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Katherine Philips: friendship, poetry and neo-platonic thought in seventeenth century England.

In her book on English women's poetry from the execution of Charles I to the death of Queen Anne, Carol Barash argues convincingly for a politicized reading of Katherine Philips's verse, including the friendship poetry. Referring to the establishment of Philips's Society of Friendship and its relationship with contemporary politics, Barash writes that:

[i]nitially, Philips's 'Society of Friendship' was part of a discourse about literary and political alliances during the interregnum. Women's friendship provided a model of political loyalty (friendship could, in this sense, transcend marriage). At the same time, if we take its political implications seriously ... women's friendship also poses explicit threats both to heterosexual marriage and to the very myth of political stability it initially figures. (1)

Whilst it is easy to agree with the first aspect of Barash's argument, particularly that the Society was as much about the literary relationships between its members as their politics, to draw the conclusion that "women's friendship" in this context is as subversive as Barash and others attest implies a misreading of the very literary contexts of Philips's coterie. (2) Indeed, in reading the friendship poems we should be aware that these texts formed not so much communications between individual women but rather "verse essays" on the nature of friendship itself. (3) As such the poems must be viewed as part of a much larger discourse which existed before, during, and after the foundation of the Society. Although the precise nature of the Society of Friendship cannot be known outside Philips's writing and that of its members, what we can do is look at the way in which she and her coterie were viewed, both from within and outside its ranks, and place those views into the wider context of seventeenth century philosophical ideas about friendship.

The fact that Philips's circle was part of a larger social idea surrounding the philosophy of friendship is seen in the breadth of literature on and amount of interest in friendship during the period. (4) That Philips actively engaged with this body of literature is testified to by the seventeenth century divine, Jeremy Taylor, who wrote a Discourse of the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship, with the Rules of conducting it. Written in answer to a Letter from the most ingenious and vertuous M.K.P. (1657). From reading Taylor's text it is possible to try to piece together the contents of the "ingenious and vertuous" Philips's letter. This is made surprisingly easy for us because of Taylor's style in taking each of Philips's questions point by point, presenting his views, but always placing these into the context of the "Society." For instance, Taylor writes "You first inquire how far a Dear and a perfect friendship is authoriz'd by the principles of Christianity?" (5) and goes on to elaborate at some length upon what precisely Philips might mean by "Dear and perfect friendship" and in what sense she wants "authorization," religious or otherwise. The fact that Taylor frames his Discourse in this way has led some critics to argue that he does not understand Philips's question and therefore he misinterprets her position on the nature of friendship; ergo, his Discourse is irrelevant to discussions of the Society. (6) However, this seems to suggest a little too much eagerness to dismiss a treatise which does appear to have influenced Philips's thinking. When Taylor writes that "by friendships, I suppose you mean, the greatest love, and the greatest usefulness, and the most open communication, and the noblest sufferings and the most exemplar faithfulness, and the severest truth, and the heartiest counsel, and the greatest union of mindes, of which brave men and women are capable," (7) he is actually providing a rather neat summary of many of the themes of Philips's work. Her poetry is concerned precisely with this idea of "faithfulness ... truth ... the greatest union of mindes," and Taylor appears to approve this definition of friendship. Taylor's Discourse manages to achieve a successful and convincing balancing act between friendship as a worldly thing on one hand, and as a religious institution on the other. Thus a friend is someone who can do things for us, who can be useful to us, can act as a partner in our causes and beliefs, in a kind of parallel to the modern idea of networking. (8) Yet such a friend can also join with us in a "celestial friendship, by which we shall love every one as much as they can be loved." (9) Taylor also recognizes that friendship must be an exclusive activity, and reasons that even this is not against the churchly ideals upon which friendship, in the sense of the ability to spread the love of Christ, is based, but rather upon the recognition that "the ... friendship of which I speak, must be limited, because we are so." (10)

It is true that Taylor is very wary of one part of Philips's letter surrounding the question of how far such friendships may go, and he does assert a traditionalist stance in declaring that

Marriage is the Queen of friendships, in which there is a communication of all that can be communicated by friendship: and it being made sacred by vows and love, by bodies and souls, by interest and custome, by religion and by laws, by common counsels, and common fortunes; it is the principal in the kind of friendship, and the measure of all the rest. (11)

But perhaps more interesting than Taylor's apparent conservatism in placing marriage as the "Queen of friendships" is the way in which he manages to manipulate these twin ideas of friendship and marriage, suggesting, of course, that marriage is the highest form of friendship, but also that the Other relationship, friendship, is essentially built upon a similar foundation to the married state itself. The fact that this kind of blurring of the rituals and ceremonies, even the language of marriage, is a fundamental part of the discourse of friendship too, is evidenced by Taylor's later statement concerning the circumstances under which a "divorce," his word, (12) between friends may take place:

There are two things which a friend can never pardon, a treacherous blow and the revealing of a secret, because these are against the Nature of friendship; they are the adulteries of it, and dissolve the Union; and in the matters of friendship which is the marriage of souls; these are the proper causes of divorce: and therefore I shall adde this only, that secrecy is the chastity of friendship, and the publication of it is a prostitution and direct debauchery. (13)

