by Margaret Hannay
When Shakespeare came to perform at her house, he came in the back door. Actors did not have the status of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.
Mary Sidney was the daughter of Sir Henry Sidney, governor of Ireland and Wales; the sister of the famous author Sir Philip Sidney, celebrated as a Protestant martyr; and the wife of Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, one of the richest men in England.
Her London house, Baynards Castle, once a royal palace, spread out over several city blocks in the most fashionable district along the Thames River. From there she travelled by boat to the court of Queen Elizabeth and later King James. At her country estate of Wilton House she encouraged poets and scholars, so that her home was known as a ‘little university’. Among her many achievements was a poetic translation of more than seventy percent of the book of Psalms.
Women who lived at the time of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth were not allowed to attend university, but like her queen she had excellent tutors at home, she was fluent in Latin, and she translated French and Italian works.
Two of her translations were published in 1592 with her name on the title page, a bold act for a woman. She was also a musician who sang and played the lute, and she excelled at archery and needlework, as well as household management, later supervising hundreds of servants. She thus demonstrated all the learning and skills appropriate for her aristocratic rank.
When she was 15, Mary’s only sister died in Wales, and Queen Elizabeth invited her to come to court, promising her parents she would take “special care” of her. There Mary Sidney met her husband, Henry Herbert, who was a good friend (and war buddy) of her father and her uncle Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
Henry Herbert was 45 and Mary was not quite 16 when they were married, but, surprisingly, they seem to have been happy. Henry, the second Earl of Pembroke, adored his vivacious and brilliant young wife, and when their first child (William Herbert, later third Earl of Pembroke) was born, the proud father invited the entire parish to dinner and then put up a large plaque in the village church celebrating his birth and praising his ‘most dear wife’. Her husband was rich and powerful enough to serve as a patron for the poets and scholars that Mary Sidney wanted to encourage, and he seems to have been pleased with her writing as well.
In her own day, Mary Sidney was celebrated as the author of English poems based on the Hebrew Psalms. Her brother Philip had completed the first forty-three Psalms before his untimely death, and she honored his memory by translating Psalms 44-150, including the lengthy poems of Psalm 119.
She arranged for their complete Psalter (now usually known as the Sidney Psalter) to be copied out by the best calligrapher in England, Sir John Davies; he filled in all the loops of the letters with ink made from solid gold. This beautiful manuscript, now at the Sidney family home of Penshurst Place, is the most authoritative manuscript, although the work circulated in many copies and was a strong influence on later Christian poets, like John Donne, George Herbert, and Aemilia Lanyer.
Mary Sidney was an excellent poet, praised by the leading male authors of her day for the ‘sweetness’ of her verse. She was also a scholar who consulted virtually every Psalm version and commentary available to her in English, French, and Latin, and she may have even studied a little Hebrew, or at least talked with Hebrew scholars like her chaplain at Wilton, Gervase Babington, later bishop of Worcester.
In her Psalms versions, she adds wordplay and expands metaphors present in her originals, like the snake in Psalm 58. She can vividly capture an experience, such as the storm where the waves feel so high “the stars do drop bedashed with rain” and the ship touches the sky, only to fall abruptly to the center of the earth. Those on board stagger like drunkards (Psalm 107).
Such expansions frequently reflect her own experience, like the bride in an arranged marriage in Psalm 45, or a woman who has experienced pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing (as in Psalms 48, 51, 131, and 139). Her sight of a child lost through a miscarriage or stillbirth is poignantly reflected in Psalm 58:
… the embryo, whose vital band
Breaks ere it holds, and formless eyes do fail
To see the sun, though brought to lightful land.
She also uses her experience at court, as when she describes God presiding at a court like Queen Elizabeth’s, wearing splendid clothes and jewels, and sitting on a throne under the canopy of state:
To thee, to thee, all royal pomps [ceremonies] belong;
Clothed art thou in state and glory bright (Psalm 104).
Psalms express many emotions—despair, anger, wonder, or gratitude, as they question or challenge or beseech or praise God—but Mary Sidney’s Psalms often emphasize celebration, as when the godly “in Jehovah’s presence / Play, sing, and dance” (68, lines 5-6). Her Psalms are often joyous, adding song and dancing, which would have dismayed John Calvin, whose Psalm commentaries she often consulted. Even in her version of the penitential Psalm 51, for example, the contrite soul prays,
To ear and heart send sounds and thoughts of gladness,
That bruisèd bones may dance away their sadness.
Psalm 100, often known by its Latin title ‘Jubilate Deo’ or ‘Praise God,” is in her version a sonnet, a 14-line verse form made famous by her brother Philip and by William Shakespeare. This gives a sense of exuberant celebration, as God’s people give a ‘merry shout’ of joy:
O all you lands, the treasures of your joy
In merry shout upon the Lord bestow:
Your service cheerfully on him employ,
With triumph song into his presence go.
Know first that he is God; and after know
This God did us, not we ourselves create:
We are his flock, for us his feedings grow;
We are his folk, and he upholds our state.
With thankfulness, oh, enter then his gate:
Make through each porch of his your praises ring.
All good, all grace, of his high name relate,
He of all grace and goodness is the spring.
Time in no terms his mercy comprehends;
From age to age his truth itself extends.
In her versions of the Psalms, she used 128 different verse forms. She used sophisticated verse forms from the Italian, like the eight-line ottava rima, and for Psalm 51, one of the most quoted Psalms, she used the elegant seven-line rime royal. She wrote several Psalms as acrostics, where the initial letter of each line spells a word. The shortest, Psalm 117, spells out “Praise the Lord”:
P raise him that aye [always]
R emains the same:
A ll tongues display
I ehovah’s1 fame.
S ing all that share
T his earthly ball:
H is mercies are
E xposed to all,
L ike as the word
O nce he doth give,
R olled in record,2
D oth time outlive
The delight Mary Sidney took in paraphrasing the Psalms is evident in Psalm 75:9. In the Geneva Bible, which she used as her primary source, it reads, “But I will declare for ever, and sing praises unto the God of Jacob.” She renders those lines
And I secure shall spend my happy times
in my, though lowly, never-dying rhymes,
singing with praise the God that Jacob loveth. (lines 25-27)
Here she combines humility (her own “lowly” rhymes) with confidence in the importance of the “never-dying rhymes” that praise God. Such poems required both her studious work in biblical versions and commentaries as “God’s scholar” (Variant 119H.32) and her “utmost skill” (111.2) as a poet.
Her Psalms versions were famous during her own lifetime and are worth rediscovering today. They can work well for private devotional reading and even for reading aloud in public worship.3
1 “I” (the usual spelling of “J” in the sixteenth century) preserves the acrostic.
2 Enrolled in the record of God’s Word.
3 The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Philip and Mary Sidney, edited by Hannibal Hamlin, Michael Brennan, Margaret Hannay, and Noel Kinnamon, has just been published in paperback in the Oxford World Classics series. It is based on the Penshurst manuscript and printed in modern spelling with introduction and notes for the general reader.
© 2010 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 33 number 4 Winter (January-March) 2010