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HERBERT, MARY SIDNEY, COUNTESS OF PEMBROKE (1562-1621) Mary Sidney was born the third of seven children to a privileged family of aristocrats at Tickenhill Palace in Worcestershire. Her parents both had strong court connections, her father the godson to Henry VIII and friend to Edward VI and serving three times as lord deputy of Ireland, while her mother served Queen Elizabeth as a lady in waiting. Mary served Elizabeth in the same capacity between 1575 and 1577 after an excellent education that included instruction in Latin, French, and Italian. She shared her love for learning and poetry with both of her brothers, Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Robert Sidney. Both brothers wrote poetry, and Robert and his wife, the Welsh heiress Barbara Gamage, had a daughter named Mary, later Lady Mary Wroth, who also became a poet. Robert would be celebrated in Ben Jonson's famous poem "To Penshurst."
Married in 1580 at age 15 to Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke, Mary began many years of what appeared to be a happy union, despite an apparent love affair with the younger Matthew Lister. Their four children matured also to appreciate and provide patronage to writers; in 1623 Shakespeare's first folio was dedicated to the earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, her two sons. The countess opened their estate, Wilton House near Salisbury, to host many meetings of her literary coterie. The magnificent house gained a reputation for its learned gatherings, and Philip Sidney probably worked on his Arcadia and Apology for Poetry while visiting. The poet Samuel Daniel served as a tutor for the Herbert children, and the countess influenced many poets through her patronage and support, including her cousin, George Herbert; John Donne; and Jonson. The aristocratic members of the circle were able to share their work through manuscripts, as publication was considered too vulgar for those of their social status. Her support of artistic endeavors gained dedications of works from Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, John Davies, and Daniel.
Devastated by Philip's 1585 death fighting in the Netherlands, the countess edited and published his poetry. By the 1590s she produced her own work, beginning with translations including Philippe de Mor-nay's A Discourse of Life and Death (1592) and a version of Seneca's Antonie based on Robert Garnier's Marc Anto-nie (1592). Her continuation of Philip's English version of the Psalms beyond the 43rd became her greatest contribution to literature, and the 150-psalm sequence circulated privately. It received praise from Donne, among others, and would be first published as a complete collection in 1823. Scholars found it invaluable for its inclusion of many verse strategies used by Elizabethan poets. Its dedication, "To The Thrice-Sacred Queen Elizabeth," and Psalm 58, "Si Vere Utique," offer excellent examples of her range in style. She also honored her brother's memory with her poem "The Most Angel Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney," a work that reflects a love expressed in such intimate terms, some imagined their relationship might have been sexual. While most scholars dismiss that idea, they agree on the poem's extreme emotion, which supports Herbert's revision of the christian myth regarding the union and resultant offspring of a human and a spiritual being.
While Mary Sidney Herbert may have written other poetry, it has never been found and may have been lost in a fire. Admired by all who knew her and praised in print by poets such as Ameilia Lanyer, Mary Sidney Herbert played a pivotal role in 17th-century poetry production. Her contributions became better known as feminist critics in the mid-20th century insisted on her inclusion in anthologies and texts, which had long contained information regarding her brother Philip.
Recent scholars have even added Herbert's name to those proposed as the true author of works credited to William Shakespeare. That theory would explain the dedication to her sons of his first folio, Shakespeare's sonnets written to a younger man, and Jonson's eulogy in his first folio of 1623 praising the "sweet swan of Avon," as the Herbert estate sat on the river Avon, and Herbert adopted the swan as her personal emblem.
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