Anyone reading this passage in the light of Philips's poems written by Orinda to Regina will recognize the root of the splenetic attacks directed at a one-time friend guilty of inflicting a "treacherous blow." For, to follow through Taylor's argument, to betray the friend is also to endanger one's own soul and immortality. This use of religious language is something that modern readers (and some critics) inevitably find very difficult to appreciate fully, and some might mistake the passionate intensity of Philips's language for sexual passion, but to do so is to misread the meaning of the verse. In the poem "Friendship," for instance, Philips is directly concerned with matters relating to the soul and the process of enlightenment which friendship allows it to attain. She begins by chastising all that is external to friendship (and which therefore bears the taint of the material world):
   Let the dull brutish world that know not love
   Continue haeretiques, and disapprove
   That noble flame; but the refined know
   'Tis all the heaven we have here below. (14)

The emphasis is firmly laid upon an opposition between that which is the "dull brutish world" and its "haeretiques" and that which is "all the heaven we have here below" in friendship. This imagery is spiritual precisely because the physical and spiritual realms are visualized within the same space. Philips does not say that through friendship one attains heaven because to do so makes a mockery of the soul's immortality. Instead, she cleverly underlines friendship's own inadequacy: it is not heaven, but "all the heaven" a mortal can attain. This visualization of the other, the ability to reach what is in effect a state of limited ecstasy, is only to be found in "the eternal destiny of Love" (24) but to mistake this Love for a physical reality or to view it as lying within a physical being is to misread the poem's context and its use of traditional religious discourse. The essence of this friendship lies entirely outside the "world" which has already been highlighted as base. Souls are what Philips is concerned with here
   For when two soules are chang'd and mixed soe,
   It is what they and none but they can doe;
   And this is friendship, that abstracted flame
   Which creeping mortals know not how to name.
   All Love is sacred, and the marriage ty
   Hath much of Honour and divinity;
   But Lust, design, or some unworthy ends
   May mingle there, which are despis'd by friends.

Although Philips might be seen to answer Taylor here in her articulation of the idea that marriage is honorable and partially divine but "may" not be the height of friendship, her words do not constitute a rejection of marriage in favour of same-sex love. In fact, what Philips appears to be highlighting is that marriage is incapable of being the "Queene of friendships," in Taylor's words, because of its connection not with a sickening world of materiality but rather with the natural "Lust" of the world. For Philips it seems one cannot exchange souls if one has mixed bodies. In a sense, "Friendship! That Love's Elixar, that pure fire / Which burns the clearer 'cause it burns the higher" (37-38) is precisely so because the physical reality does not matter, indeed, were it ever to become part of friendship then that union must be broken. Philips's separation of the degrees of love appears to be informed by both her reading of Donne and her understanding of Platonic love. In the lines quoted above we can see elements of Donne's "The Ecstacy," particularly the section where Donne's speaker seeks to clarify what is meant by the "ecstacy" of neo-Platonic divine love and the creation of a "new soul." He writes
   Wee then, who are this new soule, know,
   Of what we are compos'd, and made,
   For, th' Atomies of which we grow,
   Are soules, whom no change can invade. (15)

With the emphasis on the "we" that "know" as opposed to the ignorant outsiders, Donne's speaker makes the same assertion of other-worldliness about his religious experience as Philips makes concerning her understanding of friendship.

Philips's emphasis in "Friendship" and in the majority of the friendship poems is on three central concerns: the desire to explain what constitutes friendship; the purity of the relationship, and its spiritual aspect. This spiritual dimension centres around the immortality of the soul and this ties Philips's idea[1]s of friendship into not only discourses likeJeremy Taylor's, which was written explicitly for Philips, but the much more significant work of the group known as the Cambridge Platonists.

The Cambridge Platonists or, as they were also called, the Latitude men, (16) have a relevance here not only because of their formulations in regard to Platonic Love but also because they themselves offer a parallel to the kind of middle-road that Philips herself pursued. Born into a Presbyterian background she nevertheless embraced Royalism and the ceremonial of High Church Anglicanism whilst being married to a prominent, if moderate, Cromwellian. Thus, Philips had to strike a balance between the often conflicting political and religious imperatives of two very different visions of wordly existence. In this she was like the Platonists whose efforts were directed towards the discovery of a middle course between the party which was dominated by the ecclesiastical statesmanship of Laud on the one hand, and, on the other, the party which was encumbered by the subtle and formal and all too complete theology of the Puritans. (17)

It might not therefore be thought so strange that Philips would be drawn to their philosophy. Those places where Philips's concerns centre on the spiritual configurations of friendship can certainly be informed by an understanding of Platonic treaties of the period. John Smith's (1618-52) A Discourse Demonstrating the Immortality of the Soul (1660) is a particularly striking text in this sense. Smith states that "the chief natural way whereby we can climbe up to our understanding of the Deity is by a Contemplation of our own Souls," (18) seemingly placing an emphasis upon the individual rather than friends. Smith holds that it is the physical constraints and desires of the fleshly world that prevent men understanding their souls' immortality. He writes of the knowledge that the soul is immortal and of its future freedom in terms which stress how burdensome this knowledge can be:

knowing that when they leave this Body, they shall then be received into everlasting habitations, and converse freely and familiarly with that Source of Life and Spirit which they conversed with in this life in a poor disturbed and streightned manner. It is indeed nothing else that makes men question the Immortality of their Souls, so much as their own base and earthly loves, which first makes them wish their Souls were not immortal, and then to think they are not. (19)

He goes on to argue that it is those who immerse themselves in the bodily pleasures who cease to understand the natural relation between man and the divine and who view the material rather than "things as they are in their own naked essences"; he writes of how

the vulgar sort of men beholding the Souls of the generality so mutilated and deform'd with Vice and Wickedness ... cannot think of the Soul as of any Divine and Immortal Being; though indeed they ought to judge of things as they are in their own naked essences, and not with respect to that which extraessentially adheres to them; which is the great prejudice of knowledge. Contemplate therefore the Soul of man, denuding it of all that which it self is not, or let him that does this view his own Soul. (20)

