Katherine Philips

Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda

Katherine Philips (1 January 1632 – 22 June 1664) was an Anglo-Welsh poet.



Katherine Philips was the first Englishwoman to enjoy widespread public acclaim as a poet during her lifetime. Born in London, she was daughter of John Fowler, a Presbyterian, and a merchant of Bucklersbury, London. Philips is said to have read the Bible through before she was five years old. Additionally, she acquired remarkable fluency in several languages. She broke with Presbyterian traditions in both religion and politics, and became an ardent admirer of the king and his church policy. In 1647, when she was sixteen, she married a Welsh Parliamentarian named James Philips who was thought to be fifty-four years old. However, it has been proven, by the marriage certificate, that James was actually twenty-four years old.

She attended boarding school from 1640 to 1645 where she began to write verse within a circle of friends and to appreciate French romances and Cavalier plays from which she would later choose many of the pet names she gave members of her Society of Friendship.

The Society of Friendship had its origins in the cult of Neoplatonic love imported from the continent in the 1630s by Charles I’s French wife, Henrietta Maria. Members adopted pseudonyms drawn from French pastoral romances of Cavalier dramas. With wit, elegance, and clarity, Philips dramatized in her Society of Friendship the ideals, as well as the realities and tribulations, of Platonic love. Thus the Society helped establish a literary standard for her generation and Orinda herself as a model for the female writers who followed her. Her home at the Priory, Cardigan, Wales became the centre of the Society of Friendship, the members of which were known to one another by pastoral names: Philips was "Orinda", her husband "Antenor", and Sir Charles Cotterel "Poliarchus". "The Matchless Orinda", as her admirers called her, was regarded as the apostle of female friendship, and inspired great respect. She was widely considered an exemplar of the ideal woman writer: virtuous, proper, and chaste. She was frequently contrasted to the more daring Aphra Behn, to the latter's detriment. Her poems, frequently occasional, typically celebrate the refined pleasures of platonic love. Jeremy Taylor in 1659 dedicated to her his Discourse on the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship, and Cowley, Henry Vaughan the Silurist, the Earl of Roscommon and the Earl of Cork and Orrery all celebrated her talent.

In 1662 she went to Dublin to pursue her husband's claim to certain Irish estates; there she completed a translation of Pierre Corneille's Pompe, produced with great success in 1663 in the Smock Alley Theatre, and printed in the same year both in Dublin and London. Although other women had translated or written dramas, her translation of Pompey broke new ground as the first rhymed version of a French tragedy in English and the first English play written by a woman to be performed on the professional stage. She went to London in March 1664 with a nearly completed translation of Corneille's Horace, but died of smallpox. The literary atmosphere of her circle is preserved in the excellent Letters of Orinda to Poliarchus, published by Bernard Lintot in 1705 and 1709. Poliarchus (Sir Charles Cotterel) was master of the ceremonies at the court of the Restoration, and afterwards translated the romances of La Calprende. Philips had two children, one of whom, Katharine, became the wife of a "Lewis Wogan" of Boulston, Pembrokeshire. According to Gosse, Philips may have been the author of a volume of Female Poems ... written by Ephelia, which are in the style of Orinda, though other scholars have not embraced this attribution.

Literary criticism

There have been speculations about whether, and in what way, her work could be described as "lesbian." Certainly her representations of female friendship are intense, even passionate. She herself always insisted on their platonic nature and characterizes her relationships as the "meeting of souls," as in these lines from "To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship":

For as a watch by art is wound
To motion, such was mine;
But never had Orinda found
A soul till she found thine;

Which now inspires, cures, and supplies,
And guides my darkened breast;
For thou art all that I can prize,
My joy, my life, my rest. (9-16)

Moreover, it has been argued that 'her manipulations of the conventions of male poetic discourse constitute a form of lesbian writing'.[1] However, there are still very many critics who do not think that Philips had homo-erotic tendencies. Instead, she acknowledges three different levels of love. In ascending order they are lustful love, social love, and spiritual love.

Philips is disgusted by physical love and its obsessive nature. She feels that physical love is akin to an affliction and to entrapment. “Lovers like men in fevers burn and rave, /And only what will injure them do crave/…/They give him power by their fear, /And make the shackles which they wear” (4-5, 7-8). As people are so caught up in their lustful desires, they lose the full capabilities of their minds. Love should be something that frees one and allows one to fully grow and develop, but physical love disregards freedom and improvement in order to focus on selfish pleasures.

