The Case for Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke


  Ben Jonson’s Eulogy (6)
   “He was not of an age, but for all time”

         Philip Sidney

Section 6 (41-50): Praise of Philip Sidney, Mary’s ‘immortal’ brother

Triumph, my Britaine, thou hast one to showe,   
    To whom all Scenes of
Europe homage owe.    
He was not of an age, but for all time !

    And all the Muses still were in their prime,    
When like Apollohe came forth to warme
    Our eares, or like a
Mercury to charme !
Nature her selfe was proud of his designes,
    And joy’d to weare the dressing of his lines !
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
    As, since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit.

Analysis of Lines 41-50  ———————————————————

    This section is devoted to Philip Sidney, the Author’s famous and most influential brother.  A large number of dedications and poems addressed to Mary Sidney make mention of her brother, Philip Sidney, who had a profound influence on the literature of his day and who was held by many (Jonson included) as the greatest writer of his age.  Here, too, in his eulogy to Mary Sidney, Jonson invokes to luminous presence of her brother who, without doubt, most powerfully influenced Mary’s writing and literary career.

  “In three directions, to be sure, [Philip] Sidney’s actual achievement ranks him among the very highest of Elizabethan writers.  None but Shakespeare and Spenser produced a finer sonnet sequence.  None but Ben Jonson surpassed him as a literary critic.  None of the writers of his age approached his influence in the filed of prose romance.  Yet, if Astrophil and Stella, the Defense of Posey, and the Arcadia had never been published, we should still have to regard Sidney as a cultural landmark.  Seconded by his sister, he created through his personal efforts and his personal charm a new artistic atmosphere more stimulating than any other that then existed.  Together—or more strictly in succession, for the Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621) was but twenty-five when her brother died—they first produced what in the highest sense may be called the academic spirit in English letters.”      (Baugh, A Literary History of England, 1948, p. 472)

Triumph my Britaine, thou hast one to showe,   
    To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.      
He was not of an age, but for all time!

Triumph, my Britaine, [my Author from Britain, who wrote in English and helped glorify the English language] thou hast one to show, [you have one to show: one who, along with you, also glorified the English language; one whose inspiration shines through your work, and one whose spirit you carry forth with your words—your ‘immortal’ brother, Philip.] [He is one] to whom all Scenes of Europe owe homage [a) he is the one who is honored by all the courts of Europe,*  b) he is the one whose work has inspired all the stages of Europe].  He [Philip Sidney] was not of an age, but for all time! [He wrote in one age but his works are immortal, they are for all ages. He was the greatest writer of his age but his spirit and his work (extended through your work and his own) gave birth to the glory of the English language which will last for all time!] *

    “Philip spent more than three years in Europe and specifically stayed in Verona, Padua, Venice, (which entailed going through Milan and Mantua), and Vienna, among other cities including Prague (Bohemia), Hungary, and Crakow.  (Philip also traveled to Paris, Strasbourg, Basle, Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Cologne, Bruges, Antwerp, the Netherlands, among other places). He “was certainly the most widely traveled of the major Elizabethan writers.” 
    (Williams, Sweet Swan of Avon, p. 111).

    In this section, the subject switches from thou (a first-person reference to the Author, Mary Sidney) to he (a third-person reference to the Author’s brother, Philip Sidney).

    The influence that Philip Sydney had upon his sister, and her writing—and the literary climate of the age—was profound and all-reaching.  All contemporary scholars have acknowledged the influence of his work upon the literature of the age and upon the writings of Shakespeare, especially Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence. Thus, the triumph of Philip Sidney can be seen in the work of “Shakespeare,” the Author.  Jonson’s famous line—He was not of an age, but for all time—does not refer to the Author (Mary Sidney) but to her immortal brother, Philip Sidney.

“The overriding concern in Sidney’s verse is love, a theme that is given its most witty and rhetorically sophisticated expression in Astrophel and Stella. This sonnet sequence, the first of its kind in the English language, is generally regarded as Sidney’s masterpiece and one of his great contributions to English literature; with it he overturned the conventions of the Petrachan sonnet and revolutionized the form. His other great literary contributions were the first statement of English poetics, A Defence of Poetry and the most recognized work of English prose fiction in the sixteenth century, Arcadia. The latter work, an elaborate romance, also contains poetry in a wide range of forms. Sidney is regarded by scholars to be one of the central literary figures of the Elizabethan period. His innovations in structure and style taught subsequent generations of poets how to use meter to reflect the rhythms of speech and began a tradition of complex love poetry that would be continued by John Donne and William Shakespeare.”  (

