Cavendish and Philips:
THE YEAR 1664 MARKED THE PUBLICATION OF TWO VOLUMES OF poetry by women wits with strong ties to the restored Stuart court: Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle’s Poems, and Fancies,1 and Katherine Philips’s Poems by the incomparable Mrs. K. P.2 These two impressive women are both associated with what Bruce King calls “the new rationalism” of neoclassicism.3 Yet they have a very different wit. Cavendish’s is bizarre, mostly abstract, as she writes of atoms and science and nature; Philips’s is also abstract in the sense that she writes often of friendship, Platonism, Providence. But at their very best, each poet is capable of a poem or two that is more human—and positively stunning. The baroque quality of Cavendish’s “On a Melting Beauty” has no antecedent that I know; that of Philips’s “Friendship’s Mysterys, to my dearest Lucasia” recalls Donne. Both anticipate Emily Dickinson. Both of these poems are from the 1650s, closer to the metaphysical poets, closer to the Golden Age of baroque. But Philips has a poem upon Charles Il’s coronation that dares a shockingly baroque metaphoric allusion. All three poems seem to me metaphysically meant, that is, supercharged with metaphysical conceits that profoundly disrupt them.
As we enter the church at the beginning of Cavendish’s poem, along with the sympathetic speaker, we feel on familiar ground: a rather conventional description of a beautiful woman mourning her lost lover at his tomb. That is, we assume his, but the relationship is actually left genderless. This could even be a female friendship poem like Philips’s.