2.11 MARY (SIDNEY) HERBERT, COUNTESS OF PEMBROKE
Unlike her brother Sir Philip Sidney, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, did not attend a public school or university; instead, she was tutored at home in Latin, French, and Italian languages and literature. And at the age of fifteen, her family arranged her marriage to the wealthy Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (1538-1601), thus cementing their families’ already strong alliance. While she served her family’s political goals, Mary Sidney Herbert managed to develop her own interests within her private realms, the Pembroke estate at Wilton and Baynards Castle in London, where she shaped literary and scientific coteries. She further supported her family by sponsoring elegies to her brother Sir Philip Sidney who died in 1586 from wounds suffered at the Battle of Zutphen. “The Doleful Lay of Clorinda,” Mary Sidney Herbert’s first published work, appeared in a collection of elegies that included “Astrophil,” Spenser’s tribute to Sir Philip Sidney.
Image 2.12 | Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke
Artist | Unknown
Source | Wikimedia Commons
License | Public Domain
The genres in which she wrote revealed Elizabethan attitudes towards women, their scope and purpose within society. In the accepted role of “conduit,” she translated works by Petrarch, Robert Garnier (1544-1590), and Phillippe Duplessis Mornay (1549-1623), dedicated works and encomia to her sovereign (first Elizabeth I) and Queen Anne (wife of James I), and elegized Sir Philip Sidney. She took on the accepted role of relative being to Sir Philip Sidney, gaining fame and acceptance as his sister, by completing his unfinished works, and advocating his literary legacy. Her elegies to her brother were done in the pastoral tradition. Her translations from the French and Italian demonstrate the importance of Continental traditions to English literature. Her metric translations of Psalms 44-150, translations that introduced an astonishing array of metrical verse forms, demonstrate the Protestant influence on both sacred and secular expressions of faith. All her publications reveal Mary Sidney Herbert’s attitude toward herself as a writer in her own right, as she published her works under her own name.
2.11.1 “The Doleful Lay of Clorinda”
Ay me, to whom shall I my case complain,
That may compassion my impatient grief?
Or where shall I unfold my inward pain,
That my enriven heart may find relief?
Shall I unto the heavenly pow’rs it show,
Or unto earthly men that dwell below?
To heavens? Ah, they, alas, the authors were,
And workers of my unremedied woe:
For they foresee what to us happens here,
And they foresaw, yet suffered this be so.
From them comes good, from them comes also ill,
That which they made, who can them warn to spill.
To men? Ah, they, alas, like wretched be,
And subject to the heavens’ ordinance:
Bound to abide whatever they decree.
Their best redress is their best sufferance.
How then can they, like wretched, comfort me,
The which no less need comforted to be?
Then to myself will I my sorrow mourn,
Sith none alive like sorrowful remains:
And to myself my plaints shall back return,
To pay their usury with doubled pains.
The woods, the hills, the rivers shall resound
The mournful accent of my sorrow’s ground.
Woods, hills, and rivers now are desolate,
Sith he is gone the which them all did grace:
And all the fields do wail their widow state,
Sith death their fairest flow’r did late deface.
The fairest flow’r in field that ever grew,
Was Astrophel; that was, we all may rue.
What cruel hand of cursed foe unknown,
Hath cropped the stalk which bore so fair a flow’r?
Untimely cropped, before it well were grown,
And clean defaced in untimely hour.
Great loss to all that ever him did see,
Great loss to all, but greatest loss to me.
Break now your garlands, O ye shepherds’ lasses,
Sith the fair flow’r, which them adorned, is gone:
The flow’r, which them adorned, is gone to ashes,
Never again let lass put garland on.
Instead of garland, wear sad cypress now,
And bitter elder, broken from the bough.
Ne ever sing the love-lays which he made:
Who ever made such lays of love as he?
Ne ever read the riddles, which he said
Unto yourselves, to make you merry glee.
Your merry glee is now laid all abed,
Your merry maker now, alas, is dead.
Death, the devourer of all the world’s delight,
Hath robbed you and reft from me my joy:
Both you and me and all the world he quite
Hath robbed of joyance, and left sad annoy.
Joy of the world, and shepherds’ pride was he,
Shepherds’ hope never like again to see.
O Death, that hast us of such riches reft,
Tell us at least, what hast thou with it done?
