John Skelton

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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...

(This entire section contains 630 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.

E. M. Forster (essay date 1950)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "John Skelton," in Two Cheers for Democracy, Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1951, pp. 135-53.

[In the following lecture given at the Aldeburgh Festival of 1950, Forster offers an introduction to the pleasures of reading Skelton 's poetry.]

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 a strange creature personally, and whatever you think of him when we've finished—and you will possibly think badly of him—you will agree that we have been in contact with someone unusual.

Let us begin with solidity—with the church where he was rector. That still stands, that can be seen and touched, though its incumbent left it over four hundred years ago. He was rector of Diss, a market town which lies just in Norfolk, just across the river Waveney, here quite a small stream, and Diss church is somewhat of a landmark, for it stands upon a hill. A winding High Street leads up to it, and the High Street, once very narrow, passed through an arch in its tower which still remains. The church is not grand, it is not a great architectural triumph like Blyborough or Framlingham. But it is adequate, it is dignified and commodious, and it successfully asserts its pre-eminence over its surroundings. Here our poet-clergyman functioned for a time, and I may add carried on.

Not much is known about him, though he was the leading literary figure of his age. He was born about 1460, probably in Norfolk, was educated at Cambridge, mastered the voluble inelegant Latin of his day, entered the church, got in touch with the court of Henry VII, and became tutor to the future Henry VIII. He was appointed "Poet Laureate," and this was confirmed by the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Louvain. In the early years of Henry VIII he voiced official policy—for instance, in his poems against the Scots after Flodden. But, unfortunately for himself, he attacked another and a greater East Anglian, Cardinal Wolsey of Ipswich, and after that his influence declined. He was appointed rector of Diss in 1503, and held the post till his death in 1529. But he only seems to have been in residence during the earlier years. Life couldn't have been congenial for him there. He got across the Bishop of Norwich, perhaps about his marriage or semi-marriage, and he evidently liked London and the court, being a busy contentious fellow, and found plenty to occupy him there. A few bills and documents, a few references in the works of others, a little post-humous gossip, and his own poems, are all that we have when we try to reconstruct him. Beyond doubt he is an extraordinary character, but not one which it is easy to focus. Let us turn to his poems.

I will begin with the East Anglian poems, and with Philip Sparrow. This is an unusually charming piece of work. It was written while Skelton was at Diss, and revolves round a young lady called Jane, who was at school at a nunnery close to Norwich. Jane had a pet sparrow—a bird which is far from fashionable today, but which once possessed great social prestige. In ancient Rome, Catullus sang of the sparrow of Lesbia, the dingy little things were housed in gilt cages, and tempted with delicious scraps all through the middle ages, and they only went out when the canary came in. Jane had a sparrow, round which all her maidenly soul was wrapped. Tragedy followed. There was a cat in the nunnery by name Gib, who lay in wait for Philip Sparrow, pounced, killed him and ate him. The poor girl was in tears, and her tragedy was taken up and raised into poetry by her sympathetic admirer, the rector of Diss.

He produced a lengthy poem—it seemed difficult at that time to produce a poem that was not long. Philip Sparrow swings along easily enough, and can still be read with pleasure by those who will overlook its volubility, its desultoriness, and its joky Latin.

It begins, believe it or not, with a parody of the office for the dead; Jane herself is supposed to be speaking, and she slings her Latin about well if quaintly. Soon tiring of the church service, she turns to English, and to classical allusions:

When I remember again
How my Philip was slain
Never half the pain
Was between you twain,
Pyramus and Thisbe,
As then befell to me;
I wept and I wailéd
The teares down hailéd,
But nothing it availéd
To call Philip again
Whom Gib our cat has slain.
Gib I say our cat
Worrowed him on that
Which I loved best….
I fell down to the ground1

Then—in a jumble of Christian and antique allusions, most typical of that age—she thinks of Hell and Pluto and Cerberus—whom she calls Cerebus—and Medusa and the Furies, and alternately prays Jupiter and Jesus to save her sparrow from the infernal powers.

