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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 50d – 17th Century Poet Katherine Philips

Saturday, September 26, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 177 (previously 50d) - 17th Century Poet Katherine Philips - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/09/26 - listen here)


I’ve been thinking of doing a podcast on Katherine Philips for some time, and was finally inspired to do so by the coverage of Philips in Elizabeth Wahl’s Invisible Relations, which I blogged recently. On a more practical basis, it’s a good time to tackle this subject because I have enough material on Philips summarized in various blog entries that putting together a podcast was only a matter of editing, rather than writing anew.

So why should we be interested in a minor English poet of the 17th century? Other than the fascination of any woman who wrote passionate poetry to her close female friends, Philips is a great example of how debates over applying the label "lesbian" in historic contexts can obscure and distract from studying the actual ways in which same-sex desire was expressed, regardless of label. It does equal damage to the historic reality of Philips’ life to focus on her heterosexual marriage and the question of whether she ever, you know, actually had sex with women, or to focus only on the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry and correspondence, and to dismiss the realities of women's social and economic options outside of marriage, and the possibility that her marriage may have brought her a different sort of satisfaction.


Philips was born into a bourgeois family, the daughter of a wealthy London cloth merchant, but her personal charm and talents bought her entry into court and literary circles. She was raised in Puritan and Parliamentarian households in the era of the English Civil War, but her personal sympathies were royalist. Much of her early poetry was in private circulation among a circle of royalist women, serving both to express her political opinions in carefully coded symbolism, and to maintain bonds of personal intimacy within the group.

She was married at age 16 to a Parliamentarian relative of her stepfather who was 40 years her senior. Full disclosure compels me to note that Wikipedia has a reference suggesting that newer evidence indicates he was only 8 years her senior. Either age difference is plausible in the context of the time, though the larger gap may be more likely. The difference in political sympathies might be expected to have been a source of domestic conflict, but instead proved to have practical advantages for both. Her husband’s loyalties shielded Philips from the consequences of her royalist connections, and she in turn was able to keep the family fortunes intact after the Restoration.

Their differences went beyond the political. Katherine loved London intellectual society while her husband preferred his manor on the west coast of Wales. And though she didn’t disparage her husband, neither does he seem to have been a source of personal satisfaction. Separation from him (and her children) never provoked the anguish that Philips expressed when separated from her female friends.

Poems of Friendship

In her youth, Philips created a “society of friendship” among her female circle that used pastoral nicknames and motifs from Italian and French romances. They may have met together in London or in Wales, as well as by correspondence. Philips herself was “Orinda”. The first of the women Philips addressed poetry to, Regina Collier, was not assigned a classical nickname. But the next two women who feature prominently in her poetry had nicknames. The first was Mary Aubrey, a school friend, assigned the name “Rosania”. After Aubrey’s marriage, she was replaced in Philips’ affections by Anne Owen, known as “Lucasia.” Some of the poems were conventional praise poetry, as in this excerpt from a poem addressed to Rosania.

Rosania Shadowed whilst Mrs. Mary Aubrey

If any could my dear Rosania hate,
They only should her Character relate.
Truth shines so bright there, that an Enemy
Would be a better Orator than I.
Love stifles Language, and I must confess,
I had said more, if I had loved less.
Yet the most critical who that Face see
Will ne'er suspect a partiality.
Others by Time and by Degrees persuade,
But her first Look doth ev'ry Heart invade.
She hath a Face so eminently bright,
Would make a Lover of an Anchorite.

It goes on at some length enumerating Rosania’s charms and attractions.

The more memorable of Philips’ poems address the nature and proper expression of intimate friendship. These poems speak of the union of souls, of the ecstasy of being with the beloved, and of the purity and innocence of their love. If addressed from a man to a woman, there would be no hesitation in classifying them as expressing romantic love. The poems are not simply sentimental expression, but also set forth philosophical arguments for the importance of such love.

The following, titled L’Amitié (The Friend) expresses the sense of oneness that true friendship brings.

L’Amitié: To Mrs. Mary Aubrey

Soul of my Soul, my Joy, my Crown, my Friend,
A name which all the rest doth comprehend;
How happy are we now, whose Souls are grown,
By an incomparable mixture, one:
Whose well-acquainted Minds are now so near
As Love, or Vows, or Friendship can endear?
I have no thought, but what’s to thee reveal’d,
Nor thou desire that is from me conceal’d.
Thy Heart locks up my Secrets richly set,
And my Breast is thy private Cabinet,
Thou shed’st no tear but what my moisture lent,
And if I sigh, it is thy breath is spent.
United thus, what Horrour can appear
Worthy our Sorrow, Anger, or our Fear?
Let the dull World alone to talk and fight,
And with their vast Ambitions Nature fright;
Let them despise so Innocent a Flame,
While Envy, Pride, and Faction play their game:
But we by Love sublim’d so high shall rise,
To pity Kings, and Conquerours despise,
Since we that Sacred Union have engrost,
Which they and all the factious World have lost.

