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Extracts from Psalm 119 by Mary Sidney Herbert

Psalm 119 is a remarkable poetic work. It contains 176 verses which are arranged in 22 groups, each octave beginning with a separate letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Psalm 119 is a remarkable poetic work. It contains 176 verses which are arranged in 22 groups, each octave beginning with a separate letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Mary Sidney adopts the format and, adventurously, crafts 22 different verse forms to distinguish the utterances, each titled with a letter of the English alphabet and starting with a word beginning with that letter.

In the extracts below, we focus on the letters ‘O’ and ‘P’ in which Mary Sidney uses metaphors and forms of expression that are peculiarly feminine in nature. In her translation of ‘O’, for example, she references the ‘pure word’ of the scriptures, as accessible to her, as a woman. She laments the ‘heavy weights of griefe’ which oppress her, but is confident that God will ‘raise me by thy word’. Claiming the scripture as ‘mine heritage’ is bold for a woman and Mary’s translation of the Psalm is a self-empowering document.

In her translation of ‘P’ Mary Sidney refers to the ‘closet’ which was a woman’s private room for reflection and writing. It is a space of resistance against oppression. While properly fearing God’s power, the psalmist, and Mary Sidney as translator, appeal to God to ‘be my Pillar’ of strength against injustice and to make the ‘wicked sort’, their enemies ‘all as drosse abjected’.

Using the voice of the psalmist, she gains a voice to express her own aggressive desires to fight back against those who oppress her.

Watch the video of these two excerpts: letters 0 and P, filmed in Penshurst Church and read the translations below, looking out for any striking images that you might wish to make notes on to share or reflect on.

Extracts from Psalm 119 by Mary Sidney Herbert (Letters O and P)

O

O what a lantern, what a lamp of light
Is thy pure word to me.
To cleere my paths, and guide my goings right.
I swear and swear again,
I of the statutes will observer be,
Thou justly dost ordaine.
The heavy weights of grief oppress me sore;
Lord, raise me by thy word,
As thou to me did’st promise heretofore
And this unforced praise.
I for an offering 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.

P

People that inconstant be,
Constant hatred have from me,
But thy doctrine changelesse ever,
Holds my love that changeth never.
For thou, the closet where I hide
The shield whereby I safe abide,
My confidence expects they promise just.
Hence away, you cursed crew,
Get you gone, that rid from you,
I at better ease and leisure,
May perform my God’s good pleasure.
O Lord, as thou thy word did’st give,
Sustain me so that I may live,
Nor make me blush, as frustrate of my trust.
Be my Pillar, be my stay,
Safe then I shall swerve no way,
All my wit and understanding
Shall then work on thy commanding.
For under foot thou tread’st them all,
Who swerving from thy precepts fall,
And vainly in their guile and treason trust.
Yea, the wicked sort by thee,
All as dross abjected be.
Therefore what thy proof approveth,
That my love entirely loveth.
And such regard of thee I make,
For fear of thee my flesh doth quake,
And of thy laws, thy laws severely just.
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Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

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