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The Phoenix and the Parrot: Skelton and the Language of Satire by Douglas Gray (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 194-195 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0125

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Douglas Gray begins his book by declaring that it is the 'work of a Skelton addict rather than a Skelton expert', but this modesty is misplaced: this is a book full of learning and ideas, deriving from a long career spent in the study of late medieval literature. The book originated in the De Carle lectures given at The University of Otago in 1989 on Skelton and the language of satire; revised and updated versions of these constitute Chapters 5 to 10. But to these are added some hundred pages of introductory material and an account of Skelton's life and career. The book does tend to fall into two halves, but it is no less valuable for that.

Gray, like most scholars, sees Skelton as a poet of contradictions and extremes, hence the emblematic birds of his title - the divine ethereal phoenix and the mundane chattering parrot - and he finds both praise for his learning and disapproval for his 'railing and scoffery' in Skelton's early commentators. He generalises from this in a comment which very much shapes his approach to the poet: 'Skelton was deeply in tune with both learned and popular traditions; he draws on such a wide range of both learned and popular experience that no single mode is allowed to have a monopoly of the truth' (pp. 10-11). Gray sees Skelton's inconsistencies, his changes of mind and stance, his variety, and makes no attempt to smooth them over.

While Gray recognises that Skelton was aware of both the 'learned' and the 'popular' forms of satire, his treatment of them is uneven. He writes: 'although he alludes to Jeremiah, Juvenal and Jerome, he seems to be closely in touch with the forms and techniques of popular satire in particular' (p. 109). But Skelton not only 'alludes' to Juvenal. He refers to him at least seven times that I can think of, in both his English and his Latin poems, and he appears to have framed Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? on the basis of Juvenal: Skelton claims that he wrote the poem 'At Juvynals request' (l. 1211); he twice quotes him, once in Latin to end the poem (ll. 1216-17); and he may have derived the question and answer technique, which moves the poem on, from Juvenal's Satire IV. But Gray, interestingly, stresses the popular traditions to which Skelton had access - the charivari, taunting verse such as the blason populaire, flytings, and 'doggerel rhyme'.

He prefaces his analysis of Skelton's language of satire with an interesting chapter on what he identifies as 'a constant interest' (p. 128) in linguistic matters in the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. This was generated, he argues, by a number of factors - translation, which brought English into contact and comparison with other languages, the increasing status of English at the expense of Latin, a sense that the language had changed considerably since Chaucer's time, the way that colloquial vocabulary was finding its way into literary and formal texts, and a general tendency for 'experimentation, sometimes playful' (p. 133). The intellectual context in England was favourable to Skelton's capacity for exploiting different styles - ranging from the highly aureate to the grossly demotic - just as it was in France for Rabelais, and some of Gray's comparisons between these two writers are striking and genuinely illuminating, though it is unlikely that either knew of the other's work.

In the first of three chapters in which he addresses directly the language of Skelton's satires, Gray discusses the poet's well-known capacity for neologising (usually creating English words from Latin originals), his creative way with prefixes and suffixes, and with compounds including reduplicating compounds. He uses snatches of other languages than English, especially in Speke Parrot. He plays word-games and uses puns a great deal. A number of his poems are macaronic, like the mock-epitaphs on two of his parishioners in Diss, with whom he had quarrelled, but mock-epitaphs had existed earlier in both Latin and English, so it looks as though Skelton simply combined them. A second chapter concentrates on demotic language and Skelton's use of the...

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