    Though Mary Sidney was a formidable literary figure in her own right she was far out-shined by her brother.  Thus, in almost every poem where Mary Sidney is praised or honored, there is some mention of her ‘immortal’ brother—and Jonson, whose poem is in honor of Mary Sidney follows this convention by praising her brother and referring to his immortality: ‘He was not of and age, but for all time.’  An example of this dual praise is found the Meres essay (discussed in the previous chapter) wherein it is stated:

    “so learned Mary, the honorable Countesse of Pembrook, the noble sister of immortal Sir Philip Sidney, is very liberal unto Poets; besides she is a most delicate Poet . . .”

    Reference to Philip Sidney’s ‘immortality” is also found in Edmund Spencer’s poem, Astrophel (which was written in honor and memory of Philip Sidney).  He writes:

All hail therefore. O worthy Phillip immortal,
The flower of Sydney’s race, the honour of thy name, Whose worthy praise to sing, my Muses not aspire, But sorrowful and sad these tears to thee let fall, Yet with their verses might so far and wide thy fame Extend, that envy’s rage, nor time might end the same.

    And all the Muses still were in their prime, 
When like Apollo he came forth to warme   
    Our eares, or like a Mercury to charme !

These lines continue the praise of Philip Sidney. And [when he, your brother Philip, was alive] all the Muses[all his inspirations and talents were] still were in their prime [for he reached his glory, and his beautiful expression in words and poetry, at such an early age, while still in his prime—which came to an end due to his untimely death, at the early age of 32]. When [he was alive, and in our presence] like Apollo he came forth to warm our ears [to move us with god-like and luminous verses] or like a Mercury to charm ! [to charms us with his imagery and wit—and, like Mercury, the messenger of the gods, he introduced new forms of poetry and literary expression to his age].    

The Muses in their Prime

     “Early in 1580 the frustrated twenty-five-year-old [Philip Sidney] abandoned Elizabeth’s court and (as he so often had) took the road west to Wilton. But he had come at an awkward time, for his sister, Mary, was now in the third trimester of her first pregnancy. She, along with her court of ladies and female servants, had removed themselves to Clarendon House, a small lodge just north of Wilton, for the traditional last-trimester laying-in. Given that only women made up such maternity courts, Philip would have been unwelcome. But somehow he insinuated himself into their company (and one may wonder if he initially adopted the same cross-dressing strategies his fictional counterpart, Pyrocles, would adopt in his pursuit of female company in the Arcadia). Mary appears to have granted Philip visiting rights on the condition that when he come he have something new to read to them, presumably for their daily amusement. It was in this fashion that Philip’s long poetic novel, Arcadia, was born.”
    “Though he may have arrived with a troubled mind, the all-female company coupled with his sudden freedom from the constraints of court ignited a passion in Philip that would explode in his writing.  He produced new material at breakneck speed but always at a level well above the mundane, daily presenting to his audience of ladies stories and poems that painted out the lively country adventures of an extended cast of escapees from a royal court set in the fabled country of Arcadia. In these stories the ladies (no doubt, to their great amusement) would have recognized themselves and him only too clearly.”  (Faulkes, Tiger’s Heart in Woman’s Hide, p. 28)

“[Philip] Sidney obviously obsessed Jonson as the realization of a personal ideal: the good poet who was also a conspicuously good man, who brought his life and his art into just that harmonious accord which Jonson prized and found it so difficult in his case to achieve.  In [Jonson’s] “To Penhurst,” Sidney is the poet at whose “great birth . . . all the Muses met.”  Elsewhere in The Forest and in the Epigrams, he is the great, the “god-like Sidney,” who exhausted the wealth of the Muses’ springs.”
(Anne Barton, in Shakespeare, Man of the Theater)

Like Apollo and Mercury

    The likening of Philip Sidney to Apollo and Mercury—which suggests someone with godlike qualities who came forth to sooth (and charm) us with his music or poetry—also suggests a kinship with Orpheus (whose poems and songs surpassed all others and whom Apollo taught to play the lyre). Thus Jonson is likening Philip Sidney to Apollo, Mercury, and Orpheus—the same three figures whom Thomas Nashe invoked in his preface to the first edition of Philip Sidney’s foundational sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella).  Thereafter (and somewhat before) appellations were seemingly "standard" ways of addressing this brilliant and god-like man.

