The Triumph of Death (c.1600)

The Countess of Pembroke's translation of Petrarch's Trionfo della Morte

a modernised edition by Gavin Alexander

NOTE: A version of this page with fuller introduction and textual apparatus is available here.

This page offers a minimal modernised text of the Triumph. All previous editions preserve the original spelling and punctuation of the unique manuscript copy of this work: London, Inner Temple, Petyt MS 538.43.14, fols 286r-289r. Whilst the Countess of Pembroke's Psalm metaphrases exist in manuscript copies close to her authority, the text of the Triumph is at several removes: it is a copy of the copy sent by Sir John Harington to his cousin Lucy, Countess of Bedford in 1600, which was itself presumably a copy of Harington's copy of Pembroke's text. The text of this manuscript is fairly corrupt as a consequence. (For the Petyt manuscript and Harington's textual habits see further Jason Scott-Warren, 'Sir John Harington as a Giver of Books' (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1997), esp. pp. 139-45 and xliii-iv.) Previous editions have introduced a number of emendations, totalling 12 in the recent Clarendon Press edition of Pembroke's works. I have argued elsewhere for another 8 emendations which are introduced here ('Mary Sidney Herbert: the Psalmes, the Triumph, and the Scribes', Sidney Journal, 16ii (1998), 16-30). A further emendation is made at I.95. All emendations are given in the right hand column, with new emendations in bold.

The orthography of the manuscript text is also far from Pembroke's spelling, and further from her punctuation, or indeed from any system of punctuation related to the meaning of the words. Whilst the punctuation is sometimes helpful (and might be thought to bear traces of Pembroke's punctuation), at other times it cuts against the run of sense quite disruptively. The scribe is most consistent in punctuating with the metrical form, so nearly all stanzas end with a period or colon regardless of whether sense and syntax run on (as they tend to do in terza rima). It is also the case that quotation marks can help clarify the distribution of speeches in what is a dense and elliptical translation. In order to make Pembroke's fine poem more accessible I have therefore attempted a modernised text based on the Petyt manuscript. In punctuating the text I have made decisions about indicating what I take to be Pembroke's primary meaning by comparing the manuscript reading, and what traces of Pembroke's original its spelling and punctuation might bear, with the Italian. I have tried not to overcomplicate matters where Pembroke's intended meaning may be a mistranslation (e.g. I.37-8, II.15). Emendations have only been made where justified by defects both of translation and of rhyme or metre. In using this text please remember that editions make choices between possible meanings.

I have not offered any further commentary. One of the most remarkable features of the Countess's translation is that it matches Petrarch's terza rima line-for-line. Comparison with the Italian text is a perhaps intended interpretive activity in this case.

Previous editions:

Frances Berkeley Young, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (London: Nutt, 1912); and a text with facing Italian in PMLA, 20 (1912), 47-75

The Triumph of Death and other Unpublished and Uncollected Poems, ed. G.F. Waller, Salzburg Studies in English Literature, Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies, 65 (Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1977)

The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, ed. Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinnamon, and Michael G. Brennan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Vol. I: Poems, Translations, and Correspondence, Vol. II: The Psalmes of David.



