John Skelton 1463–1529
English poet, dramatist, and translator.
Skelton is considered the one of the most important English poets of his time. An idiosyncratic, influential figure, he was a prolific translator and the author of political satire and controversial, bawdy poems. Today he is best known for his use of innovative metric style called "Skeltonic;" this meter has been utilized by a number of twentieth century poets, including Robert Graves, John Crowe Ransom, W. H. Auden, and Edith Sitwell.
Little is known for certain about Skelton's life. Suppositions about his biography, when not disputed by scholars, are often supported with caution. Some scholars believe the poet was born in Yorkshire, in the north of England; others contend that he was born in East Anglia, in the town of Diss, where he would later serve as a parish priest. A poetic allusion to his own horoscope may date his birth in 1463. He studied at Cambridge and then served as poet and resident scholar for the Howards, a powerful Catholic family in the north of England. In the 1490s he was one of a few poets chosen to serve King Henry VII. Discharged from these duties in 1502, Skelton secured a position as parish priest in the town of Diss.
King Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509, and by 1513 Skelton had become his court poet and rhetorician. During this period, Skelton began a long battle with Thomas Cardinal Wolsey—a prelate who amassed a considerable amount of political power both within the Catholic Church and inside the court of Henry VIII. In 1516, fearing reprisal from Wolsey and his faction, Skelton sought sanctuary from the Abbot of Westminster Abbey. Protected by the church, he continued to attack Wolsey, writing Speke, Parrot; Collyn Clout; and Why Come Ye Not to Court? In 1523 he published an overview of his poetic career, called The Garlande of Laurell, with verses that some scholars interpret as an attempt to make peace with Wolsey. If these verses did represent a peace overture, it was not a successful one; Skelton remained in Westminster until his death on June 21, 1529. Records indicate that he was buried in Saint Margaret's Church in Westminster, though no grave markings survive.
Skelton wrote several political, satirical poems that have garnered attention by critics and historians, in particular
his thinly-veiled attacks on Cardinal Wolsey. Ware the Hauke concerns a rogue priest who locks himself in a church to train his hawk. The predatory bird kills two pigeons, drips blood on the Host and the chalice, and defecates on the altar. Speke, Parrot is another satire that also involves a bird. In this case, the bird is a demonic, polyglot parrot that compares Wolsey with several biblical embodiments of evil. The central character of Collyn Clout attacks the government of the English Catholic Church under Wolsey. Besides his political verse, Skelton is best known for Phyllyp Sparowe. a poem about a girl commemorating the death of her pet bird. She is joined by the rector of her church, and the verses combine traditional liturgical language and images with an undertone that some commentators have found erotic.
In the seventeenth century, Skelton's verse was dismissed by many well-known scholars of the day as scurrilous and superficial. This opinion prevailed, and as a result, he was largely neglected by critics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, commentators began to reassess his influence and place in the English poetic tradition. Many commentators debate his relationship to medieval traditions represented by Chaucer and the English Renaissance. Others discuss his influential poetic style, now called "Skeltonic," which features a short meter of two or three stresses. Most critics note his idiosyncrasies, his place in English literary history, and his innovations to the poetic form.