Katherine Philips

The 17th Century Poet Who Founded ‘The Society of Friendship’

The whole world deserves to know about 17th century poet Katherine Philips’ society she created with her friends—the Society of Friendship. She created (what I would call) a proto-feminist group with her friends and held secret meetings “in which poetry, religion, and the human heart were to form the subjects of discussion.”  This means that around 400 years ago, she was democratizing a space that still needs help. Basically, this society was a place where men and women could share ideas and engage in serious discourse around important topics of the day. By “society,” Philips means an “association with one’s fellow men, esp. in a friendly or intimate manner; companionship or fellowship.” Therefore, the “society” is more of a good-natured link between people, rather than an institutional organization.


Philips founded the society upon platonic love. Both men and women could join and participate in this deep friendship. “Platonic love” simply means a feeling of love that focuses on the intellectual aspects between people, rather than the sexual. For all intents and purposes, this word is synonymous with a particular friendship where friends are “spiritually” connected in some way. 


This spiritual link coincides with Philips dualist belief, where “body” and “soul” are two separate entities. In this schema, two friends can connect their souls and be together even though their bodies may be in two entirely different places. To Philips, friendship has the power to bring people closer, especially at a time where traveling and communicating across long distances was next to impossible. How wholesome! Friendship is so powerful.


Within the society, the participants are given nicknames that are sometimes referred to as “pet names” or “pastoral names.” These are the names that the writers of the group use in their poetry to address one another. For example, Katherine Philips’ nickname was “Orinda.” In the poem, “Friendship’s Mystery, To my Dearest Lucasia,” Philips writes to her friend (Anne Owen) about love and friendship, and it’s quite touching.

           “Come, my Lucasia, since we see 

            That Miracles Mens faith do move, 

            By wonder and by prodigy

            To the dull angry world let’s prove 

            There’s a Religion in our Love…”  


This society came at an interesting time in British History. The generally accepted belief of the time was that men could have friendships with other men that are deeper and stronger than the bonds of marriage, yet women’s personal relationships were often underrepresented and suppressed. However, the discourse of the society “emphasized women’s capacity for friendship—especially friendships between women and the ways they complicated relationships between women and men.”  Who knew friendship could be iconoclastic?




Featured Image Via smu.edu