Mary Sidney Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Mary Sidney 1561–1621

(Full name Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.) English poet, translator, and editor.

The following entry contains critical essays on Sidney's role in the Age of Spenser. For further information on Sidney, see LC, Vol. 19.

A prominent figure in literary circles in the Age of Spenser, Sidney is best known for her verse translations of biblical psalms, a project begun in conjunction with her brother, Sir Philip Sidney, and completed by her after his death. Although psalm translations were common during the Renaissance, the Sidneian psalms are considered poetically superior to other versions because of the energetic rhythms and diverse stanzaic forms skillfully chosen to mirror the content of each psalm. Critics have also praised Sidney's psalm translations for their emotional power and personal tone, and they are widely viewed as a major contribution to Elizabethan poetry.


Sidney was born at Tickenhall, Worcestershire, to a renowned and powerful family; the marriage of her parents, Mary Dudley and Henry Sidney, had united two prominent families in what was known as the Dudley/Sidney alliance. In an England often torn by religious conflict, the union of ruling-class, Protestant families created a major political force. Mary Sidney's maternal grandfather, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, had been executed in 1553 for his part in the attempt to put the Protestant Lady Jane Grey on the throne in place of the Catholic Mary Tudor. When the Protestant Queen Elizabeth replaced Queen Mary, Sidney's parents became central figures at court, where her father served as Lord President Council of the Marches of Wales and Lord Governor of Ireland, and her mother as lady-in-waiting to the Queen.

Mary Sidney received an education at home that exceeded the learning usually available to Elizabethan women; she studied literature, religion, science, and several languages. She went to court at the age of thirteen and in 1577 married Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke, who—thirty years her senior—had also been involved in the Lady Jane Grey affair. Like

many aristocratic unions of the age, their marriage was a pre-arranged political alliance; it also apparently proved a happy match for Sidney. After her marriage, her home at Wilton House, Pembroke's ancestral estate, became the most important literary center outside Elizabeth's court and sponsored the work of such prominent writers as Edmund Spenser and Fulke Greville. With her brother Philip, one of the most renowned and respected writers of the time, Sidney used Wilton House to cultivate and patronize the Sidney Circle, a group of literary figures praised for their theological learning as well as their artistic talents. John Aubrey described her as "the greatest Patroness of witt and learning of any Lady of her time." Sidney also pursued her own work at this time, primarily undertaking translations. Initially, she collaborated with her brother on English translations of biblical psalms. After his death in 1586—perhaps the most tragic event of her life—she continued the work alone and ultimately produced a volume greatly acclaimed by readers then and since. After her husband's death in 1601 Sidney was less active in public life, and her sons, William and Philip, continued the tradition of patronage she had established at Wilton House. She died of smallpox in 1621.

Major Works

In the sixteenth century even the most well-educated of women were not encouraged to produce original verse. Propriety restricted Mary Sidney to translations and editorial work. Her efforts from 1592 and 1593 typify the kind of writing befitting a woman of her rank: translations of Philippe de Mornay's essay Discours de la vie et de la mort (1576), Robert Garnier's play Marc-Antoine (1579), and Petrarch's poem Trionfo della Morte (1353?). Her major work, however, are the Psalms that she began with her brother and completed before the end of the century. Because of the considerable skill and innovation that these translations demonstrate, critics have come to treat them as tantamount to original compositions and as a vital contribution to the development of English literature. Approximately forty of the poems were in initial translations begun before her brother's death; Sidney revised these further and undertook the translation of approximately another one hundred on her own. Although she consulted numerous French, Latin, and English versions of the psalms, her work is based primarily on a Protestant French psalter of 1562 by Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze and relies heavily on the commentary of John Calvin. Her work was relatively complete in 1599, when she presented a copy to Queen Elizabeth, but critic Gary Waller has speculated that she continued to revise for at least another decade. While Philip's psalms focus on the subject matter from a position of detached examination, his sister's convey an intense involvement with the psalmist and an intimate expression of piety. Using conversational syntax and powerful images drawn from her own experiences, Sidney created a personal tone in her psalms which subtly reinforces her concept of religion as a deeply felt connection with God. Critics have also noted that Sidney's translations represent a major stylistic advancement over earlier versions, stressing in particular her use of one hundred sixty-four stanzaic forms and ninety-four metrical patterns to match her structure to the content of her sources. Such an attempt to unify form and content had never before been undertaken by psalm versifiers.

In addition to editing Philip's The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia (1593) and Astrophel and Stella (1598), Sidney wrote "The Doleful Lay of Clorinda," which was published in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), a collection of elegies for Philip edited by Edmund Spenser, and a pastoral poem for Elizabeth entitled "A Dialogue Between Two Shepheards, Thenot and Piers, in Praise of Astraea." She also composed two dedicatory poems for the Psalms, one addressed to her brother and the other to the Queen. In "To the Angell Spirit of Sir Philip Sidney" Sidney praised her brother not only for his nobility of character, but also for his dedication to the cause of Protestantism. In "Even Now that Care which on thy Crown attends," a conventional adulatory poem for Elizabeth, Sidney combines praise for the Queen with a strong political message, equating Elizabeth with the biblical King David and implying that it is her duty to protect and further the cause of Protestant Christianity.

Critical Reception

Though intended for private devotion, the Psalms were distributed beyond the Sidney Circle, and contemporary poets referred to them frequently. John Donne's poem "Upon the translations of the Psalms by Sir Philip Sidney, and the Countess of Pembroke his sister" expresses the admiration and respect the Sidneian psalms generated among her peers. During her life, however, the psalm translations were thought to be primarily the work of her brother and her own contribution was largely overlooked. Most praise directed to Sidney emphasized her role as patroness: Spenser addressed her as "most Honourable and bountifull Ladie … to whome I acknowledge my selfe bounden, by manie singular fauours and great graces," and Samuel Daniel praised her as "the happie and iudiciall Patronesse of the Muses." Critics speculate that perhaps Sidney's humility prevented her contemporaries from identifying her more closely with the Psalms; her signature, "Sister of that Incomparable Sidney," emphasizes her relation and debt to Philip rather than pride in her own achievements. Consequently, her reputation as a poet has languished for centuries; in the introduction to his 1977 edition of her poetry, Waller refers to Sidney as "this too long neglected Elizabethan poet."

An 1823 edition of the Psalms spawned only a brief revival of interest in her work. Although A. B. Grosart acknowledged in his 1873 edition of Philip's poems that Sidney's work was "infinitely in advance of her brother's in thought, epithet and melody," hers were not published until 1963 in a collection edited by J. C. A. Rathmell. Since that time critics have acknowledged Sidney's importance as a bridge between traditional psalm translators and religious lyric poets; some even suggest that seventeenth-century poets used her psalms as a model for their own work. More recently, her work has generated interest among feminist scholars who have reclaimed her as vital to the development of both women's literature and English verse as a whole. Critics often explain the emotional urgency of Sidney's psalms in the context of Renaissance restrictions on women's writing; although translations of religious material were permitted, women were not expected to articulate any personal commentary. The exclusion of women from other forms of discourse forced Sidney to express herself through the voice of the psalmist, and the distinctive style and poetic force of her psalms originate in this sense of personal commitment. Examining her work in the context of Renaissance conventions that generally silenced women, these critics have praised her personal self-assertion and poetic skill.

Long overshadowed by her brother's reputation, Sidney is now recognized for her contribution to the development of religious poetry, and she is currently recognized as one of the first important English women poets. Her psalms are considered the most significant precursor to the prodigious production of religious verse in the seventeenth century, as well as the finest example of that genre from the Elizabethan era.