Mary Sidney Herbert’s Inventive Translation of Psalm 52

What makes them great.
Oct. 30 2012 7:15 AM

The Inventive Translations of Mary Sidney Herbert

How the Countess of Pembroke inspired John Donne.

English writer and poet Mary Herbert, nee Sidney, Countess of Pembroke.
Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Engraving by Bocquet/Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images.

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.

Her translations of the Psalms (continuing a project of her brother's, after his death) are said to have influenced, in a following generation, her cousin once removed George Herbert and John Donne.

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.

Her version is less compact than the other great translation of her time, and more performative. The King James prose version has the force of simplicity and compression, a clinching denunciation. Mary Herbert makes the psalm into more of a song: an inspired rant, extravagant yet disciplined. (In her final line, “annoy” has become a weaker word in contemporary English than its root, which indicated hatred.) Comparing and appreciating the two translations, prose and poetry and appreciating both, can be a lesson in writing.

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read Mary Sidney Herbert’s "Psalm 52." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

“Psalm 52”

By Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Tyrant, why swell'st thou thus,
    Of mischief vaunting?
Since help from God to us
    Is never wanting.

Lewd lies thy tongue contrives,
    Loud lies it soundeth;
Sharper than sharpest knives
    With lies it woundeth.

Falsehood thy wit approves,
    All truth rejected:
Thy will all vices loves,
    Virtue neglected.

Not words from cursed thee,
    But gulfs are poured;
Gulfs wherein daily be
    Good men devoured.

Think'st thou to bear it so?
    God shall displace thee;
God shall thee overthrow,
    Crush thee, deface thee.

The just shall fearing see
    These fearful chances,
And laughing shoot at thee
    With scornful glances.

Lo, lo, the wretched wight,
    Who God disdaining,
His mischief made his might,
    His guard his gaining.

I as an olive tree
    Still green shall flourish:
God's house the soil shall be
    My roots to nourish.

My trust in his true love
    Truly attending,
Shall never thence remove,
    Never see ending.

Thee will I honour still,
    Lord, for this justice;
There fix my hopes I will
    Where thy saints' trust is.

Thy saints trust in thy name,
    Therein they joy them:
Protected by the same,
    Naught can annoy them.

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