Title: DAVIES'S ASTRAEA AND OTHER CONTEXTS OF THE COUNTESS OF PEMBROKE'S "A DIALOGUE" ,  By: Erler, Mary C., Studies in English Literature (Rice), 00393657, Winter90, Vol. 30, Issue 1
Database: MasterFILE Premier

In dancing, a single step, a single movement of the body that is graceful and not forced, reveals at once the skill of the dancer. A singer who utters a single word ending in a group of four notes with a sweet cadence, and with such facility that he appears to do it quite by chance, shows with that touch alone that he can do much more than he is doing.

Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier,
trans. Charles S. Singleton (New York:
Anchor, 1959), pp. 46-47.

Like these two examples--the single step, the single word--the poem by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, "A Dialogue between Two Shepherds,"[1] embodies the quality of sprezzatura or nonchalance in a form remarkable for its brevity. Indeed it is only the privileged status which Castiglione gives to suggestiveness which allows so detailed an examination of the countess's jeu d'esprit in what follows--even though analysis itself may be thought inimical to nonchalance. The following essay will attempt to establish a firm dating for the poem, since scholarship has suggested both 1592 and 1599. Links between the countess's husband's family, the Herberts, Earls of Pembroke, and the family of the poet Sir John Davies, provide background for a study of the resemblances both formal and thematic between the countess's poem to Elizabeth and Sir John Davies's Hymnes of Astraea. The poetic stances of the two works offer provocative comparisons, while reflection on the two pieces as rhetorical and as social artifacts may illuminate both. The essay concludes with a consideration of the countess's poem in relation to Sir Philip Sidney's work, and with some final thoughts on the use of the Astraea myth at the century's end.


The disparity between the two dates assigned to the poem has not been previously noticed. The first person to suggest a date of 1599 for the poem was the anonymous H.T.R., writing in The Gentleman's Magazine of 1845. Subsequently Sidney Lee also asserted, in his DNB article on the countess, that Queen Elizabeth visited Wilton, the earl of Pembroke's seat in Wiltshire, "late in 1599" although "no account of the royal visit is extant." Like H.T.R., Lee believed the countess's poem was written for this occasion. Modern scholars who have accepted this assignment include Hallett Smith, Frances Yates (who places the poem at Wilton, but gives no date), and both the poem's editors. H. E. Rollins, in his edition of A Poetical Rhapsody, the miscellany which is the poem's only source, prints the title given it in the first edition (1602): "A Dialogve betweene two shepheards, Thenot and Piers, in praise of ASTREA, made by the excellent Lady, the Lady Mary Countess of Pembrook at the Queenes Maiesties being at her house at Anno 15." He comments, "The blank spaces in the title should evidently be filled with Wilton and 99." G.F. Waller, the poem's most recent editor, concurs.[2]

E. K. Chambers disagreed with this dating and observed, "But there was no progress in 1599, and progresses to Wiltshire planned in 1600, 1601, and 1602 were abandoned. Presumably the verses were written for the visit to Ramsbury of 27-9 August 1592 (Gr. Appendix A)."[3] Appendix A consists of the court calendar compiled by Chambers from a variety of documents. Two of these sources support his statement that a royal visit to Ramsbury, a smaller Pembroke house, took place in August 1592. The Cecil papers at Hatfield preserve a 1592 document headed "Diary of Events by Burghley," which includes the entry "Aug 26--At Ramsbury."[4] In addition the Acts of the Privy Council record a 1592 meeting "At the Court at Ramsbery, the 28th of August."[5] Ghambers's dating of August 1592 was followed by Samuel Schoenbaum in his revision of Harbage's Annals of English Drama, and by G.E. McGee and John G. Meagher.[6]

Examination of the Hatfield correspondence for the year 1599 reveals evidence, however, for the suggested royal visit to Wilton. The letter which confirms the queen's intended visit is dated by its editor "before July 24" 1599. Written by Sir Charles Danvers to the Earl of Southampton, it outlines the queen's projected summer itinerary: "The progress was first appointed to Wimbleton [Surrey], to my Lord Keeper's at Parford [Pyrford, Surrey], to my Lord Treasurer's at Horsley [Surrey], to Otelands [Surrey] and so to Windsor [Berkshire], but by reason of an intercepted letter, wherein the [queen's] giving over of long voyages was noted to be sign of age, it hath been resolved to extend the progress to Basing [Hampshire] and so to Wilton [Wiltshire], and unto Wimbleton the Queen goes on Tuesday next."[7]

The queen did indeed go to Wimbleton--either on Tuesday, 94 July, as Danvets says, or on 27 July, as John Chamberlain has it.[8] Only this first of the several planned visits' took place, however. The progress was aborted by the news of a possible Spanish invasion, responses to which have also left their trace in the Hatfield papers. The first warning comes in a document dated 1 August 1599, the minute of a letter from the Privy Council to Sir Robert Sidney ordering the dispatch of 800 soldiers from Flushing to England "for its defence against any hostile attempt of the Spaniards." On the next day the Lord Mayor of London, Stephen Soame, writes to Cecil that 8000 men have been lately levied within the city, and on the same day the Archbishop of Canterbury inquires of Cecil "to know if her Majesty will be pleased to have some special form of prayers to be used in this time of expected troubles."[9]

Although nothing came of the Spanish scare (Chambers says that the fleet "went off to meet the Dutch at the Azores and largely foundered on the way")[10] it cancelled most of the projected progress and definitely erased the possibility of travel to the most distant of these country houses, Wilton. The Hatfield manuscripts, however, in establishing an occasion and a date for the planned royal visit in 1599, demolish Chambers's objection to that dating. Further, given the choice between a royal visit made as part of a summer progress (1599) and one made in order to attend a privy council meeting (Chambers's alternative suggestion for dating in 1592), the festive nature of the former occasion, as opposed to the workaday character of the latter, makes 1599 a more likely choice for an occasion on which verse was presented. If, then, Mary Sidney planned these verses for presentation to the queen on her 1599 summer progress, the "Dialogue" was probably composed in July 1599 (or even slightly earlier), since the visit to Wilton was scheduled in August.


