The Medieval Review 17.05.04

Scattergood, John, ed. The Complete English Poems of John Skelton. Revised Edition. Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies . Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015. pp. ix, 566. £30.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-84631-948-8 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

A.S.G. Edwards
University of Kent

John Scattergood’s edition of John Skelton: The Complete English Poems was first published in 1983 as part of the Penguin English Poets series. Long out of print, it now reappears in a revised edition under the imprint of Liverpool University Press.

The original edition did much to foster scholarly study of Skelton. It shared with most of its predecessors a text that was chiefly based on that established in Dyce’s remarkable 1843 edition. But it was often less heavily modernized than its predecessors. And it provided for the first time a comprehensive apparatus of introduction and annotation for all the poems that made them accessible to modern readers to a far greater degree than hitherto. Indeed, it was the ability to clarify Skelton’s allusive complexity that was arguably Scattergood’s greatest achievement and has made this the standard modern edition.

This is announced as a “revised edition.” ‘The Preface states that its aim is “to update the book so as to make it useful to twenty-first century readers.” To this end “the section on the Notes has been extensively revised,” and other sections, notably that on dating and on recent Skelton scholarship have been rewritten. The text is substantially unchanged although “a number of readings of difficult lines in several poems” (vii), have been changed. Where these changes occur is not specified. There are a couple of points in The Bowge of Courte (V, 186, 387) where there is new discussion of specific readings, the first of which is changed (from “Twyst” to “Twysse”). Not just (I hope) for selfish reasons I am sorry that that my proposal that line 210 of Why Come Ye Not to Court should read “Maketh his membre smell” rather than “Maketh his membres swell” (Notes & Queries NS 45 [1998], 30-1) is not mentioned. The disinclination to mark emendations in the conventional way, through the use of square brackets, and the lack of a separate textual apparatus, makes it hard to identify editorial changes to copy text throughout.

The Notes seem generally to have stood the test of time. A few notes have been enlarged; for example, “Against Garnesche,” XIII, ii 16 (p. 392), XIII, iii 101 (393); Collyn Clout, XIX, lines 826-27 (pp. 451-2); Garland of Laurel XXI, line 1411 (p. 495); and a couple of new notes have been added to ‘Howe the Douty Duke of Albany’, XXIII, lines 373-86, and 480-94. Several of the Headnotes have been revised and enlarged, to VIII “Epitaphe” (p. 380) , X “Calliope” (p. 384); XVI Magnyfycence (400-02) XXIII ‘Howe the Douty Duke of Albany’ (500-01); the Headnote on XIII “Agenst Garnesche”(pp. 389-90) has been rewritten. There are a very few points where additional commentary might have been justified. For example, in the Bowge of Courte on the line “Heve and how, rombelow, row the bote, Norman, rowe” (V, 252) it might have been worth drawing attention to the lines “Your mariners shall singe arowe | hey, how and rumbylawe” in the possibly contemporary Squire of Low Degree, lines 823-24. The curious appearance of apparent Norfolk dialect forms beginning with x- which appear only in the manuscript of “Agenst Garnesche” (“xall,” “xalte,” “xulddst,” “xuldest,” “xuldyst”) might have invited some comment.

One can only be grateful for Professor Scattergood’s continuing careful attention to Skelton’s works. And all students of the poet will use his edition to their profit. But this is not a definitive edition, nor would Professor Scattergood claim it to be. And it may be worth pointing to a couple of the problems that remain for Skelton’s text in the light of Professor Scattergood’s achievement.

One crucial problem area is one he indicates himself: the canon. Scattergood is explicit about the basis for the canon in his edition. It includes “only those poems considered authentic by Kinsman and Yonge.” Robert Kinsman and Theodore Yonge published their John Skelton: Canon and Census in 1967 and its limitations are not always fully appreciated. It offers no coherent criteria for determining canonicity. It relies heavily on those works Skelton identifies as his in The Garland of Laurel, a highly unusual and complex form of self-bibliography. And it rejects several poems that are ascribed to Skelton in texts that are close to him in time. Professor Scattergood himself points in his Introduction to the claims of both “On the Death of the Noble Prynce Kynge Edwarde the Forth” and “On Time” (3-4). The case for their inclusion in this edition is strong. There are other problems to do with attribution that invite discussion. For example, “A Ballade of the Scottysshe Kynge” (XI) seems to have been printed by William Faques as an immediate response to the English victory at Flodden in 1513. But it is not ascribed to Skelton there and it has been included in his canon presumably on general grounds of style and because (though this is not clearly stated) because some lines from it appear in the longer, apparently later “Agaynst the Scottes” (XII), which only survives in a form printed after Skelton’s death.

Of even greater moment is the question of Skelton’s texts, the problems of which are, at times, considerable. Perhaps the most striking issue is presented by Speke Parrot. This survives in two distinct forms, one in manuscript, the other in print. The forms have in common only the opening lines. Scattergood follows Dyce in welding the forms together to create a single poem, where the textual evidence seems to suggest that the poem survives in two distinct versions possibly designed for different purposes or audience. Some works of Skelton do survive in what seem to be distinct versions, each seemingly adapted to specific circumstances. The forcible conjunction of such forms of Speke Parrot to create a single work seems open to serious question.

But if this is not a definitive Skelton it is one that will serve students of the poet very well until one appears. All who have cause to study this most difficult of poets will find Professor Scattergood a trustworthy guide.

Copyright (c) 2017 A.S.G. Edwards

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