by Erica Lopez
Katherine Philips was a royalist poet and translator of the seventeenth century. She was most known for her “coterie poetry” and the translations of two French works into English. Most of her poems were written about her friendships, her family and the royal court. Katherine wrote somewhere between 120-130 poems, translated two plays by Pierre Corneille and a few other French and Italian works before her blossoming literary career was cut short due to an early death, at the age of 32 (Hageman). Katherine founded The Society of Friendship which was a group of her close writer friends, mostly women, who proclaimed allegiance ideals of Neoplatonic Love and the members used pseudonyms from classical literature for their names like Lucasia and Rosania. Katherine herself was called Orinda and wrote many of her works under this pen name (Cooley). Most of her poems were published after her death around 1667 by Sir Charles Cotterell. Many of her followers and critics referred to her as “The Matchless Orinda.” She is believed to be one of England’s first women of letters (Buckingham).
Katherine Fowler Philips was born on January 1, 1632 in London. Her father, John Fowler, was a cloth merchant who died very early in Katherine’s childhood. Her mother, also named Katherine, married twice after the death of John Fowler. At a very young age, Katherine was an avid reader and had an excellent memory (Buckingham 270). She read the entire Bible and quoted many verses by memory (Buckingham 269). After her father died, Katherine was sent to an all-girls boarding school in Hackney where she learned French and became quite fluent in the language (Buckingham 270). It was during her mother’s second marriage that Katherine met and was married off to James Philips who is believed to be the cousin of her step-father, Sir Richard Phillipps. It is believed that James was 54 years-old when he married Katherine who was only 16 years of age at the time (Butler). Katherine gave birth to two children with James, a daughter named Katherine and a son named Hector. Hector died shortly after birth, and he is the subject of some of her most arresting works, such as “Epitaph”. Katherine was raised with Presbyterian beliefs but later became a Royalist and her husband James was a Parliamentarian. Despite the age difference and political beliefs, the couple shared a happy marriage until her death, from Smallpox, in 1664 (Hageman).
A Married State
Katherine began most of her writing after she married, however, some believe that she may have written “A Married State” prior to her marriage to James. In this poem, she gives an account of what marriage means to her and she warns readers not to marry which was an unconventional and controversial view at the time—especially as voiced by a woman (Prince). The poem has no stanzas, it is 16 lines total with 8 sets of rhyming couplets and has an iambic pentameter (Prince).
Upon the Double Murder of King Charles
Katherine wrote this poem after King Charles I was executed for high treason by Parliament. It is believed that James Philips, Katherine’s husband may have been one of the witnesses to sign the death warrant for King Charles (Butler). Katherine wrote this poem as a response to Vavasor Powell who was a Nonconformist preacher and writer (Cramp). She tells of how King Charles’ death is not only a physical death but also the defamation of his character (a “death” of legacy and reputation as well). Most women during this time would not typically speak about politics, much less write about them. Katherine Philips was one of the first women in literature to freely write about political issues.
Friendship’s Mystery, To My Dearest Lucasia
Katherine wrote this poem to her friend Lucasia who was actually Anne Owen, a member of The Society of Friendship a correspondence group that Katherine founded in 1651 (Cooley). Half of her poems were written to Lucasia so many believe that they may have had a more romantic or sexual relationship. Katherine denied there being any other relationship between the two except a platonic one (Cooley). The poem has many religious references and the theme based on friendship (“Friendship’s”). The poem is written in the style of the English Quintain, it is written in eight-syllable tetrameters with six five-line stanzas with a rhyming scheme of a. b. a. b. b (“Friendship’s”).
On The Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips
Katherine wrote this poem after the death of her firstborn child Hector. Although infant death was prevalent during this time, Katherine needed to express the emotions she was feeling. Writing can be cathartic for many people and this was one of the ways that she was able to cope with the loss of her child.
Buckingham, Elinor M. “The Matchless Orinda.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 10, no. 3, 1902, pp. 269–284. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27530497. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.
Butler, John. “The Life of Katherine Philips.” Luminarium. www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/philips. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.
Cooley, Ron. “Katherine Philips” University of Saskatchewan, 08 June 1998. www.usask.ca/english/phoenix/philipsbio.htm. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.
