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International Protestantism’s great English hope was felled by a bullet to the thigh during a battle in a water-logged marsh outside Zutphen, a Dutch city, on September 22nd, 1586. Philip Sidney—soldier, parliamentarian, courtier, and poet—died 25 days later from gangrene. “Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace,” Sidney wrote in his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, written the decade of his death. “The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe, /The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,” and unto where his soul was sent in that final sleep.

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Read today largely by specialists, Sidney is remembered more for his writing than his politics; a versifier “Poetically accomplished and formally innovative, with a vivid personal style,” as Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson claim in Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry, an understatement for one of the most immaculate lyricists of the sixteenth century. Only 31 years old when he died, Sidney was irresistibly charismatic to many of his contemporaries, a man deserving of the throne, who in his portrait appears lean, handsome, and athletic, with auburn hair and russet eyes, a muscular defender of a muscular cause. Sidney’s sense of immediacy is what led him to enlist as a volunteer for the Dutch against the hated Spanish, but as the poet Fulke Greville had elegized, his death was the eclipse of a certain moment, of the knight valiant who when offered a drink of water after his injury, gave it to another soldier whom he felt was in greater need. With Sidney’s death, Greville mourned that “Knowledge her light hath lost, valor hath slain her knight, /Sidney is dead, dead is my friend, dead is the world’s delight.”

Perhaps most ironic was the inclusion among the grief-stricken of Sidney’s godfather, King Philip II of Spain. He was the Catholic sovereign whom Sidney was fighting against, and according to an anecdote, when the king’s counselors bragged about the death, Philip II quietly responded, “He was my godson.” Scion of an aristocratic family more venerable that the Tudors, son of Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Philip Sidney was a vehement Protestant, committed to the defense of his coreligionists. A few years before his death, he wrote:

The Lord the Lord my shepherd is,
And so can never I
Taste misery.
He rests me in green pasture His.
By waters still and sweet
He guides my feet.

He me revives, leads me the way
Which righteousness doth take,
For His name’s sake.
Yea though I should through valleys stray
Of death’s dark shade I will
No whit fear ill.

Call it a version, or revision, or rephrase, or translation of Psalm 23. “Yea though I should through valleys stray/Of death’s dark shade I will/No whit fear ill.” At the time of his death, Sidney was in the midst of his most ambitious project—a complete translation of the Psalms across a multitude of poetic style, an attempt to lyrically and fully fuse the Reformation with the Renaissance. After his death, the completion of this task depended on his sister Mary Sidney—the greater of the two poets. This is how Mary rendered the second stanza of Psalm 150:

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,

The words long attributed to King David now fit into ABBA rhyme scheme and into the fourteen lines of the Petrarchan sonnet. Furthermore, she translated not just the language—or rather more accurately paraphrased it—but its context. Most likely she drew from the 1560 Geneva Bible, but where that rendering is adamantly archaic in tone—“Praise ye him in the sound of the trumpet: praise ye him upon the viol and the harp” —Mary has seamlessly made Psalm 150 a poem about her current day; in her telling, the ancient instruments are pipe, tabret, and organ. In the sixteenth century there was a complex relationship between Reformation and Renaissance; sometimes the two movements served as mutual reinforcements, sometimes they stood in opposition. Enthusiasm for vernacular translation was at the center of both, however, even while Protestant reformers tended to emphasize a plain style for their scriptural renderings, and Renaissance humanists—especially poets—indulged the florid and the grand. With her contribution to the Psalter, Mary accomplished a synthesis of these two positions, rendering a Protestant’s favorite text in the style of a humanist, making it the greatest literary union of Renaissance and Reformation since the French queen Marguerite de Navarre’s 1558 Heptameron.