What is become of him whose flow’r here left
Is but the shadow of his likeness gone:
Scarce like the shadow of that which he was,
Naught like, but that he like a shade did pass.
But that immortal spirit, which was decked
With all the dowries of celestial grace:
By sovereign choice from th’heavenly choirs select,
And lineally derived from angels’ race,
Oh, what is now of it become, aread.
Ay me, can so divine a thing be dead?
Ah no: it is not dead, ne can it die,
But lives for aye, in blissful Paradise:
Where like a new-born babe it soft doth lie,
In bed of lilies wrapped in tender wise,
And compassed all about with roses sweet,
And dainty violets from head to feet.
There thousand birds all of celestial brood,
To him do sweetly carol day and night:
And with strange notes, of him well understood,
Lull him asleep in angel-like delight;
Whilst in sweet dream to him presented be
Immortal beauties, which no eye may see.
But he them sees and takes exceeding pleasure
Of their divine aspects, appearing plain,
And kindling love in him above all measure,
Sweet love still joyous, never feeling pain.
For what so goodly form he there doth see,
He may enjoy from jealous rancor free.
There liveth he in everlasting bliss,
Sweet spirit never fearing more to die:
Ne dreading harm from any foes of his,
Ne fearing savage beasts’ more cruelty.
Whilst we here, wretches, wail his private lack,
And with vain vows do often call him back.
But live thou there still happy, happy spirit,
And give us leave thee here thus to lament:
Not thee that dost thy heaven’s joy inherit,
But our own selves that here in dole are drent.
Thus do we weep and wail, and wear our eyes,
Mourning in other’s, our own miseries.
2.11.2 “To the Angel Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney”
(Variant printed in Samuel Daniel’s 1623 Works)
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 luster to the rest
That Israel’s King may deign his own, transformed
In substance no, but superficial ’tire;
And English guised in some sort may aspire
To better grace thee what the vulgar formed:
His sacred tones, age after age admire;
Nations grow great in pride and pure desire
So to excel in holy rites performed.
Oh, had that soul which honor brought to rest
Too soon not left and reft the world of all
What man could show, which we perfection call,
This precious piece had sorted with the best.
But ah, wide festered wounds that never shall
Nor must be closed, unto fresh bleeding fall:
Ah, memory, what needs this new arrest?
Yet blessed grief, that sweetness can impart
Since thou art blest! Wrongly do I complain:
Whatever weights my heavy thoughts sustain
Dear feels my soul for thee. I know my part
Nor be my weakness to thy rites a stain,
Rites to aright, life-blood would not refrain:
Assist me, then, that life what thine did part.
Time may bring forth what time hath yet suppressed
In whom thy loss hath laid to utter waste;
The wrack of time, untimely all defaced,
Remaining as the tomb of life deceased,
Where, in my heart the highest room thou hast;
There, truly there, thy earthly being is placed,
Triumph of death: in life how more than blest.
Behold, oh, that thou were now to behold
This finished long perfection’s part begun,
The rest but pieced, as left by thee undone.
Pardon blest soul, presumption overbold,
If love and zeal hath to this error run:
’Tis zealous love, love that hath never done,
Nor can enough, though justly here controlled.
But since it hath no other scope to go,
Nor other purpose but to honor thee,
That thine may shine, where all the Graces be;
And that my thoughts (like smallest streams that flow,
Pay to their sea, their tributary fee)
Do strive, yet have no means to quit nor free
That mighty debt of infinities I owe
To thy great worth which time to times enroll,
Wonder of men, sole born, sole of thy kind
Complete in all, but heavenly was thy mind,
For wisdom, goodness, sweetness, fairest soul:
Too good to wish, too fair for earth, refined
For heaven, where all true glory rests confined;
And where but there no life without control?
Oh, when from this account, this cast-up sum,
This reck’ning made the audit of my woe,
Sometime of rase my swelling passions know
How work my thoughts, my sense is stricken dumb
That would thee more than words could ever show,
Which all fall short. Who knew thee best do know
There lives no wit that may thy praise become.
And rest fair monuments of thy fair fame,
Though not complete. Nor can we reach, in thought,
What on that goodly piece time would have wrought
Had divers so spared that life (but life) to frame
The rest. Alas, such loss! The world hath naught
Can equal it, nor, oh, more grievance brought,
Yet what remains must ever crown thy name.