This last line is particularly important in relation to our understanding of how such a text relates to friendship in Philips's Society. For Philips, contemplation and meditation of one's own soul in relation to others is the key to gaining knowledge of personal immortality. While Smith's text can be read as referring to "the Soul of man" in an abstracted sense, Philips's version of this is grounded in a belief in the communication between friends' souls. Philips's is a poetic interpretation and there is a danger that the very nature of her verse, building, adapting and working within an older love-poetry tradition, may cloud the philosophical ideals by which it is informed. However, in the poem "On Controversies in Religion" I believe we can catch glimpses of the kinds of ideas that Smith is exploring. Philips writes of a soul that
   Touch'd with divine and inward life doth run,
   Not resting till it hath its Centre wonne;
   Moves steadily Until it safe doth ly
   I'th' roote of all its Immortality;
   And resting here, hath yet activity
   To grow more like unto the Deity;
   Good, Universall, wise and Just as he,
   (The same in kind, though differing in degree).

This is in essence what she refers to in "Friendship in Emblem," too, when she speaks of "Friendship's exalted interest" (26) and of the belief that "friendship from good=angels springs, / To teach the world heroique things" (39-40). The means of understanding immortality is bound up by Philips, as in the writings of the Cambridge Platonists, with knowledge and man's need to recognize and actively contemplate his immortal soul.

None of this is to say that Philips's vision of friendship in her poetry fits entirely with the views expounded in the work of the Cambridge Platonists. Indeed, some of Philips's more impassioned poems, particularly those addressed to friends who she feels have betrayed the Society, might be viewed as positively contradictory of some Platonist teachings on the concept of "Divine Love." Smith in his A Discourse Concerning the Essence and Nature of God, for instance, argues that

the Divine Love is never attended with those turbulent passions, perturbations, or wrestlings within it self, of Fear, Desire, Grief, Anger, or any such like, whereby our Love is wont to explicate and unfold its affection towards its Object. But as the Divine Love is perpetually most infinitely ardent and potent, so it is always calm and serene, unchangeable.... (21)

Philips's jealous outrages and piqued performances are plain to see in her poems to Regina Collier or Rosania, but in a sense that does not make these poems contradictory to Smith's views. It could be argued that from Philips's viewpoint such friendship betrayed must, of necessity, involve "turbulent passions ... Grief, Anger" precisely because it is the very opposite of the relationship which was meant to allow access to the divine. Moreover, in reflecting the turbulence of her emotions Philips is, after all, revealing the human fallibility present in all relationships, even those between the closest friends.

Much of the critical work on Philips's Society of Friendship fails to place the Society into this kind of context, either through discussing discourses like that by Francis Finch, (22) the treatise by Jeremy Taylor, or by looking more closely at the ideas about Platonic friendships during the period. Yet examining the various contemporaneous treatises on this matter and reading the Philips poems in this context only illuminates if it can be demonstrated that Philips had some kind of contact with this literature. This evidence is provided by her poem "God," which begins with a long quotation from Henry More's (23) "Cupid's Conflict." In his poem, published in his Democritus Platonissans (1646), More's Mela narrates to Cleanthes his recent encounter with Cupid. Mela having sat down by the banks of a pleasant stream decides to contemplate "hid heavenly pleasures" but is disturbed by Cupid who, from the other bank is trying to fire an arrow to pierce Mela's heart. Failing dismally, Cupid with "consuming ire" proceeds with a tirade against Mela as an "unthankful wretch! Gods gifts thus to reject." There then begins a debate between Mela and Cupid on the merits of physical and spiritual love. Philips begins "God" by quoting some nineteen lines of More's text which deal with the independence of the spirit, the "pure conscience," the "vertuous life" and the return of the soul to God after death. The poem which follows is a meditation by Philips upon these themes. She dwells upon the inadequacy of human existence, "Thus all created excellence we see / Is a faint dark resemblance of thee," (17-18) and pleads
   ... O God, enlarge my heart
   To entertaine what thou wouldst faine impart
   Nor let this Soul, by severall titles thine,
   Degrade it self, in sordid things delight,
   Or by profaner mixtures loose its right,
   (37-39, 43-44)

Here, it can be seen how Philips uses More's poem as a means of reaching into both her own ideas about her soul and her relationships with others. This image is unmistakably non-sexual and points towards the central theme of Philips's relationships with other women and their spiritual, rather than physical, significance. If Philips had read her More deeply then the following lines, which occur just a few stanzas before the passage Philips herself quotes, are important too: "Who seeks for pleasure in this mortall life / By diving deep into the body base / Shall loose true pleasure." It is in this doubling and dividing of pleasures that More has relevance for Philips's poetry which similarly, and presumably through her reading of More, engages with the explicit divide between soul and body. The friendship poems under this reading attest to and are meant to be read as enactments of a spiritual engagement by two souls which transcends the physical world. Read in this context, Philips's work can be seen as actively engaging with contemporary philosophical debates. As the locus of her Society, Philips was in a central position from which to learn about the cultural ideas of the period. Although she was a woman, she was by no means unique in having access to the work of male philosophers. Lady Anne Conway enjoyed a correspondence with Henry More which spanned many years, during which time she read and commented upon many of his works in their manuscript stage. (24) Indeed, several members of Philips's circle had connections with Anne Conway and it is likely that the Philips Society and the Conway circle were aware of one another. (25)

