Mary (Sidney) Herbert, countess of Pembroke,"A Dialogue between two shepherds, Thenot and Piers"

Genre: pastoral entertainment for the Queen's progress to Wilton (1599).

Form: six-line stanzas, lines 1, 2, 4, and 5 of which are iambic tetrameter, and lines 3 and 6 are iambic trimeter (with "feminine" rhyme adding an extra unstressed syllable to each trimeter line's last word).

Characters: Thenot, a neoplatonist, Piers, a Protestant with some Puritan tendencies (suspicion of poetic uses of language), and Astrea, one of Elizabeth's poetic personas, a goddess of justice.

Summary: Thenot makes the traditional poet's claim to be able to summon up the absent beloved's virtues in metaphor, hyperbole, and other tropes (linguistic "turnings" of words to meanings other than their literal ones).  Piers (possibly a reference to Piers Plowman, a medieval spokesman for earnest but unadorned piety) denies that anything but plain speaking and "the truth but plainly [told]" will succeed in capturing Astrea's virtues.  They agree that she is praiseworthy, but disagree about the poetics of her praise in a fashion that poets (and queens) might find comic.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. This is one of the most refined and rarified works in the Norton, being intended for a very tiny audience of poets and courtiers, and even more so for the smallest Audience in all England, Elizabeth Tudor.   The game the "shepherds" play has a serious consequence, however, since at the root of Piers' objections are a fear of flattery and other forms of deceptive language (see Mosca in Volpone, etc.).
    • Can you see this as yet another stage in the Sidney family's struggle to establish grounds upon which poets may practice their art without being called liars, immoral, and enemies of the state?
    • How does Mary Herbert's method of delivering the discussion differ from her brother's in "Defense of Poesy"?
    • Which is more effective, and why?
  2. The Fifth Edition of the Norton did not include this poem, but instead contained a translation of Psalm 58, whose first line in the Vulgate Latin is "Si Vere Utique" (see 5th edition, p. 972).   This is a puzzling omission given what the Norton continues to say about her psalm translations' importance to the growth of English poetry, as attested to by no less an authority than John Donne!  (See the 6th edition introduction's last sentences, which are identical to the 5th's.)  To see the complete text of the translation, click here.
    The psalms were songs sung by the young David to king Saul, and to God during the period of his escape into the wilderness to escape Saul's wrath.  In either case, they take the form of an appeal to a "Lord," either seeking the lord's just treatment, or the Lord's revenge upon those who have betrayed the singer.  This psalm contains a formal curse upon the evil doers that Mary Herbert renders with startling ferocity:
    Lord, crack their teeth; Lord, crush these lions' jaws,
    So let them sink as water in the sand.
    When deadly bow their aiming fury draws,
    Shiver the shaft ere past the shooter's hand.
    So make them melt as the dis-housed snail
    Or as the embryo, whose vital band
    Breaks ere it holds, and formless eyes do fail
    To see the sun, though brought to lightful land.
    Note, especially, that the final image is considerably more well-developed than in the Vulgate or in the King James translation, perhaps composed near the same time, where it is rendered "like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun."
    • What other differences might we expect to see when the gender of the poet, and often the gender of the reader, no longer can be presumed to be exclusively male?
  3. 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?

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