Mary Sidney

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Portrait of Mary Herbert née Sidney, by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1590

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (née Sidney; 27 October 1561 – 25 September 1621) was one of the first English women to achieve a major reputation for her poetry and literary patronage. By the age of 39, she was listed with her brother Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare, as one of the notable authors of her time in the verse miscellany by John Bodenham, Belvedere. The influence of her Antonius is widely recognized: it stimulated a revived interest in the soliloquy based on classical models, and was a likely source (among others) for both the 1594 closet drama Cleopatra by Samuel Daniel and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607).[1] Sidney was also known for her translation of Petrarch's "Triumph of Death", but it is her lyric translation of the Psalms that has secured her poetic reputation.

Origins[edit]

Mary Sidney was born on 27 October 1561 at Tickenhill Palace in the parish of Bewdley in Worcestershire. She was one of the four daughters of Sir Henry Sidney by his wife Mary Dudley, a daughter of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland. Her brother was the poet Philip Sidney (1554-1586).

Early life[edit]

As a child she spent much time at court, where her mother was a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber and a close confidante of Queen Elizabeth I. Like her brother, Philip Sidney, she received a humanist education which included classical languages, French, Italian, music and needlework. Following the death of Mary's youngest sister, Ambrosia, in 1575, the queen requested Mary to return to court to join the royal entourage.

Marriage & progeny[edit]

Arms of Herbert: Per pale azure and gules, three lions rampant argent

In 1577 Mary's uncle Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester helped her father to arrange her marriage to their close ally, Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (d.1600). As Countess of Pembroke, Mary was responsible for a number of estates including Ramsbury, Ivychurch (Alderbury, Wilts),[2] Wilton House and Baynard's Castle in the City of London, where it is known that they entertained Queen Elizabeth to dinner. She bore her husband four children:

Life and work[edit]

The title page of Sidney's The Tragedy of Antony, her interpretation of the story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

Mary Sidney turned Wilton House into a "paradise for poets", known as the "Wilton Circle" which included Spenser, Daniel, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson and Sir John Davies, a salon-type literary group sustained by the Countess's hospitality. John Aubrey wrote that "Wilton House was like a college, there were so many and ingenious persons. She was the greatest patroness of wit and learning of any lady in her time". She received more dedications than any other woman of non-royal status.[4] She was regarded as a muse by Daniel in his poem "Delia" (an anagram for ideal).[5]

Her brother, Philip Sidney, wrote much of his Arcadia in her presence, at Wilton House. He also likely began preparing his English lyric version of the Book of Psalms at Wilton as well. He had completed 43 of the 150 Psalms at the time of his death during a military campaign against the Spanish in the Netherlands in 1586. She finished his translation of the Psalms, composing Psalms 44-150 in a dazzling array of verse forms, using the 1560 Geneva Bible and commentaries by John Calvin and Theodore Beza. Hallett Smith has called the psalter a “School of English Versification”:[6] of one hundred and seventy-one poems (Psalm 119 is a gathering of twenty-two separate poems), the verse psalter only replicates the formal structure of a poem, its rhyme scheme and meter, three times. A copy of the completed psalter was prepared for Queen Elizabeth I in 1599, in anticipation of a royal visit, but Elizabeth canceled her planned visit to Wilton. This work is usually referred to as “The Sidney Psalms” or “The Sidney-Pembroke Psalter” and is regarded as an important influence on the development of English religious lyric poetry in the late 16th and early 17th century.[7] John Donne wrote a poem celebrating the verse psalter, and claiming that he could “scarce” call the English Church reformed until its psalter had been modeled after the poetic transcriptions of Philip Sidney and Mary Herbert.[8]

Mary was instrumental in having her brother’s Defence of Poetry (or, Defence of Poesy) put into print, and she circulated the "Sidney-Pembroke Psalter" in manuscript at about the same time. The simultaneous circulation of the two works suggests a proximate relationship in their design: both the Defence and the psalter translation argued (in formally different ways) for the ethical recuperation of poetry as an instrument for moral instruction—and particularly for religious instruction.[9] Mary also took on the task of editing and publishing her brother’s "Arcadia” which he claims to have written in her presence, as The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia.[10]

By at least 1591, the Pembrokes were providing patronage to the Pembroke's Men playing company, one of the early companies to perform the works of Shakespeare.

