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.
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.
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.
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.