Katherine Fowler was born on 1st
January 1632 and came to live in Pembrokeshire during her late teens, when her
mother married a wealthy baronet and they were able to live in a castle
liberated from Cavalier forces.
In August 1648, Katherine married James Philips,
a widower, who was 38 years her senior. He went on to achieve political power
and prosperity over the next decade and the couple settled in Cardigan where
Katherine initially lived in obscurity. However, by 1651, she was beginning to
achieve recognition as a poet when her work was advocated by the Welsh
metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan in his Olar
Icansus. Furthermore, her poem in commemoration of playwright William
Cartwright was published in his Comedies,
Katherine (known also by her Nom de Plume Orinda) had been writing since her childhood in boarding school and was fluent in several languages. She turned against her family’s puritanical leanings and became a royalist and member of the Church of England. At her home in Cardigan, ‘Orinda’ became a central figure in a Society of Friendship, where other members adopted similarly romantic pseudonyms and explored the nuances of love through their work and intimate relationships with one another.
Despite maintaining the conventional facade of heterosexual marriage, Katherine wrote of her dissatisfaction with the relationship in a handwritten poem to Anne Barlow of Slebech:
‘ A marryd state affords but little ease
The best of husbands are so hard to please…
be advised by me:
Turn, turn apostate to love’s Levity’.
Although wealthy, highly respected and successful, Katherine was not free to express her sexuality openly and her life was tainted with tragedy. In 1655 she gave birth to a son who lived for less than two weeks, and her daughter had 16 children of her own, of which only one survived. Nevertheless, she remained a prolific and celebrated writer throughout her life and expressed her turmoil in her art. In her poem Dialogue betwixt Lucasia and Rosania she laments through the voice of Lucasia:
‘…when crumbled into dust
We shall meet and love forever’.
In 1662, Katherine travelled to Dublin to claim
Irish estates on behalf of her husband. While there, she worked on a
translation of Corneille’s Mort de Pompee
which cemented her fame and ensured that in January 1644, her first full-length
collection of original poetry was published.
While lauded by poets including Dryden and Keats, Katherine Philips’ main legacy is arguably her quest to forge her own career and system of beliefs separate from those of her husband and family. Furthermore, her poetry resolutely celebrates female experiences, relationships and love at a time when the mainstream literary canon was dominated by male ideology.
She died on 22nd June 1664 and her legacy concludes:
There’s a religion in our Love’.