1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Katherine Philips

Hartley Coleridge, in "William Roscoe" Worthies of Yorkshire and Lancashire (1836) 485-87 &n.



From twelve to sixteen, young [William] Roscoe continued under his father's roof, employed his time partly in reading, and partly in assisting the labours of the farm.... His reading was desultory, as that of a boy left to himself will always be; but it could not be very miscellaneous, for his command of books was extremely limited, and the few volumes to which he had access, were rather such as chance threw in his way, than what his unaided judgment would have recommended. There was, however, no lack of good matter among them. His favourites were Shakspeare (an odd volume most likely), Shenstone, the Spectator, and the poems of Mrs. Katherine Philips. Perhaps these were all the books of a poetical or imaginative cast which his library afforded. The names may now seem oddly grouped; yet if the merit of a writer be measured by the plaudits of contemporary pens, the fame of Mrs. Katherine Philips, alias "the matchless Orinda," would soar high above Addison himself, and poor Shakspeare and Shenstone must hide their diminished heads. There are few school-girls now who could not write better verses than her's; but mediocrity was not so easy in the seventeenth century as in the nineteenth. We are disposed to hope that it will become so easy, that none will tolerate it, even in themselves....

Mrs. Katherine Philips, whose maiden name was Fowler, was born in London, baptized on the 11th of January, 1631, at the church of St. Mary, Woolnoth; educated at Hackney, by Mrs. Salmon, (thus early was Hackney the seat of the educational Muse); married James Philips, Esq.; accompanied the Viscountess Dnngannon into Ireland; died in 1664; and was buried in the church of St. Bennet's, Sherehog. Cowley wrote an ode on her death, to which she probably owes whatever little celebrity she may retain. Her poems were published, without her consent, not long before her death. In 1667 appeared another and fuller edition of "Poems, by the most deservedly-admired Mrs. Katherine Philips, the matchless Orinda;" and a third, in 1678. Whether any later has been called for we cannot say. She translated the Pompey, and four acts of the Horace of Corneille: the former was acted, and honoured with a prologue by Lord Roscommon, an epilogue by Sir Edward Deering, and a copy of commendatory verses by Lord Orrery, in which his Lordship not only declares "the copy greater than the original," but asserts that

Rome too will grant, were our tongue to her known,
Caesar speaks better in't than in his own.

There is rather more sense and propriety in the panegyric which Sir Edward Deering bestows in the epilogue

No nobler thoughts can tax
These rhymes of blemish to the blushing sex;
As chaste the lines, as harmless to the sense,
As the first smiles of infant innocence.

She seems, indeed, to have been a woman of perfectly blameless life, though she entered into a sort of Platonic correspondence with Sir Charles Cotterel, which produced a series of letters between Poliarchus and Orinda. It is said by one of her panegyrists, that she wrote her familiar letters with great facility, in a very fair hand, and perfect orthography, then we may suppose a rare accomplishment. As a specimen of her poetry, we give her epitaph on her infant son Hector, buried in the church of St. Bennet's, Sherehog. It has been said, "Men laugh in a thousand ways, but all weep alike." See how a mother dropped her poetic tears in the seventeenth century:

What on earth deserves our trust?
Youth and beauty both are dust:
Long we gathering are, with pain,
What one moment calls again.
Seven years' childless marriage past,
A son, a son, is born at last,
So exactly limb'd, and fair,
Full of good spirits, mein, and air,
As a long life promised,
Yet in less than six weeks dead;
Too promising, too great a mind,
In so small room to be confined;
Therefore, as fit in heaven to dwell,
He quickly broke the prison shell.
So the subtle alchemist
Can't with Hermes' seal resist
The powerful spirit's subtler flight,
But 'twill bid him long good night.
And so the sun, if it arise
Half so glorious as his eyes,
Like this infant takes a shroud,
Buried in a morning cloud.

Yet it is probable that the Poetess felt her loss as keenly as one who would have expressed herself with the most pathetic simplicity.