It was so pretty a fool
It would sit upon a stool
And learned after my school….
It had a velvet cap
And would sit upon my lap
And would seek after small wormés
And sometimes white bread crumbés
And many times and oft
Between my breastés soft

It would lie and rest
It was proper and prest!
Sometimes he would gasp
When he saw a wasp;

A fly or a gnat
He would fly at that
And prettily he would pant
When he saw an ant
Lord how he would pry
After a butterfly
Lord how he would hop
After the grasshop
And when I said "Phip Phip"
Then he would leap and skip
And take me by the lip.
Alas it will me slo
That Philip is gone me fro!

Jane proceeds to record his other merits, which include picking fleas off her person—this was a sixteenth-century girls' school, not a twentieth, vermin were no disgrace, not even a surprise, and Skelton always manages to introduce the coarseness and discomfort of his age. She turns upon the cat again, and hopes the greedy grypes will tear out his tripes.

Those villainous false cats
Were made for mice and rats
And not for birdés small.
Alas, my face waxeth pale …

She goes back to the sparrow and to the Church Service, and draws up an enormous catalogue of birds who shall celebrate his obsequies:

Our chanters shall be the cuckoo,
The culver, the stockdoo,
The "peewit," the lapwing,
The Versicles shall sing.

—together with other songsters, unknown in these marshes and even elsewhere. She now wants to write an epitaph, but is held up by her diffidence and ignorance; she has read so few books, though the list of those she has read is formidable; moreover, she has little enthusiasm for the English language—

Our natural tongue is rude,
And hard to be ennewed
With polished termes lusty
Our language is so rusty
So cankered, and so full
Of froward, and so dull,
That if I would apply
To write ornately
I wot not where to find
Terms to serve my mind.

Shall she try Latin? Yes, but she will hand over the job to the Poet Laureate of Britain, Skelton, and, with this neat compliment to himself, Skelton ends the first part of Philip Sparrow.

He occupies the second part with praising Jane,

This most goodly flower,
This blossom of fresh colour
So Jupiter me succour
She flourishes new and new
In beauty and virtue,

by-passes the sparrow, and enters upon a love poem:

But wherefore should I note
How often did I toot
Upon her pretty foot
It bruised mine heart-root
To see her tread the ground
With heeles short and round.

The rector is in fact losing his head over a schoolgirl, and has to pull himself up. No impropriety is intended, he assures us,

There was no vice
Nor yet no villainy,
But only fantasy."…
It were no gentle guise
This treatise to despise
Because I have written and said
Honour of this fair maide,
Wherefore shall I be blamed
That I Jane have named
And famously proclaimed?
She is worthy to be enrolled
In letters of gold.

Then he too slides into Latin and back into the office of the dead: requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, he chants.

This poem of Philip Sparrow—the pleasantest Skelton ever wrote—helps to emphasise the difference in taste and in style between the sixteenth century and our own. His world is infinitely remote; not only is it coarse and rough, but there is an uncertainty of touch about it which we find hard to discount. Is he being humorous? Undoubtedly, but where are we supposed to laugh? Is he being serious? If so, where and how much? We don't find the same uncertainty when we read his predecessor Chaucer, or his successor Shakespeare. We know where they stand, even when we cannot reach them. Skelton belongs to an age of break-up, which had just been displayed politically in the Wars of the Roses. He belongs to a period when England was trying to find herself—as indeed do we today, though we have to make a different sort of discovery after a different type of war. He is very much the product of his times—a generalisation that can be made of all writers, but not always so aptly. The solidity of the middle ages was giving away beneath his feet, and he did not know that the Elizabethan age was coming—any more than we know what is coming. We have not the least idea, whatever the politicians prophesy. It is appropriate, at this point, to quote the wisest and most impressive lines he ever wrote—they are not well known, and probably they are only a fragment. They have a weight and a thoughtfulness which are unusual in him.

