1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Katherine Philips

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 2:148-57.



Mrs. Katherine Philips, the celebrated Orinda, was daughter of John Fowles of Bucklersbury, a merchant in London. She was born in the parish of St. Mary Wool Church, 1631. Mr. Aubrey tells us, (in a MS. of his in Mr. Ashmole's study, No. 18. Vol. 23.) that she had the early part of her education from her cousin Mrs. Blacket. At eight years old she was removed to a school at Hackney, and soon made great improvements under the care of Mrs. Salmon; so great that whoever reads the account that Mr. Aubrey gives of her at that time of her life, will consider her succeeding progress to be no more than what might be naturally expected from such indications of genius. She tells us, "that she was very apt to learn, and made verses when she was at school; that she devoted herself to religious duties when she was very young; that she would then pray by herself an hour together; that she had read the bible through before she was full 4 five years old; that she could say, by heart, many chapters and passages of scripture; was a frequent hearer of sermons, which she would bring away entire in her memory."

The above is extracted from Mr. Ballard's account of the Ladies of Great Britain, who have been celebrated for their writings; and serves to shew the early piety of this amiable lady, who lived to be distinguished for her ripened understanding. She became afterwards a perfect mistress of the French tongue, and learned the Italian under the tuition of her ingenious and worthy friend Sir Charles Cotterel. She was instructed in the Presbyterian principles, which it appears by her writings, she deserted, as soon as her reason was strong enough to exert itself in the examination of religious points. She warmly embraced the royal interest, and upon many occasions was a strenuous advocate for the authority of the established church.

She was married to James Philips of the Priory of Cardigan, Esq; about the year 1647. By this gentleman she had one son, who died in his infancy, and one daughter, married to a gentleman of Pembrokeshire. She proved an excellent wife, not only in the conjugal duties, and tender offices of love, but was highly serviceable to her husband in affairs, in which few wives are thought capable of being useful; for his fortune being much encumbered, she exerted her interest with Sir Charles Cotterel, and other persons of distinction, who admired her understanding (for she had few graces of person) in her husband's favour, who soon extricated him from the difficulties under which he laboured. It nowhere appears that the husband of Mrs. Philips was a man of any abilities, and if he met with respect in the world, it was probably reflected from his wife. This lady had too much piety and good sense to suffer her superior understanding to make her insolent; on the other hand, she always speaks of her husband with the utmost respect, under the name of Antenor. In a letter to Sir Charles Cotterel, after having mentioned her husband in the most respectful terms, and of his willingness to forward her journey to London, in order to settle his perplexed affairs, she adds

"And I hope God will enable me to answer his expectations, by making me an instrument of doing some handsome service, which is the only ambition I have in the world, and which I would purchase with the hazard of my life. I am extreamly obliged to my lady Cork for remembering me with so much indulgence; for her great desire to be troubled with my company; but above all for her readiness to is assist my endeavours for Antenor, which is the most generous kindness can be done me."

As this lady was born with a genius for poetry so she began early in life to improve it, and composed many poems on various occasions for her amusement, in her recess at Cardigan, and retirement elsewhere. These being dispersed among her friends and acquaintance, were by an unknown hand collected together, and published in 8vo. 1663, without her knowledge or consent. This accident is said to have proved so oppressive to our poetess, as to throw her into a fit of illness, and she pours out her complaints in a letter to Sir Charles Cotterel, in which she laments, in the most affecting manner, the misfortune and the injuries which had been done to her by this surreptitious edition of her verses.

That Mrs. Philips might be displeased that her Poems were published without her consent, is extremely probable, as by these means they might appear without many graces, and ornaments which they otherwise would have possessed; but that it threw her into a fit of illness, no body who reads the human heart can believe. Surreptitious editions are a sort of compliment to the merit of an author; and we are not to suppose Mrs. Philips so much a saint, as to be stript of all vanity, or that natural delight, which arises from the good opinion of others, however aukwardly it may be discovered; and we may venture to affirm, that Mrs. Philips's illness proceeded from some other cause, than what is here assigned.