But can we be sure that the religious and spiritual elements of the Society of Friendship were part of its public persona? In fact there is a parallel, though not identical, friendship between John Evelyn and Margaret Blagge, later Margaret Godolphin, a friendship which began in the late 1660s, which reveals how Philips's Society was viewed by some of her contemporaries. Frances Harris has spent several years studying the unpublished manuscripts of John Evelyn (1620-1706), looking expressly at his Platonic, or as he termed it, "seraphic" friendship with a woman thirty-years his junior. Her recently published study reveals the dynamics of this other unusual seventeenth century friendship. (26) I believe that Harris's findings highlight important aspects of the period's discourse on friendship that bear relevance for Philips studies too. Harris, for instance, returns the idealistic attitude towards friendship during the seventeenth century to its origins in Plato. As she writes, during the time in which both Philips and Evelyn lived, the homoeroticism of Plato was transformed into what has been called a "sublime spiritual eros", by which love for a supremely attractive man (or in some versions a woman), stripped of all sensual appetite, could become the pathway to apprehension of, and eventually mystic union with, divine love and beauty. (27)

It was from such a reworking of the Platonic ideal that Robert Boyle wrote his essay on Some Motives to the Love of God, better known as Seraphick Love, a work that proved hugely influential on Evelyn and his contemporaries and which it is extremely likely that Philips read. (28) Boyle argues that human passion should be, and could be, transformed into religious devotion, largely following the process that Pietro Bembo outlines in book four of Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, stressing throughout that such friendships were created through a combination of the Platonic and the Christian; "seraphick love" denoting the seraphic fire or devotion attained by seraphims after passing through the various stages of earthly love. (29) As Harris states: "Love between such friends therefore had the potential to be more significant than any other human relationship; to transform itself into an experience of the divine." (30) Harris's summary of the views on friendship amongst Evelyn and his contemporaries thus holds striking similarities with the Society of Katherine Philips. Indeed, Harris highlights the fact that "[a]fter his [Evelyn's] return to England in the 1650s he had links through Jeremy Taylor with the indigenous 'circle of friendship' established by the poet Katherine Philips, whose members, both men and women, all had coterie names ... drawn from platonic plays and romances." (31) Thus, Evelyn's friendship could be said to have been in part inspired by or at least parallel in ideal to that of Philips and her coterie, even down to the use of names: Evelyn and his wife, for instance, were Calianthe and Meliora; and Evelyn rechristened himself, for his relationship with Margaret, Philaretes, after Robert Boyle's self-naming, while Margaret became Electra. Of particular importance, I think, is the engagement with this idea of friendship as a means to discover the divine.

This might appear a little too much like an attempt to place friendship, even an erotically charged one, into the context of a secular religion. But this is in a sense is precisely what certain aspects of Philips's Society are about. Where critics are prepared to acknowledge the political context in which Philips is writing and view the coterie names and the Society's symbolism as part of a strategy to remain at least secretly loyal to the exiled monarchy, such a reading can be taken one step further and suggest that the symbolic representation of the burning hearts on altars ("Friendship in Emblem"), is a rebellion against a Puritanical religious view. In a sense, if Philips's Society of Friendship enacts a coded representation of the now lost system of monarchical government and its court, it also creates a symbolism that portrays a friendship which is based upon and works within High Anglican, even Catholic iconography. Given her childhood Puritanism's stark contrast to her later political outlook (John Aubrey notes that as a child Katherine Philips was so "much against the bishops" that she "prayd God to take them to him"), (32) it is intriguing that no sustained analysis of Philips's religious ideas as described in her poetry has been undertaken.

Philips's poem "Friendship in Emblem, or the Seale," addressed to Lucasia, neatly formulates the image of intermingled hearts that recurs frequently in the friendship poems. The poem begins
   The hearts thus intermixed speak
   A Love that no bold shock can break;
   For Joyn'd and growing, both in one,
   Neither can be disturb'd alone.

With this vision of the hearts combined, Philips's speaker Orinda is able to place plurality and unity at the core of the poem's meaning. The hearts though remain in the plural throughout the poem, as do "soules" later on (line 52); thus, the symbolically "Joyn'd" is also physically apart, a fact underlined by the very separateness of the "mutuall knowledge," (line 5) for to be "mutuall" is to have a shared knowledge and yet maintain an individuality. This is an important and rather telling point which extends into the imagery used in the following verses where 'Orinda' underlines the purity of this act of sharedness; the symbolic constancy of the relationship and the immortal understanding it brings. She writes
   That friendship hearts so much refines,
   Is nothing but it self designs:
   The hearts are free from lower ends,
   For each point to the other tends.

   They flame, 'tis true, and severall ways,
   But still those flames doe so much raise,
   That while to either they incline
   They yet are noble and divine.

   From smoak or hurt those flames are free,
   From grosseness or mortality:
   The hearts (like Moses bush presum'd)
   Warm'd and enlighten'd, not consum'd.

   The compasses that stand above
   Express this great immortall Love;
   For friends, like them, can prove this true,
   They are, and yet they are not, two.

