(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

In 1490, William Caxton described John Skelton in glowing terms. He apparently viewed Skelton as a perfect example of a rising court scholar and poet, one worth praising in print. Desiderius Erasmus, who epitomizes the early Renaissance humanist, met Skelton in 1499 and admired him. However, the poet fell rapidly into obscurity after his death, surfacing in literary surveys only to be described as “beastly” or “scurrilous.” These contradictions are easier to explain than might be supposed. First, Skelton’s literary career underwent a marked shift beginning with the publication of The Bowge of Court in 1499. Until that time, Skelton’s work had been what Caxton’s remarks suggest: scholarly, patriotic, and sagacious. As he began to criticize political and religious changes in England, a new persona emerged. Subtly in The Bowge of Court, more fully in Ware the Hawk, and full blast in Speke, Parrot, Skelton reveals a sensibility by turns bitter, vitriolic, ribald, self-righteous, and intolerant.

Second, Skelton’s reputation changed because his fundamental values were misperceived by later generations. Since he wrote in an unusually diffuse, free-spoken, irreverent manner, readers, especially in the nineteenth century, lost sight of the essentially conservative values that underlie his work. Skelton became accustomed, while relatively young, to certain habits of life. He associated himself with the Tudor court, he was devoutly religious, and he was committed to a certain kind of learning and literature that emphasized knowledge of Latin. When his stability was challenged by changes in government, church, and education, his poetry changed drastically. All his major work treats the theme of personal instability in a shifting world.

The Bowge of Court

Thus, in The Bowge of Court, the condition of a courtier is revealed as “Dread”; in Phyllyp Sparowe, language and convention are twisted to reveal new, ironic possibilities of expression; in Ware the Hawk, the sanctity of the church is defended with a kind of comic hysteria. Speke, Parrot is the culmination of his stylistic experimentation; for many students today, this poem is unreadable, an impenetrable jungle of Latin, French, random allusion and odd statement. Skelton’s poems after Speke, Parrot retain some of these macaronic devices but are not quite as difficult, and in The Garlande of Laurell, he returns to the relatively straightforward form of the dream vision.

The Bowge of Court, Skelton’s first long poem, is an allegorical dream vision in the tradition of Chaucer’s House of Fame (1372-1380). The title might be translated as “Patronage of Court” since “bouge” means free rations or board, as in the kind of stipend given to courtiers. The pattern of the poem resembles the Chaucerian dream vision as it was imitated in fifteenth century works such as The King’s Quair and The Court of Love.

The poem’s prologue introduces the speaker as a poet who is having trouble writing. When he falls asleep, he dreams of a stately ship, the Bowge of Court, carrying a cargo of Favor. The dreamer meets a lady-in-waiting to the owner of the ship; he tells her his name is Dread. The allegorical situation becomes apparent. The main character, Dread, represents anxiety: Like the poet-narrator, he cannot gain a firm foothold in life, and he seeks aid or reassurance from outside himself. Dread, unfortunately, has come to a very bad place for stability. Not only is the Bowge of Court a ship, but also its favors are dispensed only for money and only at the command of the ship’s pilot, Fortune.

Dread’s very nature—his fearfulness—makes him the target of attack by his fellow passengers on the ship. Almost immediately, he is caught up in a network of intrigue involving Favell (Flattery) and Suspect. Similarly, five other characters (ranging from the pickpocket Harvy Hafter to Deceit) increase Dread’s anxiety, until he jumps overboard to escape them. At this point the dreamer awakens, and the poem ends.

The Bowge of Court differs significantly from dream visions by earlier writers, which usually provide a “psychopaunt,” or dream guide, for the narrator. Dread is alone, and no one helps him draw a moral from his experience. The Bowge of Court criticizes court folly in the typical fashion of satire, but it also, perhaps more significantly, provides an analysis of Dread as a state of mind, and throws an emphasis on the speaker’s insecurities.

Phyllyp Sparowe

While Skelton was rector of Diss, he composed ironic elegies for two of his parishioners. Witty as these are, they are surpassed in whimsicality by the long, unusual poem Phyllyp Sparowe, in which Skelton eulogizes the pet bird of Jane Scrope, a young neighbor. The poem, written in Skeltonic trimeter, has been said to imitate the quick jerky movement of a sparrow.

The poem begins with a version of the Catholic burial mass, lamenting the death of the pet bird. Much of the poem is filtered through the mind of Jane, who both laments Philip lavishly and remembers with pleasure his charming habits in life. She imagines all the birds holding a mass in his honor, and she searches her memory for books that might provide him with an epitaph. In this section of the poem, Skelton relies on the reader’s knowledge that parodies of the mass are traditional; he also assimilates Philip into the tradition in which Ovid and Catullus exploit the sexual implications of a sparrow who hops around in his mistress’s lap and tries to get under the covers of her bed.

Furthermore, the poem contains a section headed “Commendations”; here Skelton, abandoning Philip, praises Jane herself. In all sections of the poem, Skelton freely adds snippets of Latin or French. Phyllyp Sparowe ends with an epilogue, clearly written after the rest of the poem had circulated, defending what had apparently struck many critics as blasphemous or inappropriate. Although Skelton does not offer a detailed defense of his own work, he might well have argued for its essential conservatism in religious matters. Skelton does not burlesque the burial mass or use it for vulgar purposes; he simply includes it among the devices by which he pokes fun at Jane’s excessive...

(The entire section is 2640 words.)