Katherine Philips' “Friendship in Embleme, or the Seal. To my dearest Lucasia” and John Donne's “A Valediction forbidding mourning”

A Comparison of Renaissance Poetry

Essay, 2015

5 Pages


John Donne's “A Valediction forbidding mourning”[1] and Katherine Philips' “Friendship in Embleme, or the Seal. To my dearest Lucasia[2] are similar to each other in that they both use the conceit of the compass to describe the relationship between two people. As Donne (1572 – 1631) lived and died before Philips (1632 – 1664) did, Philips must have modelled her poem “Friendship” on his poem “A Valediction”. Nonetheless, even though she uses the same conceit as Donne, she uses it in a very different way, as will be shown later on. However, the connection between these two poems does not only consist of the use of the same imagery; it also lies in the subject of the poems. Both focus on a specific relationship and the role allocations within that relationship as well as the nature of the described love and the image of two souls emerging into one being.

In order to be able to compare and contrast these two poems, I will first focus on a comparison of the formal features before I move on to an analysis of the content. The poem “Friendship” consists of sixteen stanzas, all of which are explicitly numbered. Each stanza has four lines. In each case, two lines form a rhyming couplet, which means that the stanzas all follow the aa-bb rhyme scheme. Each line has eight syllables and is written in iambic tetrametre. The stanzas of “A Valediction” are very similar to those of “Friendship”: Each line in a stanza also has eight syllables and is written in iambic tetrametre. However, in contrast to “A Valediction”, “Friendship” uses the rhyme scheme ab-ab. Also, the poem only encompasses nine stanzas in total.

So much for the form; now I will turn to a quick overview of the content before analysing the poems in more detail.

Philips' poem “Friendship” can be classified as homoerotic poetry, as it concerns itself with the unconventional theme of a relationship between the women Lucasia and Orinda, which may or may not be a love relationship that goes beyond the level of friendship. This poem focuses on the nature and depth of the relationship as such, without the immediate threat of being separated as in “A Valediction”. The relationship of the two women is described as firm and harmonic, using the image of the compass to visualize the two partners as deeply connected individuals with equal roles: It is stated that “[e]ach follows where the other leans” (line 27), which means that both legs of the compass are given the characteristic of being able to move away and leaning after the other.

“A Valediction” is, as the title suggests, a farewell or absence poem, in which the speaker explains to his partner that their relationship is strong enough to survive the lovers being apart for some time. The speaker states that the lovers should part in dignity without fear of the distance, as their love is an elevated, pure love. The connection between the two lovers is visualized through the metaphor of a compass. This conceit is used differently than in “Friendship”. In “A Valediction”, the compass is described as an instrument with two legs, one of which stands firm and fixed, leaning after the other leg that moves away from it, but never too far. The leg which stands firm and fixed describes the female partner of the speaker, while the other leg represents the male speaker himself. The theme of this poem is therefore much more conventional than the theme of “Friendship”, because it encompasses a traditional relationship between a man and a woman.

Having presented a short summary comparing the general content, I will now provide a more detailed analysis of the two poems.

The first stanza of “Friendship” by Katherine Philips introduces the theme of love right away by talking about the hearts (cf. line 1) and the love (cf. line 2) of the two women. The reader already knows that the poem must be about two women from the subsection of the title “To my dearest Lucasia” and, if the reader should be in doubt during the poem, there is a definite statement in the very last line that “Lucasia and Orinda 's Name” (line 64) shall be written down and will “transmit to Fame” (line 63). Therefore, the speaker in this poem is Orinda, who has been called an alter-ego of Katherine Philips herself. Line 3 and 4 introduce the theme of the two partners growing together to one being through their relationship (“For joyn'd and growing both in one”, line 3) and suggests that they are never really separated (“Neither can be disturb'd alone”, line 4).

Stanza 2 introduces another substance of their relationship: “mutual Knowledge” (line 5). It is suggested that the two involved parties tell each other everything by asking the rhetorical question which things there could be that they would not tell each other (see line 6 to 8). Stanza 3 uses the term “Friendship” (line 9) for the first time in the poem. This is a term that is used time and again throughout the following stanzas to label the relationship between the women – so often that one has to wonder if it is truly only friendship the speaker is referring to, especially when considering line 62 in stanza 16: “So there's no Friendship meant by this”. Stanza 3 also introduces the idea that the love between the two women purifies them, as it leads to their hearts being “free from lower ends” (line 11). This is a thought that is carried on in stanza 4 when the speaker Orinda asserts that her relationship to Lucasia is a thing “noble and divine” (line 16). This stanza also contains hints towards a possible sexual relationship between the two women, as it talks about the “Flames” (line 14) of their hearts which “flame […] [in] several wayes” (line 13). The image of a flame immediately evokes the association with passion. The suggestion of their hearts burning in more than one way is a strong hint towards love and passion that exceeds usual tender affection. However, stanza 5 seems to take a step back from this suggestive image, stating that the women's hearts are only “[w]arm'd and enlightned, not consumed” (line 20) as they would be in a passionate relationship. The relationship could still encompass more than friendship, but it is suggested here that they do not necessarily need physicality to live out their relationship, because they are connected on a spiritual or intellectual level. This is a theme that Donne proposes in “A Valediction” as well, as will be seen in the comparison following this analysis.

Stanza 6, then, introduces the conceit of a compass representing the relationship. “The Compass […] [e]xpress[es] this great immortal Love” (line 21) and is used to visualize the idea of the women as two individuals, but so closely connected that they are basically one (see line 24). The speaker then describes in the following stanzas how both legs of the compass are able to follow the other (see line 27) and both are able to stand fixed while the other is circling (cf. line 29 / 30). This description visualizes the equality of these partners. As there is no difference in gender, there is no traditional role allocation and both women are equally able to perform each of the roles described. Later on, the speaker states that there is no other person, such as a male third party, needed in this relationship: the two women are able to have a satisfying relationship by themselves (cf. line 33 and line 55 / 56).

