Having threatened to sing Purcell's Oh Solitude in Southwark Cathedral on Shakespeare's Birthday in three weeks, and in the absence of teaching supply work now that the Easter hols are here, I have begun to rehearse the immortal song. The words are by Katherine Philips and express the poet's yearning for 'places remote from tumult and noise', as if that were much of a problem in the 17th century. Could horses clopping and street traders shouting get on your nerves? What else was loud? Battle? The cannons of the Civil War? They still fought in fields back then. It is at least comforting to know that poets have always had similar concerns. Time is only relative.
The poet is hardly well-known. She was born Katherine Fowler in Buckerlersbury, London EC4, on 1st January 1631 and soon proved to be a prodigious scholar at the famed Mrs Salmons Presbyterian School in Hackney. She had read the whole Bible by the time she was 5, was brilliant at languages - particularly French - and could quote the vicar's sermon back at him when they met at church every Sunday. As the daughter of a devout Presbyterian she prayed regularly and aloud, perhaps so that her father could hear her. He died when she was eight and after her mother remarried a Welshman, a baronet dont'ya know, she found herself living in the beautiful county of Pembrokeshire, Wales. 'What content is mine to see those trees,' she writes in Oh Solitude.
At 17, she marrried James Philips, a Welsh Parliamentarian MP living in Cardigan, just up the coast. At about 20, she and her husband formed the Society of Friendship, a literary salon, what we would call a book club, in which the members discussed 'poetry, religion and the human heart'. These were hot topics in 1651, when the country, after a long and bloody Civil War, was just getting used to being called a Commonwealth with no king and only Parliament in charge.
Half the members of the Society of Friendship, it seems, were Londoners, some of them old girls from Mrs Salmon's educational establishment who found themselves in a similar position to Katherine Philips. Even the school's music teacher, the composer Henry Lawes was peripherally involved. Everyone adopted a Latin name - Orinda, Antenor, Lucasia, Ardelia, Rosania, Regina, Valeria, Polycrite (which was probably promounced perlickritty), Palaemon, Silvander, Poliarchus - which gave them anonymous equality. The group was productive. Rosania (Mary Dering) was the frirst Englishwoman to publish music in her name. Orinda (Katherine Philips) wrote poetry and letters in profusion, especially to Poliarchus (Sir Charles Cottrell) who had confessed his love for Calanthe (identity unknown) and Lucasia, (Anne Owens of Landshipping) whose intended marriage was called an 'apostasy' by Orinda. The letters are passionate, but the feelings noble. The Platonic relationship was a Renaissance theme enthusiastically discussed and upheld as an ideal by the group.
The matchless Orinda, as the literary world knows her, made the long trip to London occasionally, generally in company with her husband while he was at Parliament, but later alone in pursuit of business affairs which he had neglected. Her poetry was known if not published. She wrote movingly about the death of her child in 1654. She was compared with Aphra Behn, albeit at the other end of the scale of respectability.
Although she had been brought up by and married to puritans and parliamentarians, she had become convinced of the royalist cause which stood her in good stead at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1659 when she was 28. Charles and his brother the Duke of York may have preferred the bawdy theatre but the Duchess was impressed with Orinda's work and called for more to be written. A large collection of her poems came out in 1663 but Philips complained that it was full of mistakes and it was withdrawn and published only posthumously.
Henry%20Vaughan admired her and so did Keats 150 years hence. She tapped a profitable seam in translation and her English version of Corneille 's Pompee was staged in Dublin in 1662 when she was there on another extended business trip. In 1664, after a protracted argument about the postal service in West Wales, she caught smallpox and died. Her career was just taking off.
The song Oh Solitude is a translation of a twenty-verse poem called La Solitude by de St Amant. Purcell's setting misses out a large middle section.
Oh Solitude, my sweetest choice.
Places deserted to the night
Remote from tumult and from noise,
How ye my restless thoughts delight
Oh Solitude, my sweetest choice.
Oh Heavens, what content is mine
To see these trees which have appeared
At the nativity of time
And which all ages have revered
To look today as fresh and green
As when their beauties first were seen.
Oh how agreeable a sight
These hanging mountains do appear
Which the unhappy would invite
To finish all their sorrows here
Where their hard fate makes them endure
Such sorrows as only death can cure.
Oh how I solitude adore.
That element of noblest wit
Where I have learned Apollo's love
Without the pains to study it.
For thy sake, I in love am grown
With what thy fancy does pursue.
But when I think upon my own
I hate it for this reason too
Because it needs must hinder me
From seeing and from serving thee.
Oh, how I Solitude adore.