Despite her own marriage, Philips treated the marriages of her romantic friends as a betrayal, writing a poem on the topic of “apostasy” and complaining to a confidante that “the marriage of a friend [is] the funeral of a friendship.” It was the fate of all of Philips’ closest friendships to falter when her friends married and found their time and attention pulled in other directions. Philips considered herself steadfastly devoted and had a hard time forgiving a lesser commitment in others. The following verse reflects a shift in primacy from Rosania to Lucasia (Anne Owen), although Philips had a propensity for writing multiple “farewell to friendship” poems, so this needn’t be seen as marking a specific event.

Rosania’s Apostacy and Lucasia's Friendship

Great Soul of Friendship, whither art thou fled?
Where dost thou now chuse to repose thy Head?
Or art thou nothing but Voice, Air, and Name,
Found out to put Souls in pursuit of Fame?
Thy Flames being thought Immortal, we may doubt
Whether they e'er did burn that see them out.

Go weary'd Soul, find out thy wonted rest,
In the safe Harbour of Orinda’s Breast,
There all unknown Adventures thou hast found
In thy late Transmigrations, expound
That so Rosania's Darkness may be known
To be her want of Lustre, not thy own.

Then to the Great Lucasia have recourse,
There gather up new Excellence and Force,

Many of Philips’ early poems to female friends emphasize the power of love to overcome other competing bonds, such as family and marriage. In “Friendship’s Mysteries” she creates a symbolic equivalence between the bonds of friends and that of marriage, emphasizing the superiority of the former as it allows for free choice of association.

Friendship's Mystery: To my dearest Lucasia

Come, my Lucasia, since we see
That Miracles Mens faith do move,
By wonder and by prodigy
To the dull angry world let’s prove
There’s a Religion in our Love.

For though we were design’d t’ agree,
That Fate no liberty destroyes,
But our Election is as free
As Angels, who with greedy choice
Are yet determin’d to their joyes.

Our hearts are doubled by the loss,
Here Mixture is Addition grown ;
We both diffuse, and both ingross :
And we whose minds are so much one,
Never, yet ever are alone.

We court our own Captivity
Than Thrones more great and innocent :
’Twere banishment to be set free,
Since we wear fetters whose intent
Not Bondage is, but Ornament.

Divided joyes are tedious found,
And griefs united easier grow :
We are our selves but by rebound,
And all our Titles shuffled so,
Both Princes, and both Subjects too.

Our Hearts are mutual Victims laid,
While they (such power in Friendship lies)
Are Altars, Priests, and Off’rings made :
And each Heart which thus kindly dies,
Grows deathless by the Sacrifice.

But the central theme of this podcast comes from the poems that reached beyond the ideals of platonic love to express more deeply personal feelings, as the following.

To My Excellent Lucasia, On Our Friendship

I did not live until this time
Crowned my felicity,
When I could say without a crime,
I am not thine, but thee.

This carcass breathed, and walked, and slept,
So that the world believed
There was a soul the motions kept;
But they were all deceived.

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.

No bridegroom’s nor crown-conqueror’s mirth
To mine compared can be:
They have but pieces of the earth,
I’ve all the world in thee.

Then let our flames still light and shine,
And no false fear control,
As innocent as our design,
Immortal as our soul.

Philips’ work was able to envision a world in which marriage was irrelevant to the important work of creating, celebrating, and maintaining bonds between women. At the same time, those friendships existed within a constant expectation of interruption by the demands of heterosexual marriage. While Philips doesn’t directly complain about her marriage, she gives almost no space in her poetry to her husband and children. She regularly traveled away from her husband to spend time with friends in London or Dublin, and to pursue her literary career, but wrote no sad poems of parting on those occasions.

Contradictions and contrasts come out between her works on abstract friendship, which emphasize mutuality, and those addressed to specific women, which speak in metaphors of conquest and submission. The inherent assertiveness of Philips’ poetic voice is overturned by placing herself in the position of conquered and supplicant. Though it must be kept in mind that Lucasia was of a higher social status, which may sometimes have affected the nature of their friendship and the tone of the verses.

