The Medieval Review 12.01.25

Hasler, Antony J. Court Poetry in Late Medieval England and Scotland: Allegories of Authority. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 253. $90. ISBN 978-0-521-80957-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Janet Hadley Williams
Australian National University

Antony Hasler's book is a worthy contribution to the Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature series. It brings fresh scholarship to bear upon works written between 1485 and 1528 by Bernard André (Vita Henrici Septimi), William Dunbar ("Quhen Merche wes with variand windis past" here titled The Thrissill and the Rois, The Goldyn Targe, the petitionary poems), John Skelton (The Bowge of Courte, Speke Parott, The Garland of Laurell), Gavin Douglas (The Palice of Honour), Alexander Barclay (Eclogues) and Stephen Hawes (The Pastime of Pleasure, The Confort of Lovers).

Hasler states that his particular interest is in the "forms of poetic identity" (2) generated in these works in response to the multiple sources of authority that surround them, including monarchs and courts, but also a variety of genres, and earlier and contemporary texts. In the poems he considers, Hasler sees the position of the poet as "displaced, other (allos)--as, we might say, always allegorized" (2). Hasler pays such close and thoughtful attention to the poet that the main title of his book might equally have been, Court Poets and their Poetry in Late Medieval England and Scotland.

In the six chapters, especially the earlier ones, an in-depth knowledge of other writers, including Gower, Chaucer, Lydgate, Ashby, Hoccleve, Martin le Franc, Jean de le Mote (not "la" as on 68), Guillaume Crétin, and Deguileville is put to good use; there is never the thinness in the writing that suggests a lack of awareness of the late medieval milieu in its widest sense.

Hasler is discerning, and often surprising, in his reasons for linking some of those poets upon which he focuses in more detail. In the first chapter, André's Vita Henrici Septimi is set beside Dunbar's "Quhen Merche wes" because both texts, "while revealing of their contrasted court cultures, seek authority in blindness, absence and the unnamed spaces between figurations of presence, and find it a precarious formation" (19). This approach works best for André, through some careful observation of the physical evidence. The significance of blank spaces in BL Cotton MS Domitian A.xvii, the manuscript containing André's Vita, and of their relationship to André's own blindness, is used to show the poet choosing, strategically, to be either reticent or forthcoming about the good and bad associations with Henry VII of pertinent historical events. (Hasler is properly cautious about the claimed actual blindness of André.) For Dunbar, additional consideration of The Goldyn Targe, with its emphases on sight and light, as well as absence and presence, is necessary before the argument begins to show how both poets have some similarity in their roles as unofficial propagandists for their regimes.

Hasler's discussion of Skelton's The Bowge of Courte and other work of the 1490s (chapter two) is worthwhile if strenuous reading (the latter difficulty receiving more comment below). Hasler touches on the fact and, at more length, the impact of the poem's printed form (anonymously, by Wynkyn de Worde in 1499); on Skelton's interest, at this earlier time in his career, in "a more vernacular eroticism" (44) than found in his later works; on his skilled translation of court satire into dream vision; and on a disgust in court life that appears to be autobiographical. The chapter concentrates, however, on the idea that, "within fifteenth- century public discourse there may lie a hidden kernel of secrecy," a "poetics of obscuring hidden within the language of 'illumyning'" (48). The discussion of the meaning of the "bowge of courte" itself, including the courtier's own "commodification" (53-5), is perceptive and strongly underpinned by some useful notes. In this small section, for instance, Hasler draws on MED, Geoffrey de Vinsauf, and Lucian, as well as (here and throughout) an impressive range of modern literary criticism, his comments almost always well digested and to the point.

In chapter three Hasler addresses "the rhetoric of the self" (63) as found in Dunbar's petitionary poems. Hasler begins by stating that he differs from the positions of the editor of Dunbar's works, Priscilla Bawcutt, and from the scholar of early French literature, Christine Scollen-Jimack, arguing that both "overlook the culturally and politically productive function of literary convention" (64), and that "the begging poem is not reducible either to convention or to function, but rather represents with remarkable consistency certain relations of power between subject and sovereign" (64). Yet Bawcutt's 1992 monograph, Dunbar the Makar considers just these important points (103-30). (This book is, unfortunately, listed in Hasler's bibliography as the work of Emmanule Baumgartner.) Hasler's own discussion draws attention to several petitionary themes, including the use made of the physical illness of the poet while serving, or as a consequence of serving, the prince. His illustrations begin with the Archpoet's cough, and end, via Machaut, and Molinet, with a quotation from Guillaume Crétin listing the poet's many such ills, but they are not accompanied by a sentence that shows just how these examples are linked to William Dunbar's "My heid did yak yester nicht." It is Bawcutt who succinctly notes these, and further French examples, as some of the "more distant parallels [to Dunbar's petitions]" (Dunbar the Makar, 104). Similarly puzzling is Hasler's dismissive reference to Scollen-Jimack's stance in her article on Marot and Deschamps (French Studies 42, 1988). Therein Scollen-Jimack does not mention Dunbar, but she shows an alertness to the many facets--political, cultural, and personal--of the relationship between poet and sovereign, as well as to the great flexibility of the petitionary tradition. The work of these scholars illuminates, and appears to assist Hasler throughout his own chapter. This work, too, sheds light; Hasler's discussion of the "variety of gendered identifications" (80) has much to offer.

