One of the questions raised by today's LHMP post is, "What does it meant to identify a poem or a poet as 'lesbian'?" especially in an era with different categories and expectations than our own. I raised a similar question in yesterday's blog about queer characters in historical fiction. When we write a character in a historic setting, we're telling two stories: the story of how that character relates to the past, and the story of how that character relates to present-day readers. When the character and the readers fit into cultural defaults (e.g., straight, white, middle-to-upper class, and usually male) the necessary distinctions between those two stories are not as often challenged as when either character or readers are marginalized. If someone had written a study of Katherine Phillips that presented the passionate expressions in her poetry as nothing more than metaphor, and her relationships with women as simply very close friendships, they would not feel the need to proclaim, "Katherine Phillips, Straight Poet".
Fiction is a great way to break through those quiet assumptions about the past, which is why I'm once again going to plug the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle as a great way to enjoy both rip-roaring adventures and non-default characters. (You knew I was going to find a way to do that, didn't you?)
Hobby, Elaine. 1991. “Katherine Philips: Seventeenth-Century Lesbian Poet” in Hobby, Elaine & Chris White (eds). What Lesbians do in Books. Women’s Press, London.
I rather suspect that Hobby is being deliberately provocative in calling Katherine Philips a "lesbian poet", but it certainly caught my attention to track down when I saw it in a bibligraphy citation.
Hobby looks at the work of 17th century English poet Katherine Philips, and in particular the subset that expresses sentiments of deep emotional attachment to women that could reasonably be classified as erotic, though never in an overtly sexual manner.
Philips was married at age 15 to a 54-year old widower, and in the subsequent 18 years before her death of smallpox, produced large quantities of poetry, some of which was published during her lifetime. Like many of her contemporary poets, she wrote using a classically inspired “persona” name, Orinda, and addressed poems to friends by similar aliases (especially Anne Owen, who became Lucasia in the poems), which may in part of diffused concerns about the emotional intensity of the content.
Hobby begins with a general historic background of the English restoration era (mid 17th century), focusing on progressive social and religious movements, including ones that supported women’s professional partnerships. These partnerships were often expressed in romantic language. The purpose to this introduction seems to be to establish the normalcy is such emotional expressions in public discourse. This discussion moves on into a consideration of the relationship between non-sexual emotional bonds and erotic desire, when they intersect in conventional literary expressions.
In this, she challenges Lillian Faderman’s interpretation that pre-modern women did not consider their passionate feelings for other women to be sexual in nature and therefore did not act on them. Hobby notes [and I’ll discuss this in more detail when I eventually cover Faderman’s work] that this position erases the shifting nature of perceptions of women’s sexuality in general over time, which certainly does not support a blanket assertion that pre-modern women did not consider anything other than penetrative heterosexual intercourse to be “sexual.” Hobby’s position is that while one cannot assume that the erotic nature of the language used by Philips and her contemporaries is proof that they had sexual relations with each other, neither can one presume that such a possibility is out of the question. Hobby also spends a paragraph challenging Foucault’s position that a concept of “homosexual identity” is a modern invention.
As evidence, she adduces historical cases such as Greta von Mösskirch (16th c Germany), where contemporary commentary runs through several possible explanations for Greta’s erotic desire for women, including physiology, astrology, and bad morals. Also noted is the 17th c. medical treatise by Jane Sharp, which acknowledges erotic practices between women but situates it as a foreign practice.
As the title of this article indicates, Hobby is specifically concerned with identifying Philips’s work as having “lesbian” content. Philips’s contemporaries who published her work took some care to assert her “virtue,” while overtly comparing her to Sappho. While the comparison may have been intended to speak only to Sappho’s reputation as a poet, the two bodies of work share the characteristic of using the structures and tropes of heterosexual love poetry in contexts where both the lover and beloved are unmistakably female. Modern criticism of Philips’s poetry veers between asserting her lesbianism and proclaiming her expressions to be purely Platonic. Each position derives from different framings and omissions of the evidence.
The remainder of the article consists of close readings of several of the most overtly erotic of her poems, including “Orinda to Lucasia” (which could be read either as a love poem, or as a monarchist allegory), “Orinda to Lucasia Parting, October 1661, at London” (a poem commemorating a specific separation from her close friend Anne Owen), “Injuria Amicitiae”, “Friendship’s Mystery” (celebrating the joys of social equals in love), “To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship” (an intense expression of Philips’s experience of their bond).
At least one of the members of Philips’s circle acknowledged the lesbian sensibility of her poetry, in a coded verse contributed as a preface to the 1667 edition of Philips’s work. The myth of Apollo and Daphne is used to imply that the laurels that Apollo took by force to represent poetic excellence (Daphne turned into a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s sexual assault) would be offered freely to Orinda (Philips) and those inspired by her. That is, Daphne rejected Apollo’s sexual advance, but would reward Philips with herself, both body and laurels.