Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Pembroke, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of (1561–1621) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

psalmes sidney translation metrical

Her works are a translation of Garnier’s play Marc Antoine (to which Daniel’s Cleopatra is a companion piece); a translation of Du Plessis Mornay’s Discours de la vie et de la Mort (published together: A Discourse of Life and Death. . . Antonius , 1592); a completion of Philip Sidney’s metaphrase of the Psalms; two poems prefaced to a single manuscript copy of this, addressed in turn to the queen and to Sidney’s soul (“Even now that Care”; “To thee pure sprite”); a short poem in praise of the queen (“A Dialogue. . . in praise of Astraea,” printed in Francis Davison’s Poetical Rhapsody , 1602); and a translation of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte (“The Triumph of Death,” which survives in a single manuscript copy, itself a copy of the text sent by Sir John Harington to his cousin Lucy, countess of Bedford, in 1600); in addition, the “Dolefull Lay of Clorinda,” part of Spenser’s collection of elegies for Sidney (“Astrophel,” printed as part of Colin Clouts Come Home Againe , 1595) may be by her, or by Spenser; other works that do not survive may be alluded to in her correspondence.

Setting aside her major work, the Psalmes , her three other translations treat the question of dying and the good death, from the stoic heroism of suicide to the Christianized ars moriendi ; read together, they may go some way to investigating the possibilities for female heroism. The countess is a sensitive but conservative translator, and more can be said about her style than her convictions when her texts are compared to their originals; the Triumph , for instance, is most impressive for being written in fluent pentameter terza rima . Within the narrow scope of the translator, however, she manages in her works from the French to add life and warmth to what can seem cool moral exposition. Although both the translation of Mornay and the dedication to Elizabeth of the Psalmes confirm her connection to the ideals of Continental Protestantism, it is difficult to claim that they actually intend or achieve any political objective.

Style and form are the main points of entrance to the Psalmes , too, although here analysis of deviation and embellishment in translation proves more fruitful. Sidney left at his death an unfinished metaphrase of the Psalms, which his sister completed, perhaps largely by 1594, certainly by 1599. She translated Psalms 44–150, and if we count rejected variant versions and the twenty-two sections of Psalm 119, we have 154 different poems. She follows Sidney in aiming for an overwhelming metrical variety, adjusting every possible metrical and stanzaic variable so that in the entire Psalmes , with only a few exceptions, no two Psalms have the same form. Where Sidney borrows some forms from the French MarotBèze psalter, the countess seems less interested in fitting her meters to existing tunes. While often her construction of forms is more of a mathematical game than a careful suiting of form to sense, she becomes, if anything, a lesser experimenter and a better poet as her work progresses. Her later translations show a return to particular models from Sidney—several forms are borrowed from the songs in Astrophil and Stella and Certaine Sonnets —and her Psalm 150 uses Sidney’s favorite sonnet scheme. The Psalmes were circulated widely in manuscript but not printed; of about twenty complete copies made at the time (not including other selections) fifteen survive, as well as two much later ones. Their devotional purpose is private, and while Donne pointed to their improvement on current metrical psalters (primarily the old version of Sternhold and Hopkins), they set a wider formal agenda for poetry in general. Responding in their metrical variety to French and Dutch examples and to current interest in the likely metrics of the Hebrew original, the powerful lyrics of the Psalmes exerted a particular influence on such devotional poets as Herbert.

In her three later poems, all probably written around 1599 and representing her only certain original work, the countess attains the sort of direct and euphonious, yet slidingly ambiguous, assertions of the best poets of her own— and not her brother’s—generation. The poem to Sidney returns the compliment of his dedication to the Arcadia —“onelie for you, onely to you”—and in a language that is not unerotic. The dedication of the Psalmes to Elizabeth that precedes this—and is qualified by it—lectures the queen on her duties as godly monarch, while the “Dialogue” (possibly a direct response to Sir John Davies’ less subtle Astraea ) praises Elizabeth while interrogating dialectically the language of panegyric. Whatever can be said of these last two poems as political gesture, however, is mitigated by the likelihood that they never reached their ailing addressee, for the queen’s projected visit to Wilton in 1599 was canceled, and the Psalmes and “Dialogue” were probably never delivered to her.

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