The imagery here is conventional enough, and as Patrick Thomas and others have pointed out the mention of the compass probably owes its origins to Donne's "A Valediction: forbidding Mourning" where Donne speaks of two souls, which "if they be two, they are two so / As stiff twin compasses are two;" the compass was in any case a standard image of constancy. But to be constant in this sense is both to recognize a tie to another and yet assert one's continuing difference from that other. The imagery here casts into doubt views of the poetry which argue that "the concept of friendship in the abstract frequently collapses into 'we' and continually takes precedence over 'I'." (33) Instead, a process far more complex is being enacted in which Philips points out the inability to use such concepts as singular and plural; both exist simultaneously to the point where even the achieved state is not one in which either individual can be said to "exist" but neither have they united fully into one. If the two souls or hearts were combined here then there would be no need of images connected to constancy for one must inevitably always be constant to one's self. Instead, what these hearts point to is a connectedness that has a purpose and a union which remains a fragile one unless based on fairly standard and traditional ideals, the rituals and vows which Taylor mentioned in his Discourse in relation to marriage. Indeed, in its discussion of the relationship between the individual and the partnership, the poem is strikingly similar to Shakespeare's poem on the unity within marriage, "Phoenix and Turtle." In her use of phrases such as "They are, and yet they are not, two," Philips could be seen as directly echoing Shakespeare's poem and its description of the lovers as "Neither two nor one":
   So they loved as love in twain
   Had the essence but in one,
   Two distincts, division none.
   Number there in love was slain.

   Hearts remote yet not asunder,
   Distance and no space was seen
   'Twixt this turtle and his queen.
   But in them it were a wonder.

   So between them love did shine
   That the turtle saw his right
   Flaming in the Phoenix' sight.
   Either was the other's mine.

   Property was thus appalled
   That the self was not the same.
   Single nature's double name
   Neither two nor one was called. (34)

Thomas states of Philips's poem that "the emblem which is described was no doubt the badge of the 'Society'," (35) although as no such emblem survives this cannot be proved. Perhaps more importantly and interestingly, and a point often forgotten, is that if this poem does describe the Society's badge it was presumably one not restricted to certain members over others; in other words, men had access to this poem and the emblem too. Emblems of friendship were not new to Phillips's Society and there were numerous emblematic representations of friendship in circulation during the period. The poet Mildmay Fane, Earl of Westmorland, for example, printed an emblem in his collection Otia sacra in 1648 in which three hearts were pictured interlocked, each with its own Latin inscription and flames arising from the hearts at the point at which they joined (see fig. 1). The tripartite secular and religious nature of this symbolism is highlighted by the accompanying verse which reads:
   It is not meant, that three in one should be,
   But in each heart triple Capacitie,
   Wherewith to serve ones God, ones King, ones Friend,
   To which assign'd, and for no other end;
      In Flaming Zeal upwards to mount again,
      In Loyalty to own a Soveraign,
      In mutuall Love Society t'maintain. (36)

Here the religious, the political and friendship are united in a way which anticipates the kind of imperatives we can trace within Philips's circle. A few years before Fane, George Wither had printed two emblems which also have relevance here in his A Collection of emblems, ancient and moderne, published in 1635. The first bears the motto: "Death, is unable to divide / Their Hearts, whose Hands True-love hath tyde" (see fig. 2). (37) This appears above the image of two hands grasping each other over a flaming heart placed upon an altar. Death stares out from above the hands, and the verse clearly points to this being an emblem of marriage rather than friendship, with reference made to a "Marriage-ring" and a "Covenant." Yet if this is meant to figuratively represent the marriage union it is striking how similar the image reads to the second emblem from Wither. This bears the motto "That's Friendship, and true-love, indeed, / Which firme abides, in time of need" (see fig. 3). (38) Here too the combination of hands and flaming heart are combined, albeit the grasp is now more of a holding and the hands themselves make up the altar upon which the heart is placed. The heart is also crowned presumably to symbolize that this is the king of friendships. Death no longer appears, and there is no suggestion of the immortality of this bond. Nevertheless the poem underneath the image does make reference to the differences between those who are friends in time of need and others who are "Rogues, and Canters." Finally, and looking forward slightly rather than back, there is the design used by John Evelyn himself (see fig. 4). (39) Interestingly in Evelyn's design the heart is placed upon an altar which explicitly underpins the religious sanctity of what Philips calls friendship's "sacrifice;" Frances Harris has identified that the heart and altar in Evelyn's design were "influenced by the symbols of divine love in Catholic devotional works he would have known in France." (40) With Philips's knowledge of French literature, and the possibility that the Society of Friendship may itself have had some of its philosophical roots in similar French societies such as the tradition of preciosite and the salon, there is a reasonable likelihood that she too might have taken some of her symbolism from such sources.

The possibility that Catholic symbolism may be relevant to Philips's iconography is apparent in her poem "Friendship's Mysterys," which was set to music by the composer Henry Lawes and published in his Second Book of Ayres and Dialogues in 1655. The poem begins:
   Come, my Lucasia, since we see
   That miracles men's faith do move
   By wonder and by Prodigy,
   To the dull, angry world let's prove
   There's a religion in our Love.

