Garland Of Laurel Overview

John Skelton (ca. 1495) The centerpiece poems of Garland of Laurel—those that describe the ladies of the embroidery circle of Elizabeth Tylney Howard, countess of Surrey—were probably composed by John Skelton about 1495 when he was a guest of the Howard family at Sheriff Hutton Castle near York. The entire work did not reach print until its publication by Richard Fakes on October 3, 1523. The second printed edition appeared in 1568 in the Pithy, Plesaunt, and Profitable Workes of Maister Skelton, Poet Laureate, a collection edited by John Stow, and there is one extant manuscript.

Garland of Laurel summarizes Skelton's accomplishments in his bid to become lionized at the court of Fame. The work is framed as a dream vision in which the poet/narrator encounters Fame, who accuses him of writing satires and other scurrilous poems but not poems of love, in which endeavor the poet "is wonder slak" (l. 68). To prove his worth as a love poet, Skelton proceeds in 11 verses to praise each of the aristocratic ladies who are making him a garland, or chaplet of laurel, the poet's laureate crown. The astronomical data and locale cited in the poem identifies these ladies as the daughters and gentlewoman in the circle of Elizabeth, countess of Surrey (née Tylney), first wife of Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey and eventually duke of Norfolk.

The poet declaims to the ladies within a courtly chamber, first addressing his noble patroness and then her ladies by rank. In the manuscript, the short poems are rendered one to a page, which gives the impression of reading intimate personal letters, though in the printed editions this layout has not been retained. The dream-narrator is then shown into the presence of the Queen of Fame. She is given Skelton's book of writings, which is adorned in the Flemish style with realistic depictions of insects, flowers, "and slymy snaylis" (l. 1154) in the margins; every other line is written in aurum musicum ("gold," l. 1161). From this book, occupation then recites a lengthy list of Skelton's publications, not all of them surviving (and some, like "The Balade of the Mustarde Tarte," possibly invented). Thousands of orators and poets shout "Triumpha, tri-umpha!" and trumpets and clarions sound as Skelton is admitted to the ranks of other eminent English poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate, who themselves appear in the poem as Skel-ton's sponsors. The loud acclaim wakes the sleeping poet-narrator, and the poem concludes with a series of Latin, French, and English verses, showing Skelton's wit and virtuosity at translation.

Skelton invented Skeltonics, a verse form generally characterized by short, rhythmic lines and variable, often unusual rhyming. This form allowed Skelton to write a range of poetry, from scathing satire to realistic scenes of lower-class life to comic verse, as is found in Garland of Laurel. Among Skelton's sources for Garland of Laurel are Chaucer's The House of Fame and the prologue to The Legend of Good Women. But the verses of the Garland are also entirely original and performative; the reader seems to be one of the audience as the poet addresses the ladies in the countess's chamber. Many critics have pointed out that Skelton's poetry is concerned mainly with Skelton, including Alexander Dyce, Skelton's earliest editor, who remarked that "Garland consists of sixteen hundred lines written in honor of Skelton himself." A great comic poet, Skelton stands at the transition between the Middle Ages and the early modern period. There is no poet quite like him, and in his Garland of Laurel, the greatest of all Skelton's poems, we literally witness the poet celebrate and simultaneously mock his own accomplishments.

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