Sidney Psalms

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Sidney Psalms
Psalm 40 from the Sidney Psalms.jpg
Psalm 40
AuthorPhilip Sidney, and Mary Sidney
Publication date
ISBN0856359831 Open Library

The Sidney Psalms or Sidneian Psalms was a 16th-century translation into English of the Psalms.

It was the work of Philip and Mary Sidney, aristocratic siblings who were very influential Elizabethan poets.

Mary Sidney completed the book and gave a copy to Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1599. They were celebrated in the work of John Donne.[1][2]

Psalm 1[edit]

Sir Philip Sidney from NPG.jpg
Sir Philip Sidney from NPG

Psalm one is the first Psalm in the Sidney Psalter, written by brother and sister, Phillip and Mary Sidney in the 16th. Psalm One, as discussed here, was written by Phillip Sidney in the late 1500s. It is a poetic adaption of psalm one from the biblical book of psalms. Although there were many translations of the psalms during the renaissance period the Sidney psalms are different due to their concentration on aesthetics. Though some claim this takes away from true translations (which will be returned to in this article) they are still praised today for their creative poetic forms; John Donne a contemporary praised them as “The highest matter in the noblest form” (Donne, 1896).


Psalm 1 is, as the title suggests, the first psalm in the biblical book of Psalms and so the first in the Sidney Psalter. As the first psalm it can be seen as setting up several themes which recur through the Psalter:

The Separation of the sinful and the righteous[edit]

The book of Psalms and so the Sidney Psalter is very concerned with being righteous, there is pious apologies (i.e. psalm 31, 51), blaming God (i.e. Psalm 22) and lots and lots of blaming others (i.e. Psalm 109) when people aren’t completely sinless. But this may be due to the recurring theme of judgment, separating out the sinners from the righteous. This begins straight of in Psalm 1 where quite literally the wheat are sorted from the “chaff” (“the wicked, but like chaff” (Sidney, 2009, pg. 11)).

“Not with the just, be their meetings placed” (Sidney, 2009, pg. 11). This may be one of the most recurring themes in the Psalter so here are just a few examples: Psalm 11: “on them: storms, brimstone, coals he rains: that is their share assigned. But so of happy other side.” (The Sidney Psalter, 2009, pg. 218)

Psalm 145: “He will his lovers all preserve; He will the wicked all destroy:” (The Sidney Psalter, 2009, pg. 279)

One way in which the righteous and the sinful are often separated is by the path they choose. Psalm 1 sees two paths laid out for man “ruin’s way” where “wicked counsel leads” or the way of God. Paths or “the way”, especially choosing the right path, is a common theme throughout the whole bible, but also within the psalms. Phillip Sidney sets up this theme firmly in Psalm 1 with the opening line referring to “tread[ing]” the right path. This path can be seen as the beginning of a journey the psalms and through this lyrical Psalter.

Footpath in the Palatine Forest, Germany

Other references to paths in the Psalter include: Psalm 16: “Thou life’s path wilt make me know” (The Sidney Psalter, 2009, pg. 31)

Psalm 119: “and to thy paths will have a good eye” (The Sidney Psalter, 2009, pg. 230)

Anthropomorphic Nature[edit]

One problem the psalm struggles with is describing the nature of God, how does a finite mind describe the infinite being? One way this problem is addressed in the psalms is by describing God as a man, but in doing so actual man must become less to preserve the distinction of our inferiority to God. When God is made man, man becomes a worm (psalm 22), a sheep (psalm 23) or, as in this psalm, he becomes a tree.

Verse 2 describes the righteous as “a freshly planted tree” and continues this metaphor throughout the stanza referring to the “braunches”, “fruite” and “leafe” of the tree as ways of describing a prosperous follower of God. This sets up imagery for the rest of the Psalter where followers of God are often referred to as trees.

Trees are used throughout the psalms for several reasons: they are strongly routed and this is used are a metaphor for roots in God; they bear fruit, which is used as a metaphor for the gifts of God; they grow slowly but strongly, which is used as a metaphor for spiritual growth; and finally for their symbolic references, such as fig leaves for shame or sin. Below are some examples of this recurring theme:

Psalm 72: “I as an Olive tree, Still green shall flourish: God’s house the soil shall be My roots to nourish.” (The Sidney Psalter, 2009, pg. 136)

Psalm 92: “like cedar high and like date-bearing tree, For green and growth, the just shall be” (The Sidney Psalter, 2009, pg. 179)

Differences in Translation[edit]

(Remember in this section the word “translation” refers to translation of meaning!)

In the 16th century biblical translations were rife, with the growth of The Church of England promoting personal relationships with God and understanding of Holy texts. These different translations highlighted some of the problems with interpreting “The Word of God”: how is meaning truly translated? This is particularly true with literary versions such as The Sidney Psalter, which as aesthetic interpretations arguably let the focus on form and courtly style obscure the true message – or so thought the revisers of "The Whole Booke of Psalmes". The examples below highlight some of the differences in meaning implied by different translations. Sidney's Psalm One is here being compared to the anti-aesthetic King James Bible equivalent.

