John Scattergood: John Skelton: The Career of an Early Tudor Poet

By Boffey, Julia | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

John Scattergood: John Skelton: The Career of an Early Tudor Poet


Boffey, Julia, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


JOHN SCATTERGOOD

John Skelton: The Career of an Early Tudor Poet. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014. 432 pp. + 5 illustrations.

Skelton was in his own time a challenging writer, one who both leveled and prompted criticism, and his reputation since his death in 1529 has been an uneven one. John Scattergood's very substantial new study aims to "describe the shape and details of this extraordinary career with all its contradictions and inconsistencies." To this end it offers a richly detailed account of Skelton's various affiliations--at court, as a parish priest, as a member of a London circle of scholars and ecclesiasts--and explores in revealing depth the conventions and modes that informed the works he produced. Although Skelton's oeuvre obstinately resists easy categorization, its impulses are broadly those of praise or blame, and a persuasive case is made here for his cultivation of an ethical poetic. Working with biographical and much other historical detail, Scattergood constructs a series of contexts significant to Skelton's creative practice and explores the variety of ways in which these were likely to have been influential on Skelton's decisions about what and how to write.

These contexts situate Skelton first at the court of Henry VII, serving as tutor to the princes Arthur and Henry, and while producing works in both prose and verse relevant to the exercise of rule, also writing in The Bowge of Court about the precariousness of court life and exploring the potentialities of elegy and different forms of lyric verse. His years at Diss, from 1503 to 1512, are seen to have prompted experiments with a poetic informed by confessional and liturgical modes. Skelton's return to London and Westminster, and his new role as orator regis, meant the cultivation of a more obviously public voice, exercised in poems celebrating events such as the English victory at Flodden. Not all the writing of these years was celebratory, however, and the chapters on this part of his career deal successively with the variously open and subversive kinds of critique launched by Skelton against an assortment of scholars, grammarians, and statesmen. It is by no means easy to delineate a clear trajectory here, but Scattergood confronts and clarifies the various contradictions apparent in Skelton's writing (his changing views about Wolsey, for example), and interprets them as the inevitable results of his strong, often irascible, engagement with events taking place around him.

The special intensity of this engagement is likely to account in some part for another of the challenges of Skelton scholarship: his evident tendency to rewrite and revise his works, to the extent that accurate definition of the canon of his writings remains difficult. Scattergood acknowledges this briefly in his introductory chapter and returns to it intermittently in discussion of individual works; his focus in the book is not primarily on textual matters, however, but rather on the elucidation of the traditions and contexts informing Skelton's practice. …

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