Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
By Francis Booth | On April 26, 2021 | Updated August 24, 2022 | Comments (2)
The extraordinary Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1561 – 1621), was an almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare and has been one of the candidates in various conspiracy theories for the actual author of Shakespeare’s works, in particular his sonnets.
Even though this is nonsense, Mary Sidney, sister of the more famous Philip, was arguably Shakespeare’s – and almost everyone else’s – equal as a poet.
This introduction to Mary Sidney’s life and work is excerpted from Killing the Angel: Early Transgressive British Woman Writers by Francis Booth ©2021, reprinted by permission.
In her time, Mary was probably known more as a host and patron to other writers than as a writer herself. Mary had grown up attached to the court of Elizabeth I where her mother Lady Mary Dudley – the sister of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s most favored courtier and perhaps the Queen’s lover – was a gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber.
In these surroundings Mary received a liberal education, including scripture, the classics, rhetoric, French, Italian, and Latin, in which she was fluent, and possibly some Greek and Hebrew. Mary was also proficient at the ‘female’ accomplishments of singing and playing the lute as well as needlework, so much so that so that her name was used in endorsing needlework patterns and for books of music.
In 1577, Mary married Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, a family friend and wealthy landowner; among his properties were Wilton House near Salisbury, and Baynard’s Castle in London, where the couple entertained Queen Elizabeth to dinner. Henry died in 1601, leaving Mary less well-off than she had expected, and with the provision in his will that she should not remarry.
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The Psalms of David
Her largest work is her complete translation of the Psalms of David, a form known as a psalter. She and her brother worked on the translations together at first but he died in battle overseas in 1586 when they had only reached Psalm 43 of 150; she finished them by herself, also going back and revising all the earlier ones, so that the whole work may be considered to be hers.
Mary was at the time overshadowed by her famous brother Philip Sidney, who was a courtier, a warrior and considered then to be the ideal gentleman. He was indeed a major literary figure: his sonnet cycle Astrophel and Stella rivals Shakespeare’s sonnets and his critical work The Defence of Poesie introduced the ideas of continental theorists to England.
But The Sidney Psalter, largely the work of Mary, and certainly all overseen by her, is a masterclass of poetic styles and techniques: every conceivable poetic form and structure is included and all brilliantly executed; it is a great tour de force of poetry, one of the greatest extended works of verse of its own age, and indeed of any age.
When the volume of Psalms was published, Mary assumed authorship in her own name, Mary Sidney Herbert, but dedicated it to ‘the Angel Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney.’ It was highly appreciated at the time; John Donne was a fan and wrote a congratulatory poem.
So though some have, some may some Psalms translate,
We thy Sydnean Psalms shall celebrate …
The Psalms as a collection are known in the Church of England as the Book of Common Prayer, and regular churchgoers will be quite shocked by the Sidney translations of them. In their normal Church of England version, the Psalms as used in church services are almost unchanged since Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translations, which were largely preserved in the King James Bible of 1611. The Sidney versions are not translations so much as poetic reimaginings. The well-known Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus is a good example: the version known to Church of England attendees ever since services were conducted in English goes:
The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
The Lord shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.
Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.
The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath.
He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries.
He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.
And here is Mary Sidney’s radically different version:
Thus to my lord, the Lord did say:
Take up thy seat at my right hand,
Till all thy foes that proudly stand,
I prostrate at thy footstool lay.
From me thy staff of might
Sent out of Sion goes:
As victor then prevail in fight,
And rule repining foes.
But as for them that willing yield,
In solemn robes they glad shall go:
Attending thee when thou shalt show
Triumphantly thy troops in field:
In field as thickly set
With warlike youthful train
As pearlèd plain with drops is wet,
Of sweet Aurora’s rain.
The Lord did swear, and never he
What once he swear will disavow:
As was Melchisedech so thou,
An everlasting priest shalt be.
At hand still ready priest
To guard thee from annoy,
Shall sit the Lord that loves thee best,
And kings in wrath destroy.
Thy Realm shall many Realm contain:
Thy slaughtered foes thick heaped lie:
With crushed head even he shall die,
Who head of many Realm doth reign.
