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.
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.
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.
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.