pursue learning and most especially to use their wit to compose poetry. The first ode, “The Emulation,” purports to be “Written by...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Easton, Celia A. “Excusing the Breach of Nature's Laws: The Discourse of Denial and Disguise in Katherine Philips’ Friendship Poetry.” Restoration: Studies in English Literature Culture, 1660–1700, 14, no. 1 (spring 1990): 1–14.

Associates Philips's strategies of political disguise and sexual repression with her exploration of poetic language.

Evans, Robert C. “Paradox in Poetry and Politics: Katherine Philips in the Interregnum.” In The English Civil Wars in the Literary Imagination, edited by Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, pp. 174-85. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.


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