On 17 November 1599, the queen's accession day, Sir John Davies's twenty-six acrostic poems in her honor, Hymnes of Astraea, were entered in the Stationers' Register. Robert Krueger, Davies's editor, believes that these poems "were probably presented to Elizabeth for that occasion and then given to John Standish for publication."[11] He continues: "The poems themselves imply that they were written in spring, though this implication may be a poetic fiction. The weight of evidence, internal and external, however, points to 1599, probably spring, as the time of composition."[12]

The resemblances between Davies's Astraea-poems--written probably in spring 1599--and the countess's Astraea-poem--written probably in summer 1599--are many. In addition to the poems' numerous formal correspondences which will be examined below, a previously unnoticed connection exists between the families of the two poets. Quoting Bodleian MS Carte 69, written by Theophilus Hastings, Davies's grandson, Krueger says, "John, the [poet's] paternal grandfather, had come with Sir William Herbert, first Earl of Pembroke, from South Wales into Wiltshire."[13] J.R. Brink prints a summary made by the antiquary Sir William Dugdale from Theophilus Hastings's second, later, set of "Biographical Notes": "He [the poet] was son to Edward Davys of Tisbury Co. Wilts. . . . which Edward accompanying Sir William Herbert (whom King Ed. 6 created Earl of Pembroke) when he first came into England seated himself in that county, where this his son was born."[14]

Sir William Herbert, first earl of Pembroke, was the father of Mary Sidney's husband, Henry Herbert, who later became the second earl. Whether it was Davies's father or grandfather who accompanied the first earl, in Wiltshire the Davies family settled at Chicksgrove. Here, according to Krueger, the poet's grandfather "became lord of the manor [and] . . . on the side of a valley overlooking a stream . . . built a large stone house that still stands."[15] Both Chicksgrove and Tisbury, the parish where the poet was baptized, lie about seven miles west of Wilton, the Pembroke seat.[16] Thus Sir John Davies sprang from a dependent of the earl of Pembroke; the family's establishment in Wiltshire was due to that connection; and the two families of Davies and Pembroke were Wiltshire neighbors.[17]

A few scholars have noticed general resemblances between Davies's Hymnes and the countess's "Dialogue": Frances Yates, in illustrating the various notes to be found in the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth as Astraea, juxtaposed the countess's work and Davies's, although she did not speculate on their relationship.[18] Earlier, Rollins had cited an unpublished Harvard thesis by F.Y. St. Clair which suggested the countess's poem "resembles the treatment of the Golden Age given in Sir John Davies's Hymnes of Astraea, 1599."[19] The similarity between the two works, however, is closer than these comments might indicate, and is not confined to thematic resemblances of a general sort. First, the poems use the same pattern of rhyme and metrics; second, their treatment of Elizabeth as Astraea chooses the same elements on which to focus; and finally the countess's poem may be read as offering an implicit comment upon the poetic stance which Davies adopts in his own work.

Following is a text of the countess's poem:[20]

Thenot: I sing diuine ASTREAS praise, O Muses! help my witres to raise, And heaue my Verses higher.

Piers: Thou needst the truth but plainely tell, Which much I doubt thou canst not well, Thou art so oft a lier.

Thenot: If in my Song no more I show, Than Heau'n, and Earth, and Sea do know, Then truely I haue spoken.

Piers: Sufficeth not no more to name, But being no lesse, the like, the same, Else lawes of truth be broken.

Thenot: Then say, she is so good, so faire, With all the' earth she may compare, Not Momus selfe denying.

Piers: Compare may thinke where likehesse holds, Nought like to her the earth enfoldes, I lookt to finde you lying.

Thenot: ASTREA sees with Wisedoms sight, Astrea workes by Vertues might, And ioyntly both do stay in her.

Piers: Nay take from them, her hand, her minde, The one is lame, the other blinde Shall still your lying staine her?

Thenot: Soone as ASTREA shewes her face, Strait every ill auoides the place, And euery good aboundeth,

Piers: Nay long before her face doth showe, The last doth come, the first doth goe. How lowde this lie resoundeth!

Thenot: ASTREA is our chiefest ioy, Our chiefest guarde against annoy, Our chiefest wealth, our treasure.

Piers: Where chiefest are, there others bee, To vs none else but only shee; When wilt thou speake in measure?

Thenot: ASTREA may be justly sayd, A field in flowry Roabe arrayd, In Season freshly springing.

Piers: That Spring indures but shortest time, This neuer leaves Astreas clime, Thou liest, instead of singing.

Thenot: As heauenly light that guides the day, Right so doth shine each louely Ray, That from Astrea flyeth.

Piers: Nay darknes oft that light enclowdes, Astreas beames no darknes shrowdes; How lewdly Thenot lyeth!

Thenot: ASTREA rightly terme I may, A manly Palme, a Maiden Bay, Her verdure neuer dying.

Piers: Palme oft is crooked, Bay is lowe, Shee still vpright, still high doth growe, Good Thenot leaue thy lying.

Thenot: Then Piers, of friendship tell me why, My meaning true, my words should ly, And striue in vaine to raise her.