“He shall be like a freshly planted tree To which sweet springs of waters neighbours be” (Sidney, 2009, pg. 11)

“and he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water” (King James Bible, psalm 1:3)

The main difference between these verse translations is the addition of adjectives. For example, the adjective “freshly” arguably changes the whole imagery of this section, from that of a firmly rooted, strong being of nature, to a weak and flexible sapling. Another interpretation of this, is that Sidney's tree represents a new “fresh” faith that still has room to grow with the aid of god's “sweet springs”.

Equally the inclusion of the noun “neighbours” in the following line gives new action to the “water”. Making the “waters neighbours” to the tree changes the relationship between the two from one of simple useful proximity to and active relationship of caring attention.

“wicked” (Sidney, 2009, pg. 11) “ungodly” (King James Bible, psalm 1:2)

In both line 2, verse one and line 1, verse 3 Sidney prefers the word “ungodly” as used in the King James Bible for the word “wicked”. In the 16th Century the difference between these two adjectives were not as great as it appears to a modern audience however the different level of negative connotations is still there. Often in biblical literature the “ungodly” simply need educating and saving, making them appear more as “the lost sheep”; whereas, “the wicked” suggests much more intention in the person towards evil doing. Part of the definition of “wicked" in the Oxford English Dictionary is “inclined or addicted to wilful wrong-doing”. Therefore, this change in adjective actually changes the level of sinners "wilful" intent.

"but are like the chaf which the wind driveth away” (Sidney, 2009, pg. 11) “but like chaf with wind/ Scattered.” (King James Bible, psalm 1:4)

In this line the main difference is obviously the use of the term “scattered” as opposed to “driveth away”. It is important to remember here that the King James Bible was not completed until 1611, long after the circulation of the Psalter, so it cannot be said that Sidney softened or harshened any terms as he had not the comparative reference we do here. What can be said is that different imagery is created: Sidney's psalm portrays the wicked being separated from one another, carelessly “scattered” away. Whereas the King James Bible gives the impression of force driving away the wicked to a separate and faraway place. “Scattered” also has some positive connotations however, especially when thinking of farming. A farmer would “scatter” seeds to grow, of “scatter” feed for animals. Although this is not the implied meaning here these connotations are significant when it is considered how often animal husbandry and agricultural language is used throughout the book of psalms.

“but on God’s law his heart’s delight doth binde.” (Sidney, 2009, pg. 11) “but his delight is in the law of the Lord.” (King James Bible, Psalm 1:2)

There are many interesting differences between these lines. Firstly, let's examine the placement of God in the sentence construction. In both sentences “God” or “the Lord” is the object however where the King James Bible uses the now standard sentence construction SVO (subject, verb, object) placing “the Lord” at the end of the sentence; the Sidney psalm has an archaic OSV (object, subject, verb) form. One reason for this could simply be to make the line fit the rhyming pattern (“binde” rhyming with “minde” at the end of the following line). But it does change the importance placed on “God”/”the Lord” by placing him in the middle of the line his presence does not have as much impact as it does as the closing words in the verse in the King James Bible version.

Another difference between these lines is the inclusion of the possessive noun “heart’s”. As with the previous examples inclusion of extra words like these have often been put down to poetic flourishes, however, they do create different interpretations of the text. By making the “delight” from the “heart” Sidney makes the “delight” a purely emotional reaction, whereas, without this addition in The King James Bible translation, the delight can equally be from the mind – happy to choose the righteous option – or soul – naturally reacting to God – or any other part of man.


In his journal “Sir Philip Sidney's Psalms, the Sixteenth-Century Psalter, and the Nature of Lyric” Roland Green praises Phillip Sidney as “the premier English poetical theorist of the time” (p. 20, 1990). However, most criticism and reviews of the Sidney Psalter focus on the later psalms written by Mary Sidney; with Moffet terming Mary Sidney's Psalmes “sweet and heavenly tuned,” (2011, pg. 226). This sadly leaves a gap in critical response to first 43 Psalms that were written by Phillip Sidney before his death; though there is much on his other works.

Psalm 40 from the Sidney Psalms.jpg
Psalm 40 from the Sidney Psalms

However, there is some criticism of the Psalter as a whole. David Norton explains how Bray, a Sidney contemporary and “great spreader of Christian culture”, hopped that “literary appreciation (of a sort) would make people more religious.” (2000, pg. 130). Bray praised the Psalter as a work of art that would make people more interested in the bible and therefore religion.

Psalm III[edit]

This article focuses on the third Psalm featured in the ‘Sidney Psalter’, a project that involved translating the Psalms into English poetry in the sixteenth century. Originally written by poet Sir Philip Sidney, the project was completed by his sister Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, following Philip's death in 1586. Psalm 3 was written by Philip Sidney and is an adaptation of the third biblical Psalm told from the perspective of David when he fled from his son Absalom. When Philip Sidney died on military campaign, he had completed only forty-three of the Psalms. The remaining translations were left to be completed by his sister and a copy was presented to Elizabeth I in 1599. Although The Sidney Psalms were privately circulated, they were not officially published until 1828. While some have criticised them for the considerable differences between Sidney's poetic elaborations and the Psalms that feature in the anti-aesthetic King James bible, others have praised them for their creative poetic forms. Most notably, metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert were particularly complimentary of the Sidney Psalter.