Social love, as seen in these poems, is not as base as lust, but it does not meet the standard of true love. Philips married a man considered a 'good match' for her. He was a family friend with a wealthy estate, and in 17th century England that constituted a great catch. Unfortunately Philips did not love her husband as much as she loved her friends, but she did have genial feelings toward him. Her poem "To my dearest Antenor" illustrates how this social arrangement can never meet her idea of true love. She says, "each of our Souls did in its temper fit,/ And in the other’s Mould so fashion’d it" (5-6). In these lines the speaker does admit that their souls fit to each other, but she makes in a point to say that she was fit into the other's mould. Her freedom was constricted; her self was changed to meet another person's standard. To the speaker this is not true love, for true love allows one to grow organically instead of being unnaturally formed. Thus, at the end of the poem a riddle is posed to the reader, "So in my Breast thy Picture drawn shall be, / My guide, Life, Object, Friend and Destiny: / And none shal know, though they imploy their wit, / Which is the right Antenor, thou, or it” (35-38). The speaker does not truly believe that the arranged social bond she made was able to turn her lover into her life and destiny. Instead, inside her heart, she paints an idealized picture of a love she will never have.

The truest form of love is the love of friendship. It allows one to fully know one's self, and to truly live. A physical union is not part of this form of love, instead there is a spiritual union. Her poem "To my Excellent Lucasia" illustrates this ephemeral love. Philip writes of one of her best friends, Anne Owen, “I am not thine, but Thee./…/But never had Orinda found/ A Soul till she found thine” (4, 11-12). Lucasia is no longer a separate being, but a part of her. She is a mirror of her soul; they share one soul. In choosing her friend, she finds the most perfect and complete love: an extension of self in Lucasia. Mark Llewellyn shows that the image portrayed by the speaker is “stripped of all sensual appetite, could become the pathway to apprehension of, and eventually mystic union with, divine love and beauty” (447). Harriette Andreadis says, “friendship here is no less than the mingling of souls, the intimacy of hearts joined in secret and holding each other's secrets, sublimely elevating the friends to such ecstasies that they pity the mundane pleasures and powers of worldly rulers” (529). The speaker conveys her complete fulfillment in her friend by saying, “No Bridegrooms not Crown-conquerors mirth / To mine compar’d can be:/ They have but pieces of this Earth, / I’ve all the World in thee” (19-24). There is nothing physical in her joy at having this woman as her friend. As Claudia Limbert notes, “the tone—the emotional level—has been turned up to an almost excruciating pitch” (33). Her happiness is so great that it almost reaches pain. The most perfect love combines the heart, mind, and soul; it is a love into which she pours her whole being. It is a love where one’s whole identity is blurred with another, so much that to separate would be like ripping oneself apart; after finding such a love one will never be the same again.

Her poetry shows the readers that love is deeper and more meaningful than objectification of the flesh. Katherine Philips found herself in her friends; they were not only her source of emotional and spiritual comfort, they were her essential support in critical literary analysis and social participation. These poems, when published, allowed the public to see the extent to which some women took comfort in each other, and how a circle of friends helped cultivate each other’s literary skill (Trolander and Tenger). In her friends she found her true loves; in her husband she found a friend.


  1. ^ Harriette Andreadis, 'The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips, 1632-1664', Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1989. Volume 15, number 1, page 59.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • "Philips, Katherine." The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. Claire Buck, ed. New York: Prentice Hall, 1992. 911.
  • "Philips, Katherine." British Women Writers: a critical reference guide. Janet Todd, ed. London: Routledge, 1989. 537-538.
  • "Philips, Katherine." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Renaissance and the Early Seventeenth Century Vol 2. Joseph Black, ed. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2006. 785-786.


  • Edmund Gosse, Seventeenth Century Studies (1883).
  • Poems, By the Incomparable Mrs K. P. appeared surreptitiously in 1664 and an authentic edition in 1667.
  • Matthew, H. C. G., and B. Harrison, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Web.
  • Limbert, Claudia A. “Katherine Philips: Controlling a Life and Reputation.” South Atlantic Review 56.2 (1991): 27-42.
  • Llewellyn, Mark. "Katherine Philips: friendship, poetry and neo-platonic thought in seventeenth century England." Philological Quarterly 81.4 (2002): 441+. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 Mar. 2010.
  • Stone Stanton, Kamille. “‘Panting Sentinels’: Erotics, Politics and Redemption in the Friendship Poetry of Katherine Philips.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. [ISSN: 1557-0290] Vol. 38. Fall, 2007, pp. 71-86.

--“‘Capable of Being Kings’: The Influence of the Cult of King Charles I on the Early Modern Women’s Literary Canon.” New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century. [ISSN: 1544-9009] Vol 5.1. Spring, 2008, pp. 20-29.

  • Trolander, Paul and Zeynep. Tenger. “Katherine Philips and Coterie Critical Practices.” Eighteenth-Century Studies. 37.3 (2004): 367-387.
  • Robinson, David Michael. "Pleasant conversation in the seraglio: lesbianism, platonic love, and Cavendish's Blazing World." Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 44 (2003): 133+. Academic OneFile.

External links

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