To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship

This 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.

Seraphic love

Though the poem declares itself to be about same sex friendship, the language used is very much that of love poetry. We need to realise that in the mid-century, there was a growing interest in Platonic love and friendship, both between and within the sexes. Partly this was because so many marriages, especially upper class marriages, were arranged, often for economic reasons. With the dearth of romantic love, other forms of permissible love were explored, and the Greek philosopher, Plato's work on spiritual love and friendship were studied closely. Several influential books were written on ‘Seraphic love', as it was called. There was also a move to better female education also, which gave a number of women access to reading and producing quality literature.

More on Platonism: see Andrew Marvell's The Garden

Katherine Philips (nee Fowler) was one such woman. Married at 16 by her stepfather to a man some 38 years older than herself, she turned largely to women friends for emotional and intellectual outlet. They gave themselves fancy names: Katherine called herself Orinda; her friend Mary Aubrey became Rosania; and her friend Anne Owen became Lucasia. To us, in a rather different atmosphere, we might think the poems lesbian. This would be a misreading, made outside the historical context. It is more a case of intense friendship having to use love language to express itself, since there was no separate language for friendship, making it work for their relationship.

Philips uses language very similar to Donne's in proclaiming the completeness of the lovers' world: ‘I've all the World in thee', and the identification of one lover with the other: ‘I am not Thine, but thee'. The central image is a fairly conventional one, that till love wakened her soul, she was a mere automaton: ‘For as a Watch by art is wound ... '

There is perhaps a slight nervousness about the friendship's legitimacy. She mentions ‘without a crime' (l.3) and at the end talks of ‘false fear' and ‘innocent', feeling perhaps that she needs to make emphasise this. ‘Flames' is a conventional metonymy for passion.

The verse form is neat, quatrains with alternating iambic tetrameters and trimeters, rhyming abab – simple and unambitious but effective.

Investigating To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship
  • Read through Philips' To my excellent Lucasia on our friendship
    • In stanza 5, what is the force of the comparison made?
    • If the context had not been explained, would you have read this as a conventional love poem?
      • Or are there sufficient clues to indicate its background?
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