“Let Us Speak Our Love”: Romance and Eroticism in the Lyric Friendship Poetry of Katherine Phillips

By: Shannon Neal.

Written as part of an independent study based on research conducted with Professor Elena Deanda, of the Modern Languages department, at the British Library in the summer of 2017.


Seventeenth century poet Katherine Philips (1632-1664) is well known as foundational in the tradition of poetry written between women. Her lyric romantic friendship poems have provided an outlet for the expression of passionate feelings of love between women, as they contain a rich emotional depth and underlying sensuality. In the heteropatriarchal seventeenth century society that Philips lived in, explicit and unambiguous treatment of eroticism between women was out of the question. Philips surmounted this obstacle by drawing on the literary conventions of heterosexual love poetry and Platonic friendship. These elements working in Philips’ poetry allowed that an otherwise subversive physical and sensual language of love could be masked by the assertion that she is only referring to a metaphysical ecstasy of souls. Philips’ romantic friendship poems contain clear eroticism and intense emotions that stem from a real place in Philips’ life. With an understanding of the context behind its nature as subtext, it is thus necessary to stress the eroticism in her poetry in order to unveil its full depth and beauty.

Much of Philips’ works are dedicated to and centered around a circle of close like- minded poets and thinkers from London and Wales where she lived with her much older husband James Philips. She established the group and acted as its driving force of inspiration, identifying this literary circle as a “society of friendship”.[1]Members of this Society were given pastoral names derived from the classical world to refer to each other in their poems and letters. Philips herself chose the name Orinda, hence the complimentary title of “the Matchless Orinda” with which her devotees addressed her.[2]Within this society Philips drew inspiration for her poetry from the passionate relationships she had with her close female friends. First there was Mary Aubrey who was referred to in Philips’ poetry with the name Rosania. After Aubrey married, became Mrs. Montague, and failed to continue the intensity of her relationship with Philips, she was replaced in Philips’ affections by Anne Owen who was given the name Lucasia.

Philips’ literary works were well received within this society and prompted others in the society to write works in response to create dialogues. One such example is Francis Finch, who wrote a treatise titled “Friendship” (1653/54) addressed to A. O. (Anne Owen) that celebrated the perfect friendship between Lucasia and Orinda.[3]Within the dedication of his treatise Finch, whose coterie name was Palæmon, even went so far as to link their coterie names together as Lucasia-Orinda with a dash, so as to present the two as a pair wholly unified by their love, a theme that appears in much of Philips’ friendship poems.[4]In her response to Finch’s treatise, “To the noble Palæmon, on his incomparable Discourse of Friendship,” Philips likens the effect of his words on the merits of friendship to a “Light more welcome far/ Then wand’ring Sea-men think the Northern-star.”[5]This metaphor in which light represents a guiding force of good will be adapted later by a different poet in a preface written in honor of Philips, demonstrating how ideas flowed and formed among the members of the society of friendship. The celebration of female romantic friendship in Philips’ literary circle demonstrates how extensively both her artistic and personal life were centered around her relationships with women.

In the literary world prior to Philips, the idea of friendship between same sex individuals bordered on the religious or the philosophical, but was primarily focused on male friendships. This understanding of male same sex love was deeply based on classical ideas of Platonism, and inspired the creation of numerous homoerotic texts. The celebration of friendship among men made by the prominent male authors of the Renaissance routinely excluded women either by lack of care or on purpose.[6]In Platonism, perfect love held between two individuals necessitated an equality of mind and status, and in a patriarchal world those requirements were met between men, but not between women. In a heteronormative mindset, the social status and mental capacity of women were seen as lesser than men’s and thus women were excluded from the possibility of taking part in a metaphysical friendship. Michel de Montaigne’s famous essay “On Friendship” further exemplifies this notion. His essay paints women as being unable to have true friendships with men as they are incapable of reaching the pure emotional depths of men’s friendships with each other. Furthermore, Montaigne dismisses the possibility for women to share such friendships between themselves.[7]

