Katherine Philips

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Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda

Katherine or Catherine[1] Philips (1 January 1631/2[2] – 22 June 1664), also known as Orinda, was an Anglo-Welsh poet, translator, and woman of letters. She achieved renown as translator of Pierre Corneille's Pompée and Horace, and for her editions of poetry.

Early years[edit]

Born in London, Katherine Philips was daughter of John Fowler, a Presbyterian 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. 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.


In 1647, when she was sixteen, she married a Welsh Parliamentarian named James Philips who was thought to be 54 years old. However, the marriage certificate has since proved that he was actually 24 years old.

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 dramatised 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.

A page from a manuscript copy of Philips' poetry, c. 1670.

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 Pompée, 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 Pompée 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. In 1664, an edition of her poetry entitled Poems by the Incomparable Mrs. K.P. was published; this was an unauthorised edition that made several grievous errors.[3] In March 1664, Philips travelled to London with a nearly completed translation of Corneille's Horace, but died of smallpox. She was buried in the church of St Benet Sherehog, later destroyed in the Great Fire of London. After her death, in 1667 an authorised edition of her poetry was printed entitled Poems by the Most Deservedly Admired Mrs. Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda. The edition included her translations of Pompée and Horace.

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 Calprenède. 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.

Philips's translations and poems consider questions of political authority and express her royalist beliefs. Her works also considers the nature and value of friendship between women. There has been speculation over whether 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 characterises 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)

Harriette Andreadis has argued that 'her manipulations of the conventions of male poetic discourse constitute a form of lesbian writing.'[4] However, there are many critics who do not believe Philips's poetry is indicative of her sexuality. For example, in discussing "To the Excellent Lucasia" Mark Llewellyn argues 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). 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).

Upon the Double Murder of King Charles is a more politically minded piece than many of her others from this time period, although she is often associated with a class of poets termed Royalist or Cavalier poets, noting their political sympathy to the Royalist cause, those who supported the monarchy of King Charles I of England during the English Civil War and the following English Interregnum.[5]


She inspired the figure of "Orinda", elderly widow, hypersensitive to matters of love, and she herself a victim of love (albeit platonic) for a woman, in the Italian tragedy of 1671 Il Cromuele (Cromwell) written by Girolamo Graziani, set in England during the Civil War.



  1. ^ "County of Cardigan", Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th ed., Vol. V, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1878, p. 95 .
  2. ^ Loscocco, Paula (2007). Katherine Philips (1631/2-1664): Printed letters, 1697-1729. Ashgate. ISBN 9780754631033. Retrieved 28 June 2017. 
  3. ^ Elizabeth Hageman, 'Treacherous Accidents and the Abominable Printing of Katherine Philips's 1664 Poems', New Ways of Looking at Old Texts, III, 2004. Page 85.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ "Royalist and Cavalier Poetry." The Broadview Anthology of British literature. Vol 2. Ed. Don LePan, et al. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2006.790. Print.


Further reading[edit]

  • Gosse, Edmund. Seventeenth Century Studies (1883).
  • Hageman, Elizabeth H. "Treacherous Accidents and the Abominable Printing of Katherine Philips's 1664 Poems." New Ways of Looking at Old Texts, III. n.p. 2004. 85–95.
  • 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.
  • Matthew, H. C. G., and B. Harrison, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Web.
  • Poems, By the Incomparable Mrs K. P. appeared surreptitiously in 1664 and an authentic edition in 1667.
  • Prescott, Sarah. "Archipelagic Coterie Space: Katherine Philips and Welsh Women’s Writing". Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. (2013)
  • 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.
  • Stone Stanton, Kamille. “‘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.
  • 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.
  • Trolander, Paul and Zeynep. Tenger. "Katherine Philips and Coterie Critical Practices." Eighteenth-Century Studies. 37.3 (2004): 367–387.
  • Shopland, Norena "The Welsh Sappho" Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales Seren Books (2017)

External links[edit]