The Biblical psalm presents a plea for justice by David, Israel's King, which Mary Sidney Herbert and her contemporaries linked to the Protestant situation in England and the Continent. Therefore, the language of this psalm may be interpreted as both justification and encouragement for the Protestant faith. The psalm opens with a direct address to those who sit in judg-ment—rulers—and the first lines question the justice of sentencing the "wronged" (l. 4). The psalm contrasts the honored status and positions of judges with their own mortality; no matter how privileged they may be, they are still descended from Adam and created from the same earthly dust as he. Significantly, Herbert's translation of the Psalms opened with a dedicatory poem to Queen Elizabeth I, "Even now that Care," which itself underscored the need to continue to advance the Protestant cause in England and elsewhere. The rulers suggested in the opening lines of Psalm 58 thus subtly recall Herbert's address to Elizabeth.
Herbert consistently uses strong and politically charged language throughout the psalm. From the suggestions of legal issues and public policy implied in the opening lines, she shifts to problems of justice and oppression. The speaker notes that his oppressors, who now sit in judgment of him, have long harbored wrong in their hearts—a prejudice that, from a position of power, they now reveal to the world. However, this injustice is not entirely unexpected, as the oppressors have consistently declined to follow truth and right. Indeed, the accusers have serpent poison lodged in them; both their words and thoughts, the poem suggests, are tainted.
The psalm moves from directly addressing David's response to his accusers (and, more implicitly, the enemies of the contemporary Protestant faith) to invoking the Lord's protection. The psalm asks the Lord to crush the teeth—and thus the voice—of the speaker's enemies, to drown them and to break their weapons. The psalm then asks that all of the oppressors' actions, ("Springing thorns," l. 25) thoughts, and deeds die a stillborn death, decaying into nonexistence before they can fully mature.
Herbert concludes that when the just person witnesses this divine treatment of injustice, he or she shall rejoice and "bath his feet in bloud of wicked one" (l. 30). Finally, the psalm concludes with a clear definition of equal and unbiased justice. God will mete out to each his or her deserved good or ill: All shall observe that "there is a god that carves to each his own" (l. 32).
See also Sidnean Psalms (overview).
Sidneian Psalms: Psalm 59 ("Deliver me from my enemies") Mary Sidney Herbert, countess OF Pembroke (1599) Like many of her other translations, Mary Sidney Herbert's treatment of Psalm 59 maintains the essence of her sources while also incorporating her own sense of style and imagery. Psalm 59 revolves around several contrasting images of the faithful speaker and his enemies; his voice is juxtaposed with their voiceless howling, and his faith contrasts their enmity.
The central theme, repeated throughout the psalm, is a fairly typical prayer for aid and strength in the face of apparently invincible enemies. "Save mee from such as me assaile" (l. 1) the psalm begins, and the preoccupied speaker reiterates this phrase throughout the poem. More interesting is the speaker's depiction of the foes from which he requests deliverance: They "make a trade of cursed wrong / and bredd in bloud for bloud doe long" (ll. 4-5). In other words, the speaker's enemies are professional murderers; worse still, they pass their vile trade from generation to generation. The speaker effectively dehumanizes these foes, emphasizing the apparently inherited nature of their evil. The recurring dog imagery throughout the poem underscores this distinction between the humanity of the speaker and the inhumanity of those who seek his overthrow.
By line 25, the speaker has begun to expand his characterization of his enemies. When the sun sets, as houndes that howle their food to gett they runn amaine the cittie through from street to street with hungry maw . . . (ll. 27-30)
Herbert uses these images of dogs to further dehumanize the speaker's enemies; consequently, she links humanity to righteousness. In order to be human, the poem implies, one must also be faithful to God. In contrast to the loyal speaker, oppressed but still hopeful, his enemies descend upon the world, a perpetually hungry plague determined to devour the weak and the vulnerable. "Babling" (l. 32), these dogs jabber their desire to consume the life of the speaker, who explains that this inimitable food "extinguish may / their deadly hate" (l. 33). Throughout the poem, the babbling jib-berish of the dog-enemies contrasts with the speaker's clear voice and his promise to sing praise to God.
The speaker requests that his enemies' ravenous rage consume them entirely. Repeating almost exactly the stanza in which she introduces the hound metaphor, Herbert shifts the emphasis from one of destruction to one of victory. With God's help, the hounds will not succeed in their hungry march from city to city; instead, hunted themselves by famine, they bay, refusing to return to their kennels (ll. 67-78). The remainder of the psalm depicts the speaker's song, uniting his limited strength and will to God's omnipotent will. Through God's "free grace" (l. 89), the speaker receives his own "freedom" (l. 97). Thus, Herbert links obedience and faith in God to freedom, while the speaker's enemies are relegated to a painful subservience to their own endless hate and hunger. See also Sidnean Psalms (overview).
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