The reputation of her abilities procured her the esteem of many persons of distinction and fashion, and upon her going into Ireland with the viscountess of Duncannon, to transact her husband's affairs there, her great merit soon made her known to those illustrious peers, Ormond, Orrery, and Roscommon, and many other persons of the first fashion, who shewed her singular marks of their esteem. While Mrs. Philips remained in that kingdom, at the pressing importunity of the above mentioned noblemen, but particularly lord Roscommon, she translated, from the French of Corneille, the tragedy of Pompey, which was brought upon the Irish stage somewhat against her inclination; however it was several times acted in the new theatre there, with very great applause in the years 1663, and 1664, in which last year it was made public. It was afterwards acted with equal applause at the Duke of York's theatre, 1678. This play is dedicated to the Countess of Cork. Lord Roscommon wrote the Prologue, wherein he thus compliments the ladies and the translator.

But you bright nymphs, give Caesar leave to woo,
The greatest wonder of the world, but you;
And hear a muse, who has that hero taught
To speak as gen'rously, as e'er he fought;
Whose eloquence from such a theme deters
All tongues but English, and all pens but hers.
By the just fates your sex is doubly blest,
You conquer'd Caesar, and you praise him best.

She also translated from the French of Corneille, a Tragedy called Horace; Sir John Denham added a fifth Act to this Play, which was added at Court by Persons of Quality. The Duke of Monmouth spoke the Prologue, in which are these lines.

So soft that to our shame we understand
They could not fall but from a lady's hand.
Thus while a woman Horace did translate,
Horace did rise above the name of fate.

While Mrs. Philips was in Ireland, she was happy in carrying on her former intimacy with the famous Jeremy Taylor, the bishop of Down and Connor, who had some time before done her much honour by writing, and publishing a Discourse on the Nature, Offices, and Measures of Friendship, with Rules for conducting it, in a letter addressed to her. It is probable that this prelate's acquaintance with so accomplished a lady as Mrs. Philips, might be one reason of his entertaining so high an opinion of the fair sex in general; it is certain he was a great admirer of them, by which the good sense, as well as piety, of that great man is demonstrated; for whoever has studied life, examined the various motives of human actions, compared characters, and, in a word, scrutinized the heart, will find that more real virtue, more genuine and unaffected goodness exist amongst the female sex, than the other, and were their minds cultivated with equal care, and did they move in the bustle of life, they would not fall short of the men in the acute excellences; but the softness of their natures exempts them from action, and the blushes of beauty are not to be effaced by the rough storms of adversity: that man is happy who enjoys in the conjugal state, the endearments of love and innocence, and if his wife is less acquainted with the world than he, she makes a large amends, by the artless blandishments of a delicate affection.

We are persuaded our fair readers will not be displeased if we insert a paragraph from the discourse already mentioned by this worthy churchman; it appearing to be so sincere a tribute to their merit. "But by the way, madam, you may see how I differ from the majority of those cynics, who would not admit your sex into the community of a noble friendship. I believe some wives have been the best friends in the world; and few stories can outdo the nobleness and piety of that lady, that sucked the poisonous puralent matter from the wounds of the brave Prince in the holy land, when an assassin had pierced him with a venomed arrow: and if it be told that women cannot retain council, and therefore can be no brave friends, I can best confute them by the story of Porcia, who being fearful of the weakness of her sex, stabbed herself in the thigh to try how she could bear pain; and finding herself constant enough to that sufferance, gently chid her Brutus for not trusting her, since now she perceived, that no torment could wrest that secret from her which she hoped might be entrusted to her. If there were no more things to be said for your satisfaction, I could have made it disputable, which have been more illustrious in their friendship, men or women. I cannot say that women are capable of all those excellencies by which men can oblige the world, and therefore a female friend, in some cases, is not so good a counsellor as a wise man, and cannot so well defend my honour, nor dispose of relief and assistances, if she be under the power of another, but a woman can love as passionately, and converse as pleasantly, and retain a secret as faithfully, and be useful in her proper ministries, and she can die for her friend, as well as the bravest Roman knight; a man is the best friend in trouble, but a woman may be equal to him in the days of joy; a woman can well increase our comforts, but cannot so well lessen our sorrows, and therefore we do not carry women with us when we go to fight; but in peaceful cities and times, women are the beauties of society, and the prettinesses of friendship, and when we consider that few persons in the world have all those excellences by which friendship can be useful, and illustrious, we may as well allow women as men to be friends; since they have all that can be necessary and essential to friendships, and those cannot have all by which friendships can be accidentally improved."

