‘To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship’ is one of the best-known poems written by the mid-seventeenth-century poet Katherine Philips (1631/2-1664). Philips lived through the English Civil War (and wrote a poem about the execution of King Charles I), and was married at the age of 16 to a man some 38 (yes, thirty-eight) years her senior. ‘To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship’ is addressed to Anne Owen, one of Philips’ closest female friends.
To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship
I did not live until this time
Crowned my felicity,
When I could say without a crime,
I am not thine, but thee.
This carcass breathed, and walked, and slept,
So that the world believed
There was a soul the motions kept;
But they were all deceived.
For as a watch by art is wound
To motion, such was mine:
But never had Orinda found
A soul till she found thine;
Which now inspires, cures and supplies,
And guides my darkened breast:
For thou art all that I can prize,
My joy, my life, my rest.
No bridegroom’s nor crown-conqueror’s mirth
To mine compared can be:
They have but pieces of the earth,
I’ve all the world in thee.
Then let our flames still light and shine,
And no false fear control,
As innocent as our design,
Immortal as our soul.
Katherine Philips (1632-64), also known as ‘the Matchless Orinda’, was an Anglo-Welsh poet and translator in an age where few women had the chance to succeed at either. ‘To my Excellent Lucasia’ (Lucasia being the alter ego of Philips’ friend Anne Owen) is a poem of friendship but might also qualify as a lesbian love poem, since Philips employs the language of love poetry in her address to Owen.
‘I did not live until this time’ may be misread as ‘I did not love until this time’, especially when Philips goes on to talk about how she found her ‘soul’ when she met Lucasia and discovered her soul: they are literally soulmates. The word ‘soul’ recurs in the final stanza (indeed, literally providing the last word), highlighting that this meeting is, to borrow from Shakespeare, a ‘marriage of true minds’ and souls. (Indeed, a productive comparative analysis between Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 and Philips’ poem might be undertaken.) ‘No bridegroom’s nor crown-conqueror’s mirth / To mine compared can be’ only seals this sense of Lucasia-Orinda as a romantic coupling in all but name: the happiness a man feels when marrying his bride is nothing compared with the joy I, Orinda, feel at having met you, Lucasia.
‘To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship’ is a fine friendship poem but also a poem about Platonic love, or the pure marriage of souls between two people of the same sex – here, two women – in the seventeenth century.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.