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
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.
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