To place John Skelton in a convenient niche in literary history is difficult, but it is even more difficult to find an appropriate artistic designation for the work of this early Tudor poet. Nearer in time to the writing of Sir Thomas Wyatt or Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, Skelton is much nearer in his style to the writing of the medieval Latinists.
Despite being called a Humanist scholar, Skelton did not have much in common with the Humanists and even indulged in some feuding with them. While the Humanists (a group of scholars, associated with Desiderius Erasmus, whose intellectual focus was on the human rather than the divine) were reviving an interest in the classical Greek and Latin writers and using them for examples, Skelton continued to copy the style of fourteenth and fifteenth century writers. What he had in common with the Humanists, however, was an interest in the world and in people as they are.
“The Bouge of Court” is typical of the medieval tradition in several ways. It uses rhyme royal to tell a dream allegory, relies heavily on personification and the use of court terms, and has the usual astronomical opening and closing apology. The prologue begins with allusions to the sun, the moon, and Mars. The narrator wishes he could write, but being warned by Ignorance not to try, he lies down and dreams of going aboard a ship, The Bouge of Court, which is owned by Sans Peer and captained by Fortune. The narrator, who reveals that he is called Drede, is first accosted and frightened by Danger, the chief gentlewoman of Sans Peer. Before Drede can flee, he is soothed by Desire, who persuades him to stay aboard.
After this introduction comes the main body of the poem, which consists of conversation between Drede and seven of the passengers, Skelton’s representations of the seven deadly sins. Drede first describes the approaching figure in unforgettable detail; then, as the figure speaks, an even sharper focus of his personality is achieved. The seven passengers are named Favel or Flattery, Suspect, Harvy Hafter, Disdain, Riot, Dissimulation, and Deceit. Harvy Hafter is Skelton’s most colorful creation in the poem, and he is still around.
But as I stood musing in my mind,Harvy Hafter came leaping, light as lynde.Upon his breast he bare a versing-box,His throat was clear, and lustily could fayne.Methought his gown was all furréd with fox,And ever he sang, ’Sith I am nothing plain . . .’To keep him from picking it was a great pain:He gazed on me with goatish beard;Whan I looked on him, my purse was half afeard.
Thus, Harvy Hafter is the typical confidence man, always optimistic, always ready to dispel all doubts and fears with pat answers and stale jokes.
After talking with these seven characters, Drede fears for his life and jumps overboard. The leap and hitting the water awaken him, and he seizes his pen and records his dream. In the final stanza, his apology, he states that what he has recorded is only a dream, but sometimes even dreams contain truth.
I would therewith no man were miscontent,Beseeching you that shall it see or readIn every point to be indifferent,Sith all in substance of slumbring cloth proceed.I will not say it is matter indeed,But yet oft-time such dreams be found true.Now construe ye what is the residue!
Though this poem is typical of the medieval tradition, its importance lies in how it deviates from the tradition: Its difference is Skelton’s contribution. His characters are certainly types, as in a dream allegory they must be, but they are more than the mere pictured figures of medieval writing. They are highly individualized characters, as shown by Harvy Hafter’s description, and they are characterized not only by description but also by their own speech. Furthermore, Skelton’s setting is more concrete than is usual in the medieval tradition.
The allegory depicts the life at court as Skelton saw it. The highest achievement of the courtier was to be recognized by the king and to maintain his favor, no matter what the means. Those who attained his favor were openly praised but privately scorned and envied by the others. Thus, if one succeeded, he failed to maintain the true friendship of his fellow courtiers, for flattery, jealousy, disdain, suspicion, and other feelings all joined forces to destroy such friendship. To Skelton, the irony of such a life was that gaining the attention of the king was accomplished purely by chance. Since this kind of court life was demeaning, in Skelton’s view, he attacked it.
Another of Skelton’s early poems that shows the poet still working in the medieval tradition is “Philip Sparrow.” Following a medieval point of view, Skelton wrote this poem in the short-lined couplets, tercets, and quatrains now known as Skeltonic verse. This poem is Skelton’s most playful and most popular work; in it, readers see the poet in a mood in which he casts dignity and restraint aside and indulges himself in a bit of fantasy. He describes the activities of the bird, its death, and its funeral. It is a long and rather loose poem that can be broken into three distinct parts.
The first part, which takes over half of the 1,382 lines in the poem, is a dramatic monologue with Jane Scroop as narrator telling of her Philip Sparrow. Through her, Skelton gives the reader his appraisal of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate, and uses the opportunity to display his wide reading in Greek and Latin. He parodies the funeral mass by having the whole host of birds chant over the dead body of Philip Sparrow. The most delightful lines are those in which Jane talks of her pet.
(The entire section is 2557 words.)