Mary Sidney: Life Story

Chapter 4 : Arcadia and the Psalms

In 1590, Fulke Greville had published Philip Sidney’s long prose work, the ‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia’ but Mary thought the printed version unsatisfactory, so, in 1593, she embarked on a new publication. She was supported by the Pembrokes’ secretary, Hugh Stanford, but undertook much of the work of rearranging the eclogues, and correcting the titles herself.  The 'Arcadia' itself is the subject of voluminous papers and complex theories – there is the ‘Old Arcadia’ and the ‘New Arcadia’.  The ‘New’ Arcadia altered and developed the ‘Old’ and continued the story, based on Sidney’s or

There has been debate over the centuries as to how much of the Arcadia as published in 1598 was Philip’s and whether alterations from the 1590 version (the ‘Old Arcadia’) were from his own corrections in manuscripts dating from after the one on which Greville based the publication, and how much Mary herself wrote of it – or left out -  of the 1598 version. A comprehensive comparison of texts by Bertram Dobell in the early twentieth century supported the view that Mary’s additions were minimal, but that she deliberately excluded two elements – one that she thought too autobiographical, and the other too erotic. Academic analysis of the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’ Arcadia remains a fertile ground for study. All analyses of 'Arcadia' show its enormous impact on Shakespeare.

In 1598, Mary arranged a Collected Works of much of Philip’s oeuvre – Arcadia, The Defence of Poetry, Certain Sonnets, The Lady of May and a complete collection of the Astrophel and Stella sonnets.

Philip had begun translating the Psalms, but had not completed the work before his death. Mary took on the work and it is this translation for which she is best known. There are some five extant copies of the manuscript, in locations including  Penshurst, Trinity College, Cambridge and the Bodleian. The first 43 psalms had been completed by Philip’s death, leaving numbers 44 to 150 to Mary.

Mary’s approach was far more than mere translation – she turned the psalms into verse of rich complexity, in different styles and meters. Margaret Hannay, Mary’s biographer, has identified 126 different verse forms used by Mary in the work. Her primary sources were not the Hebrew originals (it is unlikely that she had studied Hebrew, although she may have had some Greek) but later translations into Latin and English. The key source was the Geneva Bible – the English translation favoured by the more radical branch of the English church, together with commentaries from Jean Calvin and Theodore Beza.

This selection is consistent with the Sidney family’s adherence to the more rigorous forms of Protestantism. Other sources were the Bishops’ Bible, the standard Bible for the Church of England, published in 1568 and revised in 1572, although the later version of the Bishops’ Bible used the Psalms from the Great Bible of 1539 – the first authorised English version. 

Mary’s translations are considered ‘aesthetic’, in that the focus is on literary beauty, rather than strict fidelity to the text. The poet, John Donne, was so delighted with them that he wrote his own poem of praise, referring to Philip as Moses, and Mary as Miriam.  

In their likeness to the forms of secular love poetry, particularly the sonnet, Mary’s translations have been categorised as belonging to a style called ‘sacred parody’, the purpose of which was to encourage the reader to love God as fervently as he or she loved a romantic partner. The anguish of human love – rejection, loss, doubts and so on – is considered analogous to spiritual growth.

As the original writer of the Psalms explored the whole gamut of human emotions, so too could Mary throw off the shackles of her society’s view of the role of women, to inhabit the different personae of the Psalms, and express her own emotions, in a way that women generally could not.

The emotive and emotional expression of Mary’s personality is given by critics as a possible reason for the Psalms not being published in book form, but only circulating in manuscript. For women to publish at all was unusual, and, according to the prevalent view that women should be more or less silent outside the domestic sphere, publishing what was, in essence, love poetry, would be considered socially unacceptable, perhaps even sinful.

The Psalms were dedicated to the queen, with a verse beginning ‘Even now that Care…’  Whilst nothing addressed to Elizabeth could be less than laudatory, in this dedication, Mary hints that the queen was not doing enough to support the Protestants in the Netherlands, and that more active support might have prevented the loss of her brother at Zutphen.  The other dedicatory verse ‘To the Angel Spirit…’ was addressed to her brother’s spirit and the first stanza gives him the credit for the Psalm translations:

To thee, pure spirit, to thee alone addressed
Is this joint work, by double interest thine,
Thine by his own, and what is done of mine
Inspired by thee, thy secret power impressed.
My Muse with thine, itself dared to combine
As mortal stuff with that which is divine:
Let thy fair beams give lustre to the rest

Having completed the Psalms, Mary again turned to Europe for another source, and translated Petrarch’s ‘Triumph of Death’, from the Italian. It too, remained unpublished during her life-time.

The work of Petrarch was greatly admired in the Elizabethan era – his six ‘Trionfi’ or Triumphs of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity were widely read and Chastity, in particular, was used in courtly circles as an allusion to Queen Elizabeth. Mary translated the Triumph of Death, and it is possible, according to Dr Gavin Alexander, Reader in Renaissance Literature and Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, that she translated other Triumphs, which have subsequently been lost.

Professor Danielle Clarke of University College Dublin, argues that Mary used the Triumph of Death to make coded political points. As Elizabeth aged, contrary to our image of her as Gloriana, unrest increased throughout the country. The 1590s were a time of war with Ireland and Spain, growing religious tensions between Puritans and the Established Church, the ever-present Catholic threat, poor harvests, and dissatisfaction with Elizabeth’s handling of monopolies. Most of all, there was concern that the queen still refused to name an heir. By hinting at the inevitability of death, even for Elizabeth, Mary was taking a risk, as Elizabeth was sensitive on the topic.

Clarke also identifies echoes of Mary’s Psalms, and the influence of Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms, and Philip’s verse, which reflected the political concerns of Mary’s circle and their inclination towards Puritanism. 

Lady Mary Sidney

Lady Mary Sidney

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