Receive these hymns, these obsequies receive,
(If any mark of thy secret spirit thou bear)
Made only thine, and no name else must wear.
I can no more: Dear Soul, I take my leave;
My sorrow strives to mount the highest sphere.
2.11.3 “Psalm 51”
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.
For I, alas, acknowledging do know
My filthy fault, my faulty filthiness
To my soul’s eye incessantly doth show,
Which done to thee, to thee I do confess,
Just judge, true witness, that for righteousness
Thy doom may pass against my guilt awarded,
Thy evidence for truth may be regarded.
My mother, lo, when I began to be,
Conceiving me, with me did sin conceive:
And as with living heat she cherished me,
Corruption did like cherishing receive.
But, lo, thy love to purest good doth cleave,
And inward truth: which, hardly else discerned,
My truant soul in thy hid school hath learned.
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.
To ear and heart send sounds and thoughts of gladness,
That bruised bones may dance away their sadness.
Thy ill-pleased eye from my misdeeds avert:
Cancel the registers my sins contain:
Create in me a pure, clean, spotless heart;
Inspire a sprite where love of right may reign
Ah, cast me not from thee; take not again
Thy breathing grace; again thy comfort send me,
And let the guard of thy free sprite attend me.
So I to them a guiding hand will be,
Whose faulty feet have wandered from thy way,
And turned from sin will make return to thee,
Whom turned from thee sin erst had led astray.
O God, God of my health, oh, do away
My bloody crime: so shall my tongue be raised
To praise thy truth, enough cannot be praised.
Unlock my lips, shut up with sinful shame:
Then shall my mouth, O Lord, thy honor sing.
For bleeding fuel for thy altar’s flame,
To gain thy grace what boots it me to bring?
Burnt-off’rings are to thee no pleasant thing.
The sacrifice that God will hold respected,
Is the heart-broken soul, the sprite dejected.
Lastly, O Lord, how so I stand or fall,
Leave not thy loved Zion to embrace;
But with thy favor build up Salem’s wall,
And still in peace, maintain that peaceful place.
Then shalt thou turn a well-accepting face
To sacred fires with offered gifts perfumed:
Till ev’n whole calves on altars be consumed.
2.11.4 “Psalm 55”
My God, most glad to look, most prone to hear,
An open ear, oh, let my prayer find,
And from my plaint turn not thy face away.
Behold my gestures, hearken what I say,
While uttering moans with most tormented mind,
My body I no less torment and tear.
For, lo, their fearful threat’nings would mine ear,
Who griefs on griefs on me still heaping lay,
A mark to wrath and hate and wrong assigned;
Therefore, my heart hath all his force resigned
To trembling pants; death terrors on me pray;
I fear, nay, shake, nay, quiv’ring quake with fear.
Then say I, oh, might I but cut the wind,
Borne on the wing the fearful dove doth bear:
Stay would I not, till I in rest might stay.
Far hence, oh, far, then would I take my way
Unto the desert, and repose me there,
These storms of woe, these tempests left behind.
But swallow them, O Lord, in darkness blind,
Confound their counsels, lead their tongues astray,
That what they mean by words may not appear.
For mother Wrong within their town each where,
And daughter Strife their ensigns so display,
As if they only thither were confined.
These walk their city walls both night and day;
Oppressions, tumults, guiles of every kind
Are burgesses and dwell the middle near;
About their streets his masking robes doth wear
Mischief clothed in deceit, with treason lined,
Where only he, he only bears the sway.
But not my foe with me this prank did play,
For then I would have borne with patient cheer
An unkind part from whom I know unkind,
Nor he whose forehead Envy’s mark had signed,
His trophies on my ruins sought to rear,
From whom to fly I might have made assay.
But this to thee, to thee impute I may,
My fellow, my companion, held most dear,
My soul, my other self, my inward friend:
Whom unto me, me unto whom did bind
Exchanged secrets, who together were
God’s temple wont to visit, there to pray.
Oh, let a sudden death work their decay,
Who speaking fair such cankered malice mind,
Let them be buried breathing in their bier;
But purple morn, black ev’n, and midday clear
Shall see my praying voice to God inclined,
Rousing him up, and naught shall me dismay.
He ransomed me; he for my safety fined
In fight where many sought my soul to slay;
He, still himself to no succeeding heir
Leaving his empire shall no more forbear
But at my motion, all these atheists pay,
By whom, still one, such mischiefs are designed.
