Background on Phyllyp Sparowe

Connected Background



Introduction and Background to

The poem Phyllyp Sparowe occurs in several print witnesses, the main source is known as The Boke of Phyllyp Sparowe and was published by R. Copeland for R. Kele around 1545. There are three contemporary prints by Wyght (ca. 1553), Kitson (ca. 1560), and Kitson’s Workes (1568). Skelton presumably wrote the poem somewhere between 1485 and 1505 (Scattergood 405). Scattergood dates the poem before 1505, the year Jane died, after having become a widow in 1502.

Generally considered to be one of Skelton’s more accessible parodic poems, Phyllyp Sparowe has been well-attested in modern scholarship. Scattergood refers to the first 844 lines of poem as a ‘mock elegy’ for the pet sparrow of Jane Scrope (405). In his 1951 article, Robert S. Kinsman sums up the essence of the poem: “integrated with passages representing a girl’s sorrow for her dead pet, snatches from the service for the dead, reminiscences of Ovid and Catullus, a mass of the birds, a set of commendations for the fair mourner, come reflections of the medieval custom of prayers for the dead whose most literary expression took the form of the titulus in the rotuli mortuorum, for Phyllyp Sparowe has for background the rouleau individuel” (484). Kinsman has shown that the form of the poem fits into the popular medieval tradition of writing memorial verses known as tituli, to which Skelton directly alludes in the Latin ending of the poem (474). As soon as the act of composing versified condolences became a widespread use among clerics, poets began to mock these formulas (479). Hence, rather than a downright parody, Kinsman sees Phyllyp Sparowe as a playful interpretation and reinvention of medieval conventions.

Ilona M. McGuinness takes an opposing statement and sees the poem as an attack on “the extreme position of those denouncing religious ritual and espousing the study of the classics as an alternative to prayer” (215). She argues that the main subject of mockery is not the lament for Jane’s sparrow, but that the satiric tone “mirrors the contemporary debate between humanists and conservative Catholics on the issue of Church reform, a debate which was in its early stages at the time Skelton was writing Phyllyp Sparowe” (216). McGuinness sees two separate laments in the poem: one for the sparrow, another for Jane’s problems as mourner. There is more to Jane’s lamenting Mary than simply overstated popular devotion: “a sixteenth-century audience would have recognized Marian complaints parodied here as something more: as targets of the humanists’ objection to formalized prayer and as a criticism of those affective lyrics which were intended to serve as a preliminary step to meditation” (McGuinness 221). Allusions to romance imagery and the plainsong form indicate how in Phyllyp Sparrowe Skelton also criticises the secularisation of the Church. According to McGuinness, Skelton seems to proclaim that affective poetry and song must be exorcised from the Church, as had the drama in the twelfth century, and rededicated to the secular pursuits, like courting lovers, for which they were originally intended (McGuinness 231).

Not only does the poem deal with typically medieval themes, it is also influenced by Classical sources. The theme of an elegy for a pet sparrow clearly echoes that of Catullus’ poems dedicated to Lesbia’s sparrow. This is not a mere coincidence as various scholars have pointed out various similarities between the poems. Rather strikingly, Skelton is the first English writer to refer to Hades as the ‘isles of Orcady’. This small reference is significant insofar as Catullus is among the few Latin sources to offer this idiom, and Skelton the first to adopt the imagery in an identical manner (Blevins 22). Allusions to Catullus in Skelton’s other poems confirm that the poet had indeed access to the works of the Latin poet, as can be read in Castro Carracedo‘s 2004 article.