Mary Sidney Herbert and the Poetic Depth of Her Psalter

Mary Sidney Herbert and the Poetic Depth of Her Psalter

Mary Sidney was one of the most influential women of the Elizabethan age and received high praises for her writing skills. Forgotten for many centuries, she has recently been recognized and included in almost every anthology of English literature. Both in her time and now, her moving and poetic paraphrase of the Psalms have rendered the words of the psalmists all the more fresh and real.

            Born on 27 October 1561 at Tickenhall, Worcestershire, she was the third daughter of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley, a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I. Mary’s uncle Guildford Dudley is remembered today for his marriage to Lady Jane Grey, who was executed with him.

            As many aristocratic women in her day, Mary and her sisters received a thorough education in the major arts, sciences, and languages, as well as female skills such as household medicine and needlework (her name was later used as an endorsement for needlework patterns).

            In 1575, Queen Elizabeth invited her to live at her court and refine her necessary skills as a lady. Two years later, Mary’s uncle Leicester arranged her marriage to the recently widowed Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke, one of the richest men in Britain, who was about 25 years her senior. Henry and Mary had at least four children, but one or two died in infancy.

            As most wealthy women, Mary assisted her husband in his correspondence (sometimes moderating his imprudent comments), oversaw the education of their children and the administration of their large estate, interceded for servants, friends, and family, and hosted social events.

            Mary took full advantage of her ability to purchase books and to find time to read them. She was very close to her eldest brother Philip, who visited her often and shared her literary passion. But Philip died in 1586 while fighting in an English army sent to assist the Netherlands in a war of independence from Catholic Spain. Mary’s parents also died in the same year, causing her to spend the next two years in mourning.

The Sidney-Pembroke Psalter

            She decided to honor her brother’s memory by continuing his patronage of other authors (her house became a busy literary circle), supervising the publishing of his writings, and completing a work they had started together: a metric paraphrase of the Psalms. She and her brother had already arranged the first 43. She finished the Psaltery, using more than 120 poetic forms. This became her most renowned accomplishment and has been praised by esteemed poets such as John Donne and George Herbert, who drew inspiration from it.

            Mary proved to be an excellent poet as well as an able commentator, familiar with various translations and commentaries, including John Calvin’s. Her primary source was the Geneva Bible, but her interpretation suggests that she might have studied Hebrew or at least consulted some Hebraists. Other influences were the Book of Common Prayer, the Psaumes of Clément Marot and Theodore Beza, and earlier English metric psalms, including Anne Locke’s version, published one year earlier.

            To quote an example of her paraphrases, this is how the Geneva Bible translated the first two verses of Psalm 51: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness: according to the multitude of thy compassions put away mine iniquities. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from mine sin.” (The King James Version is quite similar).

            This is how Mary rendered the same two verses:

            O Lord, whose grace no limits comprehend;

            Sweet Lord, whose mercies stand from measure free;

            To me that grace, to me that mercy send,

            And wipe, O Lord, my sins from sinful me.

            Oh, cleanse, oh, wash, my foul iniquity;

            Cleanse still my spots, still wash away my stainings,

            Till stains and spots in me leave no remainings.

            The concepts are the same, but the repetition highlights the earnestness of her prayer and the meter brings out to western ears some of the poetry the original audience must have found in the Hebrew version.

            In some cases, she interjects a commentary to explain the meaning of expressions that might not be immediately obvious to modern readers. For example, in the seventh verse of the same Psalm, she explains the word “hyssop” this way:

            Then as thyself to lepers hast assigned,

            With hyssop, Lord, thy hyssop, purge me so:

            And that shall cleanse the lepry of my mind.

            Make over me thy mercy’s streams to flow,

            So shall my whiteness scorn the whitest snow.

            Other times, she accentuates the feelings by adding descriptive words. In the eighth verse, her prayer is that the bones God has broken may not only rejoice, but “dance away their sadness.”

            In other cases, it’s the abundance of words and the urgency of the beat that highlights the earnestness. It is so for the first verse of Psalm 130, which the Geneva Bible renders: “Out of the deep places have I called unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears attend to the voice of my prayers.”

            This is how Mary interprets it:

            From depth of grief

            where drowned I lie,

            Lord, for relief

            to thee I cry:

            My earnest, vehement, crying, praying,

            grant quick, attentive, hearing, weighing.

            For these qualities, the Sidney-Pembroke Psalter, as it became known, was one of the most popular English Psalters of her day.

Mary Sidney’s Later Years

            Besides this large project, Mary worked on various translations, including one from French, A Discourse of Life and Death, written by Philippe de Mornay, an illustrious Huguenot who spent much time as a guest of hers and her brother’s. This work, also highly popular at that time, must have given her comfort during her frequent times of mourning.

            Her husband Henry died in 1601 after a long illness, leaving her with some financial support (his main heir was their firstborn son, William). For a while, Mary’s greatest concern were her sons, who didn’t follow her guidance in their marital choices. Her daughter Anne, also a writer, died around the year 1603, adding to Mary’s sorrows.

            With time, however, Mary reconciled herself with her sons and was able to spend her last years in relative peace. Besides writing and conducting her literary salon, she relished traveling and learning about medicine and science. One of her travel accounts reports that she enjoyed shooting pistols with her friends.

            She died of smallpox at her home in London on 25 September 1621. Her popularity was evident in the impressive torchlight procession which took her to Salisbury Cathedral, where she was buried next to her husband. And her literary fame was plain in a manuscript identifying her brother Philip as “brother to the Countess of Pembroke.” But the greatest recognition is probably the fact that many Christians today are still using her Psalm paraphrases in their prayers, sharing her earnestness, her faith, and her longing.



Simonetta Carr