THE 2D OF MAY 1665" Katherine Philips (1667) Katherine Philips expresses the grief expected by any mother upon the loss of a child in her "on the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips." In this elegy readers may conflate the speaker with the poet. Her five four-line verses were set to music by the great Henry Lawes, the musician who convinced John Milton to write the celebratory masque COMUS, which he set to music for performance for an aristocratic family.
In the first stanza Philips measures her time spent as a wife and as a mother in months and days. Previous to her son's birth, she had been married for "Twice forty months," after which her marriage vows were "crowned with a lovely boy." She often uses the metaphor of a crown in her poems to indicate her blessings of friendship, family, and love, equating the change to the maximal elevation in social status one could achieve. The speaker next notes of the infant that after "forty days he dropped away; / o! swift vicissitude of human joy!" Philips was a religious woman and may have adopted the number 40 from biblical references. For example the Hebrews, God's chosen people, wandered for forty years in the desert before arriving at the Promised Land. In addition Christ endured 40 days of fasting during one of his three temptations by Satan, a scene Milton recreated in PARADISE REGAINED. The final line of the first stanza refers to the fleeting nature of human joy, dashed, in this case, by the unanticipated death of the child.
The second stanza emphasizes the speed with which the speaker's joy died, as she states, "I did but see him, and he disappeared, / I did but touch the rosebud, and it fell. . . ." Philips uses the figurative language of metaphor through reference to a rosebud, further stressing the infant's perfection and his youth, as well as the fragile nature of life. While a mature flower might be expected to fall from a bush when touched, the stem having naturally prepared for its release, a bud should remain tightly attached. That stanza concludes as the speaker notes that humans cannot understand "A sorrow unforeseen," something that had been "scarcely feared." Again Philips makes clear how unprepared she was for her loss, indicating the child had been healthy until shortly before his death.
In the third stanza the speaker questions how she can "right" her own fate or that of her child. Because the answer must be that she cannot, she can find no inspiration for action other than to write the elegy. As she explains, "Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art," thus commenting on her vocation as a poet and concluding, "So piercing groans must be thy elegy." Philips metaphorically depicts her expression of grief in terms that reflect her efforts as a poet. Because the act of motherhood remains just as creative as the act of creating a poem, Philips is able to balance both as legitimate creative pursuits.
The fourth stanza notes the isolation Philips feels, suffering "whilst no eye is witness of my moan" and noting that the "unconcerned world . . . / neither will, nor can refreshment give." Life outside her private chamber offers no support. She ends the poem by offering for "thy sad tomb" the "tribute" of "gasping numbers," the numbers referencing the lines of her poem. The elegy represents her gift to her dead child, "The last of thy unhappy mother's verse."
Feminist critics have noted the absence of reference to the father in the poem as representing the private deprivation Philips endured.
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