Psalm 3 belongs to Sidney's ‘Psalmes of David’, as David is the subject of many of the Psalms, and is his personal thanksgiving to God for answering the prayer of an afflicted soul. In the King James Bible, the Psalm is introduced as “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.”[3] Absalom led a fierce and powerful rebellion against his own father, seeking to take the Kingdom from David. When David is left feeling betrayed by his own son and deserted by his subjects, he turns to God in prayer and confesses his faith. The story of Absalom can be found in the two Books of Samuel. Sidney's Psalm opens with David questioning God about the ever constant presence of sinners in the world. He then goes onto express that no matter how his enemies may multiply, he can rely on God to be his protector.


As is the case with all of Sidney's poetic adaptations, the third Psalm has a consistent rhyme scheme throughout. Psalm 3 is separated into six stanzas, each stanza opens with a rhyming couplet and has an AABCCB rhyme scheme. The original biblical Psalms do not make use of rhyme, highlighting the parallel between aestheticism and anti-aestheticism. However, Sidney's use of rhyme helps to maintain the traditional musical style of the Psalm.


The Segregation of the Sinful[edit]

A recurring theme amongst Sidney's Psalms is the divide between the righteous and the sinful, sinners frequently being referred to as "enemies". Psalm 3 opens with David directly questioning God about such enemies: “LORD, how do they encrease, That hatefull never cease To breed my grievous trouble How many ones there be, That all against poor me Their numbrous strength redouble?”[4] David expresses his deep feelings of betrayal by referring to Absalom, his subjects and all those involved in the rebellion. The verb “encrease” accompanied by the connotations of “breed” convey an animalistic image, suggesting that the traitors are a separate, growing species. In this way, the sinful are being dehumanised. In the final line of the stanza, David's enemies’ “numbrous strength redoubling" conveys an almost militaristic image. The idea of David's enemies becoming a vast army emphasises his solitude and presents him as a humbling narrator and therefore evokes sympathy, causing a division between the righteous and the sinful.

Differences Between Sidney's Psalm III and the King James Version[edit]

The King James Version (KJV), published in 1611, is a literal translation of the Christian bible from Hebrew to English and does not embrace the same aesthetic values that Sidney's Psalms do. The Sidneian Psalms are considerably longer than the ones in KJV, delving into more literary detail with more frequent use of metaphors, vivid imagery and elaborately poetic language. Psalms are often referred to as sacred songs or hymns, the word Psalm originating from the Greek psallein meaning "to pluck". However, in spite of Sidney's musical use of rhyme and rhythm, it has been argued that Sidney's Psalms inject a stronger poetical theme as opposed to a musical one, "Sidney and especially Pembroke put into thorough practice theories of psalmody as poetry that other authors did not, but in doing so separated their work from the mainstream use of complete metrical psalters: public congregational singing."[5] This can be noticed in Psalm 3 through the use of the word 'selah' in the KJV. Selah is a musical direction used frequently at the end of a Psalm and is twice used in Psalm 3. The word does not feature in Sidney's translation which reemphasises the musical element that is perhaps lacking in Sidney's Psalms in order to focus more on being a work of poetry.

God as a Benevolent Figure[edit]

Arguably the most prominent way in which Sidney's Psalm 3 differs from the original text is its representation of God. As KJV is more closely connected to the original text from which it is translated, it presents God as a smiting and condemning figure, more in keeping with the God of the Old Testament. Sidney's Psalms represent a more all-loving and benevolent God, a figure that is more attributed to the New Testament, showing a clear juxtaposition between early readings of the bible and the sixteenth century interpretations. By the time Sidney began the project, the God of the Old Testament was no longer the God that Christians identified with. The figure of Jesus Christ as the son of God and his teachings of tolerance and forgiveness had caused God to evolve from being an icon of aggressive punishment to a far more fatherly figure. In Sidney's Psalm 3, David addresses God as his father: "Help me, my God and Father!" whereas God is never addressed this way in the KJV. In the KJV Psalm, instead of pleading God to "help" him, David instead asks God to "save" him. This perhaps implies that David fears the wrath of God and feels as though his soul requires saving, whereas Sidney's use of the word "help" connotes a far softer image and reinforces the more supportive and loving bond that he has with God. In the KJV, David thanks God for smiting his enemies. The use of violent imagery highlights the complete contrast between these two very different representations of the Christian God.

Differences in Translation and the Impact of Phraseology[edit]

There are vast differences in translation between the Sidney Psalter and the KJV, to the extent that each line in Sidney's Psalms are phrased almost entirely differently. Sidney has a tendency of taking one image from the original Psalm and elaborating on it so much to the extent that one line from the KJV can be conveyed in an entire stanza. This shows the difference in the purposes behind the two separate translations. Whilst the KJV is meant as a literal English translation of the word of God, Sidney clearly had more poetic and artistic motives, it isn't merely translating the bible into English but is also translating it into a work of art. Also, even slight differences in phraseology can be interpreted as conveying an entirely new meaning. Sidney translates the phrase "O LORD, [art] a shield for me" to "Yet, Lord, Thou art my shield". The use of the pronoun "thou" directly addresses God in prayer and therefore creates a more personal bond between David and God. Also, Sidney referring to God as "my shield" as opposed to "a shield" strengthens that personal connection and suggests that God is the only protector David needs whereas the KJV implies that he could be just one of many shields David has in his life.

