Theatrum Poetarum (1675) is a bio-bibliography of classical, medieval, and early modern poets compiled by Edward Phillips and published by Charles Smith. Although the volume seems to have been printed only once, at least fifty copies are known to survive. I happened across a copy at the Huntington in March and was very surprised to find that the last twenty-nine pages are dedicated to women poets, including many names that will be familiar to regular readers of the RECIRC blog.
Neither Phillips nor the Theatrum Poetarum have been treated kindly by history, so some background information might be helpful. When Phillips and his brother John were orphaned in 1640, their uncle John Milton took them in and educated them in a manner that will be familiar to readers of Milton’s Of Education (1644). (Fun fact: Milton dedicated Of Education to frequent RECRIC receiver Samuel Hartlib!) As Ann Baynes Coiro points out, the brothers’ “mastery of modern languages was extraordinary, and the number of subjects about which they wrote, edited, and translated is impressive,” and both made livings as writers. Nevertheless, because of the kind of works they wrote — and also because of the long shadow cast by their more famous uncle — they are commonly derided as hacks. Thus, the little scholarship that deals directly with the Theatrum Poetarum tends to focus either on determining how involved Milton was in its compilation or on its quality (or lack thereof). In 1956, Harris Fletcher wrote that the volume was “poorly printed and contains many mistakes, both of omission and commission”; five years later, Sanford Golding lamented that “even for a piece of hack work, [it] is inexcusably poor” (48), and noted that several of Phillips’s errors persisted long enough to be perpetuated in the British Museum’s General Catalogue and the Short Title Catalogue (53).
Phillips’s Theatrum Poetarum may not meet modern standards for literary historical scholarship, but I would argue that it provides striking evidence about the reception and circulation of poetry in late seventeenth-century England. The volume opens with “a Prefatory Discourse of the Poets and Poetry in Generall” which seems to reflect the interests and biases of the author’s uncle. This discourse is followed by four major sections: “Eminent Poets Among the Ancients,” “Eminent Poets Among the Moderns,” “Women Among the Antients Eminent for Poetry,” and “Women Among the Moderns Eminent for Poetry.” Between the catalogs of eminent poets and the women among them (yikes), there is another section headed “A Brief Supplement of some Persons and Things obmitted in the foregoing Treatises.”
Golding has identified many of Phillips’s sources, paying particular attention to the “Eminent Poets Among the Ancients.” However, it’s less clear how Phillips compiled the nine-page list of “Women Among the Moderns Eminent for Poetry,” which includes twenty-five women writing in English, Italian, Latin, German, and Scots. Richard G. Terry describes the list as “an ill-considered ragbag,” but, to be fair, Terry argues that this is “much in the spirit of the rest of the book” (260). But while it’s hardly RECIRC’s thesaurus of 1,911 female authors, it does include a range of recognizable women writers, including:
- Anne Askew (c. 1521–1546)
- Anne Cooke Bacon (c. 1528–1610)
- Aphra Behn (1640?–1689)
- Elizabeth Tanfield Cary (1585–1639)
- Margaret Cavendish (1623?–1673)
- Mildred Cecil (1526–1589)
- Cassandra Fedele (1465–1558)Angela Nogarola (c. 1360?–1420/30)
- Jane Grey (1537–1554)
- Mary Sidney Herbert (1561–1621)
- Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
- Katherine Cooke Killigrew (1542?–1583)
- Lucrezia Marinella (1571/1579–1653)
- Mary Morpeth (fl. 1616)
- Valeria Miani Negri (1560?–1620?)
- Olympia Clara (possibly a “conflation of ‘Olympia Morata’ and ‘Chiara Matraini’”; see Considine and Brown)
- Katherine Philips (1632–1664)
- Elizabeth Cooke Russell (1528–1609)
- Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701)
- Elizabeth Jane Weston (1581?–1612)
- Mary Wroth (1587?–1651/1653)
All of these women are RECIRC authors. Phillips also included an entry for “Magdalena Acciniola, a Lyric Poetess, after the manner of the Italians in Sonnet, Canzon, and Madrigal” (sig. 2L10r), who I couldn’t find in our database, possibly because of variant spellings of her name (or my lack of Italian). If anyone knows more about her, please let me know in the comments!
