1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Philip Sidney

John Holland, in Psalmists of Britain. Records of upwards of One Hundred and Fifty Authors, who have rendered the Whole or Parts of The Book of Psalms, into English Verse (1843) 1:194-96.



This gallant English General, who was born at Penshurst, in Kent, in 1554, and was slain at the battle of Zutphen, in 1586, is celebrated for his virtues, for his untimely fate, and for his works. The latter comprise "Pembroke's Arcadia," a sort of pastoral romance, not adapted to the business-like habits of the present generation: "A Defense of Poesie," which shews how zealously "our English Petrarch," as Raleigh calls him, could advocate in prose, the claims of the muse, of whose inspiration he has left reputable evidence in his "Sonnets," and in a Metrical Version of the Psalms, executed in concert with his illustrious Sister — "the subject of all verse." The title of this interesting version is "The Psalmes of David translated into Divers and Sundry Kindes of Verse, more rare and excellent for the method and varietie than ever yet bath been done in English. Begun by the noble and learned gent. Sir Philip Sidney, Knt. And finished by the Right Honourable the Countess of Pembroke, his Sister." It is somewhat remarkable that, notwithstanding the existence of this curious work, had been repeatedly indicated during the last century by the publication of specimens, no edition of the entire version made its appearance till 1823. In that year, a small impression was printed for Triphook from a MS. said to have been "copied from the original by John Davies, of Hereford, (writing master to Prince Henry); himself a poet of no mean attainments, and a cotemporary of Sir Philip Sidney. It exhibits a beautiful specimen of the calligraphy of the time. The first letters of every line are in gold ink, and it comprises specimens of all the hands in use, more particularly the Italian, then much in fashion at Court. From the pains bestowed it is by no means improbable that it was written for the Prince." There are known to be several MS. copies extant, and it is probable the original autograph of Sir Philip Sidney may be in the library at Wilton. The appropriation of the different portions of the work between the noble authors, rests on the testimony of Dr. Saml. Woodford, one of the old transcribers, who tells us that in the margin of the original MS., after Psalm xliii., were the words "hitherto Sir Ph. Sidney;" hence it is inferred that the remainder must be assigned to his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. It may not be uninteresting here to quote a short passage from the "Defense of Poesie," in which Sir Philip, speaking of a word which in ancient times was used as a synonym for the poetical and prophetical afflatus, says, "And may not I presume a little further to shew the reasonableness of this word 'vates,' and say that holy David's Psalms are a divine poem? If I do, I shall not do it without the testimony of great and learned men, both ancient and modern. But even the name of Psalms will speak for me, which being interpreted is nothing but Songs then that it is fully written in metre, as all learned Hebricians agree, although the rules be not fully found." The following verses will convey no unfavourable notion of the poetical skill of "the nectar-tongued Sydney."


PSALM XXXVI.
Methinks amidst my heart I hear
What guilty wickedness doth say,
Which wicked folks do hold so dear:
Ev'n thus itself it doth display,
No fear of God doth once appear
Before his eyes that thus doth stray.

For those same eyes his flatterers be,
Till his known ill doth hatred get:
His words deceit, — iniquity
His deeds; — yea, thoughts all good forget.
A-bed on mischief museth he,
Abroad his steps be wrongly set.

Lord, how the heavens thy mercy fills,
Thy truth above the clouds most high,
Thy righteousness like hugest hills,
Thy judgments like the deeps do lie:
Thy grace with safety man fulfils,
Yea, beasts (made safe) thy goodness try.

O Lord, how excellent a thing
Thy mercy is, which makes mankind
Trust in the shadow of thy wing:
Who in thy house shall fatness find,
And drink, from out thy pleasure's spring,
Of pleasures, past the reach of mind.

For why? the well of life thou art,
And in thy light shall we see light;
O then extend thy loving heart
To them that know thee and thy might:
O then thy righteousness impart
To them that be in soul upright.

Let not proud feet make me their thrall,
Let not ill hands discomfit me;
Lo, there I now foresee their fall
Who do ill works; lo, I do see
They are cast down, and never shall
Have power again to raised be.