In blending the philosophy of perfect friendship with the supplicatory language of courtly love, Philips’ poems to Lucasia inevitably have a tone of accusation -- that Lucasia is not fulfilling the terms of friendship in leaving Philips unfulfilled. Philips expresses dissatisfaction with a static continuation of their bond and longs for Lucasia’s presence and a public declaration. The neo-Platonic “mingling of souls” on a spiritual level is no longer a sufficient goal. But the linguistic conventions available to her and the practical demands of both their marriages made it difficult to articulate anything beyond frustration and longing, as in this next poem “Injuria Amici” Injury to a friend”.

Injuria Amici

Lovely apostate! what was my offence?
Or am I punish'd for obedience?
Must thy strange rigours find as strange a time?
The act and season are an equall crime
Of what thy most ingenious scorns could doe,
Must I be subject and Spectatour too?

Or were the sufferings and sins too few
To be sustain'd by me, perform'd by you?
Unless (with Nero) your uncurb'd desire
Be to survey the Rome you set on fire
While wounded for and by your power, I
At once your martyr and your prospect dy.

This is my doome, and such a riddling fate
As all impossibles doth complicate:
For obligation here is injury,
Constancy crime, friendship a heresy;
And you appeare so much on ruine bent,
Your own destruction gives you now content:

For our twin-spirits did so long agree,
You must undoe your self to ruine me
And, like some frantique Goddess, you'r inclin'd
To raze the Temple where you were enshrin'd;
And (what's the miracle of Cruelty!)
Kill that which gave you imortallity
Whiles Glorious Friendship, whence your honour springs,
Ly's gasping in the croud of common things;

And I me so odious, that for being kind
Doubled and study'd murders are design'd.
Thy sin's all paradox! for shouldst thou be
Thy self again, 'twould be severe to me;
For thy repentance, comming now so late,
Would onely change, and not relieve the fate
So dangerous is the consequence of ill,
Thy least of crimes is to be Cruell Still;

For of thy smiles I should yet more complain,
If I should live to be betray'd again
Live then (faire tyrant) in Security,
From both my kindness and revenge be free;

While I, who to the Swains had sung your fame,
And taught each Eccho to repeat your name,
Will now my private sorrows entertain,
To Rocks and Rivers (not to you) complain

And though before our Union cherish'd me,
Tis now my pleasure that we disagree;
For from my passion your last rigours grew,
And you kill me, because I worshipp'd you.
But my worst vows shall be your happiness,
And nere to be disturb'd by my distress.

And though it would my sacred flames pollute,
To make my Heart a scorned prostitute;
Yet I'le adore the Authour of my death,
And kiss the hand that robbs me of my breath.

There are hints that Lucasia found Philips’ demands to go beyond what she felt proper or comfortable (or maybe she just “wasn’t that into her”). Far from being “conventional sentimentality” there’s a lot going on in these poems. Philips wanted their love—however they defined it—to be engaged in actively, to be spoken and exchanged, not passively taken for granted, as she argues in “To my Lucasia, in Defence of declared Friendship.”

To my Lucasia, in Defence of declared Friendship

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.

Before we knew the treasures of our Love,
Our noble aims our joys did entertain;
And shall enjoyment nothing then improve?
'Twere best for us then to begin again.

Now we have gain'd, we must not stop, and sleep
Out all the rest of our mysterious reign:
It is as hard and glorious to keep
A victory, as it is to obtain.

Nay, to what end did we once barter Minds,
Onely to know and to neglect the claim?
Or (like some Wantons) our Pride pleasure finds
To throw away the thing at which we aim.

If this be all our Friendship does design,
We covet not enjoyment then, but power:
To our Opinion we our Bliss confine,
And love to have, but not to smell, the flower.

Ah! then let Misers bury thus their Gold,
Who though they starve no farthing wil produce:
But we lov'd to enjoy and to behold,
And sure we cannot spend our stock by use.

Think not 'tis needless to repeat desires;
The fervent Turtles alwayes court and bill,
And yet their spotless passion never tires,
But does increase by repetition still.

Although we know we love, yet while our Soul
Is thus imprisoned by the Flesh we wear,
There's no way left that bondage to controul,
But to convey transactions through the Ear.

Nay, though we reade our passions in the Eye,
It will oblige and please to tell them too:
Such joys as these by motion multiply,
Were 't but to find that our Souls told us true.

Believe not then, that being now secure
Of either's heart, we have no more to doe:
The Spheres themselves by motion do endure,
And they move on by Circulation too.

And as a River, when it once hath paid
The tribute which it to the Ocean owes,
Stops not, but turns, and having curl'd and play'd
On its own waves, the shore it overflows:

So the Soul's motion does not end in bliss,
But on her self she scatters and dilates,
And on the Object doubles still; by this
She finds new joys which that reflux creates.

