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


John Skelton 1460?-1529

English poet, satirist, translator, and playwright. See also John Skelton Poetry Criticism.

Skelton occupies an uneasy place in the history of English literature. He has been called “the greatest English poet to have been born in the fifteenth century” as well as dismissed as a coarse entertainer whose work lacks the depth and complexity of other pre-Renaissance poets. Skelton is best known today for his satirical attacks against the court and clergy in several longs poems and for the poetic form known as the “Skeltonic,” which uses short lines, frequently repeated rhymes, and witticisms to produce lively, forceful, and humorous verse. Skelton was an important figure in his own day, serving as tutor to the future Henry VIII and ranking as one of the most important literary figures at court. He was also a scholar and priest who used allegory and satire to criticize the failings he saw in courtly as well as ecclesiastical circles. Much of Skelton's writing is inaccessible to modern readers because of its arcane allusions and references to contemporary political situations, but modern critics have found much to admire in his poetry because of its complex subject matter and innovative use of language, rhyme, and musical rhythm. Skelton is considered an artist and scholar of wit, originality, and individualism who used humor to great effect to mock contemporary religious and political institutions while presenting to his audience a serious message about Christian morality.

Biographical Information

Little is known about Skelton's early life. He was born around 1460 in the north of England, perhaps in Yorkshire. He took a degree from Cambridge University around 1478, and his first poem, Elegy on Edward IV, appeared in 1483. Around 1488 he entered the service of Henry VII. Also around this time he was given the title of “poet laureate” of Oxford; the title of laureate was also conferred on him by the University of Louvain in 1492, and by Cambridge in 1493. During his early years in court Skelton wrote a number of lyrics and short poems and also published translations of Cicero and Diodorus Siculus. His activities at court at first were those of a rhetorician, humanist, and scholar, but around 1494 he was named tutor to Prince Henry (later Henry VIII), a post he held until 1501.

In 1498 Skelton took orders as a clergyman, being ordained first as subdeacon, then deacon, and finally priest of the Abbey of St. Mary Grace. During his years of religious study he composed a number of religious lyrics as well as his most important early work, The Bowge of Courte (c. 1499), a satire of court politics. In 1501 he finished a book on pedagogy, Speculum Principis. In 1501-02 Skelton was involved in a court dispute that led to a brief imprisonment. Two years later he retired from London to the country to become rector at a parish church in Diss, Norfolk. Skelton was apparently a colorful figure in the parish, and a number of stories grew up around him. It was said that he took a mistress, by whom he had a child, which he brought naked to the church for all his parishioners to see. Other stories about Skelton's supposed exploits, in court as well as in the Church, were published after his death in the largely apocryphal The Merry Tales of Skelton, which emphasizes the poet's sharp tongue, ribald manner, and sparkling wit. While at Diss Skelton wrote a great deal of verse, including his most famous “Skeltonic” poetry, characterized by short lines, repeated rhymes, alliteration, repetition, parallelism, and witticisms. Early works in this style include Phillyp Sparowe (c. 1508), Ware the Hauke (c. 1508), and The Tunning of Elinor Rumming (c. 1508).

In 1512 Skelton returned to court, where he was named King's Orator—court poet and rhetorician—by his former pupil Henry VIII; it is said that he flaunted this status as court poet for the rest of his life. Also during this time he dedicated a number of works to the king and wrote several poems on the defeat of the French and the Scots. In 1516 Skelton began the first of this attacks against Cardinal Wolsey, who had become Archbishop of York in 1514 and who exerted enormous—and many feared dangerous—influence on the king. Skelton's only surviving dramatic work, Magnyfycence, written around 1516, is an allegory of the current political situation and is highly critical of Wolsey. In 1518 Skelton moved to a house in the sanctuary of Westminster, where he continued his attacks on Wolsey in Speke, Parrot (c. 1521), Collyn Cloute (c. 1522), and Why Come Ye Nat to Courte (c. 1522-23). However, after 1523 Skelton discontinued his attacks, perhaps because the cardinal had the poet briefly imprisoned. All Skelton's poems after this point are complimentary to the prelate, and the apologetic and autobiographical Garlande of Laurell (1523) includes praises of his former enemy. Skelton's last poem, A Replycacion (c. 1528), is a rebuke of two Cambridge graduates for succumbing to heretical opinions. The trial of one of the two young men took place near Skelton's home, and Skelton was likely present when it was held. Skelton was also a witness at a similar trial the following year. Skelton died peacefully in 1529 and was buried in St. Margaret's Church in Westminster.

