To my Lucasia in defence of declared friendship

Katherine PhilipsThis poem is by Katherine Philips, in her day considered one of the leading women poets of the second half of the seventeenth century. There were, in fact, very few women poets, and it is only through the initiative of Sir Charles Cotterell, an official of Charles II, that a collection of her poems was printed in 1667. The poem needs to be read in conjunction with her To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship. This is a much more ambitious poem than the other, seeking to break comparatively new ground in poetry by tracing the growth of a close relationship, trying to find the right balance between where the friends have come from, where they are, and how they can move on in their quite intense friendship.

Assurance and tentativeness

There is a delicate balance between assurance and tentativeness, which seems to be true of many close relationships outside marriage. This is expressed in the language in terms of:

  • imperatives: ‘Be kind to me ... '; ‘let not'
  • balanced by clauses of concession: ‘Although we know ... though we read our passions'
  • and condition: ‘If this be all', ‘but then'; ‘If I distrust'.

It is exploratory language, using a series of images as analogies to progress the argument.

Let us speak our love

The thought running throughout To my Lucasia is the need for communication. It is so insistent, we might say there is a real anxiety that Lucasia is just taking the friendship for granted. So the first section of the poem deals with the two friends not resting on their laurels. They have realised their affection for one another and declared it. That is like ‘A victory', but victories have to be maintained as well as obtained. The only maintenance – and further growth – that is possible is by proclamation and repeated celebration of the ‘glad news' of their love.

Not distrust

The objection to this is that a constant need for reiteration suggests distrust. The poet refutes this: are not letters and visits all part of positive friendship, part of the desire, not a sign of mistrust? The only distrust should be of one's own personal worthiness. This is a common feeling in a love relationship: that we are not worthy of the other person.

Verbal expression enables love to grow

The other objection is: why the need for words? Cannot ‘we read our passions in the Eye?' Well yes, of course, says Philips, but that's not enough. People have to own their desires through verbal expression, and keep owning them – at least, while they are in the body (‘imprison'd by the Flesh we wear' 1.30). As they do this, their love will, in fact, grow. Various analogies are produced for all this, some truly metaphysical in their ingenuity, especially in stanza 11, that of a tidal river, which not only meets the ocean (their original joining of friendship), but then turns and floods the shore. In other words, verbal expression is the fullness and overflow of love.

Achieving harmony

Viol and luteThe idea of motion is strong in these analogies. ‘the Soul's motion does not end in bliss'; ‘my Soul doth such excursions make … '; ‘the Spheres themselves by motion do endure', and so on. The final analogy in stanza 18 ties the idea of looks and words neatly together in a musical image: in a stringed instrument like a viol, when one string is struck, consonances or harmonies reverberate through the other strings and give a richer sound.

Investigating To my Lucasia 
  • Trace the masculine imagery of power and conquest in To my Lucasia
    • Place against it more obviously feminine images of growth, maintenance and sustenance
  • Pick out two other analogies and work them out
    • Do they seem fairly conventional?
    • Or do they have the Metaphysical originality we see in Donne or Herbert?
  • In stanza two, Philips talks of ‘our noble aims'
    • Pick out other words of aim or purpose
    • Can you say what these aims are?
  • How representative of friendship are the feelings expressed in the poem?
  • What do you find most striking about the poem?
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