Katherine Philips was one of the first women to become well known as a poet during her own lifetime. Long critically obscure, in more recent years her work has begun to be appreciated, in particular for its vivid depiction of female friendships.
Early life, marriage and political sympathies
Philips was born in London into a Presbyterian merchant family with strong Puritan and Parliamentarian connections. She was ten when the English Civil Wars broke out. Educated at home, she was a precocious child, particularly devoted to Bible study, and from the age of eight to 15 attended a girls’ boarding school in Hackney.
After moving to Wales with her mother, who had remarried a Pembrokeshire nobleman, Philips herself at the age of 16 married the Welsh landowner and MP James Philips. She lived with him in the small town of Cardigan for the rest of her life (though she visited London on occasion). Despite her family’s and her husband’s Parliamentarian connections, Philips herself appears to have been somewhat of a Royalist sympathiser – or, at least, to have believed that the Parliamentarians took their assault on the king too far. She wrote a poem ‘Upon the double Murther of K. Charles I’ (1651–52), which asks:
What noble eye could see (and careless pass)
That dying Lion kick’d by every Ass?
Has Charles so broke God’s Laws, he must not have
A quiet Crown nor yet a quiet Grave?
Most of Philips’s poetry revolves around the theme of friendship, and of private, personal relationships more generally as a retreat from the tumultuous public sphere. She was at the centre of a literary coterie, a ‘society of friendship’ whose participants wrote letters and poems under assumed names – Philips herself was ‘Orinda’, her friends Anne Owen and Mary Aubrey were ‘Lucasia’ and ‘Rosania’, Philips’s husband James was ‘Antenor’. Despite acknowledging a strong affectionate attachment to her husband, Philips’s most heartfelt words of love in her poems are addressed to her female friends, whose marriages she seems to have feared would lead to the end of their close friendships. When Mary Aubrey married William Montagu, for instance, Philips wrote of the wedding as Aubrey’s ‘Apostacy’ (meaning the abandonment of a religion) from their relationship. And when Anne Owen remarried after being widowed, Philips wrote in a letter that she feared ‘one may generally conclude the Marriage of a Friend to be the Funeral of a Friendship’.
Circulation of Philips’s work in the 17th century
During her lifetime, and by her express wishes, Philips’s work mostly only circulated in manuscript to a known readership. However, one unauthorised edition of her Poems was published in January 1664. Philips died of smallpox only a few months later, at the age of 32. In 1667 another edition of her work was published, this time including a number of poems not printed in 1664, along with her dramatic translation Pompey (from Corneille’s La mort de Pompée) and the unfinished Horace.
Her friend Sir Charles Cotterell, in his preface to the 1667 Poems, remarked that:
... some of [her works] would be no disgrace to the name of any Man that amongst us is most esteemed for his excellency in this kind, and there are none that may not pass with favour, when it is remembered that they fell hastily from the pen but of a woman.
Further information about the life of Katherine Philips can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Tamara Tubb
- Gender and sexuality
Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips both wrote across a range of genres and achieved considerable success in their day. Tamara Tubb explores their different approaches to the difficulties of being a 17th-century female writer: Philips created a reserved and modest literary persona, presenting herself as the ideal woman of the time, while Cavendish openly challenged literary and feminine conventions.