Philips was the first woman to successfully establish in the early modern literary world the existence of such intense friendships between women. Her work directly led to a rise in romantic friendship poems between women after her publication. Major writers in the second half of the seventeenth century, such as Aphra Behn, Jane Barker, and Anne Finch, named Philips as an influence.[8]Male homoeroticism had long held a place in literature and society that seemingly did not threaten heterosexuality and therefore could relatively safely exist. Philips’ friendship lyrics created a similar place for female same-sex erotics. Harriette Andreadis has eloquently summed up the impact of Philips’ poetry by saying that: “it was Katherine Philips who established the model of an eroticized female friendship that set a precedent and¼established a tradition and a discourse for the expression of passions not otherwise given voice.”[9]

Romantic friendship as a social practice and as a poetic tradition needed to present itself as celibate in order to prevent suspicion and to provide a justifiable alternative to heterosexual marriage.[10]However, this self-awareness of public image did not inhibit an underlying element of eroticism. Throughout Philips’ poetry, the discussion of spiritual friendship uses sensual language that echoes the more explicit love poems of her contemporary male writers. That sensual language in Philips’ poetry; however, was framed as belonging to a discussion of something unrelated to the body. Hiding behind the ideals of Platonism, in which sensuality and intense love could be masked as an over pouring of spiritual ecstasy, Philips’ works could appear nontransgressive. Through this, Philips successfully removed herself from the suspicion of “deviancy” and was still able to express the physicality present in her relationships with women.[11]

Despite the protection afforded by subtext and the Platonic ideal of friendship, the potential for discovering transgressive same sex eroticism in Philips’ works did not go unnoticed by her contemporaries. As the first female English poet to appropriate male heterosexual poetic mores for the purpose of writing about relations between women, Philips was unsurprisingly often compared to Sappho, and was even identified in the preface to Poems (1667) as “the English Sappho.”[12]To appease all the fears introduced by the comparison that Philips could share in the known same sex inclinations of Sappho, those that made the comparison went to lengths to describe Philips as virtuous and pure, using the very language of Philips’ own poetry to justify their assurances of Philips’ moral purity.[13]This tendency is exemplified in the portion of the preface to Poems. By the Incomparable Mrs. K[atherine] P[hilips] (1664) written by Abraham Cowley:

“They talk of Sappho, but, alas! the shame
I’th’ manners soil the lustre of her fame.
Orinda‘s inward Vertue is so bright,
That, like a Lantern’s fair enclosed light,
It through the Paper shines where she doth write.
Honour and Friendship, and the gen’rous scorn
Of things for which we were not born,”[14]

Cowley, along with many others writing at the time, cannot separate Sappho’s writings from the “shame” of taking part in “things for which we were not born,” and therefore sees her renown as soiled.[15]The thinly veiled language here positions such erotic same-sex relations as being both deserving of derision and as the antithesis of what is held within the poetry of Philips. The metaphor that describes Orinda’s virtue as a light that shines through the paper on which she writes echoes the metaphor used by Philips herself in her earlier discussed poetic response to Francis Finch, “To the noble Palæmon, on his incomparable Discourse of Friendship,” in which the words Finch uses to describe the friendship between Lucasia-Orinda are compared to a guiding light. Undoubtedly, Cowley was familiar with Philips’ use of the light metaphor in her poem prior to his writing a commendatory preface to a collection in which the poem appeared.

For Philips, maintaining the virtuous reputation of her poetry and herself, or what Bronwen Price calls “Philips’ rhetoric of innocence,” was vital. It was precisely her ability to express through poetry her erotic and romantic feelings for women in a subtle way that kept her free from persecution.[16]Without the threat of suspicion, Philips could travel with her friends while benefiting from the goodwill and tolerance of her husband. Her society of friendship was

tantamount both to her life and her poetry, and took up the large part of Philips’ adult life. Philip Webster Souers, who wrote the biography The Matchless Orinda (1931), discusses how highly Philips was held in regard in contrast to “Mrs. Behn and her fellows” who he dismissively claims “corrupted the position in literature that Orinda had made for women.”[17]The rhetoric of innocence employed so expertly by Philips ensured that her virtuous reputation would remain the “ideal” for women writers whereas those women writers who came after her and did not disguise their transgressive subject matters were torn down by critics on a moral basis.

