Katherine Philips

Today in 1632, Katherine Philips was born… Celebrate by naming everyone you know something inspired by Greek pastoral verse!

Born Katherine Fowler in London in 1632, she married at the age of 16 to James Philips. Philips took his new wife to Cardigan in Wales, where she lived out most of the rest of her life, with occasional trips to London with her husband who was repeatedly a member of parliament. This political fracture at the heart of their marriage – he a Parliamentarian, she a Royalist – may well have influenced her privileging of friendship over marriage as the ideal human relationship.


That is not to say that their relationship was particularly fractious or even without affection. The pseudonym Philips used to discuss her husband in her poetry was  “Antenor,” a name drawn from the Homeric epic The Illiad. Antenor was a Trojan who repeatedly tried to make peace between the Greeks and the Trojans. Indeed, Philips defended her husband publicly when his moderate policies seemed insufficient to his political enemies. You might not think that after reading “A Married State” though…


A married state affords but little ease
The best of husbands are so hard to please.
This in wives’ careful faces you may spell
Though they dissemble their misfortunes well.
A virgin state is crowned with much content;
It’s always happy as it’s innocent.
No blustering husbands to create your fears;
No pangs of childbirth to extort your tears;
No children’s cries for to offend your ears;
Few worldly crosses to distract your prayers:
Thus are you freed from all the cares that do
Attend on matrimony and a husband too.
Therefore Madam, be advised by me
Turn, turn apostate to love’s levity,
Suppress wild nature if she dare rebel.
There’s no such thing as leading apes in hell.

The basic point of the short poem, obviously, is that one should avoid marriage… it’s awful. Indeed, the final line, which references the supposed fate of spinsters after death, is a witty and strident rejection of marriage as the natural state of women. Thing about this poem is that it was written before Katherine Fowler became Katherine Philips. The date of the poem also may account for its somewhat simplistic form of rhymed couplets. It’s a piece of juvenalia, but a bravura work of juvenalia, showing her early potential as a poet and a thinker. Already at this point, one can see the influence of Neo-Platonic ideals regarding relationships in the world. That is, the relationship of a woman with her husband and children simply “distract your prayers” (10). This idealism was something that developed over the course of Philips’ life and can be seen in her valourization of friendship in her poetry.

Despite this perhaps rocky start to marriage, there was at least sufficient affection to produce two children, beginning seven years into the marriage with the birth of Hector. I think one thing that we tend to forget today, given the overwhelming pervasiveness of the medical technology that keeps many of us alive, is that prior to 1900, the death of children was heart-breakingly common. We today may forget it if only because the death of children and the grief of parents has, until recently, not been a focus for literary historians. Indeed, this can be seen as a gendered bias in the teaching of literary history as family has historically been on the “feminine” side of the binary systems of order. On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips is a piercing cry of grief which condemns the tropes of carpe diem as being utterly unable to give Philips solace.

I did but see him, and he disappeared,
   I did but touch the rosebud, and it fell;
A sorrow unforeseen and scarcely feared,
   So ill can mortals their afflictions spell.

And now (sweet babe) what can my trembling heart
   Suggest to right my doleful fate or thee?
Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art,
   So piercing groans must be thy elegy. (5-12)


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