The sonnet craze in England began with the illicit publication of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella—an edition which also included ‘pirated’ sonnets of other poets, such as Samuel Daniel and the Earl of Oxford.  Some scholars surmise (due to the obvious errors found in the first quarto) that Nashe was hired by the publisher to help collect the sonnets, and to write a dedicatory preface, but that he had no involvement in overseeing or correcting the printed verse.  If not for this illicit publication of Sidney’s sonnet sequence (which prompted the immediate publication of a ‘corrected’ version of his sonnets) the sonnet craze in England may have been stalled for several years, and the general public may not have had access to Sidney’s sonnets until 1598 (when a publication of his works was printed in a folio edition).

In his preface, Nashe represents Astrophel/Philip Sidney in terms of the figures of Apollo, Mercury, and Orpheus.  He goes on to eulogize Mary Sidney, as “the fair sister of Phoebus [Philip Sidney] and eloquent secretary of the Muses, most rare Countess of Pembroke, thou art not to be omitted.”  However, the whole of Nashe's preface was not flattering; most of it was complaint against Mary Sidney for keeping these beatiful verses "under wraps" and unavailable to those outside the close-knit Sidney circle.

From Preface to
Astrophel and Stella by Thomas Nashe 

hath resigned his Ivory Harp unto Astrophel, & he, like Mercury, must lull you a sleep with his music. Sleep Argus, sleep Ignorance, sleep Impudence, for Mercury hath Io, & only Io Paean belongeth to Astrophel.  Dear Astrophel, that in the ashes of thy Love livest again like the Phoenix, O might thy body (as thy name) live again likewise here amongst us! But the earth, the mother of mortality, hath snatched thee too soon into her chilled cold arms, and will not let thee by any means be drawn from her deadly embrace; and thy divine Soul, carried on an Angel’s wings to heaven, is installed in Hermes place, sole prolocutor to the Gods. Therefore mayest thou never return from the Elisian fields like Orpheus; therefore must we ever mourn for our Orpheus.

Fain would a second spring of passion here spend itself on his sweet remembrance; but Religion, that rebuketh profane lamentation, drinks in the rivers of those dispairful tears which languorous ruth hath outwelled, & bids me look back to the house of honor, where from one and the self same root of renown I shall find many goodly branches derived, & such as, with the spreading increase of their virtues, may somewhat over-shadow the Grief of his loss. Amongst the which, fair sister of Phoebus, and eloquent secretary to the Muses, most rare Countess of Pembroke, thou art not to be omitted, whom Arts do adore as a second Minerua, and our Poets extol as the Patroness of their invention; for in thee the Lesbian Sappho with her lyric Harp is disgraced,* and the Laurel Garland which thy Brother so bravely advanced on his Launce is still kept green in the Temple of Pallas.

* In the Meres essay, written in 1598, (which is discussed in the previous chapter) Mary Sidney is honored by her being likened to Sappho, the greatest woman poet of Greece, whom Plato called, “the tenth Muse.”  Here Nashe rejects that comparison, saying that “in thee [when compared to thee] the Lesbian Sappho with her lyric Harp is disgraced”—all of the melodious words offered by Sappho are in disgrace when compared to your words.  In Jonson’s eulogy, he sides with Nashe and suggests that Sappho was a “lesser Greek” in comparison to the Author, Mary Sidney.  By Jonson’s likening of Philip Sidney to Apollo and Mercury (in this section) and the favoring of Mary Sidney over Sappho (suggested in the previous section) it is clear that Jonson had read Nashe’s significantly placed poem and obliquely referred to it in his eulogy. 

Other References linking Philip Sidney to Apollo

Thou mighty Mars, the Lord of Soldiers brave,

And thou Minerve [goddess of Wisdom], that dost in wit excel,

And thou Apollo
, who dost knowledge have
Of every Art that from Parnassus fell,

With all your Sister’s that thereon do dwell . . .
    Written by King James in honor of Philip Sidney’s death

    (From:  John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696; ed. Clark (1898))                                    

Christopher Marlowe’s
Latin Dedication to Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
(From Thomas Watson’s Amintae Gaudia, 1592).

“To the Most Illustrious Woman, adorned with all gifts of mind and body, Mary, Countess of Pembroke”

LAurigera stirpe prognata Delia; Sidn
ei vatis Apollinei genuuia soror; Alma literarum parens, ad cuius immaculatos amplexus, confugit virtus, . . .