  The Triumph of Death

Translated out of Italian by the Countess of Pembroke

The first chapter

  That gallant lady, gloriously bright,  
          The stately pillar once of worthiness,  
          And now a little dust, a naked sprite,  
  Turn'd from her wars a joyful conqueress,  
5         Her wars, where she had foil'd the mighty foe  
          Whose wily stratagems the world distress,  
  And foil'd him not with sword, with spear, or bow,  
          But with chaste heart, fair visage, upright thought,  
          Wise speech, which did with honour linked go.  
10 And, Love's new plight to see, strange wonders wrought,  
          With shiver'd bow, chaste arrows, quenched flame,  
          While here some slain, and there lay others caught.  
  She, and the rest, who in the glorious fame  
          Of the exploit, her chosen mates, did share,  
15         All in one squadronet close ranged came;  
  A few, for nature makes true glory rare,  
          But each alone (so each alone did shine)  
          Claim'd whole historian's, whole poet's care.  
  Borne in green field, a snowy Ermiline,  
20         Colour'd with topazes, set in fine gold,  
          Was this fair company's unfoiled sign;  
  No earthly march, but heav'nly, did they hold;  
          Their speeches holy were, and happy those  
          Who so are born, to be with them enroll'd.  
25 Clear stars they seem'd, which did a sun unclose seem'd] send
          (Who, hiding none, yet all did beautify),  
          With coronets deck'd, with violet and rose.  
  And, as gain'd honour fill'd with jollity  
          Each gentle heart, so made they merry cheer,  
30         When, lo, an ensign sad I might descry,  
  Black, and in black, a woman did appear;  
          Fury with her, such as I scarcely know  
          If like at Phlegra with the giants were.  
  'Thou dame,' quoth she, 'that doth so proudly go,  
35         Standing upon thy youth and beauty's state,  
          And of thy life the limits dost not know,  
  Lo, I am she, so fierce, importunate,  
          And deaf, and blind, entitled oft by you,  
          You, whom with night ere evening I amate.  
40 I, to their end, the Greekish nation drew,  
          The Trojan first, the Roman afterward,  
          With edge and point of this my blade I slew.  
  And no barbarian my blow could ward,  
          Who, stealing on with unexpected wound,  
45         Of idle thoughts have many thousand marr'd.  
  And now no less to you-ward am I bound,  
          While life is dearest, ere, to cause you moan,  
          Fortune some bitter with your sweets compound.'  
  'To this thou right or interest hast none;  
50         Little to me; but only to this spoil,'  
          Replied then she, who in the world was one.  
  'This charge of woe on others will recoil,  
          I know, whose safety on my life depends;  
          For me, I thank who shall me hence assoil.'  
55 As one whose eyes some novelty attends, attends] attend
          And what it mark'd not first, it spied at last,  
          New wonders with itself, now comprehends,  
  So far'd the cruel, deeply over-ghast  
          With doubt awhile, then spake: 'I know them now;  
60         I now remember when my teeth they pass'd.'  
  Then, with less frowning, and less darken'd brow:  
          'But thou, that lead'st this goodly company,  
          Didst never yet unto my sceptre bow;  
  But, on my counsel if thou wilt rely  
65         (Who may enforce thee), better is by far  
          From age and age's loathsomeness to fly;  
  More honoured by me than others are  
          Thou shalt thee find, and neither fear nor pain  
          The passage shall of thy departure bar.'  
70 'As likes that Lord, who in the heav'n doth reign,  
          And thence this all doth moderately guide,  
          As others do, I shall thee entertain.'  
  So answer'd she, and I withal descried  
          Of dead appear a never-number'd sum,  
75         Pest'ring the plain from one to th'other side.  
  From India, Spain, Cathay, Morocco come, Cathay] Gattay
          So many ages did together fall  
          That worlds were fill'd, and yet they wanted room.  
  There saw I, whom their times did happy call,  
80         Popes, emperors, and kings, but strangely grown  
          All naked now, all needy, beggars all.  
  Where is that wealth? Where are those honours gone?  
          Sceptres, and crowns, and robes, and purple die,  
          And costly mitres, set with pearl and stone?  
85 O wretch, who dost in mortal things affy!  
          (Yet who but doth?). And if in end they find find] dye