The use of the compass as an image for the connection continues from stanza 6 to stanza 14, focusing especially on the order a compass provides. The compass is described as a “useful Instrument For Even lines” (line 37 / 38) and just like the compass was invented “[t]o rule and measure every Line” (line 42), the friendship between the women is described as something that brings order into their lives rather than bringing chaos. This is supported by the fact that the stanzas are numbered and that there are no irregularities in the metre and rhythm as such.

The theme of separation is discussed briefly in stanza 13, when the speaker points out that the points of a compass may separate, but the head stays united. This mirrors the women´s relationship: their bodies may be kept apart, but their souls will never be (see line 51 / 52). Stanzas 15 and 16 conclude the poem by hinting at the fact that the relationship could be more than friendship and revealing the names of both, the addressee of the poem and the speaker. While “Friendship” is concerned with all aspects that constitute the relationship between Lucasia and Orinda and the very nature of the relationship itself, “A Valediction” by John Donne is decidedly more focused on the theme of absence and separation, which is only mentioned explicitly in one of the sixteen stanzas of “Friendship”.

“A Valediction” introduces the theme of separation, and especially the theme of separating quietly and with dignity, by referring to “virtuous men pass[ing] mildly away” (line 1). In the second stanza, this image is then transferred on to the speaker and his partner, who shall part making “no noise” (line 5) and shedding no tears (cf. line 6). The third stanza gives the reason for the speaker's opinion that the separation, which is suggested to be imminent, should be no cause for pain, worry, or anxiety concerning the stability of their relationship: Being apart from each other, the speaker argues, “is innocent” (line 12). The following stanzas, then, explain why this is the speaker´s opinion. His argument is the same argument Philips uses in her poem “Friendship”. The speaker in Donne's poem also states that his relationship with his partner is “so much refin'd” (line 17), so precious and noble, that physical absence is not able to pose any threat to it. The speaker further describes that their intellectual connection is of much more value than their physical connection (cf. line 19 / 20), which is also mentioned in “Friendship”.

Stanza 6 introduces the topic of two souls being one, a theme that is also very important in Philips´ poem. In “A Valediction”, the speaker firmly states that the two souls of the lovers are, in fact, one (cf. line 21). An observation that is very striking at this point is that Philips actually takes line 22 and 23 of Donne's poem (“Though I must goe, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion”), which are part of the description of two souls as one, and uses them for her own poem in a rephrased form (“so Friends may own / Extension, not Division”, line 49 / 50) to make the exact same point.

In stanza 7, the speaker of “A Valediction” now admits that he and his lover may be two people after all, but very are closely connected, just like twin compasses (cf. line 25 / 26). As stated before, the image of the compass here is used differently than in Philips´ poem. In “A Valediction”, the compass is actually a visualization and an enforcement of the traditional gender roles: The speaker's partner is described as the fixed leg whose sole function it is not to move (“Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show”, line 26), i.e. to provide stability and domesticity, which is why it is plausible to think of the partner as a woman. The second function of the fixed leg is to lean after the moving leg (see line 31) as well as growing erect when the other leg arrives back in the centre (see line 32), which represents the yearning of the woman for her male lover and the warm welcome he receives when he arrives back home after having been away “[l]ike th'other foot” (line 34). Therefore, in Donne´s usage of the compass, each leg has to fulfil a specific set of functions, while Philips imagines both legs of the compass, i.e. both partners, as being able to perform all of the functions needed.

As can be seen in this analysis, the general view of the compass as a representative image of the relationship differs greatly between the two poems, because “A Valediction” describes the relationship as a co-dependency where each partner needs the other to perform their traditional gender role, while “Friendship” describes a relationship where both partners are equal in every way.

Contrasting these two poems is very interesting, not only because of their different use of the conceit of the compass, but also because of their different focuses as well as the many points made about relationships which can be found in both poems, often phrased in very similar ways. Reading Donne's poem alongside Philips' poem enriches the reading and comprehension of both, because the comparison highlights the unconventionality of “Friendship” concerning its topic. Looking at this poem in the context of intertextuality also reveals a lot about the usage of metaphors in general. Two poets use the same image to visualize very different perspectives on relationships. Comparing the two poems also shows that knowing the historical context and a range of writers is very useful, as it allows the reader to understand references made.

Works Cited:

Donne, John. “A Valediction forbidding mourning.” In H. R. Woudhuysen, ed. The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. London: Penguin, 1992. 336-337.

Philips, Katherine. “Friendship in Embleme, or the Seal. To my dearest Lucasia.” In H. R. Woudhuysen, ed. The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. London: Penguin, 1992. 518-521.


[1] For the sake of handiness, John Donne's poem will be referred to as “A Valediction” throughout the rest of the essay.

[2] Katherine Philips' poem will be referred to with the abbreviation “Friendship” from here on.

Excerpt out of 5 pages


Katherine Philips' “Friendship in Embleme, or the Seal. To my dearest Lucasia” and John Donne's “A Valediction forbidding mourning”
A Comparison of Renaissance Poetry
University College Dublin
Hauptseminar: Writing and Performance in the Age of Shakespeare - Renaissance Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
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477 KB
Katherine Philips, John Donne, Renaissance, Poetry, Friendship in Embleme, Lucasia, Orinda, A Valediction, Conceit, Metaphor, Love Poetry, Compass
Quote paper
Silvia Schilling (Author), 2015, Katherine Philips' “Friendship in Embleme, or the Seal. To my dearest Lucasia” and John Donne's “A Valediction forbidding mourning”, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/431850


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