Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mary Sidney, Patron, Poet, Playwright

Mary Sidney Herbert, countess of Pembroke (born 27 October 1561)


Mary Sidney was the daughter of Sir Henry Sidney and his wife, Mary Dudley--as I noted just a few days ago, when I wrote about Sidney's niece, Mary Sidney Wroth, Mary Dudley was the sister of Guildford Dudley, who was briefly married to Lady Jane Grey just before she was maneuvered onto the throne of England (he was executed just before she was, on 12 February 1554), and of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's favorite.

Mary Sidney Herbert, 1595,
miniature portrait by Nicholas Hilliard
Well educated, Mary Sidney became a member of Queen Elizabeth's court in 1575, her father and her uncle, Robert Dudley, arranging for her marriage to Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke. 

Mary Sidney Herbert, the countess of Pembroke, was long recognized for her role as an important literary patron: her home at Wilton House became for twenty-five years the gathering place of a coterie of important writers, including Sidney himself, as well as key Renaissance poets and playwrights like Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, and Michael Drayton. In her role as literary patron, she was praised for her support by poets like Ben Jonson and John Donne. 

But her own work as a writer was largely overlooked and has only been recently "recovered"—even now her accomplishments are often denigrated (as "just" translation, for example). Her role in preserving and publishing her brother’s work has also been considered negligible—although, in many ways, it was through her efforts that Sir Philip Sidney was transformed into the Sir Philip Sidney, the quintessential Renaissance man and major figure in Renaissance poetry. 

I certainly never heard anything about Mary Sidney Herbert, either as the woman who "created" Sir Philip Sidney or as a writer, when I was an undergraduate. And I just checked the massive anthology I had while taking courses in graduate school (1972-76), the 1375-pages-long Tudor Poetry and Prose (1953)--in all those pages, there is exactly one selection from Mary Sidney Herbert, some 54 lines of a chorus from a play.

Despite what those few lines in what was then a standard anthology might suggest, the scope of Sidney's work is extraordinary. 

She refashioned a French play by Robert Garnier, his 1578 Marc-Antoine, not only translating it into English and refocusing attention on the subject (influencing both Samuel Daniel's Cleopatra and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra), but she introduced complex characterizations of Cleopatra and employed blank verse. Published in 1592, the play went through five editions in fifteen years.

Her literary output includes her translations of Philippe de Mornay's A Discourse of Life and Death, a meditation on death with a stoic theme, and of Petrarch’s The Triumph of Death, preserving the original's terza rima form. She also completed a short pastoral drama, "A Dialogue between two Shepherds," a competition in which each attempts to outdo the other in praise of Queen Elizabeth, here in the guise of Astraea.

An engraving of Mary Sidney Herbert,
countess of Pembroke
But Sidney's most significant accomplishment is her translation of the Psalms, a project she began in partnership with her brother. The two managed only forty-three poems before Philip Sidney's death--in completing the project, Mary Sidney employed such a range of forms and meters that at least one editor has concluded that "there is no collection of lyrics in English which uses such a wide range of metre."

In the 107 psalms she translates, Mary Sidney uses an incredible 128 different verse forms (Psalm 119 has twenty-two sections, so that accounts for the numbers). 

A 1599 presentation copy of the Sidney Psalter was prepared for Queen Elizabeth. This manuscript contains two additional poems by Mary Sidney, her dedication poem "Even now that care," addressed to the queen, and her elegy and apostrophe to her brother, "To the Angel Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney." 

For an excellent biographical essay, posted at The Poetry Foundation website, click here. (The site has a complete bibliography, suggestions for further reading, and a few Sidney psalms.) You might also want to consult Margaret Hannay's biographical essay for The International Sidney SocietyThere are several affordable editions of her work, but I might suggest a Penguin volume that includes three early-modern English writers: Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney, and Aemelia Lanyer: Renaissance Women Poets.

And one more thing: earlier this month I posted about Mary Sidney Herbert's niece, Mary Sidney Wroth (the daughter of her younger brother, Robert). Mary Sidney has another writing niece, much less well known: Elizabeth Sidney Manners, countess of Rutland--Sir Philip Sidney's only child. You will find three lyrics attributed to her in vol. 2 (1550-1603) of Donald W. Foster's Women's Works.

Oh, another one more thing--some scholars have argued that Mary Sidney is the "real" author of Shakespeare's plays. If somebody besides Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays, I vote for Mary Sidney. Just because.