Friday, October 27, 2017

Happy Birthday to Mary Sidney Herbert

Mary (Sidney) Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, was born on October 27, 1561. According to the Poetry Foundation:

Mary Sidney was the most important non-royal woman writer and patron in Elizabethan England. Without appearing to transgress the strictures against women's writing, she composed a sizable body of work, evading criticism by focusing on religious themes and by confining her work to the genres thought appropriate to women: translation, dedication, elegy, and encomium. Even more important to her success was her identity as the sister of Sir Philip Sidney. She began her public literary career after his death by encouraging works written in his praise, publishing his works, and completing his translation of the Psalms. Except for some business correspondence, all of her extant works were completed or published in the 1590s. Tantalizing later references indicate that she continued writing and translating until her death, but all subsequent works have been lost, probably to fire; her primary residences of Wilton and Baynards Castle burned in the seventeenth century. The extensive family correspondence mentioned by her brothers and other contemporaries has also been lost; her only surviving personal letters were written to her uncle, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1578; and to Robert Sidney's wife, Barbara Gamage, in 1591, offering the services of a nurse.

The daughter of Sir Henry Sidney and Mary Dudley, Mary Sidney was born on 27 October 1561 at Tickenhall near Bewdley, Worcestershire, on the Welsh border while her father was serving as lord Governor of the marches of Wales. He had been a companion of King Edward, who died in his arms. Her mother, a well-educated woman who was a close friend of Queen Elizabeth, was the daughter of the Earl of Northumberland, who was virtual ruler of England in King Edward's final years, and the sister of Elizabeth's favorite, Robert Dudley. Lady Sidney was badly scarred by smallpox after nursing the queen, and thereafter rarely appeared at court.

Describing her work on the psalter, the Poetry Foundation states:

Sometime in the early 1590s, probably while she was completing her Petrarch translation, the countess had begun the work for which she is known, her metric translation of Psalms 44-150 that completes and revises a project that her brother Philip had begun in his final years. Although the Psalms have always been an important part of Judeo-Christian worship, translating them into the vernacular for private meditation and public singing had become a particularly Protestant activity in the sixteenth century. When the countess first began her metric versions, she remained fairly close to the phrasing and interpretation familiar to her from Miles Coverdale's prose version in the Great Bible, incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer. Her more polished versions, transcribed by Sir John Davies of Hereford in the Penshurst manuscript, evidence a scholarly process of revision, however. Choosing Protestant scholarship based on the original Hebrew, the countess revised her Psalms to be closer to the Geneva Bible than to the Great Bible, with considerable reliance on Théodore de Bèze (in the original Latin and in Anthony Gilby's English translation), on John Calvin, and on Les Psaumes de David mis en rime Françoise, par Clément Marot, et Théodore de Bèze (1562). References are also made to other continental versions and to earlier English metrical Psalms, such as those by Anne Lok and Matthew Parker.

The countess used 128 different verse forms for the 107 Psalms she translated (Psalm 119 has twenty-two sections), making her achievement significant for metrical variety as well as for the content, Like her Genevan sources, the countess used the Psalms to comment on contemporary politics, particularly the persecution of "the godly," as Protestants called themselves. By expanding metaphors and descriptions present in the original Hebrew, Sidney also incorporated her experience at Elizabeth's court, as well as female experiences of marriage and childbirth.

Sir Philip Sidney offered this translation of the most famous psalm, number 23:

The Lord, the Lord my shepherd is, 
And so can never I 
Taste misery. 
He rests me in greene pasture his: 
By waters still, and sweete 
He guides my feete. 

He me revives : leades me the way, 
Which righteousnesse doth take, 
For his names sake. 
Yea though I should through valleys stray, 
Of deathes dark shade, I will 
Noe whitt feare ill. 

For thou, deere Lord, thou me besett'st: 
Thy rodd, and thy staff be 
To comfort me; 
Before me thou a table sett'st, 
Even when foes envious eye 
Doth it espy. 

Thou oil'st my head thou fil'st my cup: 
Nay more thou endlesse good, 
Shalt give me food. 
To thee, I say, ascended up, 

Where thou, the Lord of all, 
Dost hold thy hall.

Mary wrote this translation of Psalm 90:

Thou our refuge, thou our dwelling, 

O Lord, hast byn from time to time: 
Long er Mountaines, proudly swelling, 

Above the lowly dales did clime: 
Long er the Earth, embowl'd by thee, 

Bare the forme it now doth beare: 
Yea, thou art God for ever, free 

From all touch of age and yeare. 

O, but man by thee created, 
As he at first of earth arose, 

When thy word his end hath dated, 

In equall state to earth he goes. 
Thou saist, and saying makst it soe: 
Be noe more, O Adams heyre; 
From whence ye came, dispatch to goe, 

Dust againe, as dust you were. 

Graunt a thousand yeares be spared 
To mortall men of life and light: 

What is that to thee compared? 
One day, one quarter of a night. 

When death upon them storm-like falls, 
Like unto a dreame they grow: 

Which goes and comes as fancy calls, 
Nought in substance all in show.

John Donne praised this work highly in this poem:


ETERNAL God—for whom who ever dare
Seek new expressions, do the circle square,
And thrust into straight corners of poor wit
Thee, who art cornerless and infinite—
I would but bless Thy name, not name Thee now
—And Thy gifts are as infinite as Thou—
Fix we our praises therefore on this one,
That, as thy blessed Spirit fell upon
These Psalms' first author in a cloven tongue
—For 'twas a double power by which he sung
The highest matter in the noblest form—
So thou hast cleft that Spirit, to perform
That work again, and shed it here, upon
Two, by their bloods, and by Thy Spirit one ;
A brother and a sister, made by Thee
The organ, where Thou art the harmony.
Two that make one John Baptist's holy voice,
And who that Psalm, "Now let the Isles rejoice,"
Have both translated, and applied it too,
Both told us what, and taught us how to do.
They show us islanders our Joy, our King ;
They tell us why, and teach us how to sing.
Make all this all three choirs, heaven, earth, and spheres ;
The first, Heaven, hath a song, but no man hears ;
The spheres have music, but they have no tongue,
Their harmony is rather danced than sung ;
But our third choir, to which the first gives ear
—For Angels learn by what the Church does here—
This choir hath all. The organist is he
Who hath tuned God and man, the organ we ;
The songs are these, which heaven's high holy Muse
Whisper'd to David, David to the Jews ;
And David's successors in holy zeal,
In forms of joy and art do re-reveal
To us so sweetly and sincerely too,
That I must not rejoice as I would do,
When I behold that these Psalms are become
So well attired abroad, so ill at home,
So well in chambers, in Thy Church so ill,
As I can scarce call that reform'd until
This be reform'd ; would a whole state present
A lesser gift than some one man hath sent ?
And shall our Church unto our Spouse and King
More hoarse, more harsh than any other, sing ?
For that we pray, we praise Thy name for this,
Which, by this Moses and this Miriam, is
Already done ; and as those Psalms we call,
—Though some have other authors—David's all,
So though some have, some may some Psalms translate,
We Thy Sidneian psalms shall celebrate,
And, till we come th' extemporal song to sing
—Learn'd the first hour that we see the King,
Who hath translated those translators—may
These their sweet learned labours all the way
Be as our tuning, that when hence we part,
We may fall in with them, and sing our part!

Mary Sidney died on September 25, 1621.

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