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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: July 2010



In 1667, Abraham Cowley commemorates Katherine Philips in terms of her unique status as a female poet. In his elegy, she is solitary in her sex:

She does no Partner with her see;

Does all the Business there Alone which we

Are forced to carry on by a whole company.

Cowley sets her only in the company of Sappho, without a contemporary female precedent. Seventeenth-century representations of female poets, such as this one of Philips, have provoked speculation as to why the proliferation of women writers in the period seems to have paradoxically led to their diminished visibility. Part of this impulse to write women out of history is commercial: female poets tended to emphasise singularity as a selling point for their work. Lanyer insists that ‘A Womans writing of diuinest things’ is a rare spectacle in spite of the devotional precedent of a woman poet whom she herself cites. Margaret Cavendish wilfully ignores women writers of the past so as to not encounter writers of her sex who ‘have out-done all the glory’ that she could ‘hope to attaine’. Jeffrey Masten suggests that fewer companions and competitors than their male counterparts made it possible for seventeenth-century women poets to exploit emergent notions of authorship and author-genius. But these women were obviously able to overlook, by accident or design, the example of women writers in the previous century. This oversight implies that women writers are effectively erased from English literary history by the seventeenth century.

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