This verse, with its clear opening echo of the pastoral "Passionate Shepherd to his love," contains the same opposition to be found in "Friendship." Here the "dull brutish world" of that poem is a "dull, angry world" to which Orinda and Lucasia must demonstrate the "religion" of their Love. The structure of the verse here is also revealing because Philips modulates between the plural relationship of Orinda and Lucasia to the generalized world and back again. This neat rhetorical device means that Philips is able cleverly to put forward the idea that this call to Lucasia is for a withdrawal from the public eye and yet the images emphasize the visual. Claudia Thomas Kairoff, in one of the few essays to mention, albeit briefly, the possibility that Philips might be seen as a religious poet, writes that "poems such as 'Friendship's Mystery' [sic] and 'Friendship' ... describe ... her courtly friendship for 'Lucasia' in language reminiscent of Roman Catholic mysteries such as visions and miracles." (41) Clearly, "Friendship's Mysterys" is about perception, both Philips's of the world and the world of this friendship between Orinda and Lucasia. In this sense the comparison with miracles and mysteries is a useful one and may even hint at another reason why Philips's use of female same-sex Platonic relationships is important for the "dull, angry world" must be configured as male and thus the feminisation of friendship provides not only an idealized alternative world but also reaches into the much older tradition of Christian female iconography. But such a reading must be carefully managed. Bronwen Price has written that in Philips's poems "friendship itself is continually feminized, often conceived of as an interiorised, autonomous space, unbreached by the world outside," (42) but this is to miss how the importance resides in the need to be seen and also to see. In a poem such as "To my Lucasia," for instance, the persona of Orinda apparently states that this is a friendship not to be seen outside of the couple concerned. Addressing the friend, she says
   ... sit down and view
   How sweet the mixture is! how full! how true!
   By what soft touches spirits greet and kiss,
   And in each other can compleat their bliss:
   A wonder so sublime it will admit
   No rude spectatour to contemplate it.
   The object will refine, and he that can
   Friendship revere must be a noble man.

Here, though, the adjective "rude" is significant because it returns us to the idea of those unworthy of friendship tarnishing its beauty and its sublime nature; just as Smith wrote of "the vulgar sort of men" who were not pure enough to perceive the immortality of others, so Philips excludes the "rude spectatour" but by the same motion includes the correct "spectatour" and the right reader. Again we are returned to Donne's "The Ecstacy" and the concluding verses where he writes of the initiate "lover, such as we" who shall be the only one to "see" the true relationship between the lovers.

In some poems it is clear to see that Philips's imagery of the friends' retreat does indeed take on aspects of a political vision. In "A retir'd friendship, to Ardelia," for instance, Philips begins the poem in a similar style to "Friendship's Mysterys" singing
   Come, my Ardelia, to this bowre,
   Where kindly mingling Souls a while,
   Let's innocently spend an houre,
   And at all serious follys smile.

Yet her conclusion this time is far more politicized than in the other poem:
   But we (of one another's mind
   Assur'd,) the boistrous world disdain;
   With quiet souls, and unconfin'd,
   Enjoy what princes wish in vain.

The application of the final line is plain enough and points to the possibility that Philips was aware of friendship not as a model for a future state but certainly as a temporary retreat from the now-kingless state.

In "Friendship's Mysterys," with its echo of Donne's "Love's mysteries" in "The Ecstacy," the inclination of the speaker remains more directed towards the religious aspects of friendship than its abilities to provide a model for an idealized politics. In a sense, the verses following the opening rearticulate some of the points made earlier about the complex nature of what Philips means by the mingling of souls and whether this constitutes a sublimation of the individual identity or something more curious and more complicated. Philips writes of the mingling of hearts, minds and souls:
   Our hearts are doubled by their loss,
   Here mixture is addition grown;
   We both diffuse, and both engrosse,
   And we, whose minds are so much one,
   Never, yet ever, are alone.

Once more the language echoes Shakespeare's "Phoenix and Turtle" with its resolute defiance of numerical logic in favour of spiritual completeness. Here it is not sublimation so much as multiplication that is at work with the 'doubled' hearts strengthening rather than weakening individual identity. Philips concludes with a verse that positively identifies the friendship as one of spiritual reward:
   Our hearts are mutuall victims lay'd,
   While they (such power in friendship ly's)
   Are Altars, Priests, and offerings made,
   And each heart which thus kindly dy's,
   Grows deathless by the sacrifice.

Reading these lines we would do well to bear in mind one of Robert Boyle's comments in his Seraphick Love. Writing of the desire to elevate the image of one's mistress, Boyle states that the

Offering up of hearts, Adoring, Sacrifices, Martyrdoms; does not all this imply, that though it be Said to her, 'tis meant to a Divinity: which is so much the True and genuine Object of mens Love, that we cannot exalt that Passion for any other, without investing it with the Notion and Attribute of God? (43)

Philips's elevation, not of the mistress, but of the relationship between Orinda and Lucasia through the use of religious metaphors is illuminated by Boyle's understanding of the human need to "invest" such relationships with a divine significance. Not only does Philips speak of altars and priests but hints at religious mysteries in her title: the motif of here is again one of immortality, and an immortality keenly associated with friendship in the Platonic sense. In a poem entitled "To the noble Palaemon on his incomparable discourse of Friendship," 'Orinda' pushes to the fore the idea that it is Palaemon's (i.e., Finch's) investment in the ideals of friendship, displayed in his discourse on the subject, that have guaranteed him a form of immortality: "But this we know, without thy own consent, / Th' hast rear'd thy self a glorious monument" and later "But there [in the work] Palaemon lives, and so he must / When Marbles crumble to forgotten dust." In the poems looked at here, I think it clear that Philips's Society may well have engaged with more philosophical and religious ideas of friendship than has been previously imagined.


