Mary (Sidney) Herbert, countess of Pembroke, dedicatory poem & Psalms 52 and 139 (1595-99) Note--no contemporary first edition or "ed. prin."--MS circulation until modern scholarly editions appeared, but they were widely known to Lanyer, Donne, Herbert, Wroth, and others.  She presented a manuscript of the psalms to Elizabeth I in 1599.

Genre: literary epitaph/dedication/homage and religious lyrics.

Form: the poem to her brother, Sir Philip Sidney, is in thirteen seven-line stanzas of iambic pentameter rhyming abbababba, a seriously difficult rhyme scheme to sustain for so long.  The psalms are in four-line stanzas alternating trimeter and dimeter lines (various meters) rhyming abab (#52) and seven-line stanzas (two iambic tetrameter, two iambic dimeter, and three iambic tetrameter) rhyming abccbab.   You'll find the psalm stanzas interesting to compare with Donne's and Herbert's lyrics for their use of varying line lengths and rhyme schemes for religious and quasi-religious topics.

Characters: Mary Herbert as her brother's collaborator on the psalm translations, and Sidney's soul as her now-lost Muse (ll. 3-4). The psalmist, David, soothing the tormented King Saul and then fleeing his wrath, and also Mary Herbert, addressing her God and (perhaps) her "Tyrant" (the queen?).

Summary: Mary Herbert addresses her brother's soul and her manuscript's readers, asking the latter to witness her attempt to praise him despite the mangled condition of the poems, to her mind incompletely revised in the state they were left when her brother died.  We may doubt this as a literal truth because of the tradition of the "modesty trope" in which authors apologize profusely for the hasty and incomplete state of the most thoroughly and meticulously revised works of literature.   The psalms address God in a prayer mocking a "Tyrant" (52) and praise God and divine knowledge of our beginnings, existences, and ends (139).