Mary's husband died in 1600 leaving her, as Aubrey reported, with less financial support than she might have expected (through views on its adequacy vary). By some accounts, King James I visited Wilton on his way to his coronation in 1603 and stayed again at Wilton following the coronation to avoid the plague. According to one account Shakespeare's company "The King's Men" performed at Wilton at this time.[11]

In addition to the arts, Mary had a range of interests. She had a chemistry laboratory at Wilton House, where she developed medicines and invisible ink. From 1609–15 Mary Sidney probably spent most of her time at Crosby Hall in the City of London (now relocated as a private residence to Chelsea, London). She traveled with her doctor, Sir Matthew Lister, to Spa on the Continent, where she relaxed by shooting pistols and playing cards. In 1615 she commenced the building of a grand hunting lodge with fine vistas, Houghton House in Bedfordshire, on an estate granted to her by King James I, which she completed in 1621,[12] shortly before her death. It is said that the house, today a ruin, was the model for House Beautiful in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678).

Death & burial[edit]

She died of smallpox on 25 September 1621, aged 59, at her townhouse in Aldersgate Street in the City of London, shortly after King James I had visited her at the newly completed Houghton House. After a grand funeral in St Paul's Cathedral, her body was buried in Salisbury Cathedral, next to that of her late husband in the Herbert family vault, under the steps leading to the choir stalls, where survives her mural monument.

Assessment[edit]

In addition to her closet drama Antonius, a translation of the French play Marc-Antoine (1578) by Robert Garnier, Mary is known to have translated two other works: A discourse of life and death by Philippe de Mornay, which was published with Antonius in 1592; and Petrarch’s The triumph of death, which circulated in manuscript. Her original poems include the pastoral, “A dialogue betweene two shepheards, Thenot and Piers, in praise of Astrea,” and the two dedicatory addresses, one to Elizabeth I and one to her brother Philip, contained in the Tixall manuscript copy of her verse psalter. An elegy for Philip, “The dolefull lay of Clorinda,” which was published in Colin Clouts come home againe (1595), has been attributed to both Spenser and to Mary Herbert, but Pamela Coren is probably right to attach the work to Spenser, and certainly right to assert that Mary’s poetic reputation does not suffer from the loss of the attribution.[13]

Although the psalms were not printed during in her lifetime, they had an extensive manuscript publication. There are 17 extant manuscripts today—a considerable number. A later engraving of Herbert shows her holding them.[14] Her influence—through literary patronage, through publishing her brother's works and through her own verse forms, dramas, and translations—can be assessed in a number of ways. Contemporary poets who commended Herbert’s verse psalms include Daniel, Davies, Donne, Drayton, Sir John Harington, Ben Jonson, Aemelia Lanyer, and Thomas Moffet. The importance and influence of the Psalter translation is evident in the devotional lyric poems of Barnabe Barnes, Nicholas Breton, Henry Constable, Francis Davison, Giles Fletcher, and Abraham Fraunce—and its influence upon the later religious poetry of Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and John Milton has been critically recognized since Louis Martz placed it at the start of a developing tradition of seventeenth-century devotional lyric.

There has been speculation that she wrote Shakespeare’s plays.[15] Robin P. Williams presents a circumstantial case that Mary Sidney might have written the sonnets attributed to Shakespeare, seventeen of them urging her brother to marry, and most of the others to her lover Doctor Mathew Lister. Williams also sees the Lister relationship behind the play All’s Well That Ends Well. Williams acknowledges that there is no documented evidence for the case, but notes that the detailed knowledge in the plays of sailing, archery, falconry, alchemy, astronomy, cooking, medicine and travel correlate well with what we know of Mary Sidney’s life and interests.

Her poetic epitaph, which is ascribed to Ben Jonson but which is more likely to have been written in an earlier form by poets William Browne and her son William, summarizes how she was regarded in her own day:

Underneath this sable hearse,
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Fair and learned and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

Mary Sidney was aunt to the poet Lady Mary Wroth (the daughter of her brother, Robert Sidney).

2010 discovery of additional work[edit]