Responses and Influences[edit]

Metaphysical poet John Donne wrote a poem celebrating the Sidney Psalter, 'Divine Poems Upon the Translation of the Psalms by Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke, His Sister', claiming that he could “scarce” call the English Church reformed until its psalter had been modeled after the poetic transcriptions of the Philip Sidney and Mary Herbert.[6] This claim reveals the wider influence various transcriptions of the bible can have on the church and this begs the question as to which version of the text can Christians consider to be the "true word of God"? The Sidney Psalter also had an influence[7] on the later religious poetry of George Herbert and there are distinct similarities between the Psalter and his poem 'The Temple'.[8]

Psalm 23[edit]


The main theme of Psalm 23 is the representation of God as a Shepherd, there to guide man like how a shepherd guides a sheep. Sidney also makes mention to being led upon a "righteous path"[1].[9] This creates a theme of faith and dutiful worship to God, almost as a show of gratitude for keeping his 'sheep' safe.


Sidney's Psalm 23 can be traced back to the original Book of Psalms from the Old Testament, Psalm 23 originally being written by King David. According to Tom Wacaster "While most commentators believe that it was written in David’s youth while he was tending sheep for his father, it might just as well have been written at a later age after he had experienced the hardships of life and God’s guidance through those troubled times".[10] This would add explanation to the allegorical imagery of God as the Shepherd, with David comparing his worship to that of a Sheep following the Shepherd.[11] Sidney's version of the Psalm seems more intent on adding a sense of poetic styling more adept for the Sixteenth Century Englishman. Roland Greene makes the statement that "the Psalters deserve a central location in our understanding of what sixteenth-century poets did-for they certainly wrote a prodigious volume of psalmic translations-and of what they thought about what they did".[12] He goes on to argue "that a striking development in sixteenth-century English lyric poetry is the sustained effort by often dissimilar poets to explore the boundaries between what we might call the ritual and the fictional dimensions of lyric. By the ritual element, I mean the poem's office as directions for a performance: a script compounded of sounds that serve referential or expressive purposes in non-poetic". This could be supportive to the idea of Sidney's Psalter creating a more aesthetic approach to the Psalms, and the context for re-writing them was to make them more beautifully worded as opposed to the original Hebrew' translations.


Psalm 23 utilizes an unconventional rhyme scheme. While the first stanza does not follow the following stanza in rhythmic pattern exactly like the rest; the second, third and fourth follow an “ABBACC” rhyme scheme, similar to an English Sestet. Sidney seems to have done this to create a sense of lyricism not found in the original translations, such as the King James Version of The Bible. However while it adds a sense of poetic lyricism to David's’ original Psalm, there are only subtle changes to the overall meaning behind the original translation into Sidney's version. Many of the references, such as “green pastures” and “thy rod and thy staff” remain unchanged in Sidney's version. However his portrayal of God is much more kind and gentle than how he is portrayed in David's version.[13] This can be viewed by how Sidney alters certain text from the original version. Instead of God “Maketh me to lie down in green pastures” it becomes “he rests me in green pastures”. This creates the image of God as a more benevolent and calming figure in Sidney's version of Psalm 23, as opposed to David's version who is more forceful and commanding.[14]

Another reason for Sidney changing the meaning of the Psalms is said to bridge the understanding of their message for all as stated in Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Prophesying “The Psalms had always been integral to Christian worship, but sixteenth- century Protestants placed special emphasis on them. The trials, tribulations, and joys of the Psalmist resonated deeply with the Protestant experience; the ease with which the Psalms could be set to new tunes and memorized made them a perfect vehicle for turning the Protestant message into a mass movement capable of embracing the illiterate alongside the literate”

By this it seems that Sidney was attempting to make a more accessible version of the Psalms, removing the perception that biblical teachings must be handled by holy men such as Priests or Monks, and instead creating a unified understanding of The Bible that could be interpreted to each individual as how they would see it.

Another example of God being a less aggressive figure in the Sidney Psalms is the way the narrative voice refers to being taken towards water. In the original Psalm 23 written by David, God “leadeth me beside the still waters”, whereas in the Sidney version, it is said “by waters still, and sweet he guides my feet”. This all creates the idea of God as less of an authoritative figure and more assistive in letting man find their path towards heaven.

In From Testament to Covenant, Kenneth Hagen suggests “Since Christ is the author of the new testament, he antiquates the whole old law, including the moral law. Those who do not believe in Christ are still subject to the law, but those in Christ are free. The reason for this freedom is that Christ forgives sin and confers the Holy Spirit on Christians, who moves them to right acts. Christians do not need the law to prompt them to right deeds. They do what the law asks under the Spirit's guidance”.[15]

This suggests that by the time of the 16th Century the Old Testament portrayal of God was made redundant, and a more fatherly perception found in the New Testament became the reference for most Christians in England. Therefore, Sidney's portrayal of God in his version of the Psalms would be less aggressive and commanding than the version seen in David's Psalm 23.

A similarity between both Sidney's version of Psalm 23 and David's version is the presence of Death and how it is portrayed in each version. David describes walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” and claiming to fear no evil, stating that “for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”. As stated by Derwin L Grey “King David was experiencing a time of “doom and gloom”; he felt as though death was near. Hardship, peril, chaos, and deep suffering were invading his life. In our fallen world, these things will invade our lives, too. At some point, you and I, too, will make that long, slow, painful walk through the “valley of the shadow of death.” [16] However this suggests that David has faith in his connection to God and knowing that God's lead will keep him from being harmed or committing sin, keeping once again with the Shepherd theme of a pure innocent lamb being kept safe, as referenced by the image of the “staff” and “rod”.

