‘Shredis of sentence’: Imitation and Interpretation in Speke Parrot
This chapter focuses on Skelton's poem, Speke Parrot. The poem confronts Skelton's concern with the stability of poetic meaning, at a time when the question is given a new urgency by the linguistic issues raised by the ‘Grammarians' War’ (1519-21). In this conflict, concerned ostensibly with the question of whether Latin in schools was best taught by an emphasis on imitation of classical authors or by an emphasis on grammatical precept, Skelton's position is commonly held to have been a reactionary one. Yet, although he supported the traditional faction, a close examination of Speke Parrot indicates that his purposes in doing so were radical, rather than conservative. The chapter shows that the new method of language teaching championed by Skelton's opponents—with an emphasis on imitation rather than grammar—is treated as analogous to Wolsey's appropriation of royal authority: both are viewed as attacks on the poet's traditional freedoms or, in Parrot's words, on his ‘liberty to speak’. Conversely, to teach by grammatical precept becomes the path to the fluent and interpretive reading necessary for a full understanding of the poet's apocalyptic warnings, and thus for the possibility of political change.
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