It was a curious experience, with these ominous verses in my mind, to go to Diss and to find, carved on the buttress of the church, a lizard. The carving was there in Skelton's day; that he noticed it, that it entered into his mind when he wrote, there is no reason to suppose. But its appearance, combined with the long grass in the churchyard, helped me to connect the present with the past, helped them to establish that common denominator without which neither has any validity.

That when ye think all danger for to pass
Ware of the lizard lieth lurking in the grass.

So true of the sixteenth century, so true of today! There are two main answers to the eternal menace of the lizard. One of them is caution, the other courage. Skelton was a brave fellow—his opposition to Cardinal Wolsey proves that—but I don't know which answer he recommends.

But let us leave these serious considerations, and enter Diss church itself, where we shall be met by a fantastic scene and by the oddest poem even Skelton ever wrote; the poem of Ware the Hawk. Like Philip Sparrow, it is about a bird, but a bird of prey, and its owner is not the charming Jane, but an ill-behaved curate, who took his hawk into the church, locked all the doors, and proceeded to train it with the help of two live pigeons and a cushion stuffed with feathers to imitate another pigeon. The noise, the mess, the scandal, was terrific. In vain did the rector thump on the door and command the curate to open. The young man—one assumes he was young—took no notice, but continued his unseemly antics. Diss church is well suited to a sporting purpose, since its nave and choir are unusually lofty, and the rood-loft was convenient for the birds to perch on between the statues of the Virgin and St. John. Up and down he rushed, uttering the cries of his craft, and even clambering on to the communion table. Feathers flew in all directions and the hawk was sick. At last Skelton found "a privy way" in, and managed to stop him. But he remained impenitent, and threatened that another day he would go fox-hunting there, and bring in a whole pack of hounds.

Now is this an exaggeration, or a joke? And why did Skelton delay making a poem out of it until many years had passed? He does not—which is strange—even mention the name of the curate.

He shall be as now nameless,
But he shall not be blameless
Nor he shall not be shameless.
For sure he wrought amiss
To hawk in my church at Diss.

That is moderately put. It was amiss. Winding himself up into a rage, he then calls him a peckish parson and a Domine Dawcock and a frantic falconer and a smeary smith, and scans history in vain for so insolent a parallel; not even the Emperor Julian the Apostate or the Nestorian heretics flew hawks in a church. Nero himself would have hesitated. And the poem ends in a jumble and a splutter, heaps of silly Latin, a cryptogram and a curious impression of gaiety; a good time, one can't help feeling, has been had by all.

How, though, did Skelton get into the church and stop the scandal? Perhaps through the tower. You remember my mentioning that the tower of Diss church has a broad passageway running through it, once part of the High Street. Today the passage only contains a notice saying "No bicycles to be left here," together with a number of bicycles. Formerly, there was a little door leading up from it into the tower. That (conjectures an American scholar) may have been Skelton's privy entrance. He may have climbed up by it, climbed down the belfry into the nave, and spoiled, at long last, the curate's sport.

There is another poem which comes into this part of Skelton's life. It is entitled "Two Knaves Sometimes of Diss," and attacks two of his parishioners who had displeased him and were now safely dead; John Clerk and Adam Uddersall were their names. Clerk, according to the poet, had raged "like a camel" and now lies "starke dead, Never a tooth in his head, Adieu, Jayberd, adieu," while as for Uddersall, "Belsabub his soule save, who lies here like a knave." The poem is not gentlemanly. Little that Skelton wrote was. Not hit a man when he is down or dead? That's just the moment to wait for. He can't hit back.

The last East Anglian poem to be mentioned, is a touching one: to his wife. As a priest, he was not and could not be married, but he regarded his mistress as his legal consort, and the poem deals with a moment when they were parting and she was about to bear a child:

There is a story about the birth of this child which was written down after Skelton's death, in a collection called The Merry Tales of Skelton. According to it, there were complaints to the bishop from the parish, which Skelton determined to quell. So he preached in Diss church on the text Vos estis, you are, and suddenly called out "Wife! bring my child." Which the lady did. And he held the naked baby out to the congregation saying "Is not this child as fair as any of yours? It is not like