Major Works

As one of the most noted scholars and rhetoricians of his time, Skelton produced a large volume of work, not all of which is extant today. His poems probably circulated widely during his lifetime, but most of them were published for the first time after this death. The dating of many of his poems is still under dispute. Skelton first became known as a translator, but of his many versions of the Latin classics, only Biblioca Historia of Diodorus Siculus (1489) survives. In this and his other early works, Skelton uses a conventional style of the latter Middle Ages called the “aureate” style, which relies on expansion, amplification, and exaggeration.

Skelton's earliest poetry, such as his Elegy on Edward IV and his Skelton Laureat vpon the Doulourus Dethe and Much Lamentable Chaunce of the Most Honorable Erle of Northumberlande (1489; usually referred to as simply Dolorous Deth), is occasional. Here too, the style of the poems is conventional and uses many of the devices and figures such as tautology, alliteration, catalogues, exclamations, and questions that were popular at the time. Dolorous Deth uses conventional rhyme royal, which is a seven-line stanza of iambic pentameter that was popularly used for serious poetry. Skelton also wrote lyrics—many composed in rhyme royal—in his early years, including those in Diuers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous, which was first printed around 1528. Much of Skelton's early poetry was satire directed at the court. The first of these, written around 1496, was Skelton Laureate Agaynste a Comely Coystrowne, which is about a handsome young scullery-boy wanting to live above his station. Skelton's first long satirical poem, and the most important poem of his early period, is The Bowge of Courte, a dream vision attacking the vices of courtiers.

In 1501 Skelton wrote Speculum principis, an adaptation of a Latin version of the Biblioca Historia of Diodorus Siculus The book, the only surviving example of a number of tracts on education and morality written by Skelton for the benefit of the young Prince Henry in his tutelage, is a collection of maxims and precepts about the necessity of virtue among princes. Skelton's move to Diss in 1502 signaled a change in the content and style of his poetry, and during the years there he composed several of his most famous works (using his new verse technique, the “Skeltonic”), including Phillyp Sparowe and Ware the Hauke. Phillyp Sparowe, which is probably Skelton's best-loved work, is a jocular poem in which the nun Jane Scope laments for her dead bird. The more complicated Ware the Hauke is a serious poem that is scathing in its satire of a curate who brings his hawk into the church and turns it loose to hunt. The Tunning of Elinor Rumming, Skelton's most notorious poem, was probably composed around the same time. This poem describes an alehouse, its proprietor the alewife Elinor Rumming, and the customers who flock to her establishment for her “noppy ale.” The work uses Skelton's signature humor to explore physical and spiritual deformity.

Skelton's return to court in 1512 resulted in more poems, including many elegies, written about and for the royal household. The most famous of these is A Ballade of the Scottisshe Kynge (1513) which is the earliest known printed ballad in English literature. In 1516 Skelton wrote the first of his works aimed at Wolsey, “Against Venemous Tongues,” prompted by the curate's appointment as Cardinal of the Church. Magnyfycence, Skelton's only extant play (he apparently wrote several others), is a political allegory that satirizes the follies of the court, such as its lavishness, and is also a cleverly disguised attack on Wolsey. Skelton's three long poems denouncing Wolsey—Speke, Parrot, Collyn Cloute, and Why Come Ye Nat to Courte—echo many of the styles and concerns of Magnyfycence. Speke, Parrot, considered by some scholars to be Skelton's masterpiece, is a complex, sometimes impenetrable work about a parrot who rails against the madness of the world. A more straightforward attack against Wolsey is seen in Collyn Cloute, which is a colloquy of a simple man who reports what he hears among the people about the evils of the clergy. Why Come Ye Nat to Courte is a series of short pieces that directly criticize Wolsey's policies, including his position on the war against France.

