Thu, Dec 12, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: The Phoenix and the Parrot: Skelton and the Language of Satire

Oxford professor Douglas Gray delivers a fun primer on John Skelton, a 16th century English poet who may have invented an early form of rap lyric

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Skelton is often remembered as England’s first “poet laureate.” This, however, is deceptive. The title wasn’t given, as now, to a single celebrated figure, but to any prominent practitioner. Petrarch was so honored in Italy, and more than one poet was awarded the title in Skelton’s era.

It’s interesting to note that Skelton was writing over 100 years after Chaucer, but that Chaucer feels much more our contemporary. The reason for this, apart from Chaucer’s confident supremacy in every genre he touched, lies in the older poet’s characteristic irony, smoothness of style, genial persona and close social observation — a combination that will attract readers in any age. But Skelton is anything but smooth, let alone genial, and doesn’t remain in one mode long enough for a term like “irony” to apply. He therefore feels quirky (which he is) and hard to pin down. He attracts with one side of his talent and alienates with another, like a bipolar magnet.

Yet, like Chaucer, and also like Shakespeare, Skelton was versed in both learned and popular traditions. He also loved mixing the two, as Shakespeare was to do after him. All this is more than adequately explained by Douglas Gray. There’s probably no one alive with a comparable expertise to Gray’s in this literary period, and he can only be described as modest when he calls himself a Skelton addict rather than a Skelton expert.

The great critic John Bayley, also an Oxford English professor, once told me that Douglas Gray would never countenance the intrusion of politics into literary scholarship. By this he clearly meant “literary theory,” and there’s certainly not a trace of that in this book.

The Phoenix and the Parrot (the title refers to Skelton’s high and low styles) serves several purposes. If you’re a beginner who wants an introduction to Skelton, this is it. But if you’re an advanced student who wants some detailed insights into Skelton’s major poems, this is also the book for you.

The Phoenix and the Parrot is published by the University of Otago’s Department of English. The university, located in Dunedin in the far south of New Zealand, has recently become something of a center for Skelton studies, and the book can be ordered directly from the publisher.

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