Piers: Words from conceit do only rise, Aboue conceit her honour flies; But silence, nought can praise her.

The fullest treatment of the Astraea myth is, of course, that of Frances Yates. Briefly, according to Ovid the virgin Astraea, or Justice, was the last of the immortals to leave earth in the Iron Age. Her return, prophesied by Virgil in his famous Fourth Eclogue, will usher in a Golden Age of peace and justice. Indeed, though in her heavenly seat Astraea is associated with the astronomical sign Virgo (August-September), that return will be accompanied by an eternal spring.[21]

The formal similarities between this poem and Davies's Hymnes are striking. Davies's acrostics are built on three stanzas of five, five, and six lines; ELISA BETHA REGINA. The final six-line stanza is in tail-rhyme, the somewhat old-fashioned pattern used by Chaucer in "Sir Thopas" and by the anonymous medieval romance writers whom he satirizes. Mary Sidney's poem is written entirely in tail-rhyme.

In the sixteenth century this pattern appears in two quite different contexts. Tail-rhyme had been employed in the psalm translations of Clement Marot and Theodore de Beza, translations which were used by Mary and Philip Sidney in their own psalm versions, and indeed the latter's translation of Psalm 32, "Beati quorum," is written in tail-rhyme.[22] In addition, J.A. Burrow, in his recent study of the sixteenth-century reception of "Sir Thopas," has suggested that when the Elizabethans use tail-rhyme it is to call up "an old-fashioned, rustic world," and in fact the countess's dialogue between her two shepherds, Thenot and Piers, recalls that of Spenser's two shepherds, Willye and Thomalin, who likewise speak in tail-rhyme in the March eclogue from The Shepheardes Calender (1579). Excluding psalm translations, English tail-rhyme poems before 1599, according to Burrow, include only Spenser's March eclogue, William Dunbar's "The Turnament" and "Schir Thomas Norny," and Michael Drayton's Eighth Eclogue in Idea the Shepheards Garland (the last two both deliberate recollections of "Sir Thopas").[23] Thus both Davies and the countess may have found, in the use of this rather uncommon pattern, a particular fitness for their depiction of the pastoral springtime which constitutes Astraea's climate. Davies's and the countess's versions of tail-rhyme (and Philip Sidney's Psalm 32), in addition, resemble each other in using only masculine rhyme in the stanza's octosyllabics and feminine rhyme in its shorter heptasyllabics (lines three and six), although previous poets felt free to use either masculine or feminine rhyme in any position.[24]

In these poems both writers' metrical skill is employed to produce an effect of witty grace. The countess's metrical experiments in her translations of the psalms are well known, and her characteristic facility appears here in lines 21 and 24. Since the meter in these lines requires seven syllables, "stay in her" must be elided to match the following "staine her." Similarly, in what may be regarded as a sort of concluding capriole, Davies ends his twenty-six poems with a matched pair of quadruple rhymes: "mercenary," / "burthen carie" (XXVI).[25]

The two poets are equally interested in certain qualities which characterize Elizabeth as Astraea. Waller situates the countess of Pembroke's poem as part of a "host of similar commonplace tributes to Elizabeth"[26] but indeed the other literary celebrations of Elizabeth/Astraea mentioned by Yates-- The Misfortunes of Arthur (1588), Histriornastix (15897), Peele's Descensus Astraea (1591), and his Anglorum Feriae (1595)--emphasize qualities different from those stressed by Davies and the countess. Although Elizabeth is saluted as Astraea in these works, in Descensus Astraea her significance is primarily religious, as she confronts superstition (a friar) and ignorance (a priest), while in Histriomastix she is a political figure, bringing the "triumph" of "Religion, Arts and Merchandise." (Anglorum Feriae refers only glancingly to the queen by this name.)[27]

By contrast, for the countess and for Davies Astraea's spring-bringing return is of central interest; she radiates beams and rays of light; earth, sea, and sky are linked in her praise; she exemplifies Wisdom and Virtue; and perhaps most saliently, her state is one of transcendent elevation. Verbal similarities in these works are pervasive. Davies's "Every medow flowes with Balme, the earth wears all her riches" (III) resembles the countess's description of Astraea as "A field in flowry Roabe arrayd" (line 38). Both, of course, stress the continuing quality of that supernatural spring. Davies begs,

R eserue (sweet Spring) this Nymph of ours,
E ternall garlands of thy flowers,
G reene garlands never wasting;
I n her shall last our states faire spring,
N ow and for ever flourishing,
A s long as heaven is lasting.

For the countess:

Thenot: ASTREA may be justly sayd, A field in flowry Roabe arrayd, In Season freshly Springing.

Piers: That Spring indures but shortest time, This neuer leaves Astreas clime, Thou liest, instead of singing.

Equally striking are the beams and rays which Astraea sheds in both poems. In the following example the parallel use of "day" at the end of each initial line is most similar: Davies has:

R oyall Astraea makes our Day
E ternall with her beames, nor may
G rosse darkenesse overcome her.

The countess says:

As heauenly light that guides the day, Right so doth shine each louely Ray, That from Astrea flyeth.

Both poems present a linkage of earth, sea, and sky and, immediately following, the idea of numeration. Davies enjoins his muse to count "the seas sands in memorie / Earths grasses, and the starres in Skie," concluding that courtiers will find numbering skill necessary to praise the queen. Similarly the countess says in stanza two that heaven, earth, and sea know the queen's worth, quibbling verbally on "no more" and "no less" to judge the degree of praise suitable.