A poem of parting between Orinda and Lucasia, titled “Parting with Lucasia, a Song” demonstrates Philips’ use of the conventions of Platonic friendship poetry to safely express the physical. The first two stanzas read:

“Well, we will do that rigid thing
Which makes Spectators think we part;
Though Absence hath for none a sting
But those who keep each others heart.

And when our Sense is dispossesst,
Our laboring Souls will heave and pant,
And gasp for one anothers breast,
Since their Conveyances they want.”[18]

In these stanzas, the pain caused by physical absence from each other is identified as something spiritual and unrelated to the physical realm. However, that pain is described using the language of physicality or, more precisely of physical pain. Instead of sorrow or emotional turmoil, what Lucasia and Orinda feel when parted is a “sting”. This continues in the following stanza with startling powerful physical language. The imagery of heaving, panting, and gasping for anothers breast has clear sensual and erotic undertones. Claiming that it is their souls who carry out these actions for the mere reward of “conveyances” protects Philips from censure.

This is not to say that the romantic connection of their souls is an unimportant element of the poem. The underlying eroticism in this poem is enriched by its emotional depth. Further in the poem, as Philips elaborates on the temporary necessity of their parting, one of the only uses of the pronoun “I” occurs. “Yet I must go: we will submit/ and so our own Disposers be” she states.[19]Throughout the six-stanza poem, Philips only refers to herself as a separate individual twice, every other pronoun used is the collective “we”. In the line, even her individual motion to “go” is immediately subsumed by the following words “we will submit.” Through this, her separation is reimagined as a shared action. The inability in the language of the poem to conceive of Lucasia and Orinda as two separate beings heightens the reader’s sense of how truly painful it is for the two to part. Despite this despairing tone, the poem ends on a triumphant note. After parting and later returning to each other, Philips writes, “we can be Conquerors at home… /Since we our passions have subdu’d, /Which is the strongest thing I know.”[20]Once again, clearly physical and erotic language is used under the guise of spiritual union. Here the poem leaves off just at the point where by coming back together, Lucasia and Orinda’s previously subdued passions may now be realized.

Philips’ society of friendship provided her with a place to safely legitimize her relationships with women, through the means of poetic convention. Circling her works amongst the members of her coterie Philips was able to voice her love for first Mary Aubrey and later Anne Owen through the convention of lyric friendship poetry to the point that her works were praised by those around her. The ability to publicly give voice to the feelings that Philips held for the one she loved, was of obvious importance to her. The end of her relationship with Aubrey, resulting from Aubrey’s marriage, caused Philips to suffer a great deal from the loss. This suffering can be seen in her poem “To Rosania (now Mrs. Montague) being with her, 25th September 1652”. Written after her marriage, the poem mourns the end of the friendship they once shared and discusses parting and absence with a much different tone than in the previously discussed poem “Parting with Lucasia, a Song,” for in this instance, the parting promised no reuniting. The last three stanzas in this poem show the pain and bitterness Philips experienced:

“Divided Rivers lose their name;
And so our too unequal flame
Parted, will passion be in me,
And an indifference in thee.

Thy absence I could easier find
Provided thou wert well, and kind,
Than such a presence as this is,
Made up of snatches of my bliss.

So when the Earth long gasps for rain,
If she at last some few drops gain,
She is more parched than at first;
That small recruit increased the Thirst.”[21]

In these stanzas, a sense of loss, betrayal, and bitterness comes across strongly. Separated by marriage, Philips suggests that similar to how “divided rivers lose their name” Rosania and Orinda have also lost a central part of their identities: their love. The effect of Rosania’s intermittent and increasing absence on Orinda is discussed using “sexually resonant” metaphors of water and fire that suggest an erotic element in this poem.[22]Orinda’s loss of time with Rosania has reduced instances of Orinda’s fulfilled “bliss” to intermittent “snatches” that ultimately result in a worsening drought. The Earth “that long gasps for rain” stands in for Orinda’s soul, but may just as well represent her body. The use of a water metaphor to refer to bliss or lack thereof in a woman has a clear element of eroticism that is once again safely framed as a particularly vibrant rhetoric of spiritual platonic love.

