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Discussing Katherine Philips’ poem with Sophie Ratcliffe

Sophie Ratcliffe
You’ve talked brilliantly about bereavement and how poetry has helped. One of our weeks is about trauma. And I’m quite interested in moving away from - and PTSD - moving away from the notions of trauma as being a sort of male soldiers in the field, which of course, where shell shock and PTSD originated. But I’m very interested in how trauma affects - well, women - women who go through miscarriage, or experience still birth, or rape. And so one of our key texts for that is a Katherine Philips poem. This is a woman who lost 16 children, and she writes a poem to her son, who died after 10 days - her baby son. It’s a beautiful poem.
And it still speaks to me. It was written the 1600s. And after all these years, it’s a text I turned to when I had a miscarriage. And I just felt that our experience, it felt the same. I just thought, I did think, you get it, you understand it. Yeah. And that was enormously helpful. But also, I was fascinated by the process of bereavement, that just because you lose 16 doesn’t mean you don’t feel the same pain every time you lose a child. We sometimes think, historically, well, infant mortality rates were so high. Women sort of expected… it makes no difference. When I read that poem, she’s feeling no… you know she’s feeling the same way that I felt. Yeah.
And I didn’t know this poem, but I read it when you showed it to me. And one of the things that struck me is there’s this very long title with all the dates, the date of Hector’s…? Hector’s, yeah. Hector’s birth and the date of his death. And then she says that she’d been married for 40 days - for 40 months and he lived for 40 days. And it’s a sense of counting, that every child counted and she’s counting. And then she talks, in the end, about how the numbers being consoling, how she’s sort of holding herself together with the counting it all up. That’s brilliant.
All the time she’s counting on being pregnant in all the months and months of being married. And she’s probably, as you say, thinking about the numbers of children, numbers, numbers, numbers. Yeah. Mm. But the grief just feels as… ‘A little rosebud’. And you just feel that this is… I just feel that she’s speaking to me across all of the centuries. But I find it very consoling but also very cathartic. I did cry when I read it. And I thought, I feel better. Yeah. I just feel better because I’ve let it all out. Yeah. There’s a lot to be said for not repressing it and just letting it all out. It’s lovely as well, the poem has two interjections in brackets.
One of them, I think, is sweet babe. And she puts that in brackets and talking about letting it out. She’s sort of holding these words in. And I thought that was the most tender bit of the poem. It is. And it’s interesting, we talk poem, and you must have to speak poetry aloud to really get it. I think that’s actually one of the poems that you lose something if you say it aloud, because you have to see the brackets. We put things in brackets because you can’t speak brackets. And the brackets here hold which is unspeakable, which is the amount of love she had. I think that’s such a good, good, good point. And it’s the poignant bit, ‘sweet babe’.
Yeah. Actually, it’s enclosed, isn’t it? It’s enclosed like an int… Like a hug. Yeah, like a hug. Yeah. Like an int… it’s just getting out of her, and she doesn’t quite want to say it. But it is so tender. It’s so beautiful. It’s so poignant. I think that’s often one of the things I really love about poetry, actually, is how it works on the page. And you were talking about earlier, is the spaces and what happens on a line break. And sometimes one of the most awful things about bereavement or trauma is you couldn’t possibly put it into words.
You couldn’t possibly put it into words what it means to lose someone, and to lose the child that you imagined that you would have, that that life of becoming that isn’t there, or to lose the life that you would have had with your father, what you would have seen. You can’t put that into words. But somehow, sometimes like, a line break, sounds extraordinary, but, that space. Things can be said through silence, or through space, or through form that make much more sense than words.
Now that we’ve explored Katherine Philips’ poem from a medical point of view, we wanted to think some more about the text as a piece of literature.
In this video, Dr Sophie Ratcliffe, a lecturer in English, offers her own analysis of Katherine Philips’ very moving poem about the death of her young son. Sophie talks about how very small details of the poem, such as Philips’ use of brackets, add to its poignancy, and suggests that this is a poem that needs to be read on the page, as well as aloud, in order to be fully appreciated.
We’ve included the text of the poem again below:
On the Death of my First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips, born the 23rd of April, and died the 2nd of May 1655
Twice forty months in wedlock I did stay,
    Then had my vows crowned with a lovely boy.
And yet in forty days he dropped away;
    O swift vicissitude of human joy!
I did but see him, and he disappeared,
    I did but touch the rosebud, and it fell;
A sorrow unforeseen and scarcely feared,
    So ill can mortals their afflictions spell.
And now (sweet babe) what can my trembling heart
    Suggest to right my doleful fate or thee?
Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art,
    So piercing groans must be thy elegy.
Thus whilst no eye is witness of my moan,
    I grieve thy loss (ah, boy too dear to live!)
And let the unconcerned world alone,
    Who neither will, nor can refreshment give.
An offering too for thy sad tomb I have,
    Too just a tribute to thy early hearse;
Receive these gasping numbers to thy grave,
    The last of thy unhappy mother’s verse.
Katherine Philips (1632 – 1664)
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