The royal attributes of Wisdom and Virtue are central for each poet, and are treated as paired in each poem.[28]

E gle-eyed Wisedome, lifes Loadstarre,
L ooking neare on things a farre;

R ight princely Vertue, fit to raigne,
E nthroniz'd in her Spirit remaine,

ASTREA sees with Wisedoms sight, Astrea workes by Vertues might, And ioyntly both do stay in her.

The absence of these qualities results, in each poem, in a double loss: Davies's ship of state is "tome and sunke" while the countess registers the loss of regal support on Wisdom and Virtue: "The one is lame, the other blinde."

Finally and most strikingly, figures of height are used to characterize the queen. Davies says

E yen as her State, so is her Mind,
L ifted above the vulgar kind:

S un-like it sits above the wind

while for the countess

Aboue conceit her honour flies; But silence, nought can praise her.

The closeness of the poems' diction is reversed in their respective closures, which differ markedly. The first hymn in Davies's sequence had, like the countess's first stanza, conventionally invoked the help of the Muses, though the two poets' purposes are quite different. Davies, with characteristic panache, asks the Muses' help "again to raise" the maiden Astraea to heaven by means of his songs, while in the countess's first stanza Thenot humbly requests the muses' assistance "to raise" his own poetic wits.

In his final poem, as in his first, Davies calls upon his Muse, exalting the power of the poet and of the poem:

E nvie go weepe, my Muse and I
L augh thee to scorne; thy feeble Eye
I s dazled with the glorie
S hining in this gay poesie,
A nd litle golden Storie.

B ehold how my proud quil doth shed
E ternall Nectar on her head:
T he pomp of Coronation
H ath not such power her fame to spread,
A s this my admiration.

R espect my Penas free and franke,
E xpecting not Reward nor Thanke;
G reat wonder onely moves it;
I never made it mercenary;
N or should my Muse this burthen carie
A s hyr'd, but that she loves it.

In these stanzas "my proud quil" and "my Pen . . . free and franke" are equated with the poet's self. The charge of mercenariness is explicitly rejected in stanza three, although the traditional mercenary connection between gold and glory is just as explicitly offered in stanza one ("the glorie . . . Shining in this . . . litle golden Storie").

The poet stands foursquare in the center of this verse, exulting in the combination of self-assertion and servility which this pose requires. His Muse both laughs scornfully (and masterfully), and slavishly carries a burden. "This burthen" of the last stanza may be read as both the responsibility to please incurred by the mercenary Muse, and as the artifact itself, the poem, which together with this responsibility, the Muse must bear. Thus the poem as burden contrasts with the poem as "gay poesie" (posy) or as "golden Storie" in stanza one. As the poet himself assumes a pose both servile and dominant, so his poem's meaning is likewise twofold, both in his perception of it (burden or posy) and, he fears, in the world's eyes (will it be read as sycophancy or adornment?).

The posture of the poet in the countess's final stanza is quite different:

Thenot: Then Piers, of friendship tell me why, My meaning true, my words should ly And striue in vaine to raise her?

Piers: Words from conceit do only rise, Aboue conceit her honour flies; But silence, nought can praise her.

(lines 55-60)[29]

The countess's poetic attitude here is characterized by absence rather than by Davies's centrality--a withdrawal which harmonizes with, or accurately reflects, the nature of the poetic subject. Davies subordinates subject to poet; indeed Davies sees the relation between poet and poetic subject as defined by power. The countess's poetic stance, by contrast, allies itself with its subject: as the nature of the queen is to be above both opinion and fiction about her, so an accurate tribute must be a wordless one. The countess's concluding stanza thus recalls Davies's first poem, in which he suggested that, with the Muses's help, "our layes" (the validating plural characterizes the poet) could give the queen divinity. The countess, however, dismisses the effort "to raise" the queen through the power of language--Davies's explicitly enunciated purpose--as "vaine."

Davies's focus is double: the facility of the writer, and his semi-divine creation of his subject. As these two, the maker and the made (the divine Maid) dance together in Davies's work, in the countess's poem silent singer and subject fly together above the earth-bound and the "vaine" (in both its meanings of "useless" and "self-regarding"). The countess's poem changes the focus from the poet's creating art to the subject's transcending nature. Piers the plain man moves, in the course of the poem, from plain speech to none at all, to the total abdication of poetic power and even of poetic identity.


These two opposed authorial postures may be considered first, as strategies of public praise which reflect Renaissance epideictic theory, and second, as strategies of public presentation which respond to their authors' social situation.

All commentators on epideictic stress its powerful ethical component: encomium avoids the moral trap of flattery only through its intention of moving reader or hearer to imitation of the good. Consequently the poet's role becomes both central and deeply moral. A. Leigh DeNeef has discussed Renaissance interpretations of the Orpheus myth (including Puttenham's) as part of epideictic theory. Such interpretations move from the Orphic poet's power over nature to a broader interpretation of this power, one which orders the entire world. "Epideictic celebration is thus deliberately and consciously extended to cosmic scope."[30] The consciousness of this shaping power may, at least partially, underlie the certainty with which Davies assumes his central, and traditional, poetic role.

In the countess's poem ethical issues present themselves somewhat differently. "A Dialogue" asks, first, about the truth or falsity of the propositions asserted, and second, about the suitability of the way in which they are formulated. Ethics and decorum are present here; decorum in fact takes on an ethical dimension when the poem endorses a critically examined silence in opposition to an unexamined and conventional speech.

