‘The Vanity of Rhyming’: Augustan Neoclassical Rejection of Katherine Philips

‘The Vanity of Rhyming’: Augustan Neoclassical Rejection of Katherine Philips

I am a fourth-semester student in the Liberal Arts program. My historiography on Katherine Phillips sparked an interest in the coterie — the insular network of poems and letters is so distinct from our current methods of producing and consuming art. My study of the sources of history has since extended to my work as a copy editor of Dawson’s The Plant newspaper, where we are in the process of making our archives digitally accessible. I am an avid reader and creative writer, and plan to pursue History and/or Creative Writing in university next year.


‘The Vanity of Rhyming’: Augustan Neoclassical Rejection of Katherine Philips

By Benjamin Wexler

     Katherine Philips (1631-1664), one of the most celebrated poets on the British Isles in the mid to

late seventeenth century, abruptly fell in reputation in the early eighteenth century. Philips’s decline

was precipitated by English Neoclassical criticism’s shift from the coterie, in which Philips thrived, to a

print culture which standardized poetry and excluded femininity. This historiography will examine that

argument by analyzing and comparing three main sources: “Manly Sweetness: Katherine Philips among

the Neoclassicals” by Paula Loscocco; “Making a Good Impression: Early Texts of Poems and Letter by

Katherine Philips, the ‘Matchless Orinda’” by Elizabeth H. Hageman; and the chapter on “The Eighteenth

Century” in Petru Golban’s The Foundations of English Literary Criticism.

Philips’s decline in reputation is outlined in Loscocco’s article, published in 1993 in the

Huntington Library Quarterly through the Pennsylvania University Press. Manly Sweetness is a literary

analysis of critical poetry displaying the attitudes of Philips’s critics. It directly cites pertinent primary

texts. Thanks to other sources, the historical grounding of these literary trends in Interregnum and

Restoration England can be shown.

Philips, as well as contemporaries such as Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), gained recognition as

poets in whose words “Both improv’d sexes eminently meet / They are than Man more strong, and

more than Woman sweet,” as Cowley compliments her (Loscocco 262). The valuation of both

masculinity and femininity in poetic form was standard in the 1650s and 60s. The English Interregnum

enabled this literary attitude. Disputes between King and Commonwealth were often described through

the metaphor of a “law-giving”, “just” husband/King and a resistant wife/Commonwealth (Hodgson 88).

Even royalist Philips describes how a friend’s husband “carries himself to her with such an Air of

Sovereignty, and in my Opinion so silly and clownish withal” (Hodgson 96); an overbearing King is almost

as bad as no King at all. In 1667, Cowley’s characteristics were complimented by John Denham: “His

fancy and his judgment such, / Each to the other seem’d too much, / His severe judgment (giving Law) /

His modest fancy kept in awe: / As rigid Husbands jealous are, / When they believe their Wives too fair”

(Loscocco 263-4). Loscocco argues that the gendered language presaged future trends prioritizing

“masculine” judgment. However, when the poem was written, the imbalance between King and

Commonwealth created a nonpartisan desire for some balance between masculine and feminine. Philips

excelled within this framework.

Loscocco cites John Dryden’s 1684 praise of English rhyme, which “In Manly sweetness all the

rest surpass’d”, as one example of a developing characterization of all good poetic qualities as masculine

(267). Sweetness is positive; therefore, it is masculine. In the late seventeenth century,

influential Neoclassical figures such as Alexander Pope rejected the effeminate amateurishness of

contemporary poetry, and celebrated a decisive, professional masculinity associated with the classics. In

a poem published in 1686, poet Anne Killigrew wrote fondly of a flourishing of women poets in

Philips’s time that did not seem possible in hers. Philips continued to be appreciated, but only for poetic

qualities gendered as masculine.

Finally, there is the Philips’s fall from grace, linked by Loscocco to a 1712 satirical poem by

Thomas Newcomb:

Their Mistress[‘s] want of Pride to shew,

Her Numbers glide but wondrous low,

Instead of Rapture, give us Sleep,

And striving to be humble, creep….