Who but such caitiffs would have undermined,
Nay, overthrown, from whom but kindness mere
They never found? Who would such trust betray?
What buttered words! Yet war their hearts bewray.
Their speech more sharp than sharpest sword or spear
Yet softer flows than balm from wounded rind.
But my o’erloaden soul, thyself upcheer,
Cast on God’s shoulders what thee down doth weigh
Long borne by thee with bearing pained and pined:
To care for thee he shall be ever kind;
By him the just in safety held away
Changeless shall enter, live, and leave the year:
But, Lord, how long shall these men tarry here?
Fling them in pit of death where never shined
The light of life, and while I make my stay
On thee, let who their thirst with blood allay
Have their life-holding thread so weakly twined
That it, half-spun, death may in sunder shear.
2.11.5 “Psalm 57”
Thy mercy, Lord, Lord, now thy mercy show:
On thee I lie;
To thee I fly.
Hide me, hive me, as thine own,
Till these blasts be overblown,
Which now do fiercely blow.
To highest God I will erect my cry,
Who quickly shall
Dispatch this all.
He shall down from heaven send
From disgrace me to defend
His love and verity.
My soul encaged lies with lions’ brood,
Villains whose hands
Are fiery brands,
Teeth more sharp than shaft or spear,
Tongues far better edge do bear
Than swords to shed my blood.
As high as highest heav’n can give thee place,
O Lord, ascend,
And thence extend
With most bright, most glorious show
Over all the earth below,
The sunbeams of thy face.
Me to entangle every way I go
Their trap and net
Is ready set.
Holes they dig but their own holes
Pitfalls make for their own souls:
So, Lord, oh, serve them so.
My heart prepared, prepared is my heart
To spread thy praise
With tuned lays:
Wake my tongue, my lute awake,
Thou my harp the consort make,
Myself will bear a part.
Myself when first the morning shall appear,
With voice and string
So will thee sing:
That this earthly globe, and all
Treading on this earthly ball,
My praising notes shall hear.
For god, my only God, thy gracious love
Is mounted far
Above each star,
Thy unchanged verity
Heav’nly wings do lift as high
As clouds have room to move.
As high as highest heav’n can give thee place,
O Lord, ascend
And thence extend
With most bright, most glorious show
Over all the earth below,
The sunbeams of thy face.
2.11.6 “Psalm 84”
How lovely is thy dwelling,
Great god, to whom all greatness is belonging!
To view thy courts far, far from any telling
My soul doth long and pine with longing
Unto the God that liveth,
The God that all life giveth,
My heart and body both aspire,
Above delight, beyond desire.
Alas, the sparrow knoweth
The house where free and fearless she resideth;
Directly to the nest the swallow goeth,
Where with her sons she safe abideth.
Oh, altars thine, most mighty
In war, yea, most almighty:
Thy altars, Lord, ah, why should I
From altars thine excluded lie?
Oh, happy who remaineth
Thy household-man and still thy praise unfoldeth!
Oh, happy who himself on thee sustaineth,
Who to thy house his journey holdeth!
Me seems I see them going
Where mulberries are growing:
How wells they dig in thirsty plain,
And cisterns make for falling rain.
Me seems I see augmented
Still troop with troop, till all at length discover
Zion, where to their sight is represented
The Lord of hosts, the Zion lover.
O Lord, O God, most mighty
In war, yea, most almighty:
Hear what I beg; hearken, I say,
O Jacob’s God, to what I pray.
Thou art the shield us shieldeth:
Then, Lord, behold the face of thine anointed
One day spent in thy courts more comfort yieldeth
Than thousands otherwise appointed.
I count it clearer pleasure
To spend my age’s treasure
Waiting a porter at thy gates
Than dwell a lord with wicked mates.
Thou art the sun that shineth;
Thou art the buckler, Lord that us defendeth:
Glory and grace Jehovah’s hand assigneth
And good without refusal sendeth
To him who truly treadeth
The path to pureness leadeth.
O Lord of might, thrice blessed he
Whose confidence is built on thee.
2.11.7 “Psalm 102”
O Lord, my praying hear;
Lord, let my cry come to thine ear.
Hide not thy face away,
But haste, and answer me,
In this my most, most miserable day,
Wherein I pray and cry to thee.