          Themselves beguil'd, they find but right, say I.  
  What means this toil? O blind, O more than blind,  
          You all return to your great mother old,  
90         And hardly leave your very names behind.  
  Bring me, who doth your studies well behold,  
          And of your cares not manifestly vain,  
          One, let him tell me, when he all hath told.  
  So many lands to win, what boots the pain?  
95         And on strange peoples tributes to impose, peoples] lands [note]
          With hearts still greedy their own loss to gain?  
  After all these, wherein you winning lose  
          Treasures and territories dear bought with blood,  
          Water and bread hath a far sweeter close,  
100 And gold and gem gives place to glass and wood.  
          But, lest I should too long digression make,  
          To turn to my first task I think it good. task] talke
  Now that short-glorious life, her leave to take,  
          Did near unto the utmost instant go,  
105         And doubtful step, at which the world doth quake,  
  Another number then themselves did show  
          Of ladies, such as bodies yet did lade:  
          If Death could piteous be, they fain would know.  
  And deep they did in contemplation wade  
110         Of that cold end, presented there to view,  
          Which must be once and must but once be made;  
  All friends and neighbours were this careful crew.  
          But Death with ruthless hand one golden hair  
          Chosen from out those amber tresses drew;  
115 So cropp'd the flower of all this world most fair,  
          To show upon the excellentest thing  
          Her supreme force, and for no hate she bare.  
  How many drops did flow from briny spring  
          In who there saw those sightful fountains dry,  
120         For whom this heart so long did burn and sing? sing] spring
  For her, in midst of moan and misery,  
          Now reaping once what virtue's life did sow,  
          With joy she sat retired silently.  
  'In peace,' cried they, 'right mortal goddess go!'  
125         And so she was, but that in no degree  
          Could Death entreat, her coming to forslow.  
  What confidence for others, if that she  
          Could fry and freeze in few nights' changing cheer?  
          O human hopes, how fond and false you be!  
130 And, for this gentle soul, if many a tear  
          By pity shed did bathe the ground and grass,  
          Who saw doth know; think thou, that dost but hear.  
  The sixth of April, one o'clock, it was,  
          That tied me once and did me now untie:  
135         Changing her copy, thus doth fortune pass.  
  None so his thrall as I my liberty,  
          None so his death as I my life do rue,  
          Staying with me who fain from it would fly.  
  Due to the world, and to my years was due,  
140         That I, as first I came, should first be gone;  
          Not her leaf quail'd, as yet but freshly new.  
  Now, for my woe, guess not by't what is shown,  
          For I dare scarce once cast a thought thereto,  
          So far I am off, in words to make it known.  
145 'Virtue is dead, and dead is beauty too,  
          And dead is courtesy,' in mournful plight  
          The ladies said, 'and now what shall we do?  
  Never again such grace shall bless our sight;  
          Never like wit shall we from woman hear,  
150         And voice replete with angelic delight!'  
  The soul, now press'd to leave that bosom dear,  
          Her virtues all uniting now in one,  
          There, where it pass'd, did make the heavens clear.  
  And of the enemies, so hardly none  
155         That once before her show'd his face obscure,  
          With her assault till Death had thorough gone;  
  Past plaint and fear when first they could endure  
          To hold their eyes on that fair visage bent,  
          And that despair had made them now secure.  
160 Not as great fires violently spent,  
          But in themselves consuming, so her flight  
          Took that sweet sprite and pass'd in peace content,  
  Right like unto some lamp of clearest light,  
          Little and little wanting nutriture,  
165         Holding to end a never-changing plight.  
  Pale? No, but whitely, and more whitely pure  
          Than snow on windless hill that flaking falls,  
          As one whom labour did to rest allure.  
  And when that heav'nly guest those mortal walls  
170         Had left, it nought but sweetly sleeping was  
          In her fair eyes, what folly dying calls:  
  Death fair did seem to be in her fair face.  
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke


  The Second Chapter of the Triumph of Death
  That night, which did the dreadful hap ensue  
          That quite eclips'd, nay, rather did replace  
          The sun in skies, and me bereave of view,  
  Did sweetly sprinkle through the airy space sprinkle] sprintle
5         The summer's frost, which, with Tithonus' bride, Tithonus] Tithon's
          Cleareth of dream the dark-confused face,  
  When, lo, a lady, like unto the tide,  
          With orient jewels crown'd, from thousands more  
          Crowned as she, to me I coming spied.  
10 And first her hand, sometime desired so,  
          Reaching to me, at once she sigh'd and spake,  
          Whence endless joys yet in my heart do grow:  
  'And know'st thou her, who made thee first forsake  
          The vulgar path and ordinary trade,  
15         While her their mark thy youthful thoughts did make?'  
  Then down she sat, and me sit down she made  
          (Thought, wisdom, meekness in one grace did strive)  
          On pleasing bank, in bay and beech's shade. On pleasing] vnpleasing
  'My goddess, who me did, and doth, revive,  
20         Can I but know,' I sobbing answered,  
          'But art thou dead - ah, speak - or yet alive?'  
  'Alive am I, and thou as yet art dead,  
          And as thou art shalt so continue still,  
          Till, by thy ending hour, thou hence be led.  
25 Short is our time to live, and long our will:  
          Then let with heed thy deeds and speeches go,  
          Ere that approaching term his course fulfil.'  
  Quoth I: 'When this our light to end doth grow,  
          Which we call life, (for thou by proof hast tried)  
30         Is it such pain to die? That, make me know.'  
  'While thou,' quoth she, 'the vulgar make thy guide,  
          And on their judgements (all obscurely blind)  
          Dost yet rely, no bliss can thee betide.  
  Of loathsome prison to each gentle mind  
35         Death is the end, and only who employ  
          Their cares on mud therein displeasure find.  
  Ev'n this my death, which yields thee such annoy,  
          Would make in thee far greater gladness rise,  
          Couldst thou but taste least portion of my joy.'  
40 So spake she, with devoutly fixed eyes  
          Upon the heav'ns, then did in silence fold  
          Those rosy lips, attending their replies.  
  'Torments invented by the tyrants old,  
          Diseases, which each part torment and toss,  
45         Causes that death we most most bitter hold.' most most] most
  'I not deny,' quoth she, 'but that the cross  
          Preceding death extremely martyreth,  
          And more the fear of that eternal loss;  
  But when the panting soul in God takes breath,  
50         And weary heart affecteth heav'nly rest,  
          An unrepented sigh, nought else, is death.  
  With body, but with spirit ready press'd,  
          Now at the furthest of my living ways,  
          There sadly utter'd sounds my ear possess'd:  
55 "O hapless he, who counting times and days  
          Thinks each a thousand years, and lives in vain,  
          No more to meet her while on earth he stays,  
  And, on the water now, now on the main,  
          Only on her doth think, doth speak, doth write,  
60         And in all times one manner still retain!"  
  Herewith I thither cast my failing sight,  
          And soon espied, presented to my view,  
          Who oft did, thee restraining, me incite.  
  Well I her face, and well her voice I knew,  
65         Which often did my heart reconsolate:  
          Now wisely grave, then beautifully true.  
  And sure, when I was in my fairest state,  
          My years most green, myself to thee most dear  
          (Whence many much did think, and much debate),  
70 That life's best joy was almost bitter cheer  
          Compared to that death, most mildly sweet,  
          Which comes to men, but comes not everywhere.  
  For I that journey pass'd with gladder feet  
          Than he, from hard exile, that homeward goes;  
75         (But only ruth of thee) without regret.'  
  'For that faith's sake time once enough did show,  
          Yet now to thee more manifestly plain  
          In face of him who all doth see and know -  
  Say, lady, did you ever entertain  
80         Motion or thought more lovingly to rue  
          (Not leaving honour's height) my tedious pain? leaving] loving
  For those sweet wraths, those sweet disdains in you,  
          In those sweet peaces written in your eyes, eyes] eye
          Diversely many years my fancies drew.'  
85 Scarce had I spoken but, in lightning wise,  
          Beaming I saw that gentle smile appear,  
          Sometimes the sun of my woe-darken'd skies.  
  Then, sighing, thus she answer'd: 'Never were  
          Our hearts but one, nor never two shall be;  
90         Only, thy flame I temper'd with my cheer.  
  This only way could save both thee and me;  
          Our tender fame did this support require:  
          The mother had a rod, yet kind is she.  
  How oft this said my thoughts: "In love, nay fire,  
95         Is he; now to provide must I begin,  
          And ill providers are fear and desire."  
  Thou saw'st what was without, not what within. Thou] Tho
          And, as the brake the wanton steed doth tame,  
          So this did thee from thy disorders win.  
100 A thousand times wrath in my face did flame;  