Descended from laurel-crowned ancestors,

Delia; true-born sister of Sidney, the bard

of Apollo
; nourishing parent of literature,
to whose spotless embrace virtue, defiled by

the assault of barbarism and ignorance,

flees for refuge as Philomela from the

Thracian tyrant [Tereus] in times past; . . .

In Joshua Sylvester’s, Bartas, his Devine Weekes and Workes (1605):

England's Apelles (rather Our Apoll)

World’s-wonder Sidney, that rare more-than-man,

This Lovely Venus first to Limne began,

Nature her selfe was proud of his designes, 
    And joyed to weare the dressings of his lines ! 
Which were so richly spun a woven so fit,  
    As, since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit.

Nature herself was proud of
[and took delight in]his [Philip Sidney’s] designs [i.e., his life, his poetic expression—for he lived in accordance with every virtue—intelligence, charm, grace, character, and nobility.*] And [Nature] joyed to wear the dressing of his lines [she delighted in his poetic brilliance and the beauty of the verse which flowed from him; and she was joyous that many of his lines extolled the beauty of Nature], which were so richly spun, and woven so fit, as since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit [which were so perfect and true, and beautifully reflected in his nature and exalted state (and the way he lived his life) that Nature will scarce be able to create another one of his equal in talent, grace, beauty, and wit].

     * Philip was, by all accounts, “The Courtier, Scholar, Soldier, all in him”—and these lines from Hamlet most likely describe him (in an account of his death on the battlefield). (The Courtier, Scholar, Soldier, all in him, | All dasht and splintered thence, O woe is me, | To a seen what I have seen, see what I see.)   A story which supports his nobility and valor takes place on the field of battle: after having been mortally wounded in the thigh by a musket ball, laying immobilized on the battle, someone offered him a drink of water, which he refused, saying that some of his wounded soldiers were more in need of it than he.  This noble act probably hastened his death.

    “Nature’s genius admired herself in Sidney, as did Art and War. Death saw this in admiration, and took him away, lest divinities admire divinity only on this earth.”
    “You weep for Sidney, taken away in the flower of his youth, but in vain, for there is no reason for weeping. Neither age nor days could have added to his genius, his virtue, or his praises. He was whatever Nature could fashion, nor ever did so much honor repose in so great a mind.”
                                    (William Camden, 1587—Ben Jonson’s friend and teacher)

Edmund Spenser, The Teares of the Muses (published in 1591)     Edmund Spenser was a close friend Philip Sidney, who was his patron and who “brought Spenser under his wing.”  Several of Spenser’s works make reference to Philip Sidney (and Mary Sidney) including his poem, The Ruins of Time (published in 1591).   (Jonson may have referenced this poem in Section 9 of his eulogy).       Spenser’s poem, The Tears of the Muses, published in 1591, but probably written much earlier, laments the recent absence of a poet.  This is most likely a reference to Philip Sidney whose untimely death came in 1586.  Spenser refers to the poet as “Willy,” which was a nickname of Philip. Rehearse to me, ye sacred Sisters nine,
The Golden Brood of great Apollo’s Wit,
Those piteous Plaints and sorrowful sad Tine,
Which late you poured forth as ye did sit . . .
And he the Man, whom Nature self had made
To mock her self, and Truth to imitate,
With kindly Counter under Mimic Shade,
Our pleasant Willy, ah! is dead of late:
With whom all Joy and jolly Merriment
Is also deaded, and in Dolour drent. . .  

But that same gentle Spirit, from whose Pen
Large Streams of Honey and sweet Nectar flow,
Scorning the Boldness of such base-born Men,
Which dare their Follies forth so rashly throw;
Doth rather choose to sit in idle Cell,
Than so himself to Mockery to fell.

To Mary Sidney?

With some measure of imagination, the term “Nature” could refer to Mary Sidney herself.  Thus Nature (personified as Mary Sidney) was proud of her brother, Philip, and his greatness, and she enjoyed wearing the dressing of his words—she enjoyed echoing his voice through her own and giving form to his legacy through her own work.  [This could refer to Philip’s work which Mary completed (and enhanced) such as his
Arcadia, and his translation of the Psalms.] His lines were richly spun (in her heart and in her work) and woven to perfectly fit Mary’s character.  Mary, totally devoted to her brother, in word and spirit, will accept no other influence.
The sartorial imagery—such as “dressing,” “spun,” and “woven”—could be a pun on the Author, who all thought to be a man but who was a woman, and wore a dress. 

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