Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke

Margaret P. Hannay

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke

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Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (b. 1561–d. 1621), was the first woman in England to be celebrated as a literary figure. She evidently began her public literary writing and patronage to honor her famous brother Sir Philip Sidney after his death in 1586, encouraging writers who praised him, translating works that he would have approved, writing encomia, and completing the metrical Psalms that he had begun. She published two French translations under her own name in 1592, Antonius by Robert Garnier (her translation influenced Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra), and Discours de la vie et de la mort by Philippe de Mornay, Sieur du Plessis-Mornay. She also translated Petrarch’s Triumph of Death into terza rima; it survives only in a transcription by Sir John Harington, indicating limited manuscript circulation. She wrote a pastoral drama, “A Dialogue between Two Shepherds, Thenot and Piers, in Praise of Astrea,” evidently in preparation for Queen Elizabeth’s planned visit to her home in 1599. Two dedicatory poems accompany the Sidney Psalter, “Even Now That Care” to Queen Elizabeth, and “To the Angell Spirit of Sir Philip Sidney.” She may also have written an early poem in praise of her brother, “The Dolefull Lay,” though authorship is disputed. Most important are her metrical Psalms that use 126 different verse forms: these were praised by contemporaries including Nicholas Breton, Abraham Fraunce, John Donne, Aemilia Lanyer, and Edmund Spenser. The Sidney Psalms strongly influenced the 17th-century devotional lyric, particularly that of George Herbert. Contemporaries celebrated her poetry, scholarship and piety, as well as her beauty and her excellence in the feminine accomplishments of needlework, singing, and lute playing. She was an active member of court circles, seeking and accepting political favors. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke may also be referred to as Mary Sidney Herbert, Mary Herbert, or Mary Sydney. (Note that references may be alphabetized under Herbert, Pembroke, Sidney, or Sydney. She is sometimes erroneously referred to as “Lady Mary Herbert,” which was the title of her sister-in-law. To be concise in this bibliography she is referred to as MSH and her famous brother Sir Philip Sidney as SPS.)

Article.  11723 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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