Orinda, “On Our (More than) Friendship”?

So today in lit class, we discussed Katherine Philips and the possibility that she was a lesbian.

Do I believe it? Short story long…

Rossetti-golden_head

…kinda?

Okay, time to explain. So in her poem, “To my Excellent Lucasia, On Our Freindship”, Philips discusses the friendship between herself and her friend, nicknamed Lucasia, (her own name is Orinda, hence the title). In it, there seems to be some sort of sexualwearemorethanfriends undertone, considering that the lines are very similar to love poetry.

And yeah, you can argue that hey, friends love each other in a PLATONIC way, and yes, I agree with you. I have friends, as do many other people on this earth, of both genders and I love them all platonically. And that’s natural. It’s the definition of friendship.

But consider this:

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.

Have you ever thought of your best friend this way?

For me personally, no. My friends are my siblings, not my soul, which is what Philips calls her friend throughout the entire poem. Lucasia, it seems, is her reason for moving. Not just living, mind you, MOVING. While reading, I get the idea that Orinda and Lucasia share a soul–isn’t this kind of idea linked to soul mates?

And yet, in my humble opinion, there is no suggestion of physical intimacy. Compared to the idea from Trahearne that the body is the temple of the soul, Philips regards the body as a lifeless shell that the soul occupies and manipulates. Furthermore her lifeless “carcass” of a body is not put to action until Lucasia comes along and begins soul-sharing with her.

Which brings me to my point: the sexual undertones of this poem have nothing to do with physical intimacy. It’s about spiritual intimacy. They do not share a body–they share a soul, and some may argue thats a higher form of love.

I can’t help but compare this poem to Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti. (If you haven’t read it, do it now: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174262) (I do warn you, it’s a bit long.) (This post’s picture is from the cover of Goblin Market.)

In Goblin Market the two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, share a bond that borders on incestuous (come on, Laura has to lick the goblin’s fruit juice off of her sisters body to save her life–if that doesn’t sound erotic, nothing does)(wow, that sounded really wrong). The difference between this relationship and that of Orinda and Lucasia is that a lot of the sister’s relationship that sounds incestuous is physical: they share a bed, they hold hands, they kiss each other, and of course the whole licking juices thing.

None of that happens in Philips poem, which means the relationship between Orinda and Lucasia hangs on a series of questions:

  1. Does she consider spiritual intimacy a greater form of love than physical intimacy?
  2. Does she simply regard the spiritual interaction between friends simply better than that of romantic partners?
  3. Is spiritual intimacy reserved for certain relationships?

Philips is the only one with the answers to these questions and sadly, since this is a course on pre-18th century literature, she is presumably dead. I don’t think Philips would consider herself to have a spiritual interaction with her family members. Nor do I think she particularly treasures physical relationships.

But I don’t think that spiritual intimacy is restricted to romance.

I know I said that I don’t see my friends as my soul mates, but there is a permanence to that idea that can be applied to friendship. A person can have several romantic partners throughout the course of several years. That same person can also have a friend who is still their friend for the same period of time.

You see it in plots all the time. Why don’t they date? Because they don’t want to ruin a good friendship.

Perhaps that’s what Philips is getting at, the consistency of friendship, and why that should be relied on to drive a life, not some romantic relationship that could end at any variable time. Granted, friendships do end, but when you find that one friend who is the Lucasia to your Orinda, they stick with you for the rest of your life.

I still keep in touch with my friends from elementary school, despite us going our separate ways after high school. And when you look at it that way, that’s the kind of love that seems to hold. Whether that remains platonic or grows to something more romantic is completely up to those involved.

As for Orinda and Lucasia, I’m not them, so I still don’t know.

“Then let our Flames still light and shine,/ And no false fear control,/ As innocent as our Design,/ Immortal as our Soul.” -Katherine Philips, “To My Excellent Lucasia, 21-24”

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2 thoughts on “Orinda, “On Our (More than) Friendship”?

  1. I appreciate your careful take on the spiritual intimacy presented in Philips’s poem. For me, it’s not so much a matter of determining what her orientation might have been, but maybe noting the ways in which a non-normative intimacy is presented, masked — I’d say — in neo-Platonic abstractions, the ways she seems to have her desire pass for enlightenment, because there might not be a poetic vocabulary that she can access to frame that desire more openly or publicly. I like the comparison to C Rossetti — interesting stuff.

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    1. I find that through this entry I came to the understanding that it wasn’t about orientation like you say, merely the types of intimacy that exist and because we are so used to the intimacy associated with romance, we confuse them with the intimacy of life-long friendship. Philips understands that, I think, and so the parallels between romance and the kind of intimacy she articulates are mistaken for equalities and can be misconstrued as homosexuality.

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