Anne Killigrew was an English poet. Born in London, Killigrew is perhaps best known as the subject of a famous elegy by the poet John Dryden
entitled To The Pious Memory of the Accomplish'd Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew (1686). She was however a skilful poet in her own right, and her Poems were published posthumously in 1686. Dryden compared her poetic abilities to the famous Greek poet of antiquity, Sappho
. Killigrew died of smallpox aged 25.
Early Life and Inspiration
Anne Killigrew was born in early 1660, before the Restoration, at St. Martin's Lane in London England. Not much is known about her mother Judith Killigrew, but her father Dr. Henry Killigrew has published several sermons and poems as well as a play called The Conspiracy. Her two paternal uncles were also published playwrights. Sir William Killigrew (1606–1695) published two collections of plays and Thomas Killigrew (1612–1683) not only wrote plays but built the theatre now known as Drury Lane. Her father and her uncles had close connections with the Stuart Court, serving Charles I, Charles II, and his Queen, Catherine of Braganza. Anne was made a personal attendant, before her death, to Mary of Modena, Duchess of York.
Little is recorded about Anne’s education, but it is common fact she kept up with her social class, and she had received instruction in both poetry and painting in which she excelled. Her theatrical background added to her used of shifting voices in her poetry. In John Dryden’s Ode to Anne he points out that “Art she had none, yet wanted none. For Nature did that want supply” (Stanza V). Killigrew most likely got her education through studying the Bible, Greek mythology, and philosophy. Mythology was often expressed throughout her paintings and poetry.
Inspiration for Killigrew’s poetry came from her knowledge of Greek myths and Biblical proverbs as well as from some very influential female poets who lived during the Restoration period: Katherine Philips and Anne Finch (also a maid to Mary of Modena at the same time as Killigrew). Mary of Modena encouraged the French tradition of precieuses (patrician women intellectuals) which pressed women’s participation in theatre, literature, and music. In effect, Killigrew was surrounded with a poetic feminist inspiration on a daily basis in Court: she was encompassed by strong intelligent women who encouraged her writing career as much as their own.
With this motivation came a short book of only thirty-three poems published soon after her death by her father. It was not abnormal for poets, especially for women, never to see their work published in their lifetime. Since Killigrew died at the young age of 25 she was only able to produce a small collection of poetry. In fact, the last three poems were only found among her papers and it is still being debated about whether or not they were actually written by her. Inside the book is also a self painted portrait of Anne and the Ode by family friend and poet John Dryden.
The Poet and Painter
Anne Killigrew excelled in multiple media. It is said that she has painted a total of 15 paintings; only four are known to exist today. They are all based on biblical and mythological imagery. It is unknown whether she based the poems on the paintings, or whether she had painted the paintings to complement her poetry. Both share an emphasis on nature and suggest female rebellion in a male-dominated society.
All of her poetry has beautiful and potent imagery, but she has often been criticized for having used well worn and conventional topics such as death, love, and the human condition. Alexander Pope
, a prominent critic as well as the leading poet of the time, labelled her work “crude” and “unsophisticated.” So, the question has frequently been raised: is Killigrew so deserving of such an immortalizing Ode by Dryden? Had he even read her poetry to properly determine her skills? Some say Dryden defended all poets as teachers of moral truths, and therefore Killigrew, despite her lack of experience, deserved his praise. However, evidence shows that she might not have been ready to see some of her work published, such as the unfinished poem “Alexandreis,” about Alexander the Great. At the end of the poem, she expresses the feeling that the task was too great for her to take on and she would try to finish it at another time. Then, there is the question of the last three poems that were found among her papers. They seem to be in her handwriting, which is why Killigrew’s father added them to her book. The poems are about the despair the author has for another woman, and could possibly be autobiographical if they are in fact by Killigrew. Some of her other poems are about failed friendships, possibly with Anne Finch, so this assumption may have some validity.
An early death
Killigrew died of smallpox on 16 June 1685, when she was only 25 years old. She is buried in the Chancel of the Savoy Chapel (dedicated to St John the Baptist) where a monument was built in her honour, but has since been destroyed by a fire.