After Aubrey’s loss Philips’ desire for a relatively public and legitimate relationship with Owen is understandable. In the poem “To my Lucasia, in defense of declared Friendship” Philips expresses that desire. The very first stanza of the poem perfectly articulates Philips’ feelings on the matter:

“O My Lucasia, let us speak our Love,
And think not that impertinent can be,
Which to us both doth such assurance prove,
And whence we find how justly we agree.”[23]

It cannot be a bad thing, Philips argues, for the two to announce their love and to hear each other confirm its existence. Following the first stanza, the poem touches on the origin of the relationship, and establishes the importance, strength, and value of it. With that introduction as a foundation, Philips then builds an argument on the need to speak their love that is steeped in emotion, poetic convention, and subtle eroticism.

In 1662, Anne Owen married a man named Marcus Trevor and despite the fact that Philips’ tried incredibly hard to preserve her relationship with Owen, even by accompanying the newly married couple to Dublin, she was unable to retain her.[24]In the letters that Philips wrote during this time to her friend, the Honourable Lady Berenice, she expresses the pain caused by Owen’s increasing absence. In one letter she writes:

“I have suffered, you will rather wonder that I write at all, then that I have not written in a week, when you shall hear that my Dear Lucasia by a strange unfortunate Sickness of her Mother’s hath been kept from me, for three Weeks longer than I expected, and is not yet come: I have had some difficulty to live.”[25]

This letter and others, unambiguously demonstrate that the intensity of emotions that Philips felt for Owen were not simply a dramaticized poetic invention. There was a real-life basis for the emotions contained in Philips’ poetry. The separation from Owen as well as financial and political troubles that wracked James Philips after the interregnum tainted her final years with an atmosphere of gloom preceding her death by smallpox in 1664.[26]

Katherine Philips’ truest legacy first lies in the numerous poems she wrote expressing the joys, sorrows, and passions found in her relationships with women, of which a much greater number were joyous than sorrowful, and secondly in the open door she left to future women through which they would step into the literary world. An understanding of the history of early modern poetry between women explains why readings of Philips’ friendship lyrics should not overlook, efface, or discount her poetry’s underlying eroticism. Readings of Philips’ poetry that claim, as Lillian Faderman does, that Philips “uses the language of erotic love when she is really writing about a spiritual union” fail to consider why Philips could not be obvious or explicit with the handling of eroticism in her poems.[27]Poems between women by necessity could not be explicitly sexual, as that would be dangerous to the women involved. Instead, Philips’ romantic friendship poetry expertly drew on conventions of heterosexual love poetry and philosophical Platonism in order to express eroticism and real feelings of love for other women in forms that were nontransgressive and celebratory. Ignoring or refusing to acknowledge the expression of female same sex eroticism and romantic love in Philips’ lyric poems dangerously allows the antiquated heteronormative rhetoric of the seventeenth century to maintain control over our current understanding of her poems, poems that laid the foundation of the modern tradition of poetry between women. By affording recognition to the elements of eroticism and romantic love in her poetry, and by understanding the historical and biographical context in which she wrote, readers and critics can experience a greater depth and beauty in Katherine Philips’ incomparable works of art.

 

Bibliography


Andreadis, Harriette. Sappho In Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics

1550-1714. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Cowley, Abraham. Preface to Poems. By the Incomparable Mrs. K[atherine] P[hilips]. London: G. for R. Marriott, 1664.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Quill, William Morrow and Company, 1981.

Fitzmaurice, James and Roberts, Josephine. Major Women Writers of Seventeenth-Century England. University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Hageman, Elizabeth H. “Katherine Philips: The Matchless Orinda” in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, 566-608. University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Hiscock, W. G. “Friendship: Francis Finch’s Discourse and the Circle of the Matchless Orinda.” The Review of English Studies 15, no. 60 (1939): 466-68.

Oulton, Carolyn. Romantic Friendship in Victorian Literature. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

Philips, Katherine. “Letters.” In Familiar Letters, written by … John late Earl of Rochester, and several other persons of honour and quality. With letters… by… T. Otway, and Mrs. K. Philips… With other modern letters, by T. Cheek, Esq., Mr. Dennis and Mr. Brown, edited by John Wilmot Rochester. London, 1697.