But then because it cannot all contain,
It seeks a vent by telling the glad news,
First to the Heart which did its joys obtain,
Then to the Heart which did those joys produce.

When my Soul then doth such excursions make,
Unless thy Soul delight to meet it too,
What satisfaction can it give or take,
Thou being absent at the interview?

'Tis not Distrust; for were that plea allow'd,
Letters and Visits all would useless grow:
Love, whose expression then would be its cloud,
And it would be refin'd to nothing so.

If I distrust, 'tis my own worth for thee,
'Tis my own fitness for a love like thine;
And therefore still new evidence would see,
T'assure my wonder that thou canst be mine.

But as the Morning-Sun to drooping Flowers,
As weary Travellers a Shade do find,
As to the parched Violet Evening-showers;
Such is from thee to me a Look that's kind.

But when that Look is drest in Words, 'tis like
The mystick pow'r of Musick's union;
Which when the Finger doth one Viol strike,
The other's string heaves to reflection.

Be kind to me, and just then to your love,
To which we owe our free and dear Converse;
And let not tract of Time wear or remove
It from the privilege of that Commerce.

Tyrants do banish what they can't requite:
But let us never know such mean desires;
But to be grateful to that Love delight
Which all our joys and noble thoughts inspires.

The final break with Lucasia, that is, Anne Owen, came after Owen’s first husband died, when Philips tried unsuccessfully to arrange another marriage for her with one of her own male friends in order to maintain closer ties between them. These covert arrangements and the equally covert negotiations between Owen and the man she did marry broke the implicit contract of their friendship that they would be transparent and honest with each other. Though their friendship continued on a much more subdued level, it was in the context of this break that Philips wrote that “we may generally conclude the marriage of a friend to be the funeral of friendship.” In fairness, the death of the friendship was as much at the hands of Philips’ attempts to orchestrate Owen’s life for her own satisfaction, as by Owen’s choice to marry in conflict with Philips’ wishes. Philips wrote multiple “breakup poems” idealizing their past relationship. The following excerpts are from, “Orinda to Lucasia parting” which is only one of several in this vein.

Orinda to Lucasia Parting 1661 at London

ADIEU dear object of my Love’s excess,
And with thee all my hopes of happiness,
With the same fervent and unchanged heart
Which did it’s whole self once to thee impart,
(And which though fortune has so sorely bruis’d,
Would suffer more, to be from this excus’d)
I to resign thy dear Converse submit,
Since I can neither keep, nor merit it.
Thou hast too long to me confined been,
Who ruine am without, passion within.
My mind is sunk below thy tenderness,
And my condition does deserve it less;
I’m so entangl’d and so lost a thing
By all the shocks my daily sorrow bring,
That would’st thou for thy old Orinda call
Thou hardly could’st unravel her at all.
And should I thy clear fortunes interline
With the incessant miseries of mine?
No, no, I never lov’d at such a rate
To tye thee to the rigours of my fate,
As from my obligations thou art free,
Sure thou shalt be so from my Injury,
Though every other worthiness I miss,
Yet I’le at least be generous in this.
I’d rather perish without sigh or groan,
Then thou shoul’dst be condemn’d to give me one;
Nay in my soul I rather could allow
Friendship should be a sufferer, then thou;
Go then, since my sad heart has set thee free,
Let all the loads and chains remain on me.
Though I be left the prey of sea and wind,
Thou being happy wilt in that be kind;
Nor shall I my undoing much deplore,
Since thou art safe, whom I must value more.
Oh! mayst thou ever be so, and as free
From all ills else, as from my company,
And may the torments thou hast had from it
Be all that heaven will to thy life permit.
And that they may thy vertue service do,
Mayest thou be able to forgive them too:
But though I must this sharp submission learn,
I cannot yet unwish thy dear concern.
Not one new comfort I expect to see,
I quit my Joy, hope, life, and all but thee;
Nor seek I thence ought that may discompose
That mind where so serene a goodness grows.
I ask no inconvenient kindness now,
To move thy passion, or to cloud thy brow;
And thou wilt satisfie my boldest plea
By some few soft remembrances of me,
Which may present thee with this candid thought,
I meant not all the troubles that I brought.
Own not what Passion rules, and Fate does crush,
But wish thou couldst have don’t without a blush,
And that I had been, ere it was too late,
Either more worthy, or more fortunate.
Ah who can love the thing they cannot prize?
But thou mayst pity though thou dost despise.
Yet I should think that pity bought too dear,
If it should cost those precious Eyes a tear.