Hymnes of Astraea has been universally regarded as Davies's attempt to enlist patronage and favor at the highest level during the period (1597/98-1601) when he was exiled from the Middle Temple for assaulting a colleague in the midst of the lawyers' revels. After this act of aggression, the poems represent a retreat to the most decorous of literary modes, the complimentary. Some unease is discernible here, however: the consciousness embodied in Davies's scatological epigrams cannot be entirely subdued into this conventional form, and hence, perhaps, the self-consciousness of the poetic posture. Nevertheless the poems deserve the superlative which W.W. Greg applied to one of Davies's epistles: "the most ingenious begging letter of a begging age."[31] Davies's subsequent political and judicial career, after this period of disgrace, seems to qualify him precisely for Richard Helgerson's witty definition of the amateur, for whom poetry was "a way of displaying abilities that could, once they had come to the attention of a powerful patron, be better employed in some other manner."[32]

Davies's enemies, through whose assessment of him our own has been shaped, accused him repeatedly of what might be called a tin ear: an inability to sound the correct social note. Describing the Middle Temple revels of 1597/98 Philip Finkelpearl says, "We learn that he had tried unsuccessfully to become the Prince; that he constantly gave senseless advice which went unheeded"; and that he wore a rented gown.[33] Davies's contemporaries' satire of him in that year's revels can best be understood as stemming from this failure in personal decorum. "To Envie," with its mixture of the craven and the crowing, betrays the same uneasy alignment which John Manningham remarked in the poet's physical gait.[34]

By contrast the most thoroughgoing consistency in aristocratic sprezzatura has always been attributed to a single person: Sir Philip Sidney. The firm insistence upon the Arcadia as "a trifle and triflingly handled" has been regarded as both essentially aristocratic and essentially Sidneian. In Mary Sidney's poem too, nonchalance rises to unexpected heights as the poem moves beyond presentation of itself as inconsequential, to a conclusion which meditates its own ultimate disappearance.[35]

Most important here is the question of occasion. Written probably in the same year, 1599, these poems spring from the same social world and respond to the same imperative: public performance. The countess's "Dialogue" was composed for a country-house entertainment, while Davies's poems were presented to the queen on her accession day. Both are thus semiofficial tributes to the calculated persona of the queen's later years. They share an understanding as to the artful, and above all, the public nature of their respective offerings. In this milieu of artifice selection of the appropriate voice and posture becomes centrally important. Davies's situation compels an understanding of the poet as suppliant; his poetic language is both sycophantic and strutting, as he gazes over his shoulder at the others who may be watching. In contrast, the reality of Mary Sidney's situation as presiding spirit of a great house, and muse of a congeries of other poets, facilitates the assurance with which not only strategies of language, but even poetry itself, is dismissed. Both Davies and the countess must construct their poetic selves in relation to the reality of power; but it is Davies's failure that he allows the reader to see that reality, and it is the countess's triumph that she whisks power out of sight.


The debate of "A Dialogue" has been variously interpreted. Waller has suggested that in the exchange between Thenot and Piers the former represents a neo-Platonic position since "by seeing and meditating on Astraea's beauty, man may attain to truth" while Piers represents the Calvinist belief in the "inability of man's unaided mind to attain to genuine truth." Waller believes Piers's response to be "in the Protestant tradition of Du Bartas, rejecting any metaphorical means of describing the Divinity."[36] But, we might argue, Piers could as accurately be said to offer a neo-Platonic conception of the semidivine Elizabeth/Astraea in the last stanza; in addition Piers seems to embody a Platonic distrust of poet's speech. Perhaps the poem may be read more fruitfully as a rhetorical construct, the product of conventional Renaissance epideictic theory.

Thenot and Piers use the familiar topoi of inexpressibility (it's impossible to do justice to the subject), universal renown (everyone honors the subject), and outdoing (the subject surpasses all comparison).[37] Indeed it is by invoking the outdoing topos at the conclusion of each stanza that Piers wins successive stages of the debate. In addition his strategy uses the figure of correctio, defined by Henry Peacham in The Garden of Eloquence (1577,1591) as "a figure which taketh away that that is said, and putteth a more meet word in the place. . . . This figure also doth effectually amplifie by the orderly encrease, but chiefly, by casting by mightie wordes, and by putting mightier in their roomes, also it maintaineth attention."[38] Correctio belongs to the figures of amplification, the primary way in which epideictic rhetoric celebrated and described the imitable qualities of its virtuous subject.

"A Dialogue" ends with a formal paradox: the poet lies by praising incompletely, and the only complete praise (hence the only truth) is silence. (The conclusion also presents in purest form the inexpressibility topos.) The poet's formal oppositions have juxtaposed truth and lies; we can only applaud the wit which concludes this debate not with the triumph. of either truth or falsity, but with the form about which Rosalie Colie says, "It lies, and it doesn't. It tells the truth, and it doesn't." She goes on to make explicit the connection between paradox and sprezzatura: both demonstrate the control and mastery necessary to make art look artless.[39] The poem's conclusion expresses elliptically, as paradox always does, the criticism which Piers has made directly throughout the poem. It thus softens and modulates the bluntness of the plain speaker's voice: indeed we may feel that the countess's manner here, in its linking of paradox with a diction of simplicity, looks forward to the next generation of poets, to Jonson and Donne.

The "Dialogue" has affinities also, however, with a poem written twenty years earlier. At Wanstead in 1578 or 1579 Sir Philip Sidney had composed an entertainment for Elizabeth, The Lady of May, which likewise contains a singing match, in this case between the shepherd Espilus and the forester Therion. William Ringler suggests that this poem in praise of Elizabeth may be the first singing match in English.[40]

Like Mary Sidney's Piers, Philip Sidney's second speaker, Therion, criticizes the conventional rhetoric of his opponent (Mary Sidney's Thenot, Philip Sidney's Espilus). Espilus is, in fact, attacked for the same elevation that characterizes Thenot's language: recalling Thenot's opening invocation to the Muses to raise his wits and "heaue my Verses higher," Espilus says:

Tune up, my voice, a higher note I yield: To high conceits the song must needs be high More high than stars, more firm than flinty field Are all my thoughts, in which I live or die.