Softness her Want of Sense supplies,

She faints in every line and dyes. (Loscocco 274)

He appropriates Pope’s more general criticism of amateurish, feminine poetry, and targets Philips’s

modesty as being unconvincing. Newcomb’s poem was not broadly read, but it did make the rounds of

Neoclassical circles, and was published in the Select Collection of Poems of the manager of Gentleman’s

Magazine. It was not the sole cause of Philips’s decline, but it is a convenient example of shifting

attitudes and probably had impact over time as it was shared. Philips’s works were not published for the

rest of the century, and ever since she has been exclusively seen as a “woman poet”.

Elizabeth H. Hageman’s 1994 article “Making a Good Impression”, published in the South

Central Review through the Johns Hopkins University Press, directly analyzes many of Philips’s letters

and poems and considers why and how they may have been interfered with before publication. Philips

was a coterie poet. She and many of her critics wrote as part of an insular community’s constant social,

critical, political, and artistic discourse. Other sources elaborate on how Philips, through her skillful

navigation of the coterie, was approved and defended by influential men such as Charles Coterell and

Abraham Cowley, a necessary step for a woman poet to be both well-circulated and well-respected

(Trolander and Tenger).

Philips’s translation of Pompey was published in 1663, which contributed to her recognition. Yet

Philips and her contemporaries did not have much respect for print culture. They preferred their private

coteries. Writers justified their publication by arguing, in Philips’s words, that “had I not furnish’d a true

Copy, it had been printed from one that was very false” (Hageman 47); the writer had no desire to see

herself published, but had to correct the forgeries that had violated her work. Even Abraham Cowley

printed similar excuses for being published. Philips did go beyond Cowley in her apologies. She

requested her name not be included in the London edition of the play. She tells Coterell, “I have always

had an incorrigible Inclination to the Vanity of Rhyming, but […] did not so much resist it as a wiser

Woman would have done,” worrying that she had strayed from the modesty expected of women

(Hageman 54). In her letters to the influential Dorothy Temple, she says that “yet I shall need Champions

to the Critticall and malicious, that pittifull design of a Knave to get a Groat,” fearing accusations of

ambition and greed and hoping that she could be defended in the world of print by her influential male

friends as she was defended in her coterie circle (Hageman 53). But although her gender put her at

greater risk, a defense for publication that was within the decorum of the mid-seventeenth century

allowed Philips to be excused for her “immodesty”.

A collection of familiar letters published in the 1690s did not apologize for Philips’s inclusion at

all. The letters were tailored by Philips and posthumously by the publisher to the expectations of the

recipient and of the reader, and lacked the modest informality Philips presented during her life. Philips’s

work was being moved into the realm of print culture in which she knew she was vulnerable. Outside

of her coterie circle, without its ability to defend her from accusations of unladylike immodesty, her

work and character were free to be torn apart by the indiscriminate sexism of critics such as Newcomb.

What remains, for the purpose of the paper, is to map these changes onto English Neoclassical

literary criticism. Petru Golban’s 2012 book The Foundations of English Literary Criticism, published

through the Edwin Mellen Press, specifically the chapter on “The Eighteenth Century,” describes the

institutionalization of Neoclassicism at the start of the eighteenth century, the rise of the novel, and the

beginnings of Romanticism, matching the English movements to historical causes and influence from the

continent. The text serves very well as a survey of the century and maintains a strong grasp on the

constant exchange between culture, literature, and literary critics, but woman writers were mostly

ignored. Neoclassical criticism is divided by Golban into the Restoration Age or Age of Dryden (1660-

1700), the Augustan Age or Age of Pope (1700-1750s), and the Age of Johnson (1750s-1780s) which saw

the decline of Neoclassicism (Golban 107). The origins of Romanticism, the novel, and realism are also

addressed, but are mostly irrelevant to this topic.