Painting of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) (after John de Critz)
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) (after John de Critz) via Wikimedia Commons

Mary demonstrated a much more daring voice than her brother. Compare her effortless enjambments and natural rhymes to Philip’s at times awkward syntax in Psalm 23; “He me revives,” he writes, or “He rests me in green pastures His.” The strange punctuation and idiosyncratic grammar in Philip’s psalm endow the poem with the quality of faux- “Bible-speak” rather than the originality so on display in his secular verse. G. F. Waller makes this distinction in The Review of English Studies, noting that it is “important to realize the difference between Sidney’s method in translating his forty-three Psalms and that of his sister. In general, Sidney chose to translate as accurately as possible rather than to create poems of any significant autonomy,” which has been to the detriment of his attempts. The third of the Psalter which is his contribution showcases Sidney’s poetic acumen, but Mary’s contributions are sublime. Waller argues that Mary’s 107 psalms are “more open to development … in confidence and competence, her versions are frequently deliberately more independent than her brother’s.” Philip exhibits a “workmanlike facility,” whereas Mary embraces the “fertility of technical experimentation,” leading to a poetic voice that’s “more intense, certainly more formally inventive, and more adept at extending the metaphorical structure of the Psalm.” Philip’s brilliance was to envision molding Biblical language into something concurrent with the sixteenth century; Mary’s genius was to actually be able to do it.

”For Sidney scholars, it has long been a source of regret that Philip had not completed the Psalms,” Suzanne Trill writes in Early Modern Women and the Poem. Of Sidney’s poetic projects—Apology for Poesy, Astrophel and Stella, or the romance The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia—his psalter is often the most ignored, in part because vernacular Bible translations were a mainstay of Reformation writing, and in part because buckshot at Zutphen aborted more than two thirds of the project. The poet was able only to finish 43 of 150 lyrics. Roland Greene argues in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 that “Sidney’s incomplete Psalter” is an example of how the “premier English poetic theorist of the time, used his translation of the Book of Psalms to reorient these senses of poetic reading and writing against one another,” and it is true that the Psalter presents a complicated demonstration of the sort of interpretation which we do every day. But in a pedantic sense, it is crucial to remember that Sidney’s Psalter was not incomplete—it was just completed by a different member of the family. And that the complex interplay between different poetic registers was largely not due to Philip—but to Mary. Furthermore, analysis has made clear that several of the psalms which Sidney was able to complete had been substantially revised by his sister, so that as Trill notes the realization that “what had survived might not be securely ‘his’ was offensive to the editorial psyche which sought to recover authorial ‘intentionality’ and establish a ‘clean’ text which mirrored the individual’s mind, uncontaminated by any other influence.” Beyond the clear chauvinism of such a position, there is the added indignity of the Sidney Psalter being ignored until a generation ago and dismissed as incomplete, while Mary’s overwhelming contributions were frequently overlooked entirely.

This was an error that was not made during the Renaissance; Mary’s final version circulated in manuscript form (as in keeping with the most respected of verse), with copies in the libraries of Greville, poet Edmund Spenser, and even Queen Elizabeth, while John Donne wrote an encomium to Mary’s genius. Even by the nineteenth century, the literary historian Alexander B. Grosart wrote that the “Countess’s portion is infinitely in advance of her brother’s in thought, epithet, and melody.” There would be an eclipse of Mary’s reputation, however, awaiting the second wave feminism of the late twentieth century to be granted her rightful place next to her brother. However, during the sixteenth century, there was no controversy about her rephrasing of the psalms; in fact, by the “time of the Reformation, the Psalms had become an important weapon in the various religious battles that people fought,” writes Theodore L. Steinberg in Studies in Philology. Psalm translation allowed women poets an opportunity to write because the subject was unassailably pious, and Mary Sidney joined writers like Anne Lok and Anne Askew in that particular endeavor. Writing in Religion & Literature, Margaret P. Hannay explains that “Paradoxically… the same desire for godliness that was used to stifle women’s speech also gave them a voice, particularly if they were translating male words about God.”

