Biography Katherine Philips

Katherine Philips

photo of Katherine Philips
  • Time Period1631 - 1664
  • PlaceLondon
  • CountryEngland

Poet Biography

Katherine Fowler was born on New Year's day, 1631 in London, England. Her father, John Fowler, was a Presbyterian merchant. Katherine was educated at one of the Hackney boarding-schools, where she became fluent in several languages. After the death of John Fowler, Katherine's mother married a Welshman, Hector Philips, and, in 1647, at the age of sixteen, Katherine was married to fifty-four-year old James Philips, Hector's son by his first wife.

In spite of the difference in their ages, there appears to have been little conflict between Katherine and James. What division there was, was political in nature: she was a Royalist; he supported Oliver Cromwell. This difference in their views is recorded in Katherine's poetry. However, James continued to reside on the coast of Wales, while his wife spent much of her time in London. He encouraged her literary activities and left her largely to her own devices.

Her time was not idly spent. Besides bearing two children (a son, Hector, who lived only forty days, and a daughter, Katherine, who lived to be married), Philips founded The Society of Friendship, wrote some hundred and sixteen poems, completed five verse translations, and translated two plays by Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) from the French. The earlier of these dramatic translations, a rendering of Pompey, was produced in 1663, the first play by a woman to be performed on the London stage. It was also performed, to great acclaim, in Dublin in the same year. The later translation, Horace, was not finished in her lifetime. Sir John Denham (1615 - 1669) completed her work, and the play was produced in 1668.

The Society of Friendship (1651-1661) was a semi-literary correspondence circle composed primarily of women, though men were also involved. The membership, however, is somewhat in question, as its members took pseudonyms from Classical literature (Katherine Philips, for instance, took the name Orinda, to which other members appended the accolade "Matchless." It is as "Matchless Orinda" that Philips is most often known, as this was her usual signature.) Poet Henry Vaughan (1622-1695) was probably a member, and in some degree a personal friend to Philips. It was as a preface to his poems that hers were first published, in 1651. (The only other publication of Philips' work in her lifetime was an unauthorized edition in 1664).

More important are the female members of the circle, especially Anne Owen, known in Philips's poems as Lucasia. Fully half of Philips's poetry is dedicated to this woman; the two seem to have been lovers in an emotional, if not in a physical, sense for about ten years. Also significant as correspondents and lovers and Mary Awbrey (Rosania) and Elizabeth Boyle (Celimena). Boyle's relationship with Philips, however, was cut short by Philips' death in 1664. These loves are prominent in Philips's poetry. Because she used the language of courtly love to describe her relationships, their extent and nature are not entirely certain, but the love between these women was most likely platonic. Philips remarked at time that love between women was pure, uncorrupted by the sexual. The poetry does not overtly suggest physical relationships. In fact, Philips' contemporaries often praised her modest, properly feminine subject matter.

Katherine Philips died of smallpox June 22, 1664, in London. She was thirty-three years old. Her death was mourned in verse by the metaphysical poet Abraham Cowley. The first authorized collection of her verse was not published until 1667. A century and a half later, the Romantic poet John Keats admired her work in a letter to a friend.