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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

IV. Barclay and Skelton

§ 8. The Bowge of Courte

The poems against Garnesche were not the only fruit of Skelton’s sojourn at the court. As we have said before, it is not likely that he stayed there for any length of time after the accession of his former pupil; but, in any case, he must have seen a good deal of court life when he was the prince’s tutor. Very soon after that time, probably, he set forth his unfavourable impressions in The Bowge of Courte, an allegorical poem, written in Chaucer’s seven-lined stanza.

In a lengthy prologue, Skelton tells how he wanted to compete with the old poets, but was discouraged by Ignoraunce. He falls asleep in his host’s house, “Powers Keye” at “Harwyche Port,” and has a strange dream. A stately ship enters the harbour and casts anchor. Merchants go aboard to examine the costly freight, and, with them, the poet, who does not perceive a single acquaintance among the noisy crowd. The name of the ship is “Bowge of Courte” (free board at the king’s table); her owner is the noble lady Sauncepere, rich and desirable is her merchandise, Favour, but also very dear. There is a general press to see the beautiful lady, who sits on a magnificent throne inscribed with the words “Garder le fortune que est mauelz et bone.” Addressed harshly by Daunger, the lady’s chief waiting-woman, the poet, who introduces himself as Drede, feels crushed; but another gentlewoman, Desire, cheers him up and presents him with the helpful jewel Bone Aventure. She further advises him to make friends with Fortune, a somewhat capricious lady of great influence. Drede feels rather uneasy from the very beginning, but, like the rest, asks her favour, which she gives to them all.

The ship goes to sea with full sails. All seems well, until Drede notices aboard seven “full subtyll persons,” all old friends of Fortune. They bluntly decline any communication with the stranger, whom, nevertheless, they approach, one after the other, trying, each in his own way, to deceive and to harm him. Most of them hide their hatred and jealousy under the mask of disinterested friendship, play the humble admirer of his superior scholarship, warn him against supposed foes, promise their help and prophesy for him a brilliant career. The only exception is Dysdayne, a haughty, objectionable fellow, who shows his aversion openly by picking a quarrel with him. Behind his back, they all join to ruin the inconvenient new-comer, who notices their whisperings together with increasing misgivings. The last of the seven is still speaking to him, when, all of a sudden, he sees “lewde felawes” rushing upon him from all sides with murderous purpose. In an agony of fear, he seizes the ship-board to leap into the water, wakes up and writes his “lytyll boke.” In a concluding stanza, the poet affirms his good intention. What he has written was a dream—but sometimes there is some truth in dreams!

The poem may have been written a little before 1509. At all events it is one of Skelton’s earlier productions, for he would not have used the allegorical framework for satirical purposes at a later time. His handling of the traditional form is here highly original. The seven figures are not of the usual bloodless kind of personified abstractions, but more like types taken from real life; and, even if one is not inclined to admit the direct influence of Brant on Skelton in this poem, their strong resemblance to the courtiers in The Ship of Fools is not to be denied. The characterisation shows a powerful imagination, combined with a strong talent for description. Even the recurrence of the same motives does not impair the strong impression of the whole, and there are none of the tiresome digressions here of which Skelton seems enamoured in other poems. Almost dramatic life pervades the whole poem, which is called by Warton, very appropriately, a poem “in the manner of a pageant.” With all its personal or traditional features, The Bowge of Courte is a classic satire on court life.