Psalm 68: part 11
I am taking a course in something called Spiritual Traditions. A rather vague title, but it involves reading something from Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Bucer, etc. each week and is supplemented every week with singing psalms from the Presbyterian hymnbook and looking at rare books like an original Geneva Psalter or Vatable's commentary on the Pagnini Psalter, etc. Right up my alley, in any case.
In exploring the Geneva Psalter, translated into French by Clément Marot and Théodore Beza, I have also discovered the Psalms of Mary Sidney, an English translation of the Geneva Psalter. Here is Katherine Larsons's commentary on Sidney's Psalm 68.
- Sidney further bolsters this claim to poetic authority by placing herself in the midst of a godly community authorized and commanded by God to sing. In Psalm 68, this community is explicitly female. The women in the Psalm appear in Sidney’s translation as part of an army of virgins who, taught and inspired by God, exercise their poetic voices after the kings have abandoned the battle.
Drawing on de Bèze’s commentary and paraphrase, Sidney structures this portion of the Psalm as the women’s song:
- Ther taught by thee in this tryumphant song
a virgin army did their voices try:
fledd are these kings,
fledd are these armyes strong:
we share the spoiles
that weake in howse did ly.
though late the Chymney
made your beauties loathed,
now shine you shall,
and shine more gracefully,
then lovely dove in
cleare gold-silver cloathed,
that glides with feathered Oare
through wavy sky. (25-32)
Sidney explicitly extends the experience of individual poetic maturation to all women. In a 1994 article, Margaret Hannay compares this later version of the translation with an earlier manuscript variant.
In the earlier version, Sidney audaciously uses the first person “we” throughout the section, uniting herself with the community of militant maidens. Moreover, in the variant Sidney actually transforms the women into birds flying above their oppressors, dazzling gazes below and preventing (male) observers from accurately describing, defining, or confining them. Sidney writes, “Since now as late enlarged doves wee freer skyes do try” (Variant, MSS B, I, 36).
Sidney’s decision to push beyond her sources’ emphasis on the beauty of the dove’s plumage to highlight the freedom of bird’s flight in both versions of Psalm 68 becomes especially significant given her insistence throughout her translations on the physical freedom she enjoys through relationship with God.
If you notice where Sidney inserts "we", that is where Alter has put the "mistress of the house" John Hobbins put "the housewife" and the NET Bible "the lovely lady". It is an obscure word in Hebrew and, in my opinion, Sidney does not violate the translation to simply insert "we". It is adjacent to a phrase cited from Deborah's Song and seems to represent the solidarity of women through the centuries.
Katherine Larson writes about Mary Sidney,
- Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), was educated within the literary Sidney circle and became one of the leading patrons of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Her home at Wilton was a favorite gathering place for writers like Samuel Daniel an Michael Drayton. She was also an accomplished writer, producing translations, a pastoral, dedicatory poems, and an elegy for her brother, Sir Philip Sidney. The Psalm translations that are the focus of this paper and which her brother began were completed in the years after Sir Philip Sidney’s death in 1586. She contributed 107 of the 150 psalms. Widely circulated in manuscript, the Sidney Psalms influenced the writings of poets like John Donne and George Herbert. In this paper, I build on a range of recent scholarship examining the strategies whereby Pembroke builds a distinctly female voice into her translations. In particular, I focus on images of pleasure and intimacy, arguing that the Psalms become a protected space within which Pembroke can assert her agency as a writer sanctioned by God.