- “My Rare Wit Killing Sin”: Poems of a Restoration Courtier by Anne Killigrew
Published within months of her death from smallpox in June 1685, the Poems of Anne Killigrew have until recently attracted attention chiefly for Dryden’s celebrated Pindaric ode memorializing her [End Page 161] short career as a poet and painter. Many Dryden scholars have found Killigrew’s poetry itself to be of negligible interest. Even Ms. Ezell makes modest claims for the literary merits of Killigrew’s work, arguing that “the single posthumously published volume of Killigrew’s poems, therefore, should be viewed not so much as a final polished product … but as a record of the aspirations and poetic vision of a developing young artist” finding her voice. In her introduction, Ms. Ezell situates Killigrew within the network of a “family of courtiers” strongly loyal to the Stuarts, both during the Interregnum and after the Restoration. It is one of the ironies of Killigrew’s life that her birth in 1660 and death in 1685 should have spanned so precisely the twenty-five-year reign of Charles II, making her an exemplary Restoration writer. In some other respects, however, Killigrew’s was a dissident voice: her poetry is markedly feminocentric in opposition to the masculinist libertine culture that prevailed at court; idealistic and contemptuous of “worldly joys” in an atmosphere of cynical pleasure seeking; and strenuous in advocating a life of retirement over the ambitious pursuits of the “Great Ones … who their Ill-spent time divide, / ’Twixt dang’rous Politics, and formal Pride, / Destructive Vice, [and] Expensive Vanity,” as she characterized the atmosphere at Whitehall. I suspect it was Killigrew’s distaste for the politics of the Restoration court as well as her devout faith that drew Dryden to commemorate her “pious memory.”
In Ms. Ezell’s edition of the Poems, the first since a facsimile edition published in 1967, she has sensibly modernized some aspects of the texts to make them more accessible to twenty-first-century readers. Her annotations of the biblical, classical, and historical allusions in Killigrew’s poems establish the young poet’s impressive range of reading and her cultured tastes. Killigrew experimented during her brief career with writing epigrams, occasional poems, pastoral dialogues, elegies, Pindaric odes, and even an abortive epic celebrating Alexander the Great. She had an avid interest in the reception of her work and responded with delight to complimentary verses written about her poetry by Henry Hare, 2nd Baron Coleraine, and, with hurt and outrage, to an unidentified contemporary attacker who claimed “that my Verses were made by another.” “Th’Envious Age, only to Me alone, / Will not allow, what I do write, my Own, / But let ’em Rage, and ’gainst a Maid Conspire,” Killigrew protested, before resolving to “willingly accept Cassandra’s Fate, / To speak the Truth, although believ’d too late.”
Ms. Ezell emphasizes the manuscript circulation of these poems among a coterie of readers prior to their posthumous publication by Killigrew’s father and downplays the idea that this may be a consciously fashioned volume because of the circumstances of its publication. The ordering of the poems is nevertheless worth investigating. The volume opens, for example, with a fragment of Killigrew’s abandoned epic, “Alexandreis,” followed by a note explaining that “This was the first Essay of this young Lady in Poetry, but finding the Task she had undertaken hard, she laid it by till Practice and more time should make her equal to so great a Work.” This gloss, presumably by Killigrew’s father and editor, is consistent with Dryden’s portrait of her as a talented “probationer” at the time of her early death. The second poem in the collection, however, suggests a rather different reading of her abandoned epic. “To the Queen,” addressed to Catherine of Braganza, explicitly rejects the epic’s traditional valorizing [End Page 162] of male violence, implying less that Killigrew thought herself incapable of writing an epic on Alexander the Great...