June and Paul Schlueter published an article in The Times Literary Supplement of 23 July 2010, in which they described a manuscript of newly discovered works by Mary Sidney Herbert.[16]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Both dramas portray the lovers as "heroic victims of their own passionate excesses and remorseless destiny" (David Bevington, Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) p. 7; ISBN 0-521-27250-5).
  2. ^ R.B. Pugh & E. Crittall (eds), "Houses of Augustinian canons: Priory of Ivychurch", A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3 (1956), pp. 289-295[ISBN missing] Read here.
  3. ^ "The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Vol. 1" pg. xxx
  4. ^ Franklin B. Williams, "The literary patronesses of Renaissance England" Notes and Queries 9 (1962), pp. 364–366.
  5. ^ "Poets' Corner - Samuel Daniel - Delia". theotherpages.org. 
  6. ^ Hallett Smith, "English metrical psalms in the sixteenth century and their literary significance," Huntington Library Quarterly 9 (1946), 249–271.
  7. ^ Louis L. Martz was the first to notice a close relationship between the Sidney-Pembroke Psalter and The Temple by George Herbert; seeThe poetry of meditation: a study in English religious literature of the seventeenth century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954). ISBN 9780300001655. Since that time, scholars have argued for the importance of this psalter in the development of a Protestant religious lyric tradition in England, most recently, Hannibal Hamlin, Psalm culture and early modern English literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), ISBN 9780521037068; and Kimberly Anne Coles, Religion, reform, and women's writing in early modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), ISBN 9780521880671.
  8. ^ "Upon the Translation of the Psalms by Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke, His Sister. Divine Poems. John Donne. 1896. The Poems of John Donne". bartleby.com. 
  9. ^ Kimberly Anne Coles (2012). "Mary (Sidney) Herbert, countess of Pembroke". The Encyclopedia of English Renaissance Literature, Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. and Alan Stewart (eds). Blackwell Publishing. 
  10. ^ Bear, Risa. "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.". luminarium.org. 
  11. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 531.
  12. ^ http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/houghton-house/history/
  13. ^ Pamela Coren, "Edmund Spenser, Mary Sidney, and the doleful lay" Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 42 (2002), 25–41.
  14. ^ Mary Herbert as illustrated in Horace Walpole, A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1806).
  15. ^ Robin P. Williams, Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?. USA: Wilton Circle Press; 2006. ISBN 978-0-321-42640-6
  16. ^ "June and Paul Schlueter Discover Unknown Poems by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke". Lafayette College. 

Sources[edit]

  • Introduction to The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, vols, 1-2, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998. ISBN 0198112807 (vol. 1) and 0198184573 (vol. 2).
  • Kimberly Anne Coles, "Herbert, Mary (Sidney), countess of Pembroke," The Encyclopedia of English Renaissance Literature, Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. and Alan Stewart (eds). (Blackwell Publishing, 2012). Blackwell Reference Online, 2012; accessed 5 March 2015.
  • Margaret P. Hannay, Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. ISBN 9780195057799.
  • Margaret Patterson Hannay, Mary Sidney profile (1561–1621), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; accessed 8 April 2007.
  • Robin, Diana Maury, Larsen, Anne R. and Levin, Carole (2007). Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. ABC-CLIO, Inc. 
  • Gary Waller, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke: A Critical Study of Her Writings and Literary Milieu, Salzburg studies in English literature 87: Elizabethan and Renaissance studies (Salzburg: University of Salzburg Press, 1979).

Further reading[edit]

  • Danielle Clarke, "'Lover's songs shall turne to holy psalmes’: Mary Sidney and the transformation of Petrarch," Modern Language Review 92 (1997), 282–294.
  • Kimberly Anne Coles, Religion, reform, and women's writing in early modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). ISBN 9780521880671.
  • Jaime Goodrich, Faithful Translators: Authorship, Gender, and Religion in Early Modern England (Evanston, IL. Northwestern University Press, 2013). ISBN 9780810129634.
  • Hannibal Hamlin, Psalm culture and early modern English literature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). ISBN 9780521037068.
  • Margaret P. Hannay, Philip's phoenix: Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). ISBN 9780195057799.
  • Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and authorship in the Sidney circle, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). ISBN 9780299126940.
  • Anne Lake Prescott, "Mary Sidney's Antonius and the ambiguities of French history" Yearbook of English Studies 38 (2002), 216–233.
  • Beth Quitslund, "Teaching us how to sing? The peculiarity of the Sidney psalter," Sidney Journal 23 (2005), 83–110.
  • J. C. A. Rathmell (ed.), The psalms of Sir Philip Sidney and the countess of Pembroke, (New York: New York University Press, 1963). ISBN 9780814703861.
  • Debra Rienstra and Noel Kinnamon, "Circulating the Sidney–Pembroke psalter," in George L. Justice and Nathan Tinker (eds.), Women's writing and the circulation of ideas: manuscript publication in England, 1550–1800, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 50–72. ISBN 9780521808569.
  • Suzanne Trill, "'In poesie the mirrois of our age': the countess of Pembroke's ‘Sydnean’ poetics," in Kent Cartwright (ed.), A companion to Tudor literature, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 428–443. ISBN 9781405154772.
  • Micheline White, "Protestant women's writing and congregational psalm singing: from the song of the exiled 'Handmaid' (1555) to the countess of Pembroke's psalmes (1599)," Sidney Journal 23 (2005), 61–82.

External links[edit]