The Garlande of Laurell, published in 1523, probably represents the revision of a long poem that Skelton first began earlier in life. The poem is written in the form of a dream allegory, and in it Skelton enumerates all his works and offers his assessment of himself as a poet. Skelton's final work, A Replycacion, which is a defense of the Church against Lutherism, is a departure from many of his early works in that it clearly takes the official line of the Church. However, there are the characteristic touches of humor and satire that mark it clearly as Skelton's.

Critical Reception

Skelton certainly enjoyed popularity in his own day, earning several honorary titles for his scholarship and literary achievements and being appointed as the court poet to Henry VIII. William Caxton, the English first printer and publisher, spoke well of him, and the humanist writer and scholar Desiderius Erasmus called the poet “that incomparable light and ornament of English letters.” Skelton's apparently enjoyed significant popularity in the years after his death, as there were twenty-one recorded editions of his works produced between 1545 and 1563. However, his reputation appears to have declined by the end of the sixteenth century, and critics such as William Webbe and George Puttenham seem to have regarded his work as buffoonery rather than serious wit.

In the eighteenth century Skelton's work began to enjoy renewed critical appreciation. The first comprehensive treatment of his work appeared in Thomas Wharton's 1741 History of English Poetry, although it was not entirely complimentary; Wharton found much of Skelton's poetry to be low and vulgar. Several nineteenth-century critics defended Skelton's place as a poet of significance, and the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning praised his power, forcefulness, and innovative use of language. The 1843 critical edition of Skelton's works by Alexander Dyce confirmed the poet's status as a significant literary figure.

Critical attention continued to be paid to Skelton's works in the early part of the twentieth century, but again reviews of his work were mixed. Robert Graves admired his work, but C. S. Lewis found little to commend in it. By the middle of the twentieth century critics, including W. H. Auden and E. M. Forster, were noting the complexity of Skelton's poetry as well as his interesting use of language, rhyme, and rhythm. Since then critics have routinely found elements in his works that are worthy of study and recognition. As John Holloway has pointed out, Skelton's humanist learning, rhetorical strategies, hyperbolic wit, angry invective, and liturgical references make his work difficult to follow, thus making it more popular among scholars than lay audiences. Some of the elements that have captured the attention of commentators are Skelton's use of language, his complex use of political allegory, his treatment of women, his personal engagement with his readers, and his use of religious allusions. Critics have been especially interested in Phillyp Sparowe, one of Skelton's most accessible works, because of its theme of spiritual health, its psychological overtones, its interesting structure, and complex religious imagery. Scholarship on Skelton's work continues at a steady pace at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Many commentators recognize the essentially conservative Skelton as the source of insights into social, political, and religious attitudes in the early sixteenth century, and they admire his satiric wit and original, vibrant use of language.

Principal Works

Elegy on Edward IV (translation) 1483

Biblioca Historia of Diodorus Siculus (translation) 1489

Skelton Laureat vpon the Doulourus Dethe and Much Lamentable Chaunce of the Most Honorable Erle of Northumberlande [Dolorous Dethe] (poetry) 1489

Skelton Laureate Agaynste a Comely Coystrowne (poetry) c. 1496

Here Begynneth a Lytell Treatyse Named the The Bowge of Courte (poetry) c. 1499

Speculum principis (treatise) 1501

Here After Foloweth the Boke of Phillyp Sparowe (poetry) c. 1508

Ware the Hauke (poetry) c. 1508


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W. H. Auden (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: Auden, W. H. “John Skelton.” In The Great Tudors, edited by Katherine Garvin, pp. 55-67. London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson Limited, 1935.

[In the following essay, Auden regards Skelton's poetry as falling naturally into four divisions—imitations of “aureate” poetry of the fifteenth century; lyrics; poems in rhyme royal; and poems written in Skeltonics—and also finds that the drama Magnificence is interesting if overly long, concluding that Skelton was an accomplished entertainer rather than a visionary.]