In Lilian Faderman's view, Philips and her Society form part of the "best literary record of seventeenth-century female romantic friendship in England.... Had she written in the twentieth century, her poetry would undoubtedly have been identified as 'lesbian'. Her seventeenth-century contemporaries saw it as the finest expression of female friendship." (44) Perhaps sadly, Philips did not write in the twentieth century and therefore her cultural understandings of the very notions of friendship and sexuality are outside twentieth century definitions. Faderman goes on to state with surprising confidence that "many of [Philips's] literary contemporaries held her up as a model of virtue for her commitment to romantic friendship (my emphasis)." (45) In this rather loose and almost anachronistic terminology, Faderman escapes the need to define what exactly Philips's contemporaries would have understood "romantic friendship" to mean. (46) The Platonic seems to be being merged with the sexual or romanticized form of love with which it is anathematic.

Instead of this ahistorical understanding of friendship, I have suggested a reading which allows much more for the possibility that Philips's Society was actively engaged with the culture, literature and thought of her period. Friendship, for Philips and the society in which she lived, is not part of an idealized union between two souls for its own sake or for the sexually subversive undercurrents it can mask, but rather an imagining of the spiritual possibilities of such an "intermixing" in allowing the attainment of a higher knowledge. As Frances Harris writes in relation to Evelyn's relationship with Margaret Godolphin, "whether male or female relationships were set higher, there was agreement ... that friendship was something apart from procreative love in marriage and in some respects superior to it." (47) The same-sex love referred to by Harris here is reserved for relationships between men, yet Philips's recasting of genders is actually less subversive than if she had been a married woman writing these poems to a married man. Such a relationship would have been far more radical in its openness and social unacceptability. It may rather be the case that the success of Philips's strategy in appealing to the male members of the Society lies more in its very traditional understanding of same-sex spiritual relationships, as opposed to a kind of titillation about representations of women as physical lovers. In fact, if we read the verse correctly perhaps sex and gender should be terms we use less. Bronwen Price argues that in Philips's work "female friendship is continually extolled because it is founded on 'an incomparable mixture' of souls," (48) but as Philips herself points out in defence of such friendships, "soules no sexes have." Indeed, she was a staunch proponent in addressing the idea that women, too, were capable of divine friendships and used a Platonic ideal to argue her case, declaring
   If soules no sexes have, for men t'exclude
   Women from friendship's vast capacity,
   Is a design injurious and rude,
   Onely maintain'd by partiall tyranny.
   Love is allow'd to us, and Innocence,
   And noblest friendships doe proceed from thence.
   ("A Friend," 19-24)

It is unfortunately feminist criticism, which after all has the most to gain by encouraging readers and academics in the field of seventeenth century studies to take women writers such as Philips more seriously, that has served her least well. Faderman's account of the Society was written in the early 1980s yet recently Harriette Andreadis, whilst acknowledging that others have tended to "gloss over ... the multivalent implications of the Renaissance rhetoric of friendship," (49) when writing about same-sex relationships still feels able unproblematically to state that "Philips's is the earliest printed example of a woman's poetic expression in English of intense same-sex love between women" (50) (my emphasis) and even that these are poems to "her intimate women friends ... chronicling in some detail her emotional relations with them." (51) Although Andreadis' statements might only carry a minor ambiguity about her reading of the poems, the failure to make explicit aspects of the "multivalent implications" she mentions in her book's introduction damages her conclusions. In fact, in writing of this "intense same-sex love," Andreadis is ignoring the evidence of the poems which are about this love:
   Friendship is abstract of this noble flame,
   'Tis love refin'd and purg'd from all its drosse,
   The next to Angells Love, if not the same,
   Stronger then passion is, though not so grosse:
   It antedates a glad Eternity,
   And is a heaven in Epitomy.
   ("A Friend," 7-12)

Philips's vision of friendship speaks in this quasi-religious language for a reason--not because it is a convenient veil through which lesbian desire can conceal itself but because this is the seventeenth-century language of friendship. The emotion described here is, in Philips's words "stronger than passion" and comparable to "Angells Love, if not the same." This does not sound like an attempt to conceal the true emotion behind the relationship but rather a desperate recognition of the inability to give full meaning to it in language.

Greater claims can be made for Philips's work and her importance if it is not the unusual nature of her Society which is given most weight but how her poetry relates to wider, predominantly masculine discourses. To make the statement that

[i]n content, there is little to separate both [Philips's] letters and her poems from the writings of Sappho. As one might expect, Philips, who lived most of her life during the reign of the Puritans, does not dwell on the physical manifestations of her arousal as Sappho does; she is much more concerned with the ecstasy of her soul, but it is another woman who brings about this ecstasy and makes her feel complete, (52)

is, in my view, dangerously to misread the rhetoric of friendship in the period, and Philips's understanding and engagement with it. More importantly, it also puts Philips's work into a shadow-land area, behind the culture of her time and certainly not central within it. In fact, Philips' significant engagement with contemporary philosophy may tie her much more into a male tradition which stems from Plato than an alternative female canon beginning with Sappho. Far from being a self-contained community with its own rules, ceremonies, emblems and other paraphernalia, the Society of Friendship was a group that, with Philips at its head, actively and vibrantly engaged in contemporary debates surrounding not only political but philosophical and religious issues too.

University of Wales, Swansea


(1) Carol Barash, English Women's Poetry, 1649-1714: Politics, Community, and Linguistic Authority (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 56.

(2) See, for example, Elaine Hobby, Virtue of Necessity: English Women's Writing 1649-88 (London: Virago, 1988) and "Katherine Philips: Seventeenth Century Lesbian Poet" in What Lesbians do in Books, ed. Elaine Hobby and Chris White (London: Women's Press, 1991), 183-204.

(3) This phrase is taken from Robert C. Evans's essay on Philips, "Paradox in Poetry and Politics: Katherine Philips in the Interregnum," in Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (eds.), Representing Women in Renaissance England (U. Missouri Press, 1997), 174-85, 178.

