by Mary Sidney Herbert
Oh, what a lantern, what a lamp of light
Is thy pure word to me
To clear my paths and guide my goings right!
I swore and swear again,
I of the statutes will observer be,
Thou justly dost ordain.
The heavy weights of grief oppress me sore:
Lord, raise me by the word,
As thou to me didst promise heretofore.
And this unforced praise
I for an off'ring bring, accept, O Lord,
And show to me thy ways.
What if my life lie naked in my hand,
To every chance exposed!
Should I forget what thou dost me command?
No, no, I will not stray
From thy edicts though round about enclosed
With snares the wicked lay.
Thy testimonies as mine heritage,
I have retained still:
And unto them my heart's delight engage,
My heart which still doth bend,
And only bend to do what thou dost will,
And do it to the end.
Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, was a hot-tempered redhead, brilliant, multi-talented, strong, dynamic, passionate, generous, and probably a bit arrogant. She was born three years before Shakespeare and died five years after.
For two decades, she developed and led the most important literary circle in England's history, Wilton Circle, taking the mantle from her mentor, her brother Philip Sidney, who died in the Queen's Protestant war. Her work, the work of her brother, and the work of many of the writers in her circle were used as sources for the Shakespearean plays.
She was devoted to literature and to creating great works in the English language. This was a brave mission because English wasn't considered a very useful language; there were great works in Italian, French, Latin, and Greek, but few of note in English. Nor was English spoken anywhere else in the world—rarely even in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland.
Mary Sidney had a lifelong passion and commitment to her literary goal. In her versification of 127 psalms, she used 126 different verse forms. Pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable for women, she was the first woman to publish a play in English (a closet drama), and the first woman to publish original dramatic verse. She was also the first woman who did not apologize for publishing her work.
She was trained in medicine and had her own alchemy laboratory where Adrian Gilbert (Sir Walter Raleigh's half brother) was her assistant. Recipes she developed are still extant, including a recipe for disappearing ink. Mary had an active interest in spiritual magic and was close with the "magicians" John Dee and probably Giordano Bruno (we know her brother was very close with him). Adrian Gilbert designed her garden at Wilton House in a "heavily geometric and symbolic nature" in which it was possible to read "both divine and moral remembrances," a "personal iconographic program based on symbolic geometry."
She was fluent in Latin, French, and Italian, and it is believed she knew some Welsh, Spanish, and possibly Greek. She was one of the most educated women in England, comparable only to Queen Elizabeth. She was politically involved and outspoken, although she disliked the fawning and superficiality of the royal court.
Mary was an energetic woman. She held large parties. She sponsored an acting troupe. She traveled, rode horses, hunted, hawked. She bowled (lawn bowling), danced, sang, was famous for her needlework. Mary participated in theatrical productions at the royal court and developed Ludlow Castle into a cultural center that included just about every known theatrical troupe in the country. She played the lute and the virginals, and—if we can believe a German report—the violin. This German report also describes a musical code she invented with which she would send letters to friends in the form of musical compositions, each measure representing a letter of the alphabet.