To which Therion answers:

The highest note comes oft from basest mind, As shallow brooks do yield the greatest sound; Seek other thoughts thy life or death to find Thy stars be fall'n, ploughed is thy flinty ground.

Rhetorical reductivism thus trimphs, as it did in Mary Sidney's poem. Similarly when Therion says

Two thousand deer in wildest woods I have Them can I take but you I cannot hold He is not poor who can his freedom save Bound but to you, no wealth but you I would[41]

he rises above the oppositions of rich versus poor which Espilus has set up for the suitors, and establishes, as in Mary Sidney's poem, an ever-escaping identity for the idealized subject (the inexpressibility topos once again).[42] Both singing contests are won by the presentation of a different set of categories, different criteria for judgment, from those initially offered. Indeed so strongly does Mary Sidney's poetic strategy resemble her brother's that we may wonder whether the reference to Philip Sidney's earlier verses is not deliberate.

The patterns of voice and address used by the countess appear too in Astrophil and Stella, where they have been often remarked.[43] Sonnets 1, 3, 6, 15, and 74 are particularly relevant. In this group, as in the countess's "Dialogue," the speaker points to a reality beyond words, embodied in the figure of Stella herself; "Stella behold, and then begin to endite" (sonnet 15); disdains a rhetoric of elaboration and writers who "every flower, not sweet, perhaps, which grows / Near thereabout, into your poesy wring" (sonnet 15); and assumes the plain-speaker's posture: "Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit" (sonnet 74). The conclusion of Philip Sidney's sonnet 70 particularly recalls that of his sister's poem: "I give you here my hand for truth of this / Wise silence is best music unto bliss." Indeed, when Hallett Smith describes the persona of Astrophil as "one of energetic simplicity and force . . . independent of literary society and its standards . . . natural, unartistic," is this so very different from the person of Piers?[44]

As many scholars have pointed out, this strategy has nothing in it of the personal but is itself conventional. Brother's and sister's targets are similarly allied: for Philip Sidney the conventional Petrarchan rhetoric of love, for Mary Sidney the conventional epideictic rhetoric of praise.


Strikingly, the first literary identification of Elizabeth as Astraea does not come until thirty years after the beginning of her reign, two-thirds of the way to its end (1588); and the uses of the myth by Davies and the countess are late indeed--three and a half years before Elizabeth's death? The choice of this particular regal incarnation thus seems to be allied with age, even with death.[45] Sixteenth-century scholarship has interested itself, since Yates, in ways in which the figure of the queen subsumes, complicates, and transmutes older notions of the Virgin Mary. Though classical in its origins, particularly in its reliance on Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, the Astraea myth too has some similarities with Christian myth. In its presentation of a figure who leaves earth--in human terms, who dies--and returns to bring a new age, it .is possible to hear overtones of Christian millenial rhetoric, when temporal society will be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth. But is it not the myth's first element, that of departure or death, which must have been made most strongly present on the public occasions when the queen's aged figure was publicly displayed? The second element, the apparition of a new society--whatever was to be after Elizabeth--was at the end of the century a prospect filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Consequently both elements of the Astraea myth, departure and change, seem to be supported by an unspoken, common consciousness: the inevitability of the queen's approaching death, and a common assent in the rhetoric of renewal which might postpone that closure.


1 Three, perhaps four, original poems survive from the countess's hand. Besides "A Dialogue" they include the two poems accompanying her translation of the psalms, "Even now that Care" ("To the Thrice-Sacred Queen Elizabeth") and "To the Angell spirit of the most excellent Sir Philip Sidney" (both 1599). Probably "The Dolefull Lay of Clorinda" is hers also:.it was published following Spenser's lament for Sidney, "Astrophel," in Spenser's Colin Clout's Come Home Again (1595). For texts see The Triumph of Death and Other Unpublished and Uncollected Poems by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), ed. G.F. Waller (Salzburg: Univ. of Salzburg, 1977).

2 H.T.R., "Lady Mary Sidney and Her Writings," Gentleman's Magazine n.s. 24 (1845):129-36, 254-59, 364-70. Hallett Smith, Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1952), p. 29. Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 67. A Poetical Rhapsody's first edition is STC 6373, UM reel 643. "A Dialogue" has been edited twice: it appears in A Poetical Rhapsody 1602-1621, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1931), text 1:15-17, notes 2:100-101, and in Waller, Triumph, p. 209. See also Waller's Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, A Critical Study of Her Writings and Literary Milieu (Salzburg: Univ. of Salzburg, 1979).

William A. Ringlet, Jr. has pointed out that Francis Davison, the compiler of the Poetical Rhapsody, as "eldest son of [Philip] Sidney's friend and associate William Davison . . . was in a position to acquire manuscript copies of Sidney's poems" (The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringlet, Jr. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962], p. 498), and indeed Rollins believes that the two Philip Sidney poems in Poetical Rhapsody, as well as Mary Sidney's poem, were in Davison's possession in manuscript (2:73).

  • 3 E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 3:337. Appendix A is contained in 4:75-130.
  • 4 Historical Manuscripts Commission: Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Honourable the Marquis of Salisbury, 24 vols. (London: HMSO, 18831976), 13:466. Hereafter referred to as HMC: Hatfield MSS.
  • 5 Acts of the Privy Council of England, ed. J.R. Dasent, 32 vols. (London, 1890-1907), 11:157-58.
  • 6 Alfred Harbage, Annals of English Drama 975-1700, rev. Samuel Schoenbaum (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), pp. 56-57. C.E. McGee and John C. Meagher, "Preliminary Checklist of Tudor and Stuart Entertainments: 1558-1603," Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 24 (1981):129.