(4) During the seventeenth century, Platonic friendship literature flourished for both political and philosophical reasons. Key publications during the period include those discussed in this essay by Jeremy Taylor, Francis Finch and Robert Boyle and the work of the Cambridge Platonists, together with translations of Cicero's On Friendship and the general ideals of friendship represented in Cavalier poems of "the happy man."

(5) Taylor, A Discourse of the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship, with Rules of Conducting it (London: R. Royston, 1657), 3.

(6) See, for example, Harriette Andreadis, "The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Phillips, 1632-1664," Signs 15:1 (1989), 34-60.

(7) Taylor, 5.

(8) For friends as networkers see especially Taylor, 24-26.

(9) Taylor, 9.

(10) Taylor, 14.

(11) Taylor, 72.

(12) Taylor, 93.

(13) Taylor, 93.

(14) All quotations from Philips's poems are taken from The Collected Works of Katherine Philips, 3 vols, ed. Patrick Thomas et al. (Essex: Stump Cross Books, 1990), Volume One: The Poems.

(15) John Donne, The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 60.

(16) E.T. Campagnac states that this was the name by which they were sometimes known during the century and that this "title, which has been less commonly used, was, on the whole, more tidy chosen than the other; for it grants the breadth of view which was never denied them, and yet has a flavour of disapproval which is significant of the estimation in which they were held." See The Cambridge Platonists: Being Selections from the Writings of Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith and Nathaniel Culverwell, introduced by E.T. Campagnac (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), xi.

(17) Campagnac, xiii.

(18) John Smith, "A Discourse Demonstrating the Immortality of the Soul," in Campagnac, 99-157, 103.

(19) Smith, 141.

(20) Smith, 142.

(21) John Smith, "A Discourse Concerning the Existence and Nature of God," in Campagnac, 159-176, 166-7.

(22) Francis Finch, Friendship (1654).

(23) Henry More (1614-87) was one of the most prominent of the Cambridge Platonists. A fellow of Christ's College Cambridge from 1639 until his death, he produced a prodigious amount of work on his ideas in both verse and prose.

(24) See The Conway Letters: The Correspondence of Anne, Viscountess Conway, Henry More, and their Friends, 1642-1684, ed. Marjorie Hope Nicolson (London: Oxford U. Press, 1930).

(25) Anne Conway was the niece of Francis Finch ('Palaemon'; see Marjorie Hope Nicolson, 18n.10) and her husband Edward Conway was an admirer of Jeremy Taylor (6), appointing him, on Henry More's recommendation, to the see of Ireland (118-21). Anne's cousin, Heneage Finch, was also the brother-in-law of Sir Edward Dering through marriage (133-34), Dering having married Philips's earliest friend Mary Harvey. At one point in the letters, More suggests that Dering could take a book to Lady Anne (203), which seems to have happened (206). Anne Conway also knew the Earl of Orrery and, like Philips, was in Ireland in the early 1660s.

(26) Frances Harris, Transformations of Love: The Friendship of John Evelyn and Margaret Godolphin (Oxford U. Press, 2002).

(27) Harris, 4-5.

(28) In a letter from Orinda to Berenice (Lady Elizabeth Ker?), Philips writes "I humbly thank your Ladiship for your promise of Mr Boyle's Book" but there is no record of her receiving a copy or reading it. See Thomas et al., Volume Two: The Letters, 2.

(29) See Robert Boyle, Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God (London, 1663), 9.

(30) Harris, 5.

(31) Harris, 75.

(32) See Thomas et al., Volume One: The Poems, 2.

(33) Bronwen Price, "A Rhetoric of Innocence: The Poetry of Katherine Philips, 'The Matchless Orinda'," in Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints, eds. Barbara Smith and Ursula Appelt (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 223-46, 226.

(34) "Phoenix and Turtle" The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 782.

(35) Thomas, 343.

(36) Fane, Otia sacra optima fides (London, 1638), 145.

(37) Wither, A Collection of Emblems, Ancient and Moderne (London, 1635), 99. Carol Barash also reproduces this image; Barash, 97.

(38) Ibid., 237.

(39) Frances Harris also reproduces this image.

(40) Harris, 152.

(41) Claudia Thomas Kairoff, "Classical and Biblical Models: The Female Poetic Tradition," in Women and Poetry, 1660-1750, ed. Sarah Prescott and David E. Shutteton (NewYork: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 183-202, 194.

(42) Price, 233.

(43) Boyle, 49.

(44) Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Junction Books, 1981), 68.

(45) Faderman, 69.

(46) As becomes apparent from Faderman's introduction, her text is in part an exercise in reading backwards. After discovering the existence of such "sentimental friendships" in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Faderman turned her gaze towards the past and discovered similar things happening there, although strangely no explanation is given as to why her starting/cut off date is the mid-Renaissance period.

(47) Harris, 76.

(48) Price, 226.

(49) Andreadis, Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics (U. of Chicago Press, 2001), 22.

(50) Ibid., 57.

(51) Andreadis, "The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips, 1632-1664," 37.

(52) Faderman, 69.

Versions of this article were delivered as research papers in the English departments of the University of Wales, Swansea (May 2003)and Manhattan College, New York (April 2004). I am grateful for the useful comments I received from the audiences at both these venues. I would also like to offer thanks to Glyn Pursglove (University of Wales, Swansea) for his constructive criticism of an earlier draft of this article.
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Author:Llewellyn, Mark
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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