Philips, Katherine. “To Rosania (now Mrs Montague) being with her, 25th September 1652” in Poems Between Women: Four Centuries of Love, Romantic Friendship, and Desire, ed. Emma Donoghue, 1-3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Philips, Katherine. Poems. By the Incomparable Mrs. K[atherine] P[hilips]. London: J. G. for R. Marriott, 1664.

Price, Bronwen. “A Rhetoric of Innocence: The Poetry of Katherine Philips, ‘The Matchless Orinda’,” in Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints, edited by Barbara Smith and Ursula Appelt, 223-246. Ashgate, 2001.

Souers, Philip Webster.The Matchless Orinda, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931.

Trolander, Paul, and Zeynep Tenger. “Katherine Philips and Coterie Critical Practices.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 37, no. 3 (2004): 367-87.

Wright, Gillian. Producing Women’s Poetry, 1600-1730: Text and Paratext, Manuscript and Print. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[1]Harriette Andreadis, Sappho In Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550-1714, 57.

[2]Philip Webster Souers, The Matchless Orinda, 3.

[3]W. G. Hiscock “Friendship: Francis Finch’s Discourse and the Circle of the Matchless Orinda,” 466.

[4]W. G. Hiscock “Friendship: Francis Finch’s Discourse and the Circle of the Matchless Orinda,” 466.

[5]Katherine Philips, Poems. By the Incomparable Mrs. K[atherine] P[hilips], 29.

[6]Lillian Faderman.Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, 65-66.

[7]Harriette Andreadis, Sappho In Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550-1714, 65.

[8]Gillian Wright, Producing Women’s Poetry, 1600-1730, 98.

[9]Harriette Andreadis, Sappho In Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550-1714, 103.

[10]Carolyn Oulton, Romantic Friendship in Victorian Literature, 6.

[11]Bronwen Price, “A Rhetoric of Innocence: The Poetry of Katherine Philips, ‘The Matchless Orinda’,” in Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints, 238.

[12]Harriette Andreadis, Sappho In Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550-1714, 78.

[13]Harriette Andreadis, Sappho In Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550-1714, 79.

[14]Abraham Cowley, Preface to Poems. By the Incomparable Mrs. K[atherine] P[hilips], n.p.

[15]Abraham Cowley, Preface to Poems. By the Incomparable Mrs. K[atherine] P[hilips], n.p.

[16]Bronwen Price, “A Rhetoric of Innocence: The Poetry of Katherine Philips, ‘The Matchless Orinda’,” in Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints, 229.

[17]Philip Webster Souers, The Matchless Orinda, 3.

[18]Katherine Philips, “Parting with Lucasia, a Song,” in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, 595.

[19]Katherine Philips, “Parting with Lucasia, a Song,” in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, 595.

[20]Katherine Philips, “Parting with Lucasia, a Song,” in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, 596.

[21]Katherine Philips “To Rosania (now Mrs Montague) being with her, 25th September 1652,” in Poems Between Women: Four Centuries of Love, Romantic Friendship, and Desire, 3.

[22]Bronwen Price, “A Rhetoric of Innocence: The Poetry of Katherine Philips, ‘The Matchless Orinda’,” in Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints, 238.

[23]Katherine Philips, Poems. By the Incomparable Mrs. K[atherine] P[hilips], 165.

[24]James Fitzmaurice, Major Women Writers of Seventeenth-Century England, 180.

[25]Katherine Philips, “Letters,” in “Familiar Letters, written by … John late Earl of Rochester, and several other persons of honour and quality. With letters… by… T. Otway, and Mrs. K. Philips… With other modern letters, by T. Cheek, Esq., Mr. Dennis and Mr. Brown,” 144.

[26]Paul Trolander, “Katherine Philips and Coterie Critical Practices,” 369; James Philips had been a prominent parliamentarian during Cromwell’s years in power while Katherine Philips remained a staunch royalist. He quickly lost prestige after the interregnum.

[27]Lillian Faderman.Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, 71.

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