Psalm translation, it must be made abundantly clear, was not a rare exercise in Protestant England (partially the reason why the Sidney Psalter was overlooked for so long). The Psalter’s editor, Hannibal Hamlin, explains in Renaissance Studies that the “translation of the Bible was paramount for early Reformers, and translations of the psalms in particular proliferated,” including “metrical versions with music for singing in church and at home” ranging from close translation to broad paraphrase. Much debate has been had over Mary’s Hebrew proficiency; Steinberg thought she had knowledge of the language, but the evidence is unclear. What should be obvious is that her psalms are more inspired by the Bible than they are direct translations. In Faithful Translators: Authorship, Gender, and Religion in Early Modern England, Jaime Goodrich explains that “modern conceptions of translation do not apply particularly well to early modern psalms, which blurred the line between translation and paraphrase.” Quality varied in these more literal attempts; among the most significant translations until the celebrated King James Version of 1611, the Geneva Bible was the literary scripture that inspired the Sidneys, Spenser, and Shakespeare, but some popular psalters like that of Myles Coverdale, Matthew Parker, or even the popular standard of Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, could be turgid, arid, and cold.

Psalm 40 manuscript from the Sidney Psalms
Psalm 40 manuscript from the Sidney Psalms via Wikimedia Commons

At The Hudson Review, David R. Slavitt describes a 1562 version as being composed of “truly terrible translations of the Psalms.” Whether or not such evaluations are fair, it is undeniable that Mary Sidney brought to her psalms skill, proficiency, and talent that were sometimes lacking in versions which sacrificed artistry for the illusion of accuracy. In Psalm 52, the Geneva Bible asks “Why boastest thou thyself in thy wickedness, O man of power? the loving-kindness of God endureth daily,” while Mary chooses rather to fit the original into the ironic strictures of rhyme, resulting in an acerbic and appropriately angry—and distinctly feminine—denunciation of power, whereby she asks “Tyrant, why swell’st thou thus, /Of mischief vaunting? /Since help from God to us/Is never wanting.” Note the seamlessness of her rhyme schemes, the parsimony of her line; Mary’s sly critique of earthly authority is all the more subversive as a result of her pleasing prosody. Over three hundred different psalters would be rendered in the sixteenth century, and select examples would be composed by poets as esteemed as Sir Thomas Wyatt. Steinberg argues that “because the Psalms are, in fact, beautiful poems, they retained their traditional popularity.” That said, he continues, while the “Sidney version was not published at that time, it is surely the best.”

Such an aesthetic accomplishment is because the Sidneys—both of them—understood that the psalms were poems. Those 150 lyrics traditionally attributed to King David, fourteen of which were sung with an accompanying lyre within the Temple rituals of ancient Jerusalem, were acknowledged as such by the reformers themselves, and yet a plain style simplicity was emphasized in those translations, as many theologians were opposed to the finery, pomp, and grand style of poetic genres such as the sonnet. Philip Sidney rejected this dichotomy, writing in his Apology for Poesy, the greatest work of Renaissance literary theory, that the Psalms, were “a heavenly poesy, wherein almost [David] showeth himself a passionate lover of that unspeakable and everlasting beauty to be seen by the eyes of the mind, only cleared by faith.” That the psalms—or “songs” —are lyric poems is clear to anyone who can read, but despite the growing enthusiasm for Hebraism among Protestants, the exact rules of Biblical prosody were unclear to critics during Sidney’s day. Meanwhile, poets and critics like Sidney and George Puttenham were codifying English prosody. Hallet Smith in the Huntington Library Quarterly describes the Sidney Psalter as a “school of English versification,” with J. C. A. Rathmell noting that only four times in the entire collection is there any repetition of poetic genre. Steinberg furthermore enthused that the “Psalms certainly do constitute a virtuoso performance, almost like a cadenza in a concert.” Far from being a mere demonstration of dazzling technical ability, however, the Sidney Psalter also makes an implicit argument about the aesthetic power of scripture, and of what a synthesis of poetic and theological concerns could render. Just as a sonnet sequence has a story which it tells, so too did the Sidneys understand the Psalter as having a plot. Deirdre Serjeantson explains in Renaissance Studies that even while Renaissance theologians knew that the association of David with the psalms was pseudographic, these lyrics still “took on a narrative coherence from the events of David’s life… The love affair with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband, and David’s subsequent regrets,” so that as with the Young Poet or the Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the psalms had characters and a story to tell. “The effect was to foreground David in his role of lover,” Serjeantson writes.