Sidney alters this however, instead of a “shadow of death” he makes reference to “death’s dark shade”. This is more in line with later perceptions of evil or “the satan” taking a more physical form. In this case, Death being a looming figure who is attempting to sway the narrative voice from the path of Christianity, and as stated by Sidney “Yea, thou I should through valley stray, Of death’s dark shade, I will No whit fear ill”. It is once more suggestive to Sidney portraying God as a more understanding being in his translation of Psalm 23. While David says he knows he will not stray because of the lord, Sidney states that even though he may be lead astray, he knows that the lord will lead him back on the right path, creating an image of a more forgiving God not found within the Old Testament.

Another key alteration that Sir Philip Sidney makes is changing “the enemy” as mentioned in David's version of Psalm 23. David evokes a sense of the enemy as more than just on the battlefield, but also those who are unfaithful, sin itself and anyone who opposes Christianity, whereas Sidney changes this to the “foe”, and stating “ Ev’n when foe’s envious eye Doth it espy”. This seems influenced by Sidney's time as a member of Queen Elizabeth's Court, until “In 1580, he incurred the Queen Elizabeth's displeasure by opposing her projected marriage to the Duke of Anjou, Roman Catholic heir to the French throne, and was dismissed from court for a time”. However he later re-joined the court where “Elizabeth instead summoned Sidney to court, and appointed him governor of Flushing in the Netherlands”. It would therefore seem that Sidney's use of the term “espy” was in reference to his distrust to the Catholics and the French, his version Psalm 23 has more of a political agenda and not one of just faith to Christianity, but to Queen Elizabeth and her court as well.[17]

Another example of Sidney modernising Psalm 23 to reflect the Elizabethan court is his description of heaven as a “hall” as opposed to a “house” as stated by David. David creates the sense of an eternal dwelling and a more homely place to eternally rest, whereas Sidney creates an image of God proceeding a high court, reflective of the one that he served in before his death, in the service of Queen Elizabeth.

Psalm 43[edit]

Psalm 43 in The Sidney Psalter is a Psalm written by brother and sister, Mary and Philip Sidney. The Sidney Psalter was written by both siblings because Philip had begun the work on writing it but died before he could finish it. This lead Mary Sidney to finish the work for him. The Psalm was written during the 16th Century by Philip Sidney, and was the last one he wrote before he died. The Sidney Psalter is a poetic adaption of the biblical psalms and differs greatly from other reworkings of the psalms throughout the renaissance period. Psalm 43 focuses on God as a protector alongside his absence and presence throughout. The Sidney Psalms are seen as "The most extreme example in this century of the wish to foster through translation an appreciation of the Psalms as poetry is the version begun by Sir Philip Sidney..." (Norton, 2000).


The themes that occur in Sidney's Psalm 43 are as follows:

God as a protector[edit]

Immediately in the first two lines of Psalm 43 we see the speaker's plea to God to be his protector. These two lines, "Judge of all, judge me And protector be" (Sidney, 2009, pg. 83) set up the rest of the first stanza in terms of pleading God to protect the speaker. This is seen when the speaker pleads to God to, "Save me from bad wights, In false colours dressèd." (Sidney, 2009, pg. 83). The last line, "In false colours dressèd" (Sidney, 2009, pg. 83) refers to heraldic insignia, people that are part of the coat of arms and that wear the insignia. The speaker's plea here is for God to protect the speaker in ways that the heraldic insignia cannot, as well as those that represent it; as he earlier refers to "bad wights" (Sidney, 2009, pg. 83). (bad people) and claims they dress in "false colours" (Sidney, 2009, pg. 83). A possibility here could be that those that represent the heraldic insignia are corrupt, perhaps even unmerciful. This can be due to representing such a high order in society that has an aim to protect people; yet the power that comes with it can cause corruption upon the person. The speaker, therefore, labels them as "bad wights"(Sidney, 2009, pg. 83). which means they cannot be protected by them for if they do let them, they too would become like them and lose their connection with God.

The second stanza continues with the theme as God as a protector as the speaker goes on to ask God, "Why then hast thou left me?"(Sidney, 2009, pg. 83). This shows the absence of God and emphasizes the speaker's suffering on Earth with his "prevailing foes" (Sidney, 2009, pg. 83) whilst he walks "in woes" (Sidney, 2009, pg. 83). God's absence at this point in the Psalm is important here as it shows how desperate the speaker is to reconnect with God. It is the beginning of the third stanza that further emphasizes God's absence and the speaker's desperation to connect with Him that leads onto the next theme.