If passing on these ways
Thou taste of troubled streams:
Shall that eclipse thy shining rays?
Nay light thy glories beams.
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Praise from fellow poets
Despite living her earlier life in her brother’s shadow, Mary was recognized quite early on as an extraordinary talent and respected by her contemporaries both male and female; in addition to the recognition given to the publication of the Psalms, Mary was the only woman included in John Bodenham’s poetry collection Belvidere, 1600. Æmalia Lanyer’s encomium, from Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was dedicated to her:
This nymph, quoth he, great Pembroke hight by name,
Sister to valiant Sidney, whose clear light Gives light
to all that tread true paths of Fame,
Who in the globe of heaven doth shine so bright
For to this Lady now I will repair,
Presenting her the fruits of idle hours;
Though many Books she writes that are more rare,
Yet there is honey in the meanest flowers …
Mary was also praised at great length by John Davies in the dedication to The Muses Sacrifice, 1612.
PEMBROKE, (a Paragon of Princely PARTS,
and, of that Part that most commends the Muse,
Great Mistress of her Greatness, and the ARTS,)
Phoebus and Fate makes great, and glorious!
A Work of Art and Grace (from Head and Heart
that makes a Work of Wonder) thou hast done;
Where Art, seems Nature; Nature, seemeth Art;
and, Grace, in both, makes all out-shine the Sun.
Davies understands that even so prominent, so talented a woman as Mary Sidney cannot seek public fame, as male writers can.
And didst thou thirst for Fame. (as all Men do)
thou would’st, by all means, let it come to light;
But though thou cloud it, as doth Envy too,
yet through both Clouds it shines, it is so bright!
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A prominent translator as well
Mary Sidney was not just a poet but a translator; her translation from the French of The Tragedy of Antony, Done into English by the Countess of Pembroke, 1592 revived the use of soliloquy from classical works and is a source of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, 1607. Mary also translated Petrarch’s Triumph of Death and is the probable author of the long poem The Doleful Lay of Clorinda, 1595, a lament for her dead brother.
Woods, hills and rivers, now are desolate,
Sith he is gone the which them all did grace:
And all the fields do wail their widow state,
Sith death their fairest flower did late deface.
The fairest flower in field that ever grew,
Was Astrophel: that was, we all may rue.
What cruel hand of cursed foe unknown,
Hath cropped the stalk which bore so faire a flower?
Untimely cropped, before it well were grown,
And clean defaced in untimely hour.
Great loss to all that ever him did see,
Great loss to all, but greatest loss to me.
Mary Sidney’s legacy as patroness and poet
Under Mary’s vigorously transgressive stewardship, Wilton House became a literary salon for writers known as the Wilton Circle, which included Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. John Aubrey said that ‘Wilton House was like a college, there were so many learned and ingenious persons. She was the greatest patroness of wit and learning of any lady in her time.’
Other poets agreed: Samuel Daniel said of his poetry that he had received ‘the first notion for the formal ordering of those compositions at Wilton, which I must ever acknowledge to have been my best School,’ andThomas Churchyard said that ‘she sets to school, our Poets everywhere.’ At Wilton house, after Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Mary hosted the new King James I and Queen Anne; it is probable that Shakespeare’s As You Like It was first performed for a royal audience there.
Writers vied for her approval and patronage; she probably received more dedications at the front of published books than any non-royal woman, including from Thomas Nashe, Abraham Fraunce, who incorporated her name into the titles of several works that he presented to her, includingThe Countesse of Pembrokes Emmanuel (1591) and the three parts ofThe Countesse of Pembrokes Ivychurch (1591–2) and Nicholas Breton’s The Countesse of Pembrokes Love and‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Passion.
On her death in 1621, Mary Sidney was given a large funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral – possibly the only female writer ever to have been so honored – and her body was taken by torchlight to be buried at Salisbury Cathedral next to her husband. Her epitaph is probably by Ben Jonson:
Underneath this marble hearse
Lies the subject of all verse;
Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.
Death! ere thou hast slain another
Wise and fair and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.
More about Mary Sidney
- Poetry Foundation
- Tudor of the Month: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
- Tudor Times: Lady Mary Sidney
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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