Oh may no minutes trouble, thee possess,
But to endear the next hours happiness;
And maist thou when thou art from me remov’d,
Be better pleas’d, but never worse belov’d:
Oh pardon me for pow’ring out my woes
In Rhime now, that I dare not do’t in Prose.
For I must lose whatever is call’d dear,
And thy assistance all that loss to bear,
And have more cause than ere I had before,
To fear that I shall never see thee more.

As with many of her other poems, it goes on at some length, and I’ve included the whole poem in the transcript.

After the break with Owen, Philips’ work turned to more abstract themes, still including friendship but also themes of renunciation and self-restraint. The rhetoric of friendship becomes more of a means for demonstrating her literary skills than expressing personal bonds. One additional poetic focus of her passion raised more ambivalence as the woman--known only from her nickname “Berenice”--was a member of the aristocracy, and Philips’ expressions of devotion also carry a tone of supplication to a patroness.

The poems written in the years before her (unexpected) death were more formal, courtly appeals for patronage, directed to women of higher rank where no personal intimate bond was expected. But the contrast between these and the earlier works to Lucasia and Rosania emphasize the sincere and personal nature of the feelings expressed to those women.

Other Themes

The Restoration saw the start of Philips’ wider literary reputation as a translator of plays. Her poetry moved from a more private, contemplative style to public, neo-Classical works on public themes. But it is more accurate to say that she was part of the establishment of this fashion than to assert that she was simply following it. The focus that academic study gives the friendship poems sometimes obscures the very large body of work in the court poetry genre, as well as a large number of short incidental pieces dedicated to other people in her social circle beyond her special favorites.

Having achieved success with her plays in Dublin, Philips returned to London where she died of smallpox at age 31. (One of the authors I’m working from suggests that Philips’ inability to recover from the loss of Lucasia’s friendship two years earlier, combined with her husband’s financial difficulties “left her depressed...weakened, and vulnerable to disease.” I’m uncomfortable with this implication that her romantic disappointment contributed to her death--an echo of the queerness-equals-death trope--especially given that plenty of perfectly happy and contented people died of smallpox in the same era.)

The Neo-Platonic Tradition

The tradition of platonic friendship that Philips inherited incorporated the precieuse culture of the court of Henrietta Maria and the pastoral escapism of the early 17th century without the exaggerated formal imagery of the précieuses. These themes were played out in the heterosocial context of court culture, but Philips developed the idea of a specifically female world of intimacy, and tried to give it a status and legitimacy that inevitably set it in conflict with the institution of marriage. This required her to find ways to consider her own marriage compatible with the type of friendship she envisioned. Failing to understand that her friends were not as able to resolve that conflict underlay many of the disruptions in those friendships.

The coded classical language of male passionate friendships in the Renaissance was socially sanctioned and more widely available as a model than the few known surviving female examples. Philosophical discussions of (male) platonic love at that time drew from several sources and ideals, including male friendship bonds as the foundation of the civilized state, or platonic ideals of an idyllic retirement to nature. Philips took a more direct and impassioned approach but was in dialogue with those ideals.

One of the social models that shifted, moving into the 17th century, was the rise of the concept of companionate marriage, reframing heterosexual relationships as a mutual partnership, and necessarily elevating women as worthy of friendship. At least in theory. The emergence of this acceptance is seen in writing like Kenelm Digby’s descriptions of his wife as being capable of such friendships because she has a “masculine soul”. Not actual gender equality, but a move in that direction.

Women didn’t always have the same social and economic freedom that men did to engage in and maintain friendships on an everyday level, and from the 17th through 19th centuries, a constant theme in women’s friendship writing is the desire for physical presence, and lamenting the life complications that prevent it. Perhaps for this reason, among others, fantasies of female friendships often focused on an imagined Arcadian retreat from “the real world.” This separate pastoral world would also remove them from the status relationships of urban court life that could interfere with the ideals of equality in friendship.

Philips was conscious of the connection between her work and the tradition of male friendship literature. Part of her professional strategy--if that isn’t too strong a word--was to seek the friendship and approval of influential men who could not only help her literary ambitions but whose acceptance could legitimize her themes of relationships between women as part of an accepted concept of platonic friendship. For example, she wrote a poem of praise to Francis Finch in the context of his writings on friendship, framing them as supporting her own positions. But Finch’s work largely focused on male-female friendship within marriage. Philips’ attempts to get her male correspondents to validate women’s friendships were largely in vain. They interpreted her queries as concerning women’s ability to be friends with men, especially within the context of companionate marriage. The best Philips can do is deflect this by arguing for the genderless nature of the soul. Male writers were not so generous and--when not being polite in response to women such as Philips—considered women’s extra-marital friendships to be subversive of the proper social order.

