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Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Katherine Philips (1631 - 1664) U.K. Poet

b.  1 January 1631
d. 22 June 1664

Neé Fowler, known as the "Matchless Orinda", she was born into a successful London cloth merchant's family and attended Mrs Salmon's Presbyterian boarding school for girls. In 1648 Katherine married her stepfather's 54-year-old relative, Colonel and Welsh Parliamentarian James Philips, and took residence at her husband's house, in Cardigan Priory, Wales.

Her home at the Priory, Cardigan, Wales became the centre of a literary coterie, a "society of friendship", the members of which were known to one another by pastoral names: Katerine was "Orinda", her husband "Antenor", and Sir Charles Cotterel "Poliarchus". "The Matchless Orinda", as her admirers called her, was regarded as the apostle of female friendship, and inspired great respect. Other members were Mrs Anne Owen, "Lucasia", to whom she addressed almost half her verses and passionate epistles, and Mary Aubrey, "Rosania".

It seems that she may have had a ten-year relationship with "Lucasia", from 1651 to 1661. At their more ecstatic, Philips' poems celebrate the sublime "mysteries" of love between women. Philips died suddenly of smallpox in London.

In 1662 she went to Dublin to pursue her husband's claim to certain Irish estates; there she completed a translation of Pierre Corneille's Pompe, produced with great success in 1663 in the Smock Alley Theatre, and printed in the same year both in Dublin and London. She went to London in March 1664 with a nearly completed translation of Corneille's Horace, but died of smallpox.

There is speculation about whether, and in what way, her work could be described as "lesbian." Certainly her representations of female friendship are intense, even passionate. She herself always insisted on their platonic nature and characterizes her relationships as the "meeting of souls," as in these lines from "To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship":

For as a watch by art is wound
To motion, such was mine;
But never had Orinda found
A soul till she found thine;
Which now inspires, cures, and supplies,
And guides my darkened breast;
For thou art all that I can prize,
My joy, my life, my rest. (9-16)

Moreover, it has been argued that 'her manipulations of the conventions of male poetic discourse constitute a form of lesbian writing.


excerpted from  Aldrich R. and Wotherspoon G:Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History Vol.1: From Antiquity to the Mid-Twentieth Century , Routledge, London, 2001

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