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Analysis of Phillip Sparrow

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    John Skelton an early tudor poet and laureate is a well known poet for his poem “Phillip Sparrow” also known as “The Book of Phyllyp Sparowe”. Many have argued that this piece was a satirical poem and others argued that it was just a story of a girl who lost her pet sparrow. Given a short background glimpse from what is known of John Skelton this piece isn’t that innocent to the eye as many may have thought. The center focus of this analytical response is dedicated to his poem “Philip Sparrow”.

    His poem is royalist in tone, highly critical of the church and a moving lament for a young novitiate Jane Scrope loss of a pet sparrow while also binding it to the time that he was castigating his own parish curate, the archbishop of York, and the lord chancellor. Skelton’s poem falls into four distinct parts: two larger divisions, each having two parts. First of all comes the elegy of Philip, which begins most aptly with the burial service and proceeds to a Mass of the birds—a type of mock requiem with antecedents reaching far back into the Middle ages.

    This section of the poem is an early example of the stream-of-consciousness technique, as Jane ruminates about her pet. Bits of the Requiem Mass and the Office for the Dead float through her head, and she sings these. In fact, Jane begins her lament with the opening word of the antiphon for Vespers of the Office for the Dead, Placebo Domino in regione vivorum. This incipit together with the first word of the response to it, is quite plainly sung by Jane , for not only are the words divided into syllables, but the musical syllables are given “Pla ce bo,/ Who is there, who? Di le xi, / Dame Margery; / Fa, re, my, my”.

    Other phrases from the office occur to Jane, as she recalls Philips charming little ways and the great pleasure she took in him but her lament is interrupted for a moment by a curse to all cats and “That cat sypecyally / That slew so cruelly / My lytell prety sparowe/ That I brought vp at carowe. ” The second section of the poem marks a quick transition from the Office of The Dead to the Mass of the Birds–surely a natural idea in the mind of a young girl mourning the death of her pet sparrow.

    And a line from the Psalm of the Office marks the turn: “Lauda, anima mea, Dominum! ” (Praise the Lord, O my soul! ). As the burial service ends, Jane begins to think of a suitable epitaph for Philip, and she remembers all the books she has read to him and all the great moments they have had together. A revaluation of Phyllyp Sparowe, shows that it actually conforms to that stance in both content and form, that it criticizes, although in a gently humorous way towards the church.

    Specifically, the poem calls into question the extreme position of those Church reformers in Skelton’s time who denounced all religious ritual and ceremony and espoused the increased study of the classics as a means of rediscovering orthodox Christian values. It is as though Skelton sensed criticism would soon fly from all directions – from the clergy, academicians, and even Jane Scrope herself – and he wished to provide some hint towards fair interpretation of the work.

    It seems, then, that Skelton wanted his audience to view Jane as more than a young girl overreacting to the death of her pet or a young beauty who captured his heart and imagination. The narrative level of Phyllyp Sparrowe does not directly answer this question; indeed, it seems to illustrate Jane’s lack of wisdom. As she sings her long and overstated elegy we are tempted to smile at the importance she attaches to her winged companion and at the extreme emotions she exhibits at his death. Beneath the humor Skelton treated the process of her consolation as an important and separate problem.

    He achieved this by having Jane sing a double-edged lament: one for Phyllyp and one for her inability to cope with her grief. Jane’s dirge for Phyllyp follows the conventions of the traditional liturgical service for such an occasion, the medieval lament for the dead. The purpose of all medieval laments, liturgical historians tell us, is to show the mourner’s “attempt to understand more fully the reasons and meaning of death” and to guide “his movement toward a rational acceptance of the loss”.

    Overall the poem’s structure in turn closely follows the pattern of the medieval lament suggesting Skelton wanted readers to contemplate Jane’s long and difficult struggle with her emotions. It is from this theme – the nature of her quest for consolation – that Skelton’s satire evolves. Early in the poem Jane makes an exclamation which both establishes this counterpoint and explains her confused reaction to Phyllyp’s death. She begs “sweet Jesus” (line 96) to help her accept her grief. But immediately thereafter she cries lines (lines 98-114).

    Here Jane proclaims her despair, but she also admits that her outcries are excessive, and she expresses a desire for emotional control. Perhaps she believes that the Christian tradition has somehow failed her. This appeal to non-Christian figures is hardly expected from a girl living in a nunnery who would normally pray to the saints and the Blessed Virgin for guidance. Because Jane does not act in accordance with this expectation, I am left to wonder why. Skelton illustrated the reasons by making Jane’s most extravagant outbursts parody popular religious devotions, thus showing the undesirable effects this particular kind of prayer can have.

    Significantly, many extra-liturgical devotions like those parodied in Phyllyp Sparowe were seen as sentimental and to the point of irreverence. They were condemned by Church reformers of Skelton’s day when the populace began to favor devotions which embodied holy concepts in images – concrete as in paintings and statutes, or figurative as in hymns and prayers – over the orthodox liturgy. In fact, even the liturgy itself was changed by this passion for making spiritual concepts as concrete as possible when special offices were created in honor of almost every aspect of Mary’s life.

    As these practices disintegrated into unbridled emotionalism, some Church reformers followed the lead of Erasmus, a scholar and humanist well known to Skelton, in proposing that the Church should look to the classics as a means of counteracting the affective trend in the liturgy”. Skelton’s use of a mock elegy to convey his attitude toward such devotions functions as a rhetorical device through which he conveyed his criticism of affective piety without aiming his attack directly at those people in his audience who practiced it.

    The “Commendations,” then, like the “Lamentation” preceding it, points up the excesses of medieval Catholicism and forces the poem even beyond satire; it almost becomes an exemplum on the need for religious reappraisal. Affective poetry and song, Skelton seems to say, 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.

    The Church, thus cleansed, can turn its attention back to the traditional liturgy as a means of meeting the spiritual needs of her flock – and perhaps avert the threat of what Skelton saw as essentially destructive reform movements fed by the philosophies of, among others, the humanists In the end what was a piece of writing became reality and the destruction painfully and universally felt less that two decades after Phyllyp Sparowe was written. In this light, the poem demands re-examination as a warning, perhaps even a prophecy, of what was to happen in England, ironically at the hands of Henry VIII, Skelton’s one-time pupil.

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