Rebellion, Treachery and Poetric Identity in Skelton's Dolorous Dethe

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Like most of John Skelton's earliest English verse, the Dolorous Dethe (1489) is usually dismissed as apprentice work in a moribund fifteenth-century literary tradition from which the poet later broke free. But the lament in fact demonstrates greater poetic and political sophistication than has been recognized. In an act of studied self- promotion, Skelton advertises his skill as a political rhetorician by manipulating an official, aureate style, and by offering a distinctly polemical account of the poem's occasion: the rebellion and treachery that led to the murder of Henry Percy, fourth Earl of Northumberland. The account of Percy's retainers is central to the political theme of the work – true service – but the success of their treachery also raises serious questions about the poet's own sincerity and credibility as a political rhetorician. Such concerns make the Dolorous Dethe a somewhat contradictory lament, but the poem is nonetheless important for introducing what became a dominant preoccupation in Skelton's later career: the standing and complicity of the court poet in a world of political subterfuge.

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