Sidney Psalms

by Philip Sidney&Mary Sidney Herbert now in our Library.

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. … 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. … 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. … 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. … 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…

Mary Sidney and the Voice of God, Ed Simon