2017 Reading Project: Katherine Philips

It’s time for my newest installment of my 2017 reading project. This edition focuses on the first female poet to become popular during her own life time. Katherine Philips wrote about her political convictions, marriage, and the beauty of female friendships.

Katherine Philips was the most widely read and perhaps most popular woman poet of her generation. She was known as “the Matchless Orinda,” a title she bestowed upon herself in a poetic address to a gathering of her female friends. Her work is at times reminiscent of Donne’s sonnets, and at other times Sappho’s erotic lyrics to women. Her poetry often depicts the ideal of female friendship as a deeply enriching platonic merging of hearts and minds.

She was born Katherine Fowler, and was the daughter of well-to-do moderate Puritans and in turn educated at Mrs. Salmon’s Presbyterian School. However, when her mother remarried Katherine moved to Wales with her new family. In 1648, at the tender age of seventeen, she was married to James Philips. Her husband was a prominent member of Parliament., and the pair lived together for 12 years, chiefly in the small Welsh town of Cardigan. During her marriage Katherine gave birth to two children. Their son Hector died during infancy and his death inspired one of her most moving and highly lauded poems. Their daughter Katherine lived to adulthood.

Katherine’s work was also known for being political. Despite her Puritan connections, she was a Royalist and her poetry depicted her opposition to the regicide. However, two of her most popular poems were discovered in manuscript form after her death and are believed to have been written before her 1648 marriage. They were both addressed to Anne Barlow, and praise the single life. As her work is now public domain, I have included one for your benefit, dear reader.

A Married State

A married state affords but little ease

The best of husbands are so hard to please.

This in wives’ careful faces you may spell

Though they dissemble their misfortunes well.

A virgin state is crowned with much content,

It’s always happy as it’s innocent.

No blustering husbands to create your fears;

No pangs of childbirth to extort your tears;

No children’s cries for to offend your ears;

Few worldly crosses to distract your prayers:

Thus are you freed from all the cares that do

attend on matrimony and a husband too.

Therefore Madam, be advised by me

Turn, turn apostate to love’s levity,

Suppress wild nature if she dare rebel.

There’s no such thing as leading apes in hell.


*Reference: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, Volume I. pp. 1690-1695

Author: Lee Ann Fryman

Lee Ann is a poet, fiction writer, and blogger located in Lexington, Kentucky. She received an MA in English from Northern Kentucky University, and has BAs in Theatre and English from Morehead State University.

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