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. The Norton 8th edition cut the only poem we know for certain was written entirely by Mary Sidney Herbert!  Because Mary and Philip Sidney collaborated on many or all of the psalm translations, this is the only poem from which we might determine Mary's personal poetic style.    It's linked here at the top of this PDF file. Please read it. The dedicatory poem addresses not "Sir Philip Sidney" but his "pure sprite" or spirit.  How does this differ from the former, and what issues and traditional conceptions of poetic creation does Mary Herbert intend to suggest by framing the psalm translations with this poem and that address?  What authorial anxieties might she be expressing by making her readers enter the collection through this evocation of her co-authorship of the poems with her brother?  If you ever have worked in a collaborative writing project, to what aspect of that experience would that correlate, and how is it magnified by the fact that this is the sixteenth century and the author who is "turning in the paper" is female, whereas her collaborator is male (and dead!).
  2. How does the second stanza reflect an anxiety about translating sacred texts, and what might that mean for notions of authority, originality, and invention's limits that were circulating in the Sidney-Herbert circle of poets (including Sidney, himself, Spenser, Donne, Jonson, and [distantly] Herrick and Herbert)?  Especially see Jonson's prologue to Volpone (1606) for more signs that the rules of poetic borrowing and claims of authorship were changing.
  3. Read carefully the third paragraph's evocation of the psalm collection's unfinished state and reread the brief biography of Mary Herbert's brother for the circumstances of his death (911, next to last paragraph).  As you can imagine, it was not a "clean" death, since musket wounds to the major limbs which failed to tear a major artery likely would result in deep-set infection due to clothing shreds and bone fragments which were carried into the muscle tissue of the thigh.  What is Mary Herbert evoking with those images of the manuscript's condition, and what effect does she intend it to have upon her readers?  Note the twin dates assigned this work are that of its first circulation among the Sidney-Herbert circle in manuscript form [1595] and the date of its first print-publication, four years after Mary Herbert's death [1625].   How would the limited number of manuscript readers have felt about the thing they held when compared with the sensation evoked by the printed text in its readers?
  4. A pattern of halting and repetition, almost stuttering, occurs in stanzas 4, 5, 8, and 11.  What is it intended to evoke in the reader's felt experience of the poem?   What words, in particular, are the "obstacles" the poet's line labors to surmount?  Consider the writing of the poem and the reading of the poem as analogous events.  Can you share in Mary Herbert's dramatic expression of her task in gathering these separate poems into a manuscript for circulation among her friends?
  5. While Mary Herbert was composing this poem, and probably while it was circulating at the head of the manuscript collection of psalms, another poet named Shakespeare was composing a collection of 154 sonnets, two of which were published as early as 1599, four years after the psalm manuscript began circulating, and all of them were completed by 1609's first complete print edition. Compare Mary Herbert's seventh stanza and Shakespeare's sonnet 30, or Herbert's stanzas 6 and 8-11 with sonnets 19, 65, and 73-74.  Put aside any question of deciding "who borrowed from whom" as unanswerable, but what common poetic strategies do you see here being used to discuss the impossibility of representing the Beloved's beauty in verse, and the struggle to encode love in the physical act of writing?  (No, I don't know whether Shakespeare read the psalm manuscript or whether Mary Herbert read WS's sonnets in manuscript, but you have to imagine  very ambitious, talented, and well-connected poets would have the "artist's radar" that identifies others in their league.)
  6. Her last stanza (l. 87) directly alludes to the manuscript practice of not titling individual works or the whole "book" in which they are gathered.   What do "titles" of men (e.g., Sir, Lord, King) and books (The Sun Also Rises, A Bigamist's Daughter) do to readers' sense of the meaning of those men and books?  What does a title-less manuscript ask of its reader that a titled book does not?
  7. Psalm 52 shows us Mary Herbert's fearsome capacity for rendering the cries of a shepherd hunted through the kingdom in English that tersely evokes his scorn for his tormentor as well as his trust in violent, divine vengeance.  Anglo-Saxon oral-formulaic verse did not rhyme, but used alliteration like Herbert's to organize its laments' and war-songs' lines (for example see stanzas 2 [Lewd lies/Loud lies/With lies it woundeth] and 4 [gulfs/Gulfs/Good]).  How do the patterns of alliteration affect your emotional reaction to the rhymed lines as they evoke hard or soft or liquid sounds?  Compare the short rhyming lines to charms designed to bring about magical effects (e.g., the last stanza).  You'll see a similar effect in the last stanza of 139.  How are charms constructed?  Where would you go to find some authentic charms for comparison?   (Hint, some survive in Anglo-Saxon.)  What does the Vulgate Bible's version of the psalm look like?  If you're no latinist, check the Douay-Rheims translation, which is very close to a literal translation by Catholic theologians competing with the Protestants to make the Bible available in the English vernacular.
  8. Psalm 139 utilizes its more complex stanzas to juxtapose important concepts or to stage dramatic mental events in the two internal dimeter lines (numbers 3 and 4 in each stanza).   Look at the enjambment of those lines (when it occurs) for occasions when they really are two halves of a single, tetrameter line--what kinds of content do they hold on those occasions?
  9. The 139th psalm contains a memorable metaphor for mystical knowledge of creation, reading the "book of God" (ll. 43-70).  How does this passage evolve chronologically and how does it make both mortal and spiritual human existence seem strange to us, newly imagined, because of the workings of its subordinate metaphors (body as soul-house, shapeless-shapes, the school of God)?
  10. What does the Vulgate Bible's version of psalm 139 look like?  If you're no Latinist, check the Douay-Rheims translation, which is very close to a literal translation by Catholic theologians competing with the Protestants to make the Bible available in the English vernacular.  What dangers did Sir Philip and Mary Sidney face when they translated a sacred text using the tools of Early Modern secular, vernacular English poetry?  How might they defend what they were doing as, itself, a worshipful act?  This important issue will affect future poets we will read, including John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and John Milton, all of whom were in various ways influenced by Mary Sidney Herbert's psalm translations.
  11.   The Norton 6th edition represented Mary Herbert's works by a pastoral dialogue she wrote for entertainment when Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to visit the family country estate.  The Fifth Edition of the Norton did not include this pastoral dialogue, but instead contained a translation of Psalm 58, whose first line in the Vulgate Latin is "Si Vere Utique" (see 5th edition, p. 972).  The editors of the 7th edition, for reasons they never explained (see xxxvii), have replaced the dialogue with two different psalms and her dedicatory poem to her brother.  Assuming that they're not just "churning the edition" to make it necessary for students to buy new (vs. used) copies (oh ignoble thought!!), what changes in scholarly opinion might that pattern of change reflect.  That is, what are scholars finding most important about Mary Herbert's contribution to English literature in the 7th as opposed to the 6th or 5th editions?  To read a web page based on the 6th edition's dialogue, which raises some significantly different issues with respect to Mary Herbert's poetry, click here.
  12.   The Luminarium site where the full text of Herbert's translation of Psalm 58 is available also contains two other psalms translations of equal quality, as well as Herbert's translation of Robert Garnier's "The Tragedy of Antonie" (1595), a precursor to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.  What role did translation play in the development of poets in this era?   Consider, for instance, that Chaucer made several translations (Boethius, Roman de la Rose), and so did Spenser, Wyatt, Surrey, etc.  Are some poets better translators than they are original poets?  Might translation, itself, be considered a high form of poetic creation, if the result is of sufficient quality in its own right?

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.