Voice is delightfully complicated in lyric poetry; the ambiguities and ambivalences between the poet, narrator, and reader allows for a multitude of rich interpretations, at least in a well-wrought composition. Such a “range of emotions means that the psalms can seem to speak to a reader’s specific circumstances, which makes them a valuable source for appropriation, whether that be for political, religious, intellectual, or personal agendas,” writes Ruth Ahnert in Renaissance Studies. Mary’s particular lyrics ingeniously shift between these various registers. The Sidney Psalter operates on several levels: between the various compositions of Philip and Mary; between the latter’s revisions of the former and Mary’s elegizing of her dead brother; and the ghost of David behind all of it, a personality that exists between ancient Israel and Elizabethan England. “Lord, let me cry come to thine ear,” writes Mary Sidney in Psalm 102, “Hide not thy face away, /But haste, and answer me, /In this my most, most miserable day, /Wherein I pray and cry to thee,” a plaintive and penitential lament attributed to David but able to possess any speaker who must express such emotion. Because of the psalms’ liturgical significance, the Sidney Psalter was capable of fully inhabiting the paradox of lyric poetry, where the voice heard belongs variously and simultaneously to poet, narrator, translator, and reader, both individual and universal.

Kathleen M. Swaim argues in Christianity and Literature that such a translation places an emphasis on “unique individuality and thus the priesthood of all believers” making the love lyric of the early modern period strangely congruent with Protestantism. Arguably the Sidney Psalter isn’t just a synthesis of Renaissance and Reformation, but an example of the latter gestating the former. Serjeantson argues that Mary’s “alphabetical acrostics, the short runs of connected poems, and… lyric virtuosity… all found echoes in the early modern sonnet sequence, with its pattern poems, coronas, and competitive displays of verbal skill.” Since Barbara Kiefer Lewalski’s seminal 1979 study Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric, it has been accepted just how much of the golden age of English verse owes its shape to the theology of that country’s distinctive Reformation. However, in that book, mention of Mary Sidney occurs only once, in relation merely to Philip. Today, perhaps it is worth considering how much of the high crest of the devotional religious lyric was due to Mary’s Psalter, a manuscript that passed through courts and schools, amongst scholars and poets, a catalyst for the period of the most immaculate English verse. When Mary writes in Psalm 57:

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.

We hear John Donne and George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Thomas Traherne. As a lyric, it may derive from scripture, but the sound is that which changed English literature. Following Mary’s example, these poets would all try their hand at sacred poetry; moreover, the relationship between Sidney and these lyricists is not incidental. She was married into the powerful Herbert family, who themselves acted as patrons of Donne, with the latter writing that these

Psalms first author in a cloven tongue
—For ‘twas a double power by which he sung
The highest matter in the noblest form—
So thou has cleft that Spirit, to perform
That work again, and shed it, here, upon
Two, by their bloods, and by Thy spirit one;
A brother and a sister.

The poet inhabited the voice of her brother, of King David, of God Himself. Mary Sidney inhabited the voice of English poetry, and in the process birthed its renaissance.

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Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 30, No. 1, The English Renaissance (Winter, 1990), pp. 19-40
Rice University
Religion & Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, Reconstructing the Word: Spirituality in Women's Writing (Autumn, 1991), pp. 65-82
The University of Notre Dame
Music & Letters, Vol. 71, No. 2 (May, 1990), pp. 167-186
Oxford University Press
Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3 (May, 1946), pp. 249-271
University of Pennsylvania Press
Renaissance Studies, Vol. 29, No. 4 (September 2015), pp. 632-649