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Summary of Week 4

Summary of Week 4
© Alison Findlay

It has been a pleasure to read your responses to this week’s work after another exhausting two weeks of online teaching at Lancaster. Victoria attached a link to one of my favourite versions of Psalm 23 by Japanese translator Toki Miyashina for those of us with very busy lives. We’ve covered types of Christian belief and classical deities in our discussion of the Sidneys and Religion in this final week, which I summarise below.

To provide a context for the religious writings of the Sidneys we looked at extracts from Robert White’s funeral sermon for Sir Henry Sidney’s funeral, a stridently Protestant piece of rhetoric. You noted the historical context for these and the relevance of White and Sir Henry Sidney’s public facing roles. One might say that the force of White’s vehement rhetoric is a symptom of Protestant insecurity in the face of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Many of you enjoyed ‘seeing’ St John the Baptist Church in Penshurst, just beyond the garden wall of Penshurst Place and were curious about the family vault which is still there, though I have not been into it. I have asked Philip Sidney if he has.
We studied Mary Sidney Herbert’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s ‘Discourse of Life and Death’, and, considered how the selection and translation into English of this text suggests she shared them and wanted to broadcast them publicly in print. You followed up the biography of De Mornay (a huge influence on the Sidneys) and the protestant politics surrounding the Earl of Essex You commented on the earlier pre-Reformation traditions of depicting death including the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral, and Thomas a Kempis, and the feminisation of death exemplified in the church by the ‘Smiling Lady of Penshurst’ who ‘peeps out from behind the cross with her hand waving as though beckoning you in to Paradise’ and the ways in which the positive representation in the extracts has Catholic resonances too including Mary Queen of Scots’ motto ‘in my end is my beginning’.

Many of you enjoyed Mary’s dedication of her work to ‘The Angel Spirit’ to Philip; ‘beautiful’ was a repeated comment here along with a recognition that its purported modesty in giving him the credit did have a mischievously performantive quality, which can perhaps be glimpsed in the word ‘sprite’. One interesting way of furthering this biographical approach would be to think about how mourning for her brother is also interwoven in her other writings such as the Discourse of Life and Death and her translation of The Tragedy of Antony that we looked at last week. In studying the Sidney psalms you expressed interest in the performance element of the psalms as sung texts, and enjoyed the readings of these in Penshurst Church. I would love to record some sung versions of them for future study.

You engaged actively with the creative nature of translations – making lots of comparisons between the poetic choices taken by Philip in Psalm 23 and in the O and P sections of Mary’s translations of Psalm 119. Some of you wanted to know more about the scribe of the manuscript I was able to show you images of (which is not in the public domain; it belongs to Lord De L’Isle). To clear up confusion – which was also an issue at the time of the Sidneys, John Davies of Hereford (1564/5- 1618), as he always titled himself on his printed books, is not the same person as Sir John Davies (c.1560-1625), the administrator and conspirator, though both were poets and both acknowledged Catholic sympathies from their upbringing. Our Davies was a writing master and teacher or handwriting, well acquainted with royalty and noble families such as the Sidneys and the Herberts. His book “Writing Schoolmaster, or, The Anatomy of Fair Writing” (the earliest surviving edition is dated 1633) includes engraved examples of his handwriting together with a set of practical directions for learners. You can find out more about each of the men from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

We considered the influence of classical gods as alternative images of the divine in the Sidney writers in an extract from Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, which encouraged many pertinent observations on the fluid nature of desire across and between genders. Many of you commented on how ‘refreshing and startling’ Philip Sidney’s expression of a female same sex attraction ‘, was, especially given his translation of the psalms and presumed knowledge of scriptural condemnations of cross dressing. You drew parallels with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It,” noting that cross dressing was conventional on the professional stage (though it was also roundly criticized by protestant pamphlet writers like Stubbes).

We considered a speech by Silvesta dedicating herself to Diana in Wroth’s “Love’s Victory” (1617-1621), and identified chastity with freedom for the early modern woman. The majority of you who commented made biographical readings of the speech with reference to Wroth’s own relationship with Herbert though David Brown pertinently observed that ‘When you start to identify the thoughts of a playwright with the thoughts of one of their characters you are on doubtful ground.’ Wroth was a mistress of fragmenting and reproducing multiple – often contradictory – self portraits in her writing; perhaps we might see her creation of dramatic characters like masks for safety – a metaphorical equivalent of our current physical self-protection. Gary Waller’s chapters on Wroth in his new book “The Female Baroque” are recommend to those of you interested in pursuing reading on the way she reimagines herself through characters.

In addition to imaginative design ideas for ‘The Temple of Love’ you made reference to existing NT architecture e.g. Lyveden which was interesting. The final section invited you to watch a production showing the ending of the romantic plots of Wroth’s play end with Love’s Victory. Those of you who commented enjoyed this as an ending to the play, noting the interconnections with sacrifices to or for love.

Thank you again for a rich range of responses to the material and please accept my apologies for the delay in posting this summary. Although I filmed a range of contributors to the course, there isn’t a team for mentoring it – only me!

© Alison Findlay
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Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

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