Making English Low: A History of Laureate Poetics, 1399-1616

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My dissertation analyzes lowbrow literary forms, tropes, and modes in the writings of three would-be laureates, writers who otherwise sought to align themselves with cultural and political authorities and who themselves aspired to national prominence: Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1367-1426), John Skelton (c. 1460-1529), and Ben Jonson (1572-1637). In so doing, my project proposes a new approach to early English laureateship. Previous studies assume that aspiration English writers fashioned their new mantles exclusively from high learning, refined verse, and the moral virtues of elite poetry. In the writings and self-fashionings that I analyze, however, these would-be laureates employed literary low culture to insert themselves into a prestigious, international lineage; they did so even while creating personas that were uniquely English. Previous studies have also neglected the development of early laureateship and nationalist poetics across the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. Examining the ways that cultural cachet—once the sole property of the elite—became accessible to popular audiences, my project accounts for and depends on a long view.

My first two chapters analyze writers whose idiosyncrasies have afforded them a marginal position in literary histories. In Chapter 1, I argue that Hoccleve channels Chaucer’s Host, Harry Bailly, in the Male Regle and the Series. Like Harry, Hoccleve draws upon quotidian London experiences to create a uniquely English writerly voice worthy of laureate status. In Chapter 2, I argue that Skelton enshrine the poet’s own fleeting historical experience in the Garlande of Laurell and Phyllyp Sparowe by employing contrasting prosodies to juxtapose the rhythms of tradition with his own demotic meter. I approach Ben Jonson along the path paved by his medieval precursors. In Chapter 3, I argue that in Bartholomew Fair Jonson blends classical comic form with unwieldy city chatter, simultaneously investing the lowbrow with poetic authority and English laureateship with tavern noise. Like Hoccleve and Skelton, Jonson reappears as a product and producer not only of the local literary system to which he was immediately bound, but of a national culture, in no small measure lowbrow, at least two centuries in the making