Much about this list is unsurprising. Marta Straznicky notes that the entry on Aphra Behn “simply registers the novelty of women playwrights at this time” (712), and it would be more shocking if well-known women writers, like Mary Sidney Herbert or Mary Wroth, or Phillips’s near-contemporaries Margaret Cavendish or Katherine Philips weren’t included. Jane Grey’s reputation as a writer would have been familiar from John Foxe’s ubiquitous Actes and Monuments, and as I have shown elsewhere, Elizabeth Tanfield Cary’s “Epitaph upon the death of the Duke of Buckingham” circulated more widely than most female-authored poems in the period. What I find most surprising is the omission of Elizabeth I, who is hands-down the most frequently received author in our database.
Phillips doesn’t really offer hard-hitting criticism of any of his authors, but I’ll share a few of my favorites. Here’s his description of Anne Bradstreet:
Anne Broadstreet, a New England Poetess, no less in title, viz. before her Poems, printed in Old England anno 1650; then The tenth Muse sprung up in America, the memory of which Poems consisting chiefly of Descriptions of the four Elements, the four Humours, the four Ages, the four Seasons, and the four Monarchies, is not yet wholly extinct. (sig. 2L7v)
Phillips on Katherine Philips (no relation, as far as I know):
Catherine Philips, the most applauded, at this time, Poetess of our Nation, either of the present or former Ages, and not without reason, since both her Fame is of a fresh and lively date from the but late publisht Volume of her Poetical works, and those also of a style suitable to the humour and Genius of these times. (sig. 2L8r)
And finally, Margaret Cavendish:
Margaret, Dutchess of New.Castle, lately deceas’t, a very obliging Lady to the World; and withall not regardless of her own future Fame, by so largely and copiously imparting to public view her studious Endeavours in the Arts and Ingenuities, there being three ample Volumes of hers in Print; one of Orations, the other of Philosophical Notions and Discourses, the third of Dramatic and other kinds of Poetry. (sig. 2L9r)
It’s hard not to think of the sections on women poets as an afterthought, especially when they the list of “obmitted” material. But there’s also a sense in which it’s a remarkable text. As Terry points out, William Winstanley drew heavily from Phillips in compiling his The Lives of the Most Famous English Poets (1687), which drew heavily from Phillips, but Winstanley omitted the women entirely, as did most eighteenth-century editors. Phillips might have been a hack, but he proposed a canon of women authors in print long before it was fashionable to do so.
Works cited and consulted
Considine, John, and Sylvia Brown, eds. N.H., The Ladies Dictionary. Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.
Golding, Sanford. “The Sources of the Theatrum Poetarum.” PMLA 76 (1961): 48–53.
Fletcher, Harris. “Milton’s [Index Poeticus]—The Theatrum Poetarum by Edward Phillips.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 55 (1956): 35–40.
Phillips, Edward. Theatrum poetarum, or, A compleat collection of the poets especially the most eminent, of all ages, the antients distinguish’t from the moderns in their several alphabets : with some observations and reflections upon many of them, particularly those of our own nation : together with a prefatory discourse of the poets and poetry in generall. London: for C. Smith, 1675. (Wing P2075)
Straznicky, Marta. “Restoration Women Playwrights and the Limits of Professionalism.” English Literary History 64.3 (Fall 1997): 703–26.
Terry, Richard G. Poetry and the Making of the English Literary Past, 1660–1781. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Correction: This post originally identified Philips “Mis. Killigrew” as Anne Killigrew; it should have read Katherine Cooke Killigrew. Thanks to Maureen Mulvihill for this helpful correction.