The gender of Queen Elizabeth I called many unusual and hard to answer questions to the surface during her reign. Mary Sidney Herbert wrote, as was common practice between rulers and writers, two pieces which directly addressed Elizabeth I. In “To the Thrice Sacred Queen Elizabeth,” Herbert depicts Queen Elizabeth as connected to, if not part of, the Christian God. The second piece, “A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds,” focuses more closely on the character traits of Elizabeth herself. Through these two pieces, it is apparent that Mary Sidney Herbert is warring with her desire to call attention to the aptitudes of a female monarch without offending the masculine society in which she lives. “To the Thrice Sacred Queen” is Herbert’s way of calling attention to Elizabeth’s good qualities while still attributing her with a male overseer while “A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds” is a direct praise of Elizabeth, despite her gender.
“To the Thrice Sacred Queen” announces in its title that Elizabeth I will be portrayed as a being more than mortal. In Elizabethan society, it was commonly accepted that the monarch was directly selected by God to rule through their birth to the royal family. Mary Sidney Herbert uses this knowledge to praise Queen Elizabeth without offending the delicate sensibilities of the patriarchal culture around her. The term “Thrice Sacred” starts this work off with the idea of the Trinity: a god-head which includes many beings rolled into one. This deliberate choice of title sets the proper mood for her readers so they understand that Queen Elizabeth is to be viewed from the angle of the quasi -deity and not as a mortal being. The poem itself consists of images which tie Elizabeth I directly to God, both in his choosing of her as monarch and in a more figurative Trinity based ideal. In stanza seven Herbert writes “God’s loved choice unto his chosen love;” a line revealing how Mary Sidney Herbert meant to emphasize the connection between God and Elizabeth I [“To the Thrice-Sacred Queen”]. “God’s Loved choice” means that God specifically chose Elizabeth I to be the ruling monarch and she is his “chosen love.” Mary Sydney Herbert then tries to show that Elizabeth I’s rule is directly lead by God. “For even thy rule is painted in his reign;/ Both clear in right; both nigh by wrong oppressed” (Herbert “To the Thrice-Sacred Queen”). She also writes “Thus hand in hand with him thy glories walk” (Herbert “To the Thrice Sacred Queen”). Even though this particular line references David, not God himself, Herbert uses David as reminder that Elizabeth I is “walking hand in hand” with a man. By showing Elizabeth I as directly connected to God through divine providence and walking hand in hand with a well known male biblical figure, Herbert establishes a male head of the country, as God was viewed as male. This poem, although meant to boost the ego of Elizabeth I, was also meant to reassure the reading public that a female monarch was still a subsidiary to a male God and thus the patriarchal system was not coming to a sudden and destructive halt. This poem shows that Mary Sidney Herbert had a firm grasp on the society she was living in and the readers she would be exposed to after writing to Elizabeth. “To the Thrice-Sacred Queen Elizabeth” is a perfect example of a poet writing to her society.
In contrast to “To the Thrice-Sacred Queen Elizabeth” Herbert’s second work “A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds” deals more directly with the virtues of Queen Elizabeth without directly connecting her to the rule of a man. This work is an argument between two men, one, Thenot, struggling to praise Astrea, who is a representation of Elizabeth I, the other, Piers, telling Thenot no amount of praise is proper as it will always fall short of the glories of Elizabeth I. Mary Sidney Herbert’s choice of details in this specific poem are heavily influenced by Elizabeth I’s gender: “Soon as ASTREA shows her face/ Straight every ill avoids the place” (Herbert “A Dialogue”). Herbert’s deliberate choice of Elizabeth’s face appearing shows that Mary Sidney is affected by the gender of her subject. If the monarch were a king, it would not be the monarch’s face, a representation of Elizabeth’s beauty, that would drive ill away, but his prowess with the sword, his physical strength, or his strong leadership that would send ill doers fleeing. When Herbert writes “A field in flow’ry robe arrayed,/ In season freshly springing”( Herbert “A Dialogue”), she is directly referencing the womanhood of Elizabeth as a point of virtue and admiration. There would be no king that would be described as “freshly springing” or being “in flow’ry robe arrayed”. These choices of imagery are distinctly feminine. This poem exemplifies Elizabeth’s gender through specific details and imagery.
Although the first of these poems may have been written by any courtier poet, as it is conscious of the society it is written for, the second poem may be influenced by the gender of the author, Mary Sidney Herbert. The choice of feminine details laced with the use of some masculine traits such as “Wisdom’s sight,” “chiefest guard,” and “manly Palm”(Herbert “A Dialogue”)shows that Mary Sidney is trying to merge the two sides of social gender into one, thus breaking many of the gender biases through the use of one woman’s representation.
Both poems address a female subject and are written by a female poet, but they are entirely different styles as one quite obviously calls attention to the joining of masculine and feminine in Elizabeth I and the other emphasizes the male figure of God over the female figure of Elizabeth. Mary Sidney Herbert seems to test the waters with her poem as she adheres to the stigmas of her patriarchal society in one and abandoning them in the other. Her gender is definitely an issue when it comes to analyzing these poems as it is important to understand her motivations for writing as she does. Because she is a female writer and understands that men will be expecting her to write with some amount of restraint, the first poem is more of an explanation poem, meant to assure the men of power that their society had not just been undermined. The second poem, however, is overtly feminist as it shows Queen Elizabeth’s character of Astrea as a woman possessing womanly and manly traits, but offers no possible recourse for a man reading the poem to view her as anything more or less than a woman. Although both poems address the topic of Queen Elizabeth I, Herbert chooses to address the topic from two different parts of Herbert as a writer. “To the Thrice Sacred Queen” is a poem addressed from the courtier poet side of Herbert trying to make sense of a cultural oddity with a clear consciousness of her society, but “A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds” is written from the female part of Herbert who is proud to have a woman on the throne. Both poems exhibit a part of the woman courtier poet and her ideas on a female monarch.
Herbert, Mary Sidney. “To the Thrice-Sacred Queen”. Virginia Technical College. 12 Feb, 2006. http://athena.english.vt.edu/~jmooney/renmats/pembrk.htm>
–. “A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds”. Anniina Jokinen. 12 Feb, 2006. http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/thenot.htm>