My days as smoke are past;
My bones as flaming fuel waste,
Mown down in me, alas.
With scythe of sharpest pain.
My heart is withered like the wounded grass;
My stomach doth all food disdain.
So lean my woes me leave,
That to my flesh my bones do cleave;
And so I bray and howl,
As use to howl and bray
The lonely pelican and desert owl,
Like whom I languish long the day.
I languish so the day,
The night in watch I waste away;
Right as the sparrow sits,
Bereft of spouse, or son,
Which irked alone with dolor’s deadly fits
To company will not be won.
As day to day succeeds,
So shame on shame to me proceeds
From them that do me hate,
Who of my wrack so boast,
That wishing ill, they wish but my estate,
Yet think they wish of ills the most.
Therefore my bread is clay;
Therefore my tears my wine allay.
For how else should it be,
Sith thou still angry art,
And seem’st for naught to have advanced me,
But me advanced to subvert?
The sun of my life-days
Inclines to west with falling rays,
And I as hay am dried,
While yet in steadfast seat
Eternal thou eternally dost bide,
Thy memory no years can fret.
Oh, then at length arise;
On Zion cast thy mercy’s eyes.
Now is the time that thou
To mercy shouldst incline
Concerning her: O Lord, the time is now
Thyself for mercy didst assign.
Thy servants wait the day
When she, who like a carcass lay
Stretched forth in ruin’s bier,
Shall so arise and live,
The nations all Jehova’s name shall fear,
All kings to thee shall glory give.
Because thou hast anew
Made Zion stand, restored to view
Thy glorious presence there,
Because thou hast, I say,
Beheld our woes and not refused to hear
What wretched we did plaining pray,
This of record shall bide
To this and every age beside.
And they commend thee shall
Whom thou anew shall make,
That from the prospect of thy heav’nly hall
Thy eye of earth survey did take,
Heark’ning to prisoners’ groans,
And setting free condemned ones,
That they, when nations come,
And realms to serve the Lord,
In Zion and in Salem might become
Fit means his honor to record.
But what is this if I
In the mid way should fall and die?
My God, to thee I pray,
Who canst my prayer give.
Turn not to night the noontide of my day,
Since endless thou dost ageless live.
The earth, the heaven stands
Once founded, formed by thy hands:
They perish, thou shalt bide;
They old, as clothes shall wear,
Till changing still, full change shall them betide,
Unclothed of all the clothes they bear.
But thou art one, still one:
Time interest in thee hath none.
Then hope, who godly be,
Or come of godly race:
Endless your bliss, as never ending he,
His presence your unchanged place.
2.11.8 “Psalm 150”
Oh, laud the Lord, the God of hosts commend,
Exalt his pow’r, advance his holiness:
With all your might lift his almightiness;
Your greatest praise upon his greatness spend.
Make trumpet’s noise in shrillest notes ascend;
Make lute and lyre his loved fame express;
Him let the pipe, him let the tabret bless,
Him organ’s breath, that winds or waters lend
Let ringing timbrels so his honor sound,
Let sounding cymbals so his glory ring,
That in their tunes such melody be found
As fits the pomp of most triumphant king.
Conclude: by all that air or life enfold,
Let high Jehovah highly be extolled.
2.11.9 Reading and Review Questions
In “Doleful Lay,” Mary Herbert Spenser names the speaker who is clearly a woman. How does she give Clorinda a distinctly and distinctively female-gendered voice?
How does Mary Herbert Spenser use nature imagery in “Doleful Lay?” To what degree, if any, is it idealized and/or allegorized?
Mary Herbert Spenser dedicates her translations of the Psalms to her brother with the elegy “To the Angel Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney.” In this poem, she attributes the translations’ heavenly power to her brother, an expressed humility and subordination she repeats in various ways, including deploring her own weakness and presumption. To what degree, if any, is Mary Herbert Spenser in these ways fulfilling elegiac versus gender conventions? How does her representation of gender compare with Elizabeth I’s?
How, if at all, does Mary Herbert Spenser reveal her Protestant faith in her translations of the Psalms?
Considering the restrictions that her era placed upon females taking any public role in religious practices, to what degree, if at all, does Mary Herbert Spenser distinguish between private or personal versus public and universal expressions of faith in her translations of the Psalms? How, if at all, does her prowess and versatility in metrical verse play into this distinction?