Desperation to reconnect with God[edit]

As we reach stanza three, we notice the speaker becomes desperate to reconnect with God. This is seen from the speaker continuously pleading to God from this stanza until the end of the psalm. They begin with "Send thy truth and light, Let them guide me right" (Sidney, 2009, p. 83). This shows that the speaker is asking God to guide him again through the use of "truth and light" (Sidney, 2009, p. 83). The light represents something pure and innocent and in this case may be a glimpse of light from Heaven. The speaker appears to have lost his way in some way or another for him to ask God to send him things to guide him again, to what he labels as "thy hill most holy" (Sidney, 2009, p. 83). He goes on further, in his desperate plea, by saying "To God's altars tho Will I boldly go" (Sidney, 2009, p. 84) in stanza four. Here, the speaker is shown to claim that he would do anything for God in order to be reconnected with him. This leads into stanza five where he says, "Then, lo, then I will With sweet music's skill Grateful meaning show thee: Then, God, yea, my God, I will sing abroad What great thanks I owe thee." (Sidney, 2009, p. 84). The speaker, here, is saying that he will sing to everyone of God's glory and how he owes thanks to God. The desperation to reconnect with God is continuous throughout this stanza, especially when he refers to God as "my God" (Sidney, 2009, p. 84). Referring to God as his God establishes that he has complete faith in God. Further on in the stanza, when it says "I will sing abroad what great thanks I owe thee" (Sidney, 2009, p. 84) the speaker informs that he would sing loudly to those around him about God's greatness and how he is thankful for all God does for him.

The final stanza can be seen as the speaker making his re-connection with God as He is presented as being present in this stanza. An example that shows this is when it says at the end of the psalm, "Thank my God, I will, Sure aid, present comfort." (Sidney, 2009, p. 84). The use of the word "present" alone provides us with the idea that God is now present, which means the speaker has been successful in reconnecting with God. The line, "Sure aid, present comfort" (Sidney, 2009, p. 84) can be seen to mean that God is "Sure aid, present comfort" (Sidney, 2009, p. 84) making this a reason as to why God should be worshiped by others. This being because He, according to the speaker, provides aid and comfort for people when "thy soul" (Sidney, 2009, p. 84) is "Cast down in such dole". (Sidney, 2009, p. 84). The speaker ensures, however, that as long as the people "Wait on God" (Sidney, 2009, p. 84) and thank Him for His "Sure aid" (Sidney, 2009, p. 84) and "present comfort" (Sidney, 2009, p. 84) they will have some form of connection with God. In this psalm the speaker goes on a journey to reconnect with God and as it ends, the connection is re-established. This suggests that a person has to be patient with God as well as have faith in him to obtain this connection with Him.

Translation Differences and Criticism[edit]

1612 First Quarto of King James Bible.jpg

There are many translation differences between the Sidney Psalter and the King James Bible. This caused issues during the 16th century as the translations show different interpretations of what is the word of God. The King James Bible version of Psalm 43 is significantly shorter than the Sidney Psalter's version. This in itself can be problematic because the KJB's psalm 43 is all of four lines long, whereas the Sidney Psalter's Psalm is a lengthy six stanzas long. This immediately would have caused controversy, especially when the Sidney Psalter is deemed to be more poetic than the KJB, as well as Sternhold and Hopkins translations being less poetic than the KJB and the Sidney Psalter. The differences in length of the psalm has been brought to attention by critics, one of these being Norton. Norton says that due to the type of differences in the Sidney Psalter it makes it "unsurprising that the Sidney Psalter should have remained unpublished... the Sidney Psalter could not appeal to the religious populace." (Norton, 2000, p. 131). Again, this can be down to the translations of the bible and its contents. As translations have been done, the question of if the text is really translating God's word from its original Hebrew is accurate in them. This tends to be the reason as to why the Sidney Psalter is viewed more so as a literary work than an accurate translation of the Bible's psalms.

Psalm 137[edit]

Psalm 137, Super Flumina, was written by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. Super Flumina is taken from the Latin translation of the original Psalm 137, Super Flumina Babylonis. The choice to exclude ‘Babylonis’ from the title foreshadows other major differences Sidney made in her translation of the psalm. This psalm uses a modified ottava rima rhyming scheme, and is, in general, a woeful tale of exile and revenge.


Violent and Dark Imagery[edit]

A significant amount of violent and dark imagery can be found in Psalm 137.  The fourth and fifth stanzas of the psalm focus almost entirely on revenge and suffering; examples of this can be seen in lines 27-30 and lines 39-40.

"Who causelessly, yet hotly set

Thy holy city to deface,

Did thus the bloody victors whet

What time they ent'red first the place" (lines 27-30)[18]

The use of "deface" and "hotly" implies anger from the speakers, which is understandable given their situation. However, this escalates to violence with "bloody victors", and suggests them acting on their anger and thoughts and retaliating against their captors. It could also be that the 'victors' are bloody due to the injuries, both emotionally and physically, they have caused to the speakers by taking them from their homes by force, and therefore the blood from the speakers is on their hands. Whichever conclusion is taken from this line, it is clear that violence has happened in some form.

"Yea happy, who thy little ones Shall take and dash against the stones." (lines 39-40)[18]

These lines are definitely darker than the previous quote, as it is literally saying that the speakers will be happy to see their captors punished by having their children thrown/dashed against stones. In fact, they are asking God to help them in punishing their captors, so it is also highlighting God's ability to punish people so easily if He should want to. It could even be said that they are taking advantage of God's power and even taking it too far in their anger, as they are too weak to rise up and take their revenge for themselves. The rhyming couplet of "ones" and "stones" on the final two lines of the stanza and the entire psalm makes them memorable. It is interesting how Mary Sidney wanted to emphasise such a violent and dark image as the last lines of the psalm. The lines and reference to dashing children against stones are in the church approved King James Version of Psalm 137, but the couplet emphasises this a lot more. There are a lot of double meanings in the psalm and potential dark undertones that Sidney uses, like in the first stanza where "we hardly expect the tears of the exiles to be figured as bounty nourishing the land of Babylon, but perhaps this is to be read bitterly as a form of exploitation."[19], as noted by Hamlin.