          My heart, meanwhile, with love did inly burn;  
          But never will my reason overcame.  
  For if, woe-vanquish'd, once I saw thee mourn,  
          Thy life, our honour, jointly to preserve, our] or
105         Mine eyes to thee then sweetly did I turn. thee then] thee
  But if thy passion did from reason swerve,  
          Fear in my words, and sorrow in my face,  
          Did then to thee for salutation serve.  
  These arts I us'd with thee, thou ran'st this race:  
110         With kind acceptance now, now sharp disdain; now, now] now
          Thou know'st, and hast it sung in many a place.  
  Sometimes thine eyes pregnant with teary rain  
          I saw, and at the sight, "Behold, he dies  
          But if I help," said I: "the signs are plain."  
115 Virtue for aid did then with love advise.  
          If, spurr'd by love, thou took'st some running toy,  
          "So soft a bit," quoth I, "will not suffice."  
  Thus glad, and sad, in pleasure, and annoy,  
          Hot red, cold pale, thus far I have thee brought,  
120         Weary, but safe, to my no little joy.'  
  Then I, with tears, and trembling: 'What it sought,  
          My faith hath found, whose more than equal meed  
          Were this, if this for truth could pass my thought.'  
  'Of little faith!' quoth she. 'Should this proceed  
125         If false it were, or if unknown, from me?'  
          The flames withal seem'd in her face to breed.  
  'If liking in mine eyes the world did see,  
          I say not, now. Of this right fain I am:  
          Those chains that tied my heart well liked me.  
130 And well me likes (if true it be) my fame, fame] flame
          Which far and near by thee related goes.  
          Nor in thy love could ought but measure blame:  
  That only fail'd, and while, in acted woes,  
          Thou needs wouldst show what I could not but see,  
135         Thou didst thy heart to all the world disclose.  
  Hence sprang my zeal, which yet distemp'reth thee;  
          Our concord such, in everything beside,  
          As when united love and virtue be.  
  In equal flames our loving hearts were tried,  
140         At least when once thy love had notice got,  
          But one to show, the other sought to hide.  
  Thou didst for mercy call with weary throat;  
          In fear and shame I did in silence go:  
          So, much desire became of little note.  
145 But not the less becomes concealed woe,  
          Nor greater grows it utter'd than before:  
          Through fiction truth will neither ebb nor flow.  
  But clear'd I not the darkest mists of yore  
          When I thy words alone did entertain,  
150         Singing for thee "My love dares speak no more"?  
  With thee my heart, to me I did restrain  
          Mine eyes, and thou thy share canst hardly brook,  
          Leasing by me the less, the more to gain!  
  Not thinking, if a thousand times I took  
155         Mine eyes from thee, I many thousands cast  
          Mine eyes on thee, and still with pitying look!  
  Whose shine no cloud had ever overcast,  
          Had I not fear'd in thee those coals to fire fire] fyres
          I thought would burn too dangerously fast.  
160 But to content thee more ere I retire,  
          For end of this, I something will thee tell  
          Perchance agreeable to thy desire:  
  In all things fully bless'd and pleased well,  
          Only in this I did myself displease -  
165         Born in too base a town for me to dwell.  
  And much I griev'd that, for thy greater ease  
          At least, it stood not near thy flow'ry nest;  
          Else, far enough from whence I did thee please,  
  So might the heart on which I only rest,  
170         Not knowing me, have fit itself elsewhere,  
          And I less name, less notice, have possess'd.'  
  'Oh no,' quoth I, 'for me the heav'n's third sphere  
          To so high love advanc'd by special grace,  
          Changeless to me, though chang'd thy dwelling were.'  
175 'Be as it will, yet my great honour was,  
          And is as yet,' she said. 'But, thy delight  
          Makes thee not mark how fast the hours do pass.  
  See from her golden bed Aurora bright, See] Shee
          To mortal eyes returning sun and day,  
180         Breast-high above the ocean, bare to sight.  
  She, to my sorrow, calls me hence away:  
          Therefore, thy words in time's short limits bind,  
          And say in brief, if more thou hast to say.'  
  'Lady,' quoth I, 'your words most sweetly kind  
185         Have easy made whatever erst I bare.  
          But what is left of you to live behind?  
  Therefore to know this is my only care: this is] this
          If slow or swift shall come our meeting day.'  
          She parting said: 'As my conjectures are,  
190 Thou without me long time on earth shalt stay.'  
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke



I.95 Assuming eyeskip to the previous line; 'strange peoples' (or 'people') represents a more obvious and a better translation of the lines 'Che vale a soggiogar gli altrui paesi | e tributarie far le genti strane' and makes the line metrical. [return to text]


Sidneiana is edited by Gavin Alexander. Contributions, comments, and suggestions welcome.

© The material on this page is copyright CERES and Gavin Alexander. All use must be acknowledged.

This page last updated Monday, 20 September 1999