In addition to these datings, John Nichols, who printed the countess's poem in the nineteenth century, suggested (disregarding the evidence of the title) that "the Dialogue was probably written in 1600, when the Queen meditated a Progress into North Wiltshire . . . and was perhaps recited in 1601 in Aldersgate Street" (one of the countess's residences). John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols. (London: J. Nichols and Son, 1823), 3:529.

  • 7 HMC: Hatfield MSS 9:246.
  • 8 The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman E. McClure, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939), 1:79: The porter's speech of welcome at Wimbleton has recently been printed for the first time: Marion Colthorpe, "An Entertainment for Queen Elizabeth I at Wimbledon in 1599," Records of Early English Drama Newsletter 10 (1985): 1-2.
  • 9 HMC: Hatfield MSS 9:256, 259,262.
  • 10 E.K. Chambers, Sir Henry Lee: An Elizabethan Portrait (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), p. 173.
  • 11 The Poems of Sir John Davies, ed. Robert Krueger (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. lii.
  • 12 Krueger, p. 354. Thus although it seems plausible to argue that Davies's verses were written first, and though the countess's poem may be read as providing a response to Davies's, in the absence of more precise dating for the poems such a reading must remain speculative.
  • 13 Krueger, p. xxiv. Connections between the Davies and Herbert families are treated in the unpublished 1982 Oxford D. Phil. thesis of M.G. Brennan, "The Literary Patronage of the Herbert Family, Earls of Pembroke, 1550-1640," which I have not been able to consult. The published version does not discuss this topic: Michael Brennan, Literary Patronage in the English Renaissance: The Pembroke Family (London and New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1988).
  • 14 J.R. Brink,/'The Composition Date of Sir John Davies' Nosce Teipsum," HLQ 37 (1973):29.
  • 15 Krueger, p. xxiv.
  • 16 Davies's continuing connection with Tisbury is demonstrated by bequests in his will "to a young man and woman in Tisbury" (Brink, p. 30).
  • 17 It is even possible that during Davies's rustication he was in Wiltshire. Anthony h Wood believed that after his notorious assault on Richard Martin he "retired for a time in private, lived in Oxon" (Athenae Oxonienses, 4 vols. [London, 1813-20, rpt. 1967], 2:400-401), but Theophilus Hastings in MS Carte 62 says only that the poet "retired into the Country" (Krueger, p. xxxvi). Brink demonstrates that Nosce Teipsum did not originate in this period, as previously thought, but was probably composed earlier in 1592, revised in 1593 or 1594 and again in 1599 (see note 14). One letter of Davies's from 1599 survives (to Sir Thomas Egerton, Huntington EL 76), but since it contains no place-assignment, the suggestion that in 1599 Davies was in Wiltshire is unsubstantiated.
  • 18 Astraea, pp. 67-68.
  • 19 Poetical Rhapsody, 2:101.
  • 20 Transcribed from film of STC 6373, UM reel 643. I have followed Rollins and Waller in emending line 34 three to there, and line 44 thine to shine.
  • 21 Astraea, pp. 30-31.
  • 22 I am grateful to Professor Anne Lake Prescott for showing me the religious uses of sixteenth-century tail-rhyme, and for pointing out that psalm translation is often associated with religious renewal, a renewal sometimes specifically envisioned, like Astraea's return, as the coming of a Golden Age. Marot's prefatory poem to his 1543 psalm translation, for instance, opens "Quand viendra le siecle dore," Oeuvres Completes, ed. C.A. Mayer, 6 vols. (Geneva: Editions Slatkine, 1980), 6:314-16. For Marot's tail-rhyme translation of Psalm 36, see 6:393-94. Philip Sidney's translation of Psalm 32 is found in The Psalms of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke, ed. J.C.A. Rathmell (Garden City: Anchor Doubleday, 1963), pp. 69-70.

Professor Prescott also notes, in a private communication, Matthew Parker's experiments with parenthetical syllables in his c. 1567 psalm translation, which can make a line either trimeter or tetrameter. The first stanza of Psalm 70, his one (partly) tail-rhyme composition, reads:

O God to me: thyne helpe intende,
In hast thy seffe: to mercy bende
and me (O Lord) deliuer quite:
Lyke grace I craue: that thou extend,
Thy helpe from heauen: so downe to send,
to ayde me strong: by (godly) might.

The whole Psalter translated into English Metre (STC 2729; UM reel 1403, pp. 192-93). Hallett Smith provides a clear overview of the subject in "English Metrical Psalms in the Sixteenth Century and Their Literary Significance," HLQ 9 (1946):249-71.