Chapter four concerns two poets with ecclesiastical qualifications, Alexander Barclay and Gavin Douglas. The association of these two also directs attention to the activity of translation (more specifically its bearing on both the presence and absence of poetic and clerical identity, and the role it gives to the vernacular in dissemination). Hasler studies Barclay's Eclogues, in which works by Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini and Mantuan are translated, and Douglas's The Palice of Honour. The Eclogues, as the first major pastoral poem in English, was pioneering. Douglas's Palice was the earlier work of the equally pioneering translator of Virgil's Aeneid. Hasler sees both these writers in terms of their relationship to national ambitions (88). His reading of the Eclogues is useful, drawing attention to Barclay's allusions to other writers of the day (Jean Lemaire de Belges, John Skelton, Stephen Hawes); to modern figures recently dead (Alcock, bishop of Ely; Morton, archbishop of Canterbury; Roger Westminster, prior of Ely; Sir Edward Howard), as well as to his early sources. As he does so, Hasler also discusses the ways in which Barclay depicts "the tensions between an English political center and monastic margins" (98). From this discussion he moves to Douglas, noting that the Scottish poet shares with Barclay an "uneasy view of the imagined court, not least in its discussion of corporeal integrity" (98). This refers in particular to the episode in The Palice set at Venus's court, in which the dreamer, having offended, fears the punishment of Ovidian metamorphosis, but Hasler also applies this, most interestingly, to the shift in the poem from the dreamer's initial position as lover, to the later one of the dreamer as cleric (a being closer to Douglas himself) (104). Hasler observes the "dismantling' (104) process of the poem with skill and humour. In addition he discusses in some detail the dreamer's glimpses of "the represent" (line 1904), that is, the sight, of "a god armypotent" (1921), alluding to the opinions of several modern critics, and drawing attention to the difference between the London edition of the poem he is using, and the later Edinburgh edition, in which the same line has the words, "ane God Omnipotent." It is a pity that among those several modern critics he cites, Hasler does not mention Bawcutt's cogent discussion of this episode (Gavin Douglas. A Critical Study, 1976, 61-3). This covers similar ground, and considers the identity of the g/God, something that Hasler leaves aside.

Hasler makes a substantial contribution to the theme of his book in chapters five, devoted to the poems of Stephen Hawes, and six, chiefly on Skelton's Speke Parott. For Hawes, the focus is on "authority behind a series of veils" (110), which veiled authority, Hasler argues, is a feature of the poet's handling of narrative voice and prosopopeia in The Pastime of Pleasure, and the later Comfort of Lovers, a poem with a "bizarre and fascinating" (110) combination of political prophecy and love complaint. The discussion of Hawes's "vocabulary of revelation and concealment" (114) and of its application to the structural use of vernacular modes, is well set out. In the final chapter Skelton's anti-Wolsey writings of the early 1520s are presented as an extreme of the book's thesis in embracing "a poetics that deranges spheres of authority altogether" (145). There are many insights in this chapter: Hasler is thoroughly familiar with Skelton. One instance refers to the passage in Speke Parrott, lines 140a-75, concerning Wolsey (his endowment of the Greek chair at Oxford) and the Grammarians' war (155). Hasler explains this step by step, but his final comment, that "[t]he passage is profoundly reminiscent of the 'scholastic battle play' of medieval disputationes," gathering all together, is the most valuable.

Understandably, there are many links between the chosen poems that are not addressed. Some are only slight, and perhaps not worth noting. Among them is Skelton's reference to his wish to emulate the "poetes olde" (The Bowge of Courte, line 9), echoed by Lyndsay in his Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo. Yet it is truly disappointing not to have the benefit of Hasler's discussion of an especially resonant image, that of the mirror, which appears distinctively in the work of Douglas (Palice, 100, 104-5), Hawes (Comfort, 129-39), and Skelton (Speke Parott, 150 and 154). Equally, there is more to be said about the intercalated material and its ability to "generate different tensions" (117) in Hawes'sPastime, and those stanzas in Douglas's Palice that are set apart by their identification as "lays" (606, 1014).

Repeatedly, this reader, despite a keen interest in all that the book contains, (including the thoughtful consideration of Lyndsay's works of the 1530s), found lengthy and convoluted sentence structure an obstacle to understanding. To his credit Hasler is close to his own project, to the chosen texts, and to the literary criticism, extensive in some cases, they have attracted. Yet there must be a better way to say that "[t]exts of counsel, and other advisory texts, intimate that the poetic subject's gestures towards identification with the image of power take place under the mask of--are, indeed, finally inseparable from--an explicit, perhaps inevitable, failure to identify" (14).