Further reading

Berdan, John M. "A Definition of Petrarchismo." PMLA 24, no. 4 (1909): 699-710.

PETRARCHAN SONNET See Italian (Petrarchan) SONNET.

"PHILIP SPARROW" ("PHYLLYP SPAROWE") John Skelton (1505) John Skelton's poem "Philip Sparrow" is divided into three clearly distinct parts. The first is a young girl's lament for the death of her pet sparrow, Philip, who was killed by a cat. Her character is based on Jane Scrope, who was educated by Benedictine nuns. This background shows in the way her elegy is interspersed with Latin phrases from various offices for the dead, albeit in a garbled form. In short, rhyming trimeter lines (Skeltonics), Jane evokes in simple words the sparrow's activities while still alive: His tricks and clever ways, including his appetite and his fondness for his mistress, are described in a very vivid manner, so as to make Jane's deep feeling of loss comprehensible. This is followed by a section in which the other birds are called to Philip's funeral, and each is assigned a particular task. Finally, Jane attempts to compose an epitaph for Philip, exhibiting an astoundingly wide, though not very deep, knowledge of classical mythology and philosophy as well as of English literature. By these means, the reader is made to empathize with Jane's sorrow for the death of her sparrow, and she emerges as a very engaging personality.

This is clearly also the view taken by the adult male speaker of the second part of the poem who praises the maid and her elegy. He specifically extols her beauty by giving detailed descriptions of her physical attractions, and he does not hesitate to express bodily desire for her, although allegedly only in his imagination. The language of this part is more sophisticated, especially in its rhetorical devices, than the preceding one. The third part is a later addition (1523) and is evidently a reaction to adverse criticism of the poem. The speaker, "Maister Skelton" himself, defends what he has written by accusing his critics of envy because they are not able to do what he has done.

There is indeed a known denigrating reference to "Philip Sparrow" by Alexander Barclay in his translation of Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools (1509), but it is not clear what exactly he (and probably others) objected to. The quotations from the burial service may have been deemed blasphemous in this context, or possibly the lascivious attitude of the second part was regarded as offensive. The seemingly innocent first part is perhaps not free of sexual innuendo either, since in medieval iconography the sparrow stood for lechery.

Later critics found the poem badly structured and incoherent, but, concentrating mainly on the first part, also applauded its specificity of detail and its evocation of childhood. More recent criticism has, in contrast, tried to show the unity of the poem in its providing complementary perspectives on life and death on the one side, and its empowerment of the feminine outlook on the other. In this view, Jane appropriates the maledominated literary tradition and rewrites it to give her mourning a female voice. Later gender critics, however, have pointed out that the words are still written by a man adopting the persona of a woman. These diverse positions show that the modern reader may still make surprising discoveries in this outstanding poem.

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