  • 23 "Sir Thopas in the Sixteenth Century," in Middle English Studies Presented to Norman Davis, ed. Douglas Gray and E.G. Stanley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 80-81.
  • 24 This pattern is sometimes disguised by the addition of a nonrhyming syllable, as in Davies's "indeed" / "succeed" (VII), where the rhyme is masculine, that is, it occurs on the last syllable only. Davies varies from this pattern only once in the twenty-six poems when, in Hymne XI, he substitutes two nine-syllable lines with feminine rhymes for octosyllabics with masculine rhyme (lines 14-15).
  • 25 All quotations from Davies are taken from Krueger's edition (see note 11). Though rhyme evidence is slippery indeed, we may note that both poets rhyme on "her," the countess twice ("Stay in her" / "staine her"; "raise her" / "praise her" lines 21 and 24; 57 and 60) and Davies six times ("overcome her" / "sommer" [VI]; "honor" / "upon her" [X, XX]; "maker" / "mistake her" [XII]; "Scepter" / "kept her" [XXIII]; "chaunge her" / "daunger" [XXIV]). The poets share one pair of rhymes: "measure" / "treasure" (Sidney lines 33 and 36; Davies xIV).
  • 26 Waller, Mary Sidney, p. 80.
  • 27 Literary appearances of Elizabeth as Astraea are discussed in Elkin Cahoun Wilson's classic study England's Eliza (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1939): Histriomastix's verses are printed p. 110. Peele's Anglorum Feriae and Descensus Astraea are printed in The Life and Works of George Peele, gen. ed. Charles T. Prouty, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1952-1970), vol. 1, The Life and Minor Works, ed. David H. Horne (1952).
  • 28 Ernst Robert Curtius speaks of the "archaic polarity 'wisdom-courage,'" in describing the virtues of rulers: perhaps the appearance of "wisdom-virtue" represents an adaptation to a female ruler. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harper, 1953), p. 176.
  • 29 The countess's exaltation of silence here may find echoes in her other work. Mary Ellen Lamb has recently argued that in her translations of Mornay, Garnier, and Petrarch, the countess offers a model of Stoic behavior in the face of death, one particularly appropriate for women because of its emphasis on silence. "The Countess of Pembroke and the Art of Dying," in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 207-26.
  • 30 A. Leigh DeNeef, "Epideictic Rhetoric and the Renaissance Lyric," JMRS 3 (1973):203-31; the quotation is from p. 228. The standard treatments of epideictic literature are Theodore C. Burgess's Epideictic Literature, Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 3 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1902), pp. 89-261, and O.B. Hardison, Jr.'s The Enduring Monument: A Study of the Idea of Praise in Renaissance Literary Theory and Practice (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1962). A useful recent essay is Brian Vickers's "Epideictic and Epic in the Renaissance," NLH 14 (1982-83):497-537.
  • 31 W.W. Greg, English Literary Autographs 1550-1650 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), item XLVII.
  • 32 Richard Helgerson, Self-Crowned Laureates (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983), p. 29.
  • 33 Philip J. Finkelpearl, John Marston of the Middle Temple (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969), p. 52.
  • 34 "Jo. Davys goes wadling with his arse out behinde as though he were about to make every one that he meetes a wall to pisse against." Quoted in Finkelpearl, p. 53, note 21, from John Manningham's diary, MS Harley 5353, f. 127v.
  • 35 Among the recent discussions of sprezzatura which have been helpful to me are Frank Whigham's extended meditation on the subject, "Interpretation at Court: Courtesy and the Performer-Audience Dialectic," NLH 14 (1983):623-39, and Daniel Javitch's Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1978).

John Hoskyns's almost precisely contemporary definition of "intimation" has something in common with the countess's attitude: "Intimation that leaues the colleccion of greatnes to our vnderstandinge, by expressing some marke of it, it exceedeth speech in silence, & makes our meaning more palpable by a touch, then by a direct handling." Hoskyns's Direccions for Speech and Style were written "near if not actually during the period of 27 March to 28 September 1599," according to his editor Louise Brown Osborn, The Life, Letters, and Writings of John Hoskyns 1566-1635 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1930), pp. 139,103.

  • 36 Waller, Mary Sidney, p. 82. His earlier article on the poem, in ANQ 9 (1971): 100-102, is subsumed in this later work. Sallye J. Sheppeard sees the poem as a "repudiation of the conventional devices and conceits of Renaissance poetry": "Mary Herbert's 'A Dialogue Between Two Shepherdes': A Study in Renaissance Poetic Method," Proceedings of the Conference of College Teachers of English of Texas 46 (1981):20.
  • 37 Curtius, pp. 159-66.
  • 38 Quoted in Sherod M. Cooper, Jr., The Sonnets of "Astrophel and Stella": A Stylistic Study (The Hague: Mouton, 1968), p. 102.
  • 39 Rosalie Colie, Paradoxica Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966), p. 6.
  • 40 Ringler, p. 362.
  • 41 Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 25-26.
  • 42 Ann Chalmers Watts says, "When the 'what' gestured toward can never be spoken, inexpressibility makes an antistructuralist oath, swearing that language is an escapable system, not man's dwelling. Medieval rhetoric books, incidentally, have little or nothing to say about this topos, subsuming it under interruptio or other figures for the deliberate arrest of speech." "Pearl, Inexpressibility, and Poems of Human Loss," PMLA 99 (1984):38, note 4.
  • 43 For instance William J, Kennedy, Rhetorical Norms in Renaissance Literature (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 67-68, says: "Throughout the sequence [Sidney] alludes to and sometimes extensively comments on his role as poet, asserting his claims for holding to a consistent poetics . . . by expressing his anti-Petrarchism and his wish to be plain, direct, and honest, Astrophil is in fact proclaming his thorough conventionality, for by the 1580s anti-Petrarchan slogans were already shopworn in England."
  • 44 Elizabethan Poetry, pp. 148-49.
  • 45 Though the appellation of Astraea is not used, Yates suggests that John Foxe's early identification of Elizabeth with Constantine (1563) contains Astraean elements, and in the woodcut which illustrates this identification, Elizabeth's image is topped with a cornucopia of fruit, flowers, and the ears of corn often associated with Astraea as Virgo (Astraea, pp. 31, 42-43).



Mary C. Erler is Associate Professor of English at Fordham University. She coedited Women and Power in the Middle Ages, and is working on a study of women's book ownership between 1485 and 1558.