To write an essay on a poet who has no biography, no message, philosophical or moral, who has neither created characters, nor expressed...

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E. M. Forster (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: Forster, E. M. “John Skelton.” In Two Cheers for Democracy, pp. 133-49. London: Edward Arnold, 1951.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture at the Adelburgh Festival in 1950, Forster surveys Skelton's major works and concludes that although the poet was a typical conservative, educated parish priest of his age, he was on the whole a comic, someone who loved improper fun and had a talent for abuse.]

John Skelton was an East Anglian; he was a poet, also a clergyman, and he was extremely strange. Partly strange because the age in which he flourished—that of the early Tudors—is remote from us, and difficult to interpret. But he was also...

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John Holloway (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Holloway, John. “Skelton.” In The Charted Mirror: Literary and Critical Essays, pp. 3-24. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.

[In the following essay, Holloway offers an overview of Skelton's best-known works to show how the poet drew upon and sometimes transformed the work of his predecessors, and finds that the most definitive features of his verse are its “amplitude, immediacy, rhythmic vitality,” and embodiment of life's vibrancy and change.]

To discuss Skelton effectively is to do more than elucidate the past on its own terms, and for its own sake. There is no constraint on anyone to do more than this, and to think that there is, is to think...

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Robert S. Kinsman (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Kinsman, Robert S. “The Voice of Dissonance: Pattern in Skelton's Colyn Cloute.Huntington Library Quarterly 26, No. 4 (August 1963): 291-313.

[In the following essay, Kinsman contends that in Collyn Cloute Skelton achieves a structure and enlivens “the conventions of medieval satire by the deliberate and controlled use of ‘dissonant voices’,” which include that of the poet as “hero-prophet,” Collyn Cloute as a defender of the Church, and the tyrant Cardinal Wolsey.]

I do not intend to revive the well-flogged issue of who, historically, is the first English formal satirist. There are signs, nonetheless, that we no longer need to...

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F. W. Brownlow (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Brownlow, F. W. “Speke, Parrot: Skelton's Allegorical Denunciation of Cardinal Wolsey.” Studies in Philology 65, No. 2 (April 1968): 124-39.

[In the following essay, Brownlow argues that Skelton uses the allegory of Speke, Parrot to attack Cardinal Wolsey, often in a subtle and cryptic manner.]

Skelton's satire Speke, Parrot is not the complete mystery that it once was; indeed we now know a great deal about the poem. It is generally accepted that it was written in 1521, and that it is for the most part an attack upon Cardinal Wolsey for his foreign, ecclesiastical, and educational policies, and for his influence on the King.1...

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Robert S. Kinsman (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Kinsman, Robert S. Introduction to Poems, by John Skelton, edited by Robert S. Kinsman, pp. vii-xviii. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Kinsman offers a general overview of Skelton's work, noting the “direct diction” and “appropriate meter” in the shorter poems; the broad scope of the longer poems; the skillful adaptation of political themes in Magnificence; and the inventiveness and “vernacular vigour” of the Skeltonic verse form.]

Despite its humdrum diction and seesaw metrics, Thomas Churchyard's appraisal of Skelton's poetry, prefixed to the Pithy, pleasaunt and profitable workes of his master (1568),...

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A. C. Spearing (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Spearing, A. C. “Skelton: The Bowge of Court.” In Medieval Dream-Poetry, pp. 171-218. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Spearing claims that with The Bowge of Courte, Skelton offers a new and frightening use of the medieval dream-poem, as it depicts the everyday reality of court to be a nightmare from which there is no awakening.]

The Bowge of Court is John Skelton's earliest surviving major work, dating from 1498, yet it already brings a number of innovations to dream-poetry. The spot where the narrator falls asleep is identified more specifically than ever before as a real place, Powers Key at...

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Leigh Winser (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Winser, Leigh. “‘The Garlande of Laurell’: Masque Spectacular.” Criticism 19, No. 1 (Winter 1977): 51-69.

[In the following essay, Winser claims that The Garland of Laurel is the “narrative account of a complex entertainment” intended for performance at a Christmas festival.]

