Sunday Sonnet.

I am repeating this sonnet sequence, in part because it is reformed, in part because it is in English, and in part because it predates Shakespeare, and finally, because Tudor women were tough.

These are the biographical facts of Anne Locke’s life: she was the daughter of Steven Vaughan, who was in Henry VIII’s service shortly before the English Reformation. Vaughan fully supported the Protestant Reformation – probably a bit too enthusiastically, given that the 1530s was a time when overzealous reformers could come to a sticky end as easily as ardent Catholics. His daughter, Anne, was born in around 1530 and inherited her father’s reforming zeal. When Anne grew up she married Henry Locke, who shared the Vaughan family’s passion for Protestant reform. In 1553, the Scottish reformer John Knox stayed with the Lockes, until the accession of Catholic Bloody Mary sent him into self-exile on the Continent. Anne and her husband joined Knox in Switzerland in 1557, taking their two young children with them. Their daughter died four days after they arrived in Geneva. The Lockes didn’t stay long in Switzerland, and following the death of Mary I a year later, they returned to England. But Locke stayed in touch with Knox: Robert Louis Stevenson even argued that Anne Locke was the woman Knox loved more than any other. (We don’t know when Locke died – some time after 1590 is the best guess.)
Although she had not received a formal education – English schools were still all-male affairs – Locke had been taught the essentials, and could read and write well in several languages. This led to her translating some of the sermons of another Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, which were published in 1560.
But what’s particularly interesting is the sequence of 26 sonnets which she included in the book of sermons. Titled A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner: Written in Maner of A Paraphrase upon the 51. Psalme of David, it’s the first sonnet sequence written in English, published over twenty years before Sir Philip Sidney wrote his Astrophil and Stella and over thirty years before Shakespeare began his sonnets.
Locke’s authorship of the sonnets only became widely accepted by scholars recently, and for a long time the general view was that Knox had written them. Locke helped to fan the flames of speculation, claiming in her preface to the sonnets that they were the work of a ‘friend’ and she was merely including them in her volume. But the work appears to have been all Locke’s, although, as the full title of the sequence suggests, the poems are a paraphrase of the sentiments expressed in the 51st Psalm.

The author is correct about the sequence being a paraphrase, and I am attaching a modern translation of the verse for this week’s paraphrase(unlike the Lumnarium edition, which refers to a translation of that time)

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.

Psalm 51;2, NASB

Here is the Sonnet. Read it out loud and the spelling will become clear; this is well before dictionaries and regularization of spelling.

My many sinnes in nomber are encreast,
With weight wherof in sea of depe despeire
My sinking soule is now so sore opprest,
That now in peril and in present fere,

I crye: susteine me, Lord, and Lord I pray,
With endlesse nomber of thy mercies take
The endlesse nomber of my sinnes away.
So by thy mercie, for thy mercies sake,

Rue on me, Lord, releue me with thy grace.
My sinne is cause that I so nede to haue
Thy mercies ayde in my so woefull case:
My synne is cause that scarce I dare to craue

Thy mercie manyfolde, which onely may
Releue my soule, and take my sinnes away.

Anne Locke, Meditations of a Penitent Sinner, Sonnet 2.