Renaissance and Reformation Katherine Philips
by
Gillian Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0206

Introduction

Katherine Philips (b. 1632–d. 1664) is one of the most important figures in English women’s literary history. She is also a key figure within the history of 17th-century English-language poetry, irrespective of gender. Archival evidence indicates that Philips began to write while young: some of her juvenilia may have been written during her mid-teens, while the earliest items in her autograph collection of her own poems date from her late teens and early twenties. Throughout the remainder of her short life she kept writing, responding to literary fashions (such as the vogue for French neoclassical drama in the early 1660s), the downfall and restoration of the monarchy, and events within her local community and literary coteries. She formed productive acquaintances with some of the leading literary and cultural figures in contemporary London and Dublin, and was the first woman to see her work performed on the commercial stage in Britain or Ireland. Her writing shows a deep engagement with the English literary canon, and was to be an inspiration to later 17th- and early-18th-century poets and dramatists, both male and female. After their early popularity, Philips’s writings faded from view and were little known in the later 18th and throughout the 19th centuries. (Keats, an important exception, admired her poetry and recommended it to a friend in 1817.) Her critical fortunes began to revive at the outset of the 20th century, when her poetry was re-edited and made available to a scholarly readership. Though curiously neglected in Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic, A Room of One’s Own (1929), her work has benefited greatly from the growth of scholarly interest in early modern women’s writing since the late 1980s. Her writings on female friendship have retained their popularity for feminist scholars and have also been read as key texts in the history of female literary homoeroticism. Her avid interest in politics has been discussed in relation both to literary cultures of the interregnum and Restoration and also to women’s engagement with the public sphere. The survival of numerous early manuscripts of her writing a fairly detailed tracing of the production, circulation, and reception of her writing, while the issue of her involvement (or otherwise) in the publication of her 1664 Poems is still an area of lively critical disagreement. Renewed interest in the formal qualities of women’s writing, as well as attention to such issues as literary archipelagism and epistolarity, should ensure that Philips’s writing continues to speak to current critical debates and to attract high levels of scholarly attention.

General Overviews

Between the late 1640s and her death in 1664, Philips produced an astonishing variety of poetry, a substantial corpus of letters, and translations of two plays by Pierre Corneille, four French poems, and one Italian song. To date, most Philips scholarship has been concerned with her poetry, and relatively few studies have attempted to engage in detail with the full range of her works. Among early publications, Hageman 1987 offers a short but still valuable survey of Philips’s poetry, while Hobby 1989 also discusses her letters and drama and Mermin 1990 considers her significance within English literary history. Among more recent scholarship, both Beal 1998 and Salzman 2006 complement their discussions of Philips’s own writing with attention to its posthumous reception. Wright 2013 explores the generic range of Philips’s poetry in relation to its textual history.

  • Beal, Peter. In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Outlines Philips’s writing career, relationship with manuscript and print, and contemporary and posthumous reputation. Argues that Philips probably did not authorize Poems (1664) but inadvertently made it possible through allowing her work to circulate in manuscript form. Describes the lavish performance of her play Horace at court in 1667–1668.

  • Hageman, Elizabeth H. “Katherine Philips: The Matchless Orinda.” In Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Edited by Katharina M. Wilson, 566–608. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    Describes Philips’s life, writings, and the early textual circulation of her work. Provides texts of a representative sample of Philips’s poems, mainly derived from Poems (1667) and including political and retirement lyrics, epitaphs on her son, and verses addressed to her husband and to female and male friends.

  • Hobby, Elaine. Virtue of Necessity: English Women’s Writing, 1649–1688. London: Virago, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important early study that surveys the range of Philips’s writings, including the drama and letters as well as the early reception of her works. Argues that Philips’s self-construction as “Orinda” should be understood historically within 17th-century conventions of authorship and textual circulation.

  • Mermin, Dorothy. “Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch.” English Literary History 57.2 (1990): 335–355.

    DOI: 10.2307/2873075E-mail Citation »

    A pioneering article that examines the reasons why women were so often excluded from 17th-century literary discourse and investigates the circumstances that enabled a few women to become poets. Argues that Philips gained authority by writing as if for a private readership even when addressing public themes.

  • Salzman, Paul. Reading Early Modern Women’s Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199261048.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Summarizes Philips’s career, examining her early poetry (including the verses addressed to men), manuscript transmission of her work within her lifetime, the success of Pompey, and the initial public reception of her printed Poems. Includes a valuable survey of the posthumous readership of Philips’s poetry through the early 20th century.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139795463E-mail Citation »

    Surveys Philips’s writing career and early afterlife through analyses of her own manuscript collection of her poetry, three early scribal manuscripts, and the printed Poems of 1664 and 1667. Traces changes in Philips’s literary interests between the late 1640s and her death in 1664.

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