Grief can be found in the rest of the psalm, as it is about the speakers' mourning of the loss of their home. Specifically, the "tears of the exiles" refers to lines 3-5 of Psalm 137.

"Which then our tears in pearléd rows

Did help to water with their rain:

The thought of Sion bred such woes," (lines 3-5)[18]

This implies that they are unwillingly "help[ing]" their captors by watering their land. Also, the "pearléd rows", while being a metaphor for their tears, is also referring to the pearl necklaces that courtiers such as Mary Sidney would have worn in court, and to Sidney's life and social class. She was privileged enough to circulate her psalms at the courts and have them sung and praised by other prestigious members of the courts, like John Donne and George Herbert. Therefore, "her choices in wording reflect her own social class and personal experience - as a woman, as a courtier, and as a poet."[20], as Hannay summarises in her work.

Asking God for/Seeking Revenge[edit]

Revenge is a constant theme in Psalm 137, Super Flumina, as mentioned above. However, these lines refer to the speakers asking God for revenge as they feel like they cannot do it all by themselves, and they know how powerful God is.

"Down down with it at any hand,

Make all flat plane, let nothing stand.

And Babylon, that didst us waste,

Thy self shalt one day wasted be:" (lines 31-34)[18]

The phrase "let nothing stand" shows how angry they are, to the point where they ask God to completely destroy this city to punish the captors. The repetition of "down" could also be to emphasise how desperate and angry the speakers are, but it could also have been to fit with the chosen form Mary Sidney uses of 8 syllables for each line. This form is adapted from the popular poetry at the time, which is all about lovers proclaiming their love for one another, and it is interesting to see it adapted to the psalms, especially as the church was against this type of poetry and kept their psalms very traditional and close to the originals. Fisken says "what Mary Sidney emphasised were the parallel functions served by the sonnet cycle and the psalms, the resemblances between the anxiety of the lover beseeching his beloved and the anguish of the worshipper pleading with God."[21], which implies that the speakers in this psalm are, (or Mary Sidney herself, is) likening God to the typical lover seen in sonnets, praising Him and pleading for help to deal with this situation.

This is also the only time Mary Sidney uses the word "Babylon" in this psalm. She, as mentioned above, excludes 'Babylonis' from the title of the psalm, and uses "Babel"[18] in the second line of the psalm. Hamlin notes that this could just be Sidney fitting the words to her chosen form, saying "The use of "Babel" rather than "Babylon" in several translations of Psalm 137 may echo the early "history" of the city in Genesis II, though the disyllabic name may sometimes also just be metrical convenience."[22]. This also mentions that Sidney could just be using another name for the city, but it cannot be ignored that the use of "Babylon" is during time the speakers directly ask God for help in destroying this city. Therefore, they could be using the proper name as it is a 'formal' setting and they are addressing God Himself.

Psalm 137 as Song[edit]

Psalm 137 is a song, originally written to be sung, and Mary Sidney's translation definitely resonates that. The choice to use rhyme and a chosen 8 syllable form resonates that, as songs tend to rhyme, and having the next line come around faster than it would have if Sidney had stuck to the 11 syllable form typically used in the ottava rima scheme, makes it sound more song-like.

"O no, we have no voice, nor hand For such a song, in such a land." (lines 15-16)[18]

These lines are a use of irony, as the speakers are talking about their reluctance and lack of enthusiasm to sing for their captors, as they feel it is degrading to entertain them. However, these lines are a part of song themselves, and are the last lines in the stanza so, according to the form of the psalm, they rhyme and sound even more song-like. However, despite the original psalm being a song, it lacks the rhyme and form of Sidney's translation, and the church stick to the original as close as possible. They still sing the psalms as song, but they disagree with Sidney's choice to elaborate on the song and make it rhyme and sound more song-like, because they don't want to change them. Norton notes that "complete in sense and form, unadapted to the traditional tunes and unaccompanied by music, the Sidney Psalter could appeal to the religious populace."[23], which shows that preventing Sidney's psalms from being accepted by the church was her adapting the psalm to traditional poetry and making it sound more like a song than it already does.


Another difference from the ottava rima form Sidney uses is a tetrameter rather than a pentameter. This, like using 8 syllables rather than 11, means that each line comes around faster, again making it more song-like. Each 8 line stanza follows an ABABABCC rhyme, manipulating the scheme to fit her song-like psalm, with the first six lines in an alternating rhyme sounding more like a poem and the last two lines in a couplet sounding more like a song. These couplets also emphasise the message for each stanza, like the last two drawing attention to the violent and dark image of dashing the children against the stones showing the overall message for the psalm and leaving a lasting image in the reader's mind.

Differences in Translation to the Church's KJV[edit]

"We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof" (Psalms 137:2)[24]

"That though our harps we did retain,

Yet useless, and untouched there

On willows only hang'd they were." (lines 6-8)[18]

Mary Sidney's psalms look a lot different than the church's King James Version even at first glance. They are a lot longer (as above are the lines from Sidney's Psalm 137 compared to the KJV verse from Psalm 137 they relate to) and add description. Sidney adds that the harps are "useless, and untouched" rather than just harps. This shows that the speakers find no use for their once beloved harps as soon as they have been taken from their home, as they are refusing to play for and entertain their captors. And this is only one example of the difference in both texts, because, as Hannay says, "many of [Sidney's] Psalm paraphrases depart so radically in form and style from the biblical originals"[20].

