Katherine Philips: Friendship, Poetry and Neo-Platonic Thought in Seventeenth Century England

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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 . …


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