Cramp, J. M. “Vavasor Powell.” Baptist History, 1871. baptisthistoryhomepage.com/powell.vavasor.html. 24 Oct. 2019.
“Friendship’s Mystery, To my Dearest Lucasia.” WordPress, n.d. enl3501g1.wordpress.com/friendships-mystery-to-my-dearest-lucasia-annotated/ Accessed 24 Oct. 2020.
Hageman, Elizabeth H. “Katherine Philips.” Poetry Foundation, n.d. www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/katherine-philips. Accessed 24 Oct. 2020.
Prince, Nicole. “Katherine Philips’ “A Married State,” British Literature, 28 March 2019, nprince.home.blog/2019/03/28/march-28-2019. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.
- In what ways do you think Katherine was an influential poet of her time? Who would you compare her to now?
- Why do you think The Society of Friendship members used pen names amongst their group?
- How would you characterize Katherine’s friendship with Lucasia? Do you think there was more to their friendship?
- Why do you think Katherine’s poems were published after her death and not while she was still alive?
- In her poem to Hector, why do you think Katherine chose to put parentheses around “sweet babe” and “ah, boy too dear to live!”?
Reading: Katherine Philips’ Poems
A Married State
A married state affords but little ease;
The best of husbands are so hard to please:
This in wives’ careful1 faces you may spell,
Though they dissemble their misfortunes well.
A virgin state is crowned with much content,
It’s always happy as it’s innocent.
No blustering husbands to create your fears,
No pangs of childbirth to extort your tears,
No children’s cries for to offend your ears,
Few worldly crosses to distract your prayers.
Thus are you freed from all the cares that do
Attend on matrimony, and a husband too.
Therefore, Madam, be advised by me:
Turn, turn apostate to love’s levity.
Suppress wild nature if she dare rebel,
There’s no such thing as leading apes in hell.
Upon the Double Murder of King Charles
In answer to a Libelous Rhyme ade by V.P.
I think not on the state, nor am concerned
Which way soever that great helm is turned,
But as that son whose father’s danger nigh
Did force his native dumbness, and untie
His fettered organs: so here is a cause
That will excuse the breach of nature’s laws.
Silence were now a sin: nay passion now
Wise men themselves for merit would allow.
What noble eye could see, (and careless pass)
The dying lion kicked by every ass?
Hath Charles so broke God’s laws, he must not have
A quiet crown, nor yet a quiet grave?
Tombs have been sanctuaries; thieves lie here
Secure from all their penalty and fear.
Great Charles his double misery was this,
Unfaithful friends, ignoble enemies;
Had any heathen been this prince’s foe,
He would have wept to see him injured so.
His title was his crime, they’d reason good
To quarrel at the right they had withstood.
He broke God’s laws, and therefor he must die,
And what shall then become of thee and I?
Slander must follow treason; but yet stay,
Take not our reason with our king away.
Though you have seized upon all our defense,
Yet do not sequester our common sense.
But I admire not at this new supply:
No bounds will hold those who at scepters fly.
Christ will be King, but I ne’er understood,
His subjects built his kingdom up with blood
(Except their own) or that he would dispense
With his commands, though for his own defense.
Oh! to what height of horror are they come
Who dare pull down a crown, tear up a tomb!
Friendship’s Mystery, To my Dearest Lucasia
On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips
Twice forty months in wedlock I did stay,
Then had my vows crowned with a lovely boy.
And yet in forty days he dropped away;
O swift vicissitude of human joy!
I did but see him, and he disappeared,
I did but touch the rosebud, and it fell;
A sorrow unforeseen and scarcely feared,
So ill can mortals their afflictions spell.
And now (sweet babe) what can my trembling heart
Suggest to right my doleful fate or thee?
Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art,
So piercing groans must be thy elegy.
Thus whilst no eye is witness of my moan,
I grieve thy loss (ah, boy too dear to live!)
And let the unconcerned world alone,
Who neither will, nor can refreshment give.
An offering too for thy sad tomb I have,
Too just a tribute to thy early hearse;
Receive these gasping numbers to thy grave,
The last of thy unhappy mother’s verse.
Philips, Katherine. Poems by the Most Deservedly Admired Mrs. Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda. Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1710, is licensed under no known copyright.