A period of stability followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Act For a Union of the

Two Kingdoms of England and Scotland of 1707 (Golban 103). The start of the eighteenth century was

optimistic and conservative. The uncertainty of the Interregnum, in which woman poet Katherine Philips

had been able to succeed, was gone.

Periodicals and journals were growing, and included literary criticism. Joseph Addison, credited with boosting this growth, bragged in The Spectator that “I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and

Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables 6 and in Coffee-Houses”

(Golban 123-4). The same was happening to literature, and the Gentleman’s Magazine, in which

Newcomb’s critical poem was published, was one such Neoclassical periodical.

The universe, according to Enlightenment thinkers, was rational, and poetic standards were

consequently rigid. Alexander Pope and his contemporaries argued that the righteous critic sets strict

standards for the poet to follow (Golban 131). That is a significant departure from the balance between

a husband’s judgment and a wife’s fancy of the seventeenth century; judgment takes primacy. Poets

were meant to obey “natural” decorum, convey moral messages, and form society. Satirical poetry,

popular at the time, encouraged poets to attack those who did not perfectly match the standard. Newton’s poem attacking Philips, though disingenuous, was true to the tradition.

It is noteworthy that Cowley, likened to and in conversation with Philips in their lifetimes,

remained relevant and published throughout the eighteenth century, despite becoming slightly less favored by critics (Nethercot 635). Philips’s decline was not simply a falling out of style of early Neoclassical poetry, but was likely precipitated by her gender.

These three sources show how mid seventeenth century coterie criticism, with its value for the

“feminine” in poetry and its casual, social presentation, enabled women poets like Katherine Philips. As

The Augustan Age embraced print culture, women poets could not be published without being

perceived as immodest. In reaction to the previous century’s standards, Neoclassicism institutionalized

and rejected women’s poetry through its journals and satire. Katherine Philips’s quick decline followed.



Works Cited

 Anderson, Bonnie S. and Judith P. Zinsser. A History of their Own, vol. 1 and 2. Harper

and Row, 1988.

Andreadis, Harriette. “Reconfiguring Early Modern Friendship: Katherine Philips and Homoerotic

Desire.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 46, no. 3, 2006, pp. 523-542. JSTOR,

www.jstor.org/stable/3844519. Accessed 27 January 2020.

D’Amore, Manuela, and Michèle Lardy. Essays in Defence of the Female Sex : Custom, Education

                 and Authority in Seventeenth- Century England, e-book. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nleb k&AN=817483&site=eds-

live&scope=site. Accessed 27 January 2020.

Golban, Petru. The Foundations of English Literary Criticism: From Philip Sidney to Henry James,

e-book. Edwin Mellen Press, 2012. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/

login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=577410&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 2 February


Hageman, Elizabeth H. “Making a Good Impression: Early Texts of Poems and Letters by Katherine

Philips, the ‘Matchless Orinda.’” South Central Review, vol. 11, no. 2, 1994, p. 39. EBSCOhost,

doi:10.2307/3189988. Accessed 7 February 2020.

Hodgson, Elizabeth. “Failed Alliances and Miserable Marriages in Katherine Philips’s Letters.” The Politics

                of Female Alliance in Early Modern England, edited by Christina Luckyj 8 and Niamh J. O’Leary.

University of Nebraska Press, 2017. EBSCOhost,



Loscocco, Paula. “‘Manly Sweetness’: Katherine Philips among the Neoclassicals.” Huntington Library

                Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 3, 1993, pp. 259-279. JSTOR,

www.jstor.org/stable/3817763. Accessed 27 January 2020.

Nethercot, Arthur H. “The Reputation of Abraham Cowley (1660-1800).” PMLA, vol. 38, no. 3, 1923, p.

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Trolander, Paul, and Zeynep Tenger. “Katherine Philips and Coterie Critical Practices.” Eighteenth-

                  Century Studies, no. 3. John Hopkins UP, 2004, p. 367. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25098065.

Accessed 5 February 2020.

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