Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (née Sidney; 27 October 1561 – 25 September 1621) was one of the first English women to achieve a major reputation for her poetry and literary patronage. By the age of 39, she was listed with her brother Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare, as one of the notable authors of her time in the verse miscellany by John Bodenham, Belvedere. The influence of her Antonius is widely recognized: it stimulated a revived interest in the soliloquy based on classical models, and was a likely source (among others) for both the 1594 closet drama Cleopatra by Samuel Daniel and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607). Sidney Herbert was also known for her translation of Petrarch’s “Triumph of Death” (from Triumphs), but it is her lyric translation of the Psalms that has secured her poetic reputation.
Mary Sidney Herbert created a literary salon in her home, Wilton House. The “Wilton Circle” included Spenser, Daniel, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson and Sir John Davies. She also received more dedications than any other woman of non-royal status and was named as Samuel Daniel’s muse in his poem Delia (an anagram for ideal).
Her brother, Philip Sidney, wrote much of his Arcadia at Wilton House. He also likely began preparing his English lyric version of the Book of Psalms at Wilton as well. He had completed 43 of the 150 Psalms at the time of his death during a military campaign against the Spanish in the Netherlands in 1586. Mary Sidney Herbert finished her brother’s translation of the Psalms, composing Psalms 44-150 in a dazzling array of verse forms, using the 1560 Geneva Bible and commentaries by John Calvin and Theodore Beza. A copy of the completed psalter was prepared for Queen Elizabeth I in 1599, in anticipation of a royal visit, but Elizabeth canceled her planned visit to Wilton. The psalter is usually referred to as The Sidney Psalms or The Sidney-Pembroke Psalter and is considered an important influence on the development of English religious lyric poetry in the late 16th and early 17th century. John Donne wrote a poem celebrating the verse psalter, and claiming that he could “scarce” call the English Church reformed until its psalter had been modeled after the poetic translations of Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney Herbert.
Mary was instrumental in having her brother’s An Apology for Poetry (or, Defence of Poesy) put into print. She also circulated the Sidney-Pembroke Psalter in manuscript at about the same time, which suggests a proximate relationship in their design: both the Defence and the translation of the Psalter argued for the ethical recuperation of poetry as an instrument for moral instruction—and particularly for religious instruction.
By at least 1591, the Pembrokes were providing patronage to the Pembroke’s Men playing company, one of the early companies to perform the works of Shakespeare. Mary’s husband died in 1600 leaving her with less financial support than she might have expected. By some accounts, King James I visited Wilton on his way to his coronation in 1603 and stayed again at Wilton following the coronation to avoid the plague. According to one account, Shakespeare’s company “The King’s Men” performed at Wilton at this time.
In addition to the arts, Mary had a range of interests. She had a chemistry laboratory at Wilton House, where she developed medicines and invisible ink. In 1615 she commenced the building of a grand hunting lodge with fine vistas, Houghton House in Bedfordshire, on an estate granted to her by King James I, which she completed in 1621, shortly before her death. It is said that the house, today a ruin, was the model for House Beautiful in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
In addition to her closet drama Antonius, a translation of the French play Marc-Antoine (1578) by Robert Garnier, Mary is known to have translated two other works: A discourse of life and death by Philippe de Mornay, which was published with Antonius in 1592; and Petrarch’s The triumph of death, which circulated in manuscript. Her original poems include the pastoral, “A dialogue betweene two shepheards, Thenot and Piers, in praise of Astrea,” and the two dedicatory addresses, one to Elizabeth I, and one to her brother Philip, contained in the Tixall manuscript copy of her verse Psalter.
Although the psalms were not printed during her lifetime, they had an extensive manuscript publication, with 17 extant manuscripts today. A later engraving of Sidney Herbert shows her holding the psalms. Her influence—through literary patronage, publishing her brother’s works and her own verse forms, dramas, and translations—can be assessed in a number of ways. Contemporary poets who commended Sidney Herbert’s verse psalms include Daniel, Davies, Donne, Drayton, Sir John Harington, Ben Jonson, Aemelia Lanyer, and Thomas Moffet. The importance and influence of the translation of the Psalter is evident in the devotional lyric poems of Barnabe Barnes, Nicholas Breton, Henry Constable, Francis Davison, Giles Fletcher, and Abraham Fraunce—and its influence upon the later religious poetry of Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and John Milton has been critically recognized.
Herbert, Mary Sidney. Collected Works of Lady Mary Sidney Herbert. Edited by Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinammon, and Michael P. Brennan. Clarendon Press,1998.
Herbert, Mary Sidney. Selected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Edited by Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinammon, and Michael P. Brennan. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 2005.
Sidney, Philip and Mary Sidney Herbert. The Sidney Psalter : The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney. Edited by Hannibal Hamlin, Michael G. Brennan, Margaret P. Hannay, and Noel J. Kinnamon. Oxford University Press, 2009.