To The Thrice Sacred Queen Elizabeth

Lonsdale, Roger, ed. "Anna Laetitia Barbauld." In Eighteenth Century Women Poets, 299-311. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

"TO THE THRICE-SACRED QUEEN ELIZABETH" Mary Sidney Herbert (countess of Pembroke) (1599) Mary Sidney Herbert (countess of Pembroke) dedicated her translation of the Psalms, a project begun by her poet brother Sir Philip Sidney, to Queen Elizabeth. Scholars describe the dedication as complex and brilliantly executed. Many dedications appended to works were responses to patronage, but Herbert needed no financial support for her project. Her dedication instead sought to celebrate a monarch Herbert honestly admired, despite the cool relationship the queen had with Herbert's brother for a time. A staunch Protestant as her brother was, Herbert desired to pay homage to the Protestant queen who had at one time been in peril because of her faith. As the head of the Church of England founded by her father, Henry VIII, to whom Herbert's own father was godson, Elizabeth proved the obvious choice as a figure to celebrate in the context of a religious translation. Herbert could also feel a kinship with the monarch through her gender.

Herbert selected the traditional meter of iambic pentameter for her 12 eight-line stanzas, each with a rhyme scheme of ababcdcd, the fixed form appropriate for the solemn occasion. The opening stanza identifies its subject, the queen, in a traditional manner as the poet's inspiration, an inspiration proving much stronger than her own muse. The poet does not take this source of inspiration lightly, as the speaker explains that her muse breaks rhythm in recognizing the queen's con trol: "And of respect to thee the line out goes. / One instant will of willing can she lose," Herbert adopts the metaphor of rhyming to comment on the Queen's adept dealings, as she notes in a sophisticated use of figurative language (figure of speech) that Elizabeth does not read, but instead receives, rhymes. That thought serves to answer the question as to who may be the one "on whom in chief dependeth to dispose / What Europe acts in these most active times?"

The second stanza expresses Herbert's humility in hoping the queen will accept her verse, acknowledging the royal state and Elizabeth's many preoccupations, but also understanding her power is derived from heavenly decree. In addition the monarch's burden, which she so skillfully accommodates, would be too much for the common person:

But knowing more thy grace, abler thy mind, What heavenly powers thee highest throne assigned,

Assigned thee goodness suiting that degree, And by they strength thy burthen so designed, To others toil is exercise to thee. (12-16)

The third stanza remains remarkable in Herbert's comparison of herself to the queen, for just as Elizabeth does a man's job, so does the poet, in completing the work of her brother, although she judges herself less able than Philip:

The poorer left, the richer rest away,

Who better might (o might, ah word of woe)

Have given for me what I for him defray. (22-24)

This allows the transition into the fourth stanza, which further praises her brother, who died a martyr to the Protestant cause. She describes her own grief, unable to stop the tears and sighs his name elicits. She adopts another metaphor in the traditional comparison of writing to weaving, the latter a creative activity deemed acceptable for women. She notes that her brother began the project—"he did warp"—while she completes it—"I weaved this web to end"—even though they used an unoriginal source, "The stuff not ours, our work no curious thing." She comments on "the Psalmist King"

and his roots as a Hebrew, adding that King David has been made an English citizen through their actions. Stanza 5 notes, "And I the cloth in both our names present, / A livery robe to be bestowed by thee." The robe metaphor again aligns Herbert with the queen, as both women assume grave responsibilities. Together with her brother the poet will till the fields, where the fields represent the queen's favor, without any show of ostentation: "And those night fields where sown they favors be / Unwealthy do, not else unworthy till."

Herbert shifts her tone in stanza 6 to admit that Philip's and her work is actually that of Elizabeth, the source of all art, made clear in her allusion to the laurels, which are plants associated with poets. The very leaves complain if forced to drape against anyone other than the queen: "There humble laurels in thy shadows grown / To garland others would themselves repine." The stanza concludes with the thought that Elizabeth not only acts as England's defender, but also as a defender of art, a warrior monarch.

The speaker continues her praise into the seventh stanza, noting that only a king such as King David remains worthy to enter the presence of a queen, thus legitimizing her dedication of the Psalms to the queen. The eighth stanza opens by asking who would not recognize how fitting the match would be:

And who sees ought, but sees how justly square

His haughty ditties to thy glorious days?

How well beseeming thee his triumphs are?

The glorious sentiments of the Psalms raise Elizabeth to their height, and as if to exhibit the clever range of the poet, Herbert executes a play on words as she terms the Psalms holy garments, adding, "These holy garments each good soul assays / Some sorting all, all sort to none but thee." The first use of the term sorting indicates the act of searching through, while the second use sort indicates an appropriate type.

Stanza 9 compares Elizabeth to David as a great warrior, while the 10th stanza notes she is his equal. Stanza 10 even suggests that she might be his better as Herbert recalls the slaying of Goliath, for Elizabeth remains a woman, not the traditional warrior. Then she stops herself, noting war is not a proper topic in that circumstance, stating, "But soft, my muse, thy pitch is earthly love; / Forbear this heaven where only eagles fly." Some critics suggest that Herbert indicates war remains an appropriate topic for discussion by men, not for her to mention to the queen. An alternate interpretation is that Herbert expresses her own lack of qualification to join David and Elizabeth in their lofty positions as rulers. This would counteract any claims of presumption that might arise in reaction to her earlier comparison of herself with the queen, emphasizing her humility and comprehension that she is in no way equal to Elizabeth.

In the penultimate stanza Herbert unleashes a volley of hyperbole, heaping obviously exaggerated sentiments upon Elizabeth, where the isle mentioned is England:

Kings on a Queen enforced their states to lay, Mainlands for empire waiting on an isle, Men drawn by worth a woman to obey; One moving all, herself unmoved the while. (81-84)

She notes that although Elizabeth affects others, they do not affect her, with the assumption that they lack the strength to do so. The queen restores truth, exiles vanity, produces wealth for those who have little, and holds war without vexing others, all of which supplies the poet with excellent subject matter while giving joy to the monarch's subjects:

Truth's restitution, vanity exile,

Wealth sprung of want, war held without annoy,

Let subject be of some inspired style,

Till then the object of her subjects' joy. (85-88)

As Herbert nears the end of her dedication, she returns to addressing her private muse as a mere handmaid when compared to the inspiration Elizabeth offers. The stanza concludes with a wish that Elizabeth may enjoy more years and more triumphs than did David, king of Israel and author of the original Psalms.

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Responses

  • josie
    What is the theme of the poem to th thricesacred queen elizabeth by mary sidney herbert?
    7 months ago

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