The Matchless Orinda — Early English Poet & Playwright Katherine Philips

Katherine Phillips - the Matchless Orinda

Known as the “Matchless Orinda,” Katherine Philips (1631/2 – 1664; née Fowler) was the author of the first English-language play written by a woman to be performed on the professional stage and she may also have been the first published lesbian poet in the English language; this seems to be a love poem from her to fellow poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, whose pseudonym was Ardelia.

This introduction to Katherine Philips’  life and work is adapted from Killing the Angel: Early Transgressive British Woman Writers by Francis Booth ©2021, reprinted by permission.

Come, my Ardelia, to this bower,
Where kindly mingling Souls awhile,
Let’s innocently spend an hour
and at all serious follies smile. . .
Why should we entertain a fear?
Love cares not how the world is turned:
If crowds of dangers should appear,
Yet friendship can be unconcerned.
We wear about us such a charm,
No horror can be our offence;
For mischief’s self can do no harm
To friendship and to innocence.

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Killing the Angel by Francis Booth

Killing the Angel on Amazon US*
Killing the Angel on Amazon UK*

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Born to a cloth merchant in the City of London, England, Katherine Philips was a precocious learner; it was said that she could read the Bible by the age of four. From the age of around eight to sixteen she was sent to a boarding school in Hackney in East London, a centre for women’s education at the time, where she learned several languages.

At sixteen Katherine was married to an older, Welsh parliamentarian; he died only eight years later but the couple had two children, only one of whom survived.

Philips’ home in Cardiff became the centre of the Society of Friendship, which Philips founded in 1651 based on the ideals of platonic friendship from French pastoral romance; the members all gave themselves suitably pastoral names.

The Society was a literary association made up mostly of women, though there were also male members, including the poet Henry Vaughan: Philips’ first published work was a preface to his poems in 1651. It is not certain exactly who the members were, since they all used their pastoral pseudonyms; using these names of course meant that the women were not publishing under either their husband’s or their father’s name and could choose to stay anonymous.

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Poems by Mrs Katherine Philips

Poems by Mrs Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda
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We do, however, know of the membership of Mary Awbrey (Rosania), Elizabeth Boyle (Celimena) and of Anne Owen, called Lucasia, to whom many of Philips’ poems are dedicated. This next poem is called, “To the Excellent Mrs. Anne Owen, upon her receiving the name Of Lucasia, and Adoption into our Society, December 28, 1651.”

WE are complete, and Fate hath now
No greater blessing to bestow;
Nay, the dull World must now confess,
We have all worth, all happiness.
Annals of State are trifles to our fame,
Now ‘tis made sacred by Lucasia’s name.

Although the society was founded on platonic ideals, Philips’ feelings for Lucasia seem to go beyond the platonic in many of the poems, including ‘To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship.’

I did not live until this time
Crowned in my felicity,
When I could say without a crime,
I am not thine, but thee. . .
For thou art all that I can prize,
My joy, my life, my rest.
No bridegroom’s nor crown-conqueror’s mirth
To mine compared can be:
They have but pieces of the earth,
I’ve all the world in thee.

Although she was only possibly the first published lesbian poet in English, Philips was certainly the author of the first English-language play written by a woman to be performed professionally, even though it was only a translation; earlier ‘closet dramas’ like Elizabeth Cary’s Mariam were not written for public performance.

While living in Dublin, the francophone Philips translated Pierre Corneille’s play Pompée, which was staged successfully in 1663 in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre, founded the previous year; the play was printed in both Dublin and London under the title Pompey. Although other women had translated or written dramas before, Philips’ translation of Pompée broke new ground as the first rhymed version of a French tragedy to be published in English.

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Charlotte Lennox

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In 1664, an edition of Philips’ poetry entitled Poems by the Incomparable Mrs. K.P. was published but it was not authorized by her and was full of errors; Philips died of smallpox that year and the City of London church in which she was buried was destroyed two years later in the Great Fire of London.

It was not until 1667 that an authorized edition of her poems was published posthumously, entitled Poems by the Most Deservedly Admired Mrs. Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda.  This included both Pompey and a nearly completed translation of Corneille’s Horace: Philips died before she had chance to finish it. In his preface, Philips’ friend Sir Charles Cotterell is appreciative but patronizing, saying that some of her poems:

“… would be no disgrace to the name of any Man that amongst us is most esteemed for his excellency in this kind, and there are none that may not pass with favour, when it is remembered that they fell hastily from the pen but of a woman. We might well have called her the English Sappho, she of all the female Poets of former Ages, being for her Verses and her Virtues both, the most highly to be valued.”

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More about Katherine Philips

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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.

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