In this, Philips, though quite conservative in her religious positions, had much in common with some of the more radical religious sects, such as the Quakers, among whom women sometimes formed spiritual bonds that they declared superior to “earthly” ones.

An examination of the boundaries between friendship and love, and the acceptable and unacceptable expressions of them, were being openly debated within Philips’ larger social circle. The existence of expressions of love that “should be kept at a distance” are mentioned, but never specified. But anxieties of this type emerge in the evocation of Sappho, especially as a comparison for Philips’ poetry. In calling Philips “another Sappho”, her contemporaries raised the possibility of unacceptable eroticism, hastily refuted by claims that Philips was “more virtuous than Sappho.” One might call it an early instance of the “no homo” reflex.

When comparing women’s same-sex friendship to heterosexual relations, Philips derides “lust” and the “unworthy ends” of marriage. But when addressing specific female friends, she not only invokes physical expressions of those bonds, but uses the imagery of marriage, as in “Articles of Friendship” which concludes with a wedding-like pledge. This was one of her early poems and displays an overt physicality that is softened somewhat in later works.

To Rosania & Lucasia Articles of Friendship

The Soules which vertu hath made fitt
Do of themselves incline to knitt;
Yet wedlock having priests, allow
That I be friendships Flamen now.

For I can best perform the rite,
Who of the Goddesse had a sight;
To me her oracles she gave,
And did inspire me in her cave.

And 'tis my glory, that I may
My faults redeeme, my debts repay,
No more my uselesse self I loath,
Since I can now oblige you both.

First then, the love you beare each other,
You must no more in silence smother,
Nor Ceremoniously take paines,
To put your friendship into chaines.

Formal addresses then disclaime;
And never must yee Madam name
Shee gaines most, who first Condescends,
For y'are more noble being friends.

Estrangements thus once voted down,
And all the Punctilios of the town,
No time, nor place, believed unfitt
Which will each others sight admitt.

Tho friendship greatest service dares
It's life consists in little cares,
Those frequent tendernesses, which
Make a concerned heart so rich.

You both must weare an open heart,
And freely your concerns impart
By this, your pleasure you will double,
And it will lessen all your trouble.

All distance may this hower destroy,
Confirme your love, begin your joy!
O how much kindnes does afford
That pleasant, & that mighty word!

If you these termes do disapprove,
Ye cannot, or ye will not love
But if ye like these lovely bands,
With them join hearts, & lips, & hands.

Reputation and Legacy

Philips was ambitious as a writer, at a time when being a woman writing publicly was to risk male criticism. She was sheltered, to some extent, by the respectability of being married to a country gentleman, but she also deliberately cultivated the friendship and approval of male literary figures of the day. During her lifetime, her reputation came from private circulation of her work--a limitation that affected many female poets of the era—and from her translations of a more famous male author.

Although Philips’ literary reputation today rests primarily on her poems about friendship, these were rarely included in publicly circulated collections of her work until the 19th century. Her most anthologized works before that focused on pastoral themes and royalist sentiments. Public editions of her work also typically arranged the content in ways that obscured the emotional significance of her friendship poetry. Whereas the arrangement in Philips’ own manuscript collection highlights the friendship narrative.

The difficult negotiations of being a woman writer in the 17th century are seen in the transparent fiction that the initial publication of her work was not only without her knowledge, but against her will. This fiction preserved her “modesty” in an age when women weren’t expected to seek fame or profit from their writing. This understanding puts a different light on claims that Aphra Behn was England’s “first professional woman writer.” It wasn’t that women couldn’t or didn’t desire to write professionally, but that they were slammed for trying to do so. Behn was simply willing and able to put up with it.

The posthumous 1664 edition of Philips’ poems focused on the royalist narrative, while the edition of 1667 adds in some of the friendship poems, but interspersed with more conventional praise poems of various nobles and members of the royal family. The royalist framing allows Lucasia to be considered a stand-in for the absent King Charles II, though this interpretation becomes incoherent in poems written after the Restoration.

Philips’ reputation would continue into the 18th century before fading into being considered merely sentimental and an example of the préciosité fashion, and of interest only for the male literary circles she intersected. The re-making of Philips’ reputation began in the late 19th century with a biographical study that simultaneously praised her portrayal of the virtues of friendship and derided her work as sentimental, her personality as classless, and her passionate friendships as the predatory infatuation of an aging woman. (At age 31! And ignoring that the relationship being satirized began when she was 19 and only a year older than her beloved.) But in order to ridicule Philips’ work, her Victorian biographer emphasizes the homoerotic content, particularly in comparison to the decidedly unexciting ways she depicted her marriage.

