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That’s ‘Countess of Pembroke’ to You!
Over at Slate, Robert Pinsky is singing the praises of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Mary’s brother, Sir Philip Sidney, may be the more recognizable name in the family (what with writing Astrophel and Stella and starting the whole sonnet craze) but Pinsky shows us how Mary holds her own. Pinsky begins:
It’s hard to imagine a modern family as prominent in as many ways as Philip Sidney and his sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke were. In addition to the social and political prominence of the Kennedys and the wealth of the Kochs, beyond their personal glamour and estates and Philip Sidney’s heroism in war, the brother and sister were at the center of scholarship and art—two realms that were less separated in their time than in the present.
Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, in its pirated, posthumous edition of 1591, set off the sonnet vogue of the 1590s, which saw many dozens of imitative sequences, including the one by William Shakespeare. Mary Sidney, proficient in Latin and ancient Greek as well as modern European languages, was a brilliant translator as well as a writer in prose and verse. Active as a patron of the arts and a host to artists, she was the center of a circle that included, in addition to her brother, poets Michael Drayton, Edward Dyer, Fulke Greville, and Edmund Spenser.
Pinsky then turns to discussing the Countess’s accomplishments:
Anthologists, eager to compensate for patriarchal societies, sometimes appear to scrape up women for inclusion in their books. No apology is required for Mary Herbert’s accomplished, inventive work as a translator. Her version of “Psalm 52” uses rhyme— that barbarous, jangly departure from classical dignity—as part of an angry, urgent music. Interestingly, “Psalm 52” denounces those who are great and prominent, but false: a phenomenon that the Countess of Pembroke was well placed to observe.
Make the jump to read and listen to the poem.