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Mary Sidney, Psalms

Margaret Hannay on Mary Sidney:


During her life, Mary Sidney was one of the most famous women in England, celebrated for her writing, particularly her translation of the biblical Psalms into English poems. Her brother, Sir Philip Sidney, had translated approximately one third of the Psalms, and she completed them after his death. The title on the Bodleian Library's Rawlinson manuscript (not pictured) calls them “more rare, and excellent, for the method and varietie then ever yet hath been done in English” because the Sidneys used so many different verse forms, including the sonnet. Mary Sidney 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. In her Psalms versions, she adds wordplay and expands metaphors. Such expansions frequently reflect her own experience, like the bride in an arranged marriage, or a woman who has experienced childbirth. The delight she took in writing these poems is evident in her version of Psalm 75:


           And I secure shall spend my happy times

           in my, though lowly, never-dying rhymes,

           singing with praise the God that Jacob loveth.


Here she combines humility (her own “lowly” rhymes) with confidence in the importance of these “never-dying rhymes” that praise God.


William Shakespeare performed for the Pembroke household, but he probably used the servants’ entrance. Actors did not have the status of Mary Sidney Herbert, countess of Pembroke, who 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’.




Margaret Hannay, Professor of English at Siena College, is the author of  Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (Oxford UP, 1990), and of  Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth (Ashgate, 2010). She is the editor of  Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. Ashgate Critical Essays on Women Writers in England, 1550-1700. Vol. 2  (2009), and of  Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators and Writers of Religious Works  (Kent State UP, 1985).  She has edited, with Noel J. Kinnamon and Michael G. Brennan,  The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (Oxford UP, 1998); and, with the addition of Hannibal Hamlin,  The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Philip and Mary Sidney for the Oxford World Classics series (2009).


Case 3 -- Esther Inglis >>>

Sidney. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Manuscript, ca. 1581-82

Philip Sidney. Dell’Arcadia della contessa di Pembroch. Venice, 1659


Audio Stop: Margaret Hannay on Mary Sidney

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