The early 20th century editor of her poetry, in contrast, worked to deny any sincere romantic content, and depicted the sapphic elements as nothing more than an intellectual game. Further, he raises her husband’s complaisance about her female friendships as evidence that there was nothing in them for a husband to object to. They must have been trivial and harmless. And yet, by creating the label “Sapphic-Platonics” for Philips’ work, he ensured that others would scrutinize her blending of themes of spiritual friendship with those of courtly love to express her relationships to her female friends.

The framing of Philips’ friendships as trivial and a literary game fails at the clear expressions of grief at separations and estrangements, especially when due to the disruption of marriage. Her biographers and editors continually run into the problem that either her reputation as a talented poet or her reputation as a “chaste” woman must be undermined.

Given that Philips was considered a respectable and talented poet in her own lifetime, does this mean her contemporaries were oblivious to the depth of sentiments being expressed toward her friends? Or does it mean that they felt the need to obscure those sentiments (as Philips herself had done with her oblique and coded language) in order to maintain Philips’ “chaste” reputation as “the matchless Orinda”? Or does it mean that the sentiments she expressed and felt were acceptable to her peers, given that both she and the objects of her affection were married and not arguing against the institution of marriage?

Philips’ later public image focused more on her status as a woman writer than on her work itself. She was framed as “the English Sappho” at a time when Sappho was being argued to be an essentially masculine figure, more for the act of being a famous poet than for her sexual reputation. To be praiseworthy, Philips must be framed as innocent, modest, and virtuous. She must be set on a pedestal that removed her from femaleness (in the sense that other women might achieve similarly), while still emphasizing her femininity. Her assigned role as an icon of virtue eventually replaced any reputation she might have earned as an actual poet, making her erasure from the canon possible. But that erasure can’t be entirely separated from the growing awareness of female homoerotic possibilities (as demonstrated in the poetry of later 17th century authors such as Aphra Behn and Anne Killigrew) which made Philips’ poems of passionate friendship more suspect than they had been in her lifetime.

Did Philips Write Lesbian Poetry?

The question raised by featuring Katherine Philips in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is: "What does it mean to identify a poem or a poet as 'lesbian'?" Especially in an era with different categories and expectations about sexuality than our own? A similar question can be asked 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 dominant 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 the character or the readers are marginalized. If someone wrote 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".

Philips challenges easy categorization, as the “lesbian sensibility” of her poetry is placed alongside her role as a wife and mother. What can’t be denied is that she wrote poems expressing deep emotional bonds with specific women as well as praise for female friendship in general. And the context of her life indicates she valued those bonds as strongly as, or more so, than her marriage. It isn’t clear that one can resolve this simply by labeling her as bisexual, given the lack of any similarly intense expression of attachment to any man, including her husband. She treated marriage and passionate friendships as entirely separate concepts.

Female literary expression in the 17th century engaged with a wide variety of erotic possibilities. Women’s works were addressed to both men and women and used a variety of styles. Toward the end of the 17th century, literature that openly addressed sexual possibilities between women was gaining circulation. That familiarity affected how people reacted to less overt expressions of same-sex affection, and it may have affected Katherine Philips’ legacy and reputation.

But there remains the question of was she, you know, “doing it” with her female friends. My first reaction is always to ask, “Does it matter?” Tying lesbian identity to participation in specific sexual activities is one of the ways lesbian identities in history can be erased. Because, of course, we can’t know. Not to prove it. And we can know that she was having heterosexual sex because pregnancy is an incontrovertible fact. The wider question is not simply what sort of physical relations might Philips have had with her intimate friends, but how she would have classified them.

The 17th century saw little conflict between same-sex and heterosexual relations, as long as the primacy of the institution of marriage was recognized. Same-sex attraction before marriage was normalized to a significant degree, but was expected to give way. Philips’ feelings for women did not involve the sort of masculine-coded behavior for which her culture had names (female sodomy, hermaphroditism, tribadism) and she was “protected” from being categorized as such by her own participation in heterosexual marriage. The rhetoric of platonic friendship gave cover and acceptance to the underlying homoerotic nature of her feelings, but it wasn’t a knowing self-conscious cover -- not a “closetedness” -- but rather an awareness that she was expecting and demanding more form her female friendships than the social dynamics of the day would allow for. And that very awareness lends significance to the relationships.

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. Women of her era were having what we would classify as sex with each other. That doesn’t change just because individual women might not choose to record it in their memoirs.

