John Skelton

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In 1490, William Caxton described John Skelton in glowing terms. He apparently viewed Skelton as a perfect example of a rising court scholar and poet, one worth praising in print. Desiderius Erasmus, who epitomizes the early Renaissance humanist, met Skelton in 1499 and admired him. However, the poet fell rapidly into obscurity after his death, surfacing in literary surveys only to be described as “beastly” or “scurrilous.” These contradictions are easier to explain than might be supposed. First, Skelton’s literary career underwent a marked shift beginning with the publication of The Bowge of Court in 1499. Until that time, Skelton’s work had been what Caxton’s remarks suggest: scholarly, patriotic, and sagacious. As he began to criticize political and religious changes in England, a new persona emerged. Subtly in The Bowge of Court, more fully in Ware the Hawk, and full blast in Speke, Parrot, Skelton reveals a sensibility by turns bitter, vitriolic, ribald, self-righteous, and intolerant.

Second, Skelton’s reputation changed because his fundamental values were misperceived by later generations. Since he wrote in an unusually diffuse, free-spoken, irreverent manner, readers, especially in the nineteenth century, lost sight of the essentially conservative values that underlie his work. Skelton became accustomed, while relatively young, to certain habits of life. He associated himself with the Tudor court, he was devoutly religious, and he was committed to a certain kind of learning and literature that emphasized knowledge of Latin. When his stability was challenged by changes in government, church, and education, his poetry changed drastically. All his major work treats the theme of personal instability in a shifting world.

The Bowge of Court

Thus, in The Bowge of Court, the condition of a courtier is revealed as “Dread”; in Phyllyp Sparowe, language and convention are twisted to reveal new, ironic possibilities of expression; in Ware the Hawk, the sanctity of the church is defended with a kind of comic hysteria. Speke, Parrot is the culmination of his stylistic experimentation; for many students today, this poem is unreadable, an impenetrable jungle of Latin, French, random allusion and odd statement. Skelton’s poems after Speke, Parrot retain some of these macaronic devices but are not quite as difficult, and in The Garlande of Laurell, he returns to the relatively straightforward form of the dream vision.

The Bowge of Court, Skelton’s first long poem, is an allegorical dream vision in the tradition of Chaucer’s House of Fame (1372-1380). The title might be translated as “Patronage of Court” since “bouge” means free rations or board, as in the kind of stipend given to courtiers. The pattern of the poem resembles the Chaucerian dream vision as it was imitated in fifteenth century works such as The King’s Quair and The Court of Love.

The poem’s prologue introduces the speaker as a poet who is having trouble writing. When he falls asleep, he dreams of a stately ship, the Bowge of Court, carrying a cargo of Favor. The dreamer meets a lady-in-waiting to the owner of the ship; he tells her his name is Dread. The allegorical situation becomes apparent. The main character, Dread, represents anxiety: Like the poet-narrator, he cannot gain a firm foothold in life, and he seeks aid or reassurance from outside himself. Dread, unfortunately, has come to a very bad place for stability. Not only is the Bowge of Court a ship, but also its favors are dispensed only for money and only at the command of the ship’s pilot, Fortune.

Dread’s very nature—his fearfulness—makes him the target of attack by his fellow passengers on the ship....

(This entire section contains 2640 words.)

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Almost immediately, he is caught up in a network of intrigue involving Favell (Flattery) and Suspect. Similarly, five other characters (ranging from the pickpocket Harvy Hafter to Deceit) increase Dread’s anxiety, until he jumps overboard to escape them. At this point the dreamer awakens, and the poem ends.

The Bowge of Court differs significantly from dream visions by earlier writers, which usually provide a “psychopaunt,” or dream guide, for the narrator. Dread is alone, and no one helps him draw a moral from his experience. The Bowge of Court criticizes court folly in the typical fashion of satire, but it also, perhaps more significantly, provides an analysis of Dread as a state of mind, and throws an emphasis on the speaker’s insecurities.

Phyllyp Sparowe

While Skelton was rector of Diss, he composed ironic elegies for two of his parishioners. Witty as these are, they are surpassed in whimsicality by the long, unusual poem Phyllyp Sparowe, in which Skelton eulogizes the pet bird of Jane Scrope, a young neighbor. The poem, written in Skeltonic trimeter, has been said to imitate the quick jerky movement of a sparrow.

The poem begins with a version of the Catholic burial mass, lamenting the death of the pet bird. Much of the poem is filtered through the mind of Jane, who both laments Philip lavishly and remembers with pleasure his charming habits in life. She imagines all the birds holding a mass in his honor, and she searches her memory for books that might provide him with an epitaph. In this section of the poem, Skelton relies on the reader’s knowledge that parodies of the mass are traditional; he also assimilates Philip into the tradition in which Ovid and Catullus exploit the sexual implications of a sparrow who hops around in his mistress’s lap and tries to get under the covers of her bed.

Furthermore, the poem contains a section headed “Commendations”; here Skelton, abandoning Philip, praises Jane herself. In all sections of the poem, Skelton freely adds snippets of Latin or French. Phyllyp Sparowe ends with an epilogue, clearly written after the rest of the poem had circulated, defending what had apparently struck many critics as blasphemous or inappropriate. Although Skelton does not offer a detailed defense of his own work, he might well have argued for its essential conservatism in religious matters. Skelton does not burlesque the burial mass or use it for vulgar purposes; he simply includes it among the devices by which he pokes fun at Jane’s excessive mourning. Ultimately, the poem encourages a turning away from bathetic grief either to a happy contemplation of the past or to the celebration of Jane herself, who is young, alive, and human. Thus the poem’s values and moral lesson are quite conservative; only the poem’s exterior form is new and “shocking.”

Ware the Hawk

Ware the Hawk shows Skelton, in his role as rector of Diss, calling down God’s wrath on another parson who brought his hawk into Skelton’s church and allowed it to defecate on the altar. The poem is simultaneously scathing and funny, although the humor is of a distinctly learned kind; for example, Skelton puns on “hawk” and the Latin word hoc. He invokes a catalog of the great tyrants of history in order to convey the enormity of his scorn for the offending parson and his hawk. The incident, whether real or fictional, gave Skelton an excuse to list what he considered various licenses taken by the parish priests. His wrath grows out of all proportion to the comic absurdity of the particular offense. Skelton seems to criticize both the speaker, who rants so futilely, and the man who allows his hawk to defile the sacred altar of God. Skelton puts his understandable sentiments into the mouth of a near-lunatic, again demonstrating the typical split in his work between conservative subject and unorthodox method.

Speke, Parrot

Fourteen years after writing Ware the Hawk and Phyllyp Sparowe, Skelton produced his series of political poems attacking Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who symbolized for Skelton the corruption of power in both church and state. In Wolsey, Skelton saw the decline of the old political and religious order he respected. Moreover, Skelton disliked the changing attitude toward education in the 1520’s (in particular he lamented the decline of Latin studies in favor of Greek, and Wolsey himself established in 1520 a professorship of Greek at Oxford). Skelton thus had moral, political, and literary grudges against Wolsey, and they all came spilling out in Speke, Parrot, a macaronic mélange of history, biblical allusion, and moral reflection.

The speaker is Parrot, a natural mimic, who stands for the poet himself. The parrot is traditionally both poet and pet, and these dual identities suggest the duplicity of living at court while satirizing the court. The flexible pose allows Skelton to shift between scathing critical statements and sycophantic requests for food and treats. Description cannot do justice to the baffling effect of reading this poem, created by the mix of riddle, proverb, lyric, oath, and allusion. Throughout the poem, Parrot praises himself and indirectly criticizes Wolsey without naming him. He veils his criticism by using biblical names to stand for Henry and Wolsey.

Speke, Parrot attacks more than Wolsey alone. It attacks the world at present, the instability of fortune, the vanity of human wishes, and the inadequacy of eloquence. Parrot touches bitterly on all these pitfalls of the human condition. Insofar as Parrot offers Skelton’s views, the poem again shows him using a radically new—nearly opaque—poetic technique to defend the ideas and systems to which he has become accustomed.

Collyn Clout

After the exuberant chaos of Speke, Parrot, Collyn Clout appears as a plain-spoken, modest attempt to assert much the same values. Like Dread and Parrot, the heroes of Skelton’s earlier poems, Colin Clout knows that the world is in trouble; unlike them, he knows that he is part of the world. Since Colin is himself a minor cleric, he is implicated in the current problems he perceives in the Church. He seems to hold two positions at once (much like Parrot as poet and pet), both reporting overheard evil tidings about clerical abuses and pointing out that these rumors may be false. Although his manner of doing so is new, he resembles Parrot in his tendency to back away from criticism to the safe pose of naïveté.

The poem depicts a world gone awry. The higher-placed clergy are corrupt, and the lower ones (such as Colin), who may themselves be good, are afraid to speak out. The aristocrats, unwilling to assert their power, give themselves over to leisure. The poem focuses criticism on the bishops and on one bishop in particular, who, Colin prophesies, is headed for a fall despite his present power. It becomes certain that this man is Wolsey when Colin describes both his typically elaborate clothing and the tapestries that adorn the walls of his home, Hampton Court.

The specific abuses that Colin laments are predictable: He claims that the clergy are greedy, ignorant, lascivious. The bishops live in luxury while the common people suffer. On the other hand, it is clear that Colin respects the sincere clergy, and he particularly laments that the nuns and monks have been turned out of their cloisters under Wolsey’s regime.

After Colin has gone on for more than a thousand lines, the opposition is given a chance to speak for itself. Rather than offering a defense, however, Colin’s respondent simply acknowledges the criticism and threatens to punish and condemn the critics. Colin’s only possible escape at this point is to commit himself to Christ, stop writing, and disappear from view. As did Dread, he finally gives up and escapes, leaving behind his poem as a record of experience. Not resigned to the world’s decay, he is nevertheless powerless to stop it.

Why Come Ye Nat to Courte

The third of Skelton’s attacks on Wolsey concentrates on the cardinal’s political abuses. Why Come Ye Nat to Courte has neither the plain-speaking voice of Colin Clout nor the wise folly of Parrot. Instead, the poem seems to be a pastiche of satirical ballads unified only in their criticism of Wolsey. Among other things, Skelton blames Wolsey for misusing the Star Chamber (Henry’s advisory council) and for inciting the war with France that began in 1522 and resulted in unpopular new taxes.

Whereas Collyn Clout and Speke, Parrot juxtapose the attitudes of a self-righteous speaker against the ill-doings of Wolsey as a symbolic monster, Why Come Ye Nat to Courte resembles a flyting, or insult match, in which both parties swing wildly at each other and everything; even Wolsey’s physical deformity is fair game for attack. To the reader familiar with the other anti-Wolsey poems, little in this one seems new, and the very length of the poem (some twelve hundred lines) underscores its lack of structure. This lack is, arguably, in itself a key to the poem’s meaning: Enraged and baffled by Wolsey’s complete moral corruption, which seems responsible even for the cardinal’s diseased eye, the speaker has lost the capacity both for objective judgment and calm reportage. Like the cardinal, the poet has developed limited vision, and only by a deliberate widening of perspective is he able to go on to write The Garlande of Laurell.

The Garlande of Laurell

As the title suggests, Skelton here forcefully reminds the reader of his own claim to wear the garland of laurel, symbol of the poetic vocation as handed down by Apollo. Unlike Chaucer and other medieval poets who dismiss their own claims to greatness and affect a modesty about their work, Skelton heralds himself as the new Homer of England. Like Dante in the fourth canto of the Inferno (c. 1320) joining the band of great classical poets, Skelton depicts himself as being welcomed into the Court of Fame by his great English predecessors Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, none of whom, he carefully points out, officially earned the right to wear the laurel.

Despite Skelton’s ultimate inclusion in the Court of Fame, he acknowledges that some might carp at his being so honored. The poem takes the form of a dream vision in which Skelton’s candidacy for Fame is assessed at the recommendation of Pallas. The Queen of Fame, however, disapproves of him because of his stylistic experimentation: He has not written in the ornate aureate style of which she approves. He partially assuages her by actually introducing, in this poem, a series of lyrics in honor of the countess of Surrey and other noble ladies.

Later, Skelton’s accomplishments as a poet are reviewed, after which he is so cheered by the crowd (whose fickle favor he scorns) that he ascends to Fame without a formal judgment. The Garlande of Laurell also presents a loftier vision of poetry than that which pleases the fickle Queen of Fame and the rabble who crowd about her gates. For part of the poem, Skelton walks with Occupation (who represents his calling as a poet) through a paradisiacal landscape where he sees Apollo himself playing the harp. Compared with this serenity, the ironically intoned list of Skelton’s works, in which Speke, Parrot, for example, is described as a commendation of ladies (which it is not), seems beside the point. In fact, it is surprising that Skelton, whose later poetry was so caught up in the incidental events of his day, saw his vocation as originating in a divinely ruled pastoral grove. Even more surprising, the poem offers itself, at the end, to the correction of Cardinal Wolsey, as if Skelton were pulling back somewhat from his recent harsh criticism.

Skelton’s identification with Apollo and the great poetic tradition of England confirms that he is a literary, as well as a political and religious, conservative. In stressing the importance of the poet as visionary seer, he gives even more power to the predictions and complaints made in his earlier works. Unlike Dread in The Bowge of Court, Skelton is a dreamer with a guide and mentor—not only Occupation but also Pallas, goddess of wisdom.


Skelton, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))