Thus far this learned prelate, whose testimony in favour of women is the more considerable, as he cannot be supposed to have been influenced by any particular passion, at least for Mrs. Philips, who was ordinary in her person, and was besides a married lady. In the year 1663 Mrs. Philips quitted Ireland, and went to Cardigan, where she spent the remaining part of that, and the beginning of the next year, in a sort of melancholy retirement; as appears by her letters, occasioned, perhaps, by the bad success of her husband's affairs. Going to London, in order to relieve her oppressed spirits with the conversation of her friends there, she was seized by the smallpox, and died of it (in Fleet street,) to the great grief of her acquaintance, in the 32d year of her age, and was buried June 22, 1664 in the church of St. Bennet Sherehog, under a large monumental stone, where several of her ancestors were before buried. Mr. Aubrey in his manuscript abovementioned, observes, that her person was of a middle stature, pretty fat, and ruddy complexioned.

Soon after her death, her Poems and Translations were collected and published in a volume in folio, to which was added Monsieur Corneille's Pompey and Horace, Tragedies; with several other translations out of French, London 1667, with her picture, a good busto, before them, standing on a pedestal, on which is inscribed Orinda; it was printed again in London 1678. In a collection of Letters published by Mr. Thomas Brown, in 1697, are printed four Letters from Mrs. Philips to the Honourable Berenice. Many years after her death, were published a volume of excellent Letters from Mrs. Philips to Sir Charles Cotterel with the ensuing title, Letters from Orinda to Polliarchus, 8vo. London 1705. Major Pack, in his Essay on Study, inserted in his Miscellanies, gives the following character of these Letters; "The best Letters I have met with in our English tongue, are those of the celebrated Mrs. Philips to Sir Charles Cotterel; as they are directed all to the same person, so they run all in the same strain, and seem to have been employed in the service of a refined and generous friendship. In a word, they are such as a woman of spirit and virtue, should write to a courtier of honour, and true gallantry." The memory of this ingenious lady has been honoured with many encomiums. Mr. Thomas Rowe in his epistle to Daphne, says the following tribute to her fame.

At last ('twas long indeed!) Orinda came,
To ages yet to come an ever glorious name;
To virtuous themes, her well tun'd lyre she strung;
Of virtuous themes in easy numbers sung.
Horace and Pompey in her line appear,
With all the worth that Rome did once revere:
Much to Corneille they owe, and much to her.
Her thoughts, her numbers, and her fire the same,
She soar'd as high, and equal'd all his fame.
Tho' France adores the bard, nor envies Greece
The costly buskins of her Sophocles.
More we expected, but untimely death,
Soon stopt her rising glories with her breath.

More testimonies might be produced in favour of Mrs. Philips, but as her works are generally known, and are an indelible testimony of her merit, we reckon it superfluous. Besides the poetical abilities of the amiable Orinda, she is said to have been of a generous, charitable disposition, and a friend to all in distress.

As few ladies ever lived more happy in her friends than our poetess, so those friends have done justice to her memory, and celebrated her, when dead, for those virtues they admired, when living. Mr. Dryden more than once mentions her with honour, and Mr. Cowley has written an excellent Ode upon her death. As this Ode will better shew the high opinion once entertained of Mrs. Philips, than any thing we can say, after giving a specimen of her poetry, we shall conclude with this performance of Cowley's, which breathes friendship in every line, and speaks an honest mind: so true is the observation of Pope, upon the supposition that Cowley's works are falling into oblivion,

Lost is his epic, nay, pindaric art,
But still I love the language of his heart.

Mrs. Philips's poetry has not harmony of versification, or amorous tenderness to recommend it, but it has a force of thinking, which few poets of the other sex can exceed, and if it is without graces, it has yet a great deal of strength. As she has been celebrated for her friendship, we shall present the reader with an Ode upon that subject, addressed to her dearest Lucasia [omitted].