Scholarship has traditionally attempted to explain the homoerotic elements in the work of Philips and similar writers on the basis of individual biography, looking for specific contexts and triggers in their lives that would “explain” why they might be drawn to same-sex relations. But taken as a whole, this body of literature calls for a more systemic analysis. Why would the entrance of women into published literature in the 17th century and later include such public expressions of private same-sex desire. Susan Lanser addresses this topic at some length, though her focus on print publication means that Philips’ work falls in the “pre-history” of her analysis. Lanser proposes that women’s homoerotic writing in the 17th century was part of a collective act of creating and promulgating feminist ideas.

One traditional argument has been to connect sapphic topics with women appropriating masculine forms and conventions, that is, if a writer inhabited an authorial position that was traditionally male, she would address a female object because that was how the literary genre was structured. This strategy works to erase the sapphic potential by essentially transforming women writers into “male” voices. It’s the literary equivalent of theories of sexuality that defined desire for a woman as inherently masculine, and therefore subsumed lesbian desire under an externally imposed transgender identity.

From a different angle, more recent arguments have been that the homoerotic elements in this genre of work are used to re-direct the authors’ same-sex desires into an acceptable literary form, creating an image of “chaste femme love” (per Valerie Traub) to distinguish and distance themselves from the “taint” of both tribadism and masculinity. But this explanation fails to support why the authors would include same-sex desire in their work at all, if the goal were to avoid attracting suspicion.

Scholarship around the poetry of Katherine Philips and whether it can be read as “lesbian” is a useful lens for examining all the various academic approaches to the topic. Was Philips simply imitating an existing heterosexual “poetic love language” that did not reflect her personal desires? Does her work provide unquestionable evidence that both Philips and her poetry can be classified as “lesbian”? Whether or not one considers Philips’ poetry to represent homoerotic desires, the history of Philips scholarship is an object lesson in methods of erasing sapphic possibilities.

When contemporaries of Katherine Philips compared her to Sappho, it was not necessarily for her subject matter, but for her technical brilliance. The 17th century editions of her work are prefaced by a number of laudatory poems by her friends and admirers, in which comparisons to Sappho feature regularly. But attitudes toward Sappho’s subject matter meant those commenters often felt compelled to contrast Philips' “chaste Orinda” with Sappho’s sexual reputation, even while praising Philips’ verses as “vigorous and masculine”, or “solid...and manly.”

The implication of same-sex love invoked by comparisons to Sappho was available throughout Philips’ posterity, well before the editor of her 1905 edition coined the label “Sapphic-Platonics” in relation to her work. When feminist scholars “rediscovered” Philips in the mid 20th century, they had a different reason for wanting to divert accusations of lesbianism. This was, you may recall, the era of the “lavender menace.”

Across the centuries, everyone maps the sensibilities of their own era onto the 17th century to argue that Philips couldn’t have been expressing homoerotic desire because her contemporaries would have condemned it if they’d recognized it as such. And conversely, if her contemporaries wouldn’t have recognized her work as homoerotic, then it can’t be categorized as such. These attempts to frame Philips’ poems as asexual or purely conventional leave the question of why the traditions and forms of love poetry were chosen, in that case.

Elizabeth Wahl tackles this by suggesting that Philips’ ability to create such intense expressions while couching them in language that appealed to the conservative literary establishment of her time is exactly what demonstrates her genius. But in contrast to that conclusion, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that Philips was a “lesbian poet” in the modern personal identity sense of the word. Such an identification would require a type of self-aware sexual identity that there is little evidence for. Some queer historians have referred to Philips as “closeted”, and Wahl has some fun with the 17th century meanings and implications of “closet” as a private space where women could express themselves freely and enjoy intimate friendships out of the public gaze. But to be closeted in the modern sense would, again, require a level of self-aware identity that can’t be demonstrated.

What is clear from Philips poetry and life is that she was deeply in love with a succession of women in adolescence and adulthood, that she pursued these relationships in parallel with her and their marriages, and that she assigned a significance to those relations beyond the accepted conventions of the day.

Show Notes

A biography of poet Katherine Philips with a tour through some of her works.

In this episode we talk about:

  • An overview of Philips’ life
  • The poems of friendship
  • Other poetic themes
  • The neo-platonic tradition
  • Reputation and legacy
  • Did Philips write “lesbian poetry”?
  • Poems included
    • Rosania Shadowed whilst Mrs. Mary Aubrey
    • L’Amitié: To Mrs. Mary Aubrey
    • Rosania’s Apostacy and Lucasia's Friendship
    • Friendship's Mystery: To my dearest Lucasia
    • To My Excellent Lucasia, On Our Friendship
    • Injuria Amici
    • To my Lucasia, in Defence of declared Friendship
    • Orinda to Lucasia Parting 1661 at London
    • To Rosania & Lucasia Articles of Friendship
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Katherine Philips

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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