Overall, these were Sidney and her courtier friends' own interpretations and translations of the psalms and, in the words of Norton, "the admiration of such writers helped to foster such a much more ambitious artistic approach to the Psalms in the seventeenth century."[25]

Further reading[edit]

  • The Sidney Psalms (Fyfield Books) by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (Author), R.E. Pritchard (Editor) ISBN 978-0-85635-983-5
  • Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke and Sir Philip Sidney (1992). R.E. Pritchard (ed.). The Sidney Psalms. Fyfield books. ISBN 978-0856359835. OL 20024317M.
  • Sir Philip Sidney; Mary Sidney (2009). Hannibal Hamlin; Michael G. Brennan; Margaret P. Hannay; Noel J. Kinnamon (eds.). The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780199217939.


  1. ^ "John Donne. Upon the Translation of the Psalms by Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke". 2000-11-10. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  2. ^ "Index of /blog". Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  3. ^ The King James Bible, David Norton · Cambridge University Press · Paperback
  4. ^ Sir Philip Sidney, Hannibal Hamlin · OUP Oxford · Paperback, p.g 309
  5. ^ Title: Teaching us how to sing?: The peculiarity of the Sidney psalter Author(s): Beth Quitslund . Source: Sidney Journal. Document Type: Article
  6. ^ "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".
  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).
  8. ^ The Temple: The Poetry of George Herbert Front Cover George Herbert Paraclete Press, 2001 - Religion - 212 pages
  9. ^ Sidney, Sir Philip (2009). The Sidney Psalter-The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney. Oxford University Press. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-19-921793-9.
  10. ^ Wacaster, Tom (2003). The Songs and Devotions of David-Volume I. Smashbooks Edition. pp. Psalm 23. ISBN 9781301568536.
  11. ^ The Bible-Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. Oxford University Press. 2008. p. 651. ISBN 978-0-19-953594-1.
  12. ^ Greene, Roland (1990). "Sir Philip Sidney's Psalms, the Sixteenth-Century Psalter, and the Nature of Lyric". SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900. 30 (1): 19–40. doi:10.2307/450682. JSTOR 450682.
  13. ^ The Bible-Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. Oxford University Press. 2008. p. 651. ISBN 978-0-19-953594-1.
  14. ^ Moore, Roger E. (2010). "Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Prophesying". SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900. 50 (1): 35–62. doi:10.1353/sel.0.0089. JSTOR 40658419.
  15. ^ Hagen, Kenneth (1972). "From Testament to Covenant in the Early Sixteenth Century". The Sixteenth Century Journal. 3 (1): 1–24. doi:10.2307/2539901. JSTOR 2539901.
  16. ^ Grey, Derwin L. "Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death". Christianity Today. Retrieved 9 November 2016.
  17. ^ Jokinen, Anniina. "Life of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)". Retrieved 9 November 2016.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g Philip Sidney; Mary Sidney Herbert Pembroke (2009). Hannibal Hamlin (ed.). The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 265. ISBN 978-0-19-921793-9.
  19. ^ Hamlin, Hannibal (2002). "Psalm Culture in the English Renaissance: Readings of Psalm 137 by Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and Others". Renaissance Quarterly. 55 (1): 227. doi:10.2307/1512536. JSTOR 1512536.
  20. ^ a b Hannay, Margaret P. (2011), "Re-revealing the Psalms: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, and Her Early Modern Readers", in Austern, L.P.; McBride, K.P (eds.), Psalms in the Early Modern World, p. 221
  21. ^ Fisken, Beth Wynne (1989). ""The Art of Sacred Parody" in Mary Sidney's Psalmes". Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. 8 (2): 223–239. doi:10.2307/463736. JSTOR 463736.
  22. ^ Hamlin, Hannibal (2002). "Psalm Culture in the English Renaissance: Readings of Psalm 137 by Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and Others". Renaissance Quarterly. 55 (1): 245. doi:10.2307/1512536. JSTOR 1512536.
  23. ^ Norton, David (2000). A History of the English Bible as Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 131.
  24. ^ The Bible Authorised King James Version. Oxford University Press. 1997. p. 716. ISBN 978-0-19-953594-1.
  25. ^ Norton, David (2000). A History of the English Bible as Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 129.
  • Hannay, M. P. (2011). Re-revealing the Psalms: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, and her early modern readers. In D. L. Orvis, L. Austern, P. McBride, & K. Boyd, Psalms in the early modern world (pp. 219–233). Retrieved from
  • Greene, R. (1990). Sir Philip Sidney's Psalms, the Sixteenth-Century Psalter, and the Nature of Lyric. SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900, 30(1), 19-40. Retrieved from
  • The Holy Bible, King James Version. Cambridge Edition: 1769; King James Bible Online, 2016.
  • Norton, D. (2000). A History of the Bible as Literature : A History of the English Bible as Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Sidney, P & Sidney, M. (2009). The Sidney Psalter. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
  • "wicked, adj.1 (n. and adv.)". OED Online. September 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed November 1, 2016).