Deep within the heart of the action in The Garlande of Laurell at a bright moment when the laurel tree itself is raised in view on a magnificent pageant, Skelton translates from The Aeneid:

And Jopas his instrument dyd auaunce
The poemes and stories auncient in brynges
Of Athlas astrology, and many noble thynges
Of wandryng of the mone the...

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Paul E. McLane (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: McLane, Paul E. “Religious Orders in Skelton's Colyn Cloute.English Language Notes 16, No. 1 (September 1978): 8-13.

[In the following essay, McLane shows that other representatives of the Church besides Cardinal Wolsey are the targets of attack in Collyn Cloute, and claims that the poem reveals Skelton to be deeply conservative in his attitude toward the English religious orders.]

Although bishops and one particular bishop (Wolsey, the main exemplar of arrogance, ambition, pastoral neglect, and theological and spiritual insufficiency) are the main objects of satiric attack in Colyn Cloute, nuns, monks, and friars, as well as the...

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David Lawton (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Lawton, David. “Skelton's Use of Persona.” Essays in Criticism 30, No. 1 (January 1980): 9-27.

[In the following essay, Lawton argues that most of Skelton's major poetry is essentially a “rhetoric of moral values,” and that his varied and sophisticated use of personae draws his audience's attention to those values and the need for individual and social purification.]

The most distinctive quality of Skelton's major poems is his subtle, confident and varied use of personae. In this sophistication Skelton is unmatched both by his Renaissance successors and by his English predecessors with the possible exception of Chaucer, although Skelton must have...

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Warren G. Wooden (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Wooden, Warren G. “Childhood and Death: A Reading of John Skeleton's Phillip Sparrow.The Journal of Psychohistory 7, No. 4 (Spring 1980): 403-14.

[In the following essay, Wooden tests C. S. Lewis's contention that Phillip Sparrow is the first great poem about childhood, and finds that the work presents a “sensitive exploration of a child's encounter with death, focusing on the metaphysical and emotional confusion” of the experience.]

John Skelton (1450?-1529) wrote prolifically during the final years of the fifteenth and the early years of the sixteenth centuries—in that vague interregnum designated as either late medieval or early...

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Deborah Baker Wyrick (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Wyrick, Deborah Baker. “Withinne that develes temple: an examination of Skelton's The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng.The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 10, No. 2 (Fall 1980): 239-54.

[In the following essay, Wyrick finds that The Tunning of Elinour Rumming is not merely a comic, playful work but one that has complex layers of moral and religious meaning.]

Critics are nearly unanimous in their assessment of Skelton's The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng. It is “a picture, a verbal painting—and designedly nothing more”;1 it offers an “extreme example of a direct, non-intellectualized approach to sordid elements of...

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David A. Loewenstein (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Loewenstein, David A. “Skelton's Triumph: The Garland of Laurel and Literary Fame.” Neophilologus 68, No. 4 (October 1984): 611-22.

[In the following essay, Loewenstein maintains that the Garland of Laurel uses self-parody and exaggeration to evaluate, question, and celebrate Skelton's poetic character and literary fame.]

Skelton's Garland of Laurel has received less critical consideration and praise than his other major works.1 Yet the poem deserves attention because it evaluates, in a lively and imaginative manner, Skelton's poetic career and the meaning of literary fame.2 Like Chaucer in the House of...

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Nathaniel Owen Wallace (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Wallace, Nathaniel Owen. “The Responsibilities of Madness: John Skelton, ‘Speke, Parrot,’ and Homeopathic Satire.” Studies in Philology 82, No. 1 (Winter 1985): 60-80.

[In the following essay, Wallace contends that madness is the “central vice” at which the satire in Speke, Parrot takes aim and attempts to “cure.”]

ne taceas neque conpescaris Deus
quoniam ecce inimici tui sonaverunt(1)

Psalm 82 (Vulgate)


Skelton's Parrot is mad. His torrential verbiage, obscure digressions, and rapid transitions strongly convey such an impression. The bird himself declares that, since “mesure...

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John Scattergood (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Scattergood, John. “Skelton and Traditional Satire: Ware the Hauke.Medium Aevum 55, No. 1 (1986): 203-16.

[In the following essay, Scattergood argues that, although the incident described in Ware the Hauke is a particular and specific one, the literary treatment of it is highly traditional, using conventional motifs that had appeared earlier in medieval satires of hunting clerics.]


I diosyncrasy and individuality are characteristic of the work of Skelton: his pride and his obsessive need for self-advertisement make him practically incapable of imitating others at all closely. And his poems often have a highly...

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Susan Schibanoff (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Schibanoff, Susan. “Taking Jane's Cue: Phyllyp Sparowe as a Primer for Women Readers.” PMLA 101, No. 5 (October 1986): 832-47.

[In the following essay, Schibanoff claims that Phillip Sparrow is about readers and reading, and argues that the poem begins with a radical new reading in which the text “cues” readers to rewrite texts in their own images; goes on to deconstruct the text rewritten by the protagonist, Jane, and to show and how it was “cued” by her past reading; and finally disempowers Jane further by deconstructing her physical person and reconstituting her as a text.]

In a recent essay on Skelton's Boke of Phyllyp...

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Richard Halpern (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Halpern, Richard. “John Skelton and the Poetics of Primitive Accumulation.” In Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, edited by Patricia Parker and David Quint, pp. 225-256. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Halpern explains that Skelton lived in the period of transition from feudalism to capitalism—which Karl Marx described as a process of “primitive accumulation”—and says that Skelton's works, particularly Phillip Sparrow, displays a utopian response and a counter-movement to that cultural movement and ideology of the newly powerful state.]


Defying the best efforts of...

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Ilona M. McGuiness (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: McGuiness, Ilona M. “John Skelton's Phyllyp Sparowe as Satire: A Revaluation.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 20, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 215-31.

[In the following essay, McGuiness argues that Phillip Sparrow is a satire reflecting the debates between the humanists and conservative Catholics on the issue of liturgical reform and claims that the fact that the protagonist finds solace in the traditional liturgy illustrates Skelton's conservative Catholic stance.]

From the moment Alexander Barclay listed Skelton among those “relygious men” who “abuseth their relygion” by allowing Jane Scrope to recite the Office for the Dead for her...

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Celia R. Daileader (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Daileader, Celia R. “When A Sparrow Falls: Women Readers, Male Critics, and John Skelton's Phyllyp Sparowe.Philological Quarterly 75, No. 4 (Fall 1996): 391-409.

[In the following essay, Daileader considers the various approaches to Phillip Sparrow taken by previous critics and offers a reading that reconciles their dissenting positions. She find that the poem is more than merely a blanket condemnation of human vice but a “symbolically complex and a profound statement about human behavior at its most exalted and most base” which “embraces all the paradoxes of human existence.”]

In the lush, wild terrain of John Skelton's Phyllyp...

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Kevin L. Gustafson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Gustafson, Kevin L. “Rebellion, Treachery and Poetic Identity in Skelton's Dolorous Dethe.Neophilologus 82, No. 4 (October 1998): 645-59.

[In the following essay, Gustafson claims that Skelton's earliest English verse, the Dolorous Dethe, is more politically and poetically sophisticated than most critics have allowed, arguing that it demonstrates Skelton's concern with the court poet's “place—and complicity—in a world of political subterfuge,” which became one of Skelton's preoccupations in his later career.]

When he first praised John Skelton for having “dronken out of Elycons well,” William Caxton may have had in mind what is...

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Further Reading


Fishman, Burton. “Recent Studies in Skelton.” English Literary Renaissance 1, No. 1 (Winter 1971): 89-96.

Annotated bibliography of the most important critical works published on Skelton before 1971.

Staub, Susan C. “Recent Studies in Skelton, 1970-1988.” English Literary Renaissance 20, No. 3 (Autumn 1990) 505-16.

Continues Burton Fishman's 1971 study; surveys the most important critical works on Skelton published between 1970 and 1988.


Carpenter, Nan Cooke. John Skelton. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967, 183 p.


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