Mary wrote and published the first original pastoral poem by an English woman, “A Dialogue between Two Shepherds, Thenot and Piers, in Praise of Astrea,” written for Queen Elizabeth’s intended visit to Wilton House in 1599.
A lovely, plaintive ballad Mary Sidney wrote on the death of her brother Philip, “The Doleful Lay of Clorinda,” was published in 1595 in Edmund Spenser’s book Astrophel.
Among her unpublished works, she translated from Italian Petrarch’s “The Triumph of Death.” Mary was the first English translator to use Petrarch’s strict “terza rima” form and to emphasize the female voice in the piece.
A meditation on her role as a writer is found in the elegy, “To the Angel Spirit of the most excellent Sir Philip Sidney.”
Another dedicatory poem, “Even now that care,” is included in the 1599 presentation manuscript of the Psalms to Queen Elizabeth.
Mary’s brother Philip had begun versifying the Psalms, but had completed only 43 of them; Mary completed the 150 Psalms, using a brilliant display of clever word play, rhetorical devices, and 126 different verse forms.
A Discourse of Life and Death
It seems to me strange, and a thing much to be marvelled, that the laborer to repose himself hasteneth as it were the course of the Sun; that the Mariner rows with all force to attain the port, and with a joyful cry salutes the descryed land; that the traveller is never quiet nor content till he be at the end of his voyage; and that we in the meanwhile tied in this world to a perpetual task, tossed with continual tempest, tired with a rough and cumbersome way, cannot yet see the end of our labor but with grief, nor behold our port but with tears, nor approach our home and quiet abode but with horror and trembling.
This life is but a Penelope’s web, where we are always doing and undoing; a sea open to all winds, which sometime within, sometime without never cease to torment us; a weary journey through extreme heats and colds, over high mountains, steep rocks, and thievish deserts. And so we term it in weaving at this web, in rowing at this oar, in passing this miserable way.
Yet lo when death comes to end our work, when she stretcheth out her arms to pull us into the port, when after so many dangerous passages and loathsome lodgings she would conduct us to our true home and resting place; instead of rejoicing at the end of our labor, of taking comfort at the sight of our land, of singing at the approach of our happy mansion, we would fain (who would believe it?) retake our work in hand, we would again hoist sail to the wind, and willingly undertake our journey anew.
Works of Mary Sidney
Mary Sidney had four of her own works published while she was alive. The first two were translations from French: A Discourse of Life and Death, by Philippe de Mornay; and Antonius, A Tragedy, by Robert Garnier.
The publication of Antonius in 1592 made Mary Sidney the first English woman to publish a play, although it was a “closet drama” meant to be read by aristocrats in a great house. She was one of the first writers to use blank verse in drama (the style in which the Shakespearean plays are written). Also in Antonius, Mary introduced the European custom of using Roman history to comment on contemporary politics; three of the Shakespearean plays followed this lead. And we know that the author of the play Antony and Cleopatra used Antonious as a source.