17th century / Arts

Friendship in Emblem: Negotiating Gender and Sexuality in the Poetry of Katherine Philips

By Mimi Goodall

It is fascinating to analyse the ways in which female writers, working within a predominantly male tradition, negotiate their gender, femininity and sexuality in their writing. In women’s writing, the “female” shifts from existing as written object to active creator of the text. As they subvert or adapt traditional representations of women in writing or ascribe to women emotions or thoughts conventionally attributed to men, notions of femininity and the female are reworked and defined by new boundaries. The poetry of Katherine Philips engages with the platonic and soulful friendship between women, which previously had only been considered to exist between men. Her poems follow the Donnean tradition, rich with highly wrought conceits and skilled logical argument. We see Philips emerge as a scholarly poet and woman, reformulating the gender politics of earlier poetry. She lived as part of a vibrant, intellectual community and draws on this community in her poetry, addressing her female peers with esoteric sobriquets; her retirement poems are punctuated by imperatives or apostrophes to female friends: “Be kind, my dear Rosannia”. Philips was, and still is, associated with the Greek poetess Sappho, although her poetic persona was typically named “Orinda”. Representations of Philips’ (or, indeed, Philips’ poetic persona) gender and sexuality have been shaped largely by the encomia and paratexts of her poetry, which describe her as a pure and virtuous woman, eliding any possible expressions of homosexual desire. This subsequently has been inverted by critics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, who seek to discover the “hidden” evidence of homosexuality in the verse. This presents a complex critical dilemma: how much does a critic’s own identity politics infiltrate their representation of an author’s self and poetics?

Nevertheless, the central positioning of female friendship in Philips’ poetry, homosexual or not, represents an aspect of women that had previously been ignored or denied by male writers. Montaigne’s “On Friendship” claims that friendship between two men is like a flame with “a constant and settled heat, all pleasure and smoothness that hath no pricking or stinging in it”. Friendship with a woman in this way is impossible because her fire “is more active, more fervent, and more sharpe”. Men’s flame in “lustfull love…is a ranging and mad desire”. Moreover, women do not have “minds strong enough” to “endure the pulling of a knot, so hard, so fast, and durable”.  John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s essay circulated widely in England and went through multiple editions in the seventeenth century; it would not be surprising for Philips to have read it. Philips uses the same imagery of a flame yet rejects Montaigne’s ideas. In the poem “Friendship” she accepts that “Passion hath violent extremes” but demonstrates a fine comprehension of the “pure fire” of friendship “where neither hurt, nor smoke, nor noise is made”. It is “cleare and open as the summer’s light”.  She as a woman does not lack the intellectual capacity or the consistency to experience such a bond. She insists that it is “a design injurious and rude” for men to exclude the female sex from “friendships’ vast capacity” as “the noblest friendships” can be formed by women. Yet, like Montaigne arguing that women could not physically commit to such friendship, other literature of the time emphasises how unimportant the quality of friendship between women was considered to be. In 1630 Richard Brathwaite published a conduct book entitled The English Gentleman and one of the eight figures of virtue on the frontispiece is that of “Acquaintance”, elaborated upon “in a long section on male-male friendships and their importance”. The female equivalent, The English Gentlewoman, was published a year later. It did not, however, include an equivalent section on female friendship. Philips nevertheless explains that female friendship provides a “heroique” example and “governs actions best/ Prescribing Law to all the rest”; for Philips, the ability for women to form friendships is as important a piece of moral behaviour.

Philips proves her academic and scholarly capabilities by placing her poems in the Donnean tradition. In “Friendship in emblem” she makes explicit references to and adapts Donne’s love poetry. She proposes that Orinda’s “friendship” with Lucasia will “transmit to fame” both their names. Donne purports that all shall “invoke” his and his lover’s name and “beg a pattern” of their love. Both poets consider their relationships epitomes. Philips employs the conceit of a compass (like Donne in “Valediction Forbidding Mourning”) to explain that the friends “are and yet they are not two”. Much like  how if Donne and his lover’s souls “be two they are two so/ As stiffe twin compasses are two”. The compass was a well-known emblem expressing fidelity and constancy and Philips “no doubt” used it as “the badge of the society” of intelligent female friends she belonged to. This community becomes a very important way for Philips to express herself and her gender. It identifies itself as scholarly and learned. Its members have classical sobriquets such as “Antenor” and “Ardelia”. While taking recourse to Donne’s love poetry categorizes Philips as an unusual female intellectual, it also raises the question of whether female “friendship” equates to female “homosexuality” in her poetry. Her poetry highlights and confronts the critics’ own preconceptions of gender and sexuality. Abraham Cowley saw Orinda’s public innocence and humility (she made a great show of disliking that her poems were published) as her best characteristic. Moreover he in fact explicitly denied any aspect of homosexuality in Philip’s verse, saying she wrote with a “gen’rous scorn/ Of things for which we were not born”. Sir Charles Cotterell explained Orinda actually surpassed Sappho in virtues and although Philips’ poetry should be valued as “highly” as Sappho’s, he wishes to distance Philips from Sappho’s tarnished reputation.

Twentieth and twenty-first century critics however argue that Philips’ poetry is proof of her homosexual feelings. Philips’ explains she “can no likeness find” to her friendship with Lucasia and no “crown’d conquered mirth…compar’d can be” to the rewards from such a friendship. Comparisons will always fail in rendering the relationship fully as the speaker holds “all the world” in Lucasia and comparisons represent only a tiny segment of the world. Paula Loscocco posits a comparison between Donne’s homosexual poem “Sappho to Philaenis” and this aspect of Philips’ poetry. There are no signs of Sappho and Philaenis’ relationship; no more “then fishes leave in streames, or birds in aire”. This is partly because it is a female homosexual relationship but also because “the likeness being such” between the two women means that conceits are not needed to link the two bodies and souls. Love poetry between women does not require extended metaphors to express the women’s similarities. Therefore Loscocco argues that the proof of Philips’ homosexuality lies in her accepting that the language of comparison cannot render her love.

These dissimilar readings underscore the problem of authorial self-representation, which is inevitably studied through the lenses that a critic wishes to apply. Philips’ contemporaries may have wished to highlight her virtues and chastity, while twentieth-century feminist critics may aim to reveal what they read as repressed sexuality. Similarly, I have my own motives in emphasizing Philips’ intellectuality as it is the aspect of Philips’ verse that I find most striking. Therefore I conclude tentatively, aware of my own personal bias in analyzing an author’s self-representation. Of course, it is crucial to note that when female writers are studied the primary critical focus is so often fixated upon their gender. Katherine Philips could be read alternatively as a Royalist civil war poet; her representation of female friendship could be seen as the textual creation of a Royalist community in retreat. Philips’ interest in women, then, is not necessarily erotic or homosexual, and tropes of friendship in her poetry are used to intellectual and political ends. Philips craves intimacy of an intellectual kind, imagining an exclusive coterie of female thinkers. When Philips’ poetry does negotiate preconceptions of gender and sexuality, the adoption and adaption of Donnean poetic style shows how Philips is consciously a reader and analyst of literature and creates an intellectual female persona in her verse.

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