Themes and Meanings
Although “Speak, Parrot” is one of Skelton’s greatest poems (perhaps his masterpiece, according to a number of scholars) it is a difficult poem to read and understand. Its themes are masked by its allegorical method, which hints at but does not always openly disclose its references. In addition, Skelton’s languages (since he includes a goodly portion of Latin, French, and other tongues) can be difficult, even obscure.
There are valid reasons for this difficulty, chief among them the fact that “Speak, Parrot” is a poetic satire—an attack on what Skelton felt to be the follies and abuses of the times. Specifically, he is concerned with the state of education in English universities, the conduct of the court of Henry VIII, and the position and activities of Thomas Wolsey, cardinal of the Catholic Church and Lord Chancellor of England, about whom he is particularly vehement.
Skelton was closely connected with the higher education of his day. A graduate of Oxford, he had served as both court poet and as tutor to Prince Henry, who later became king, and in 1512 he was appointed orator regius (orator of the king). He was recognized with a number of honorary academic degrees, or “laureated,” by colleges and universities in England and in Europe. In all these areas he was greatly concerned with the education of the rising generation, especially in Latin, which was still the universal language of any educated person. In “Speak, Parrot” Skelton attacks the new fashion of favoring Greek over Latin:
In Achademia Parrot dare no probleme kepe,For Greci fari [Greek] so occupyeth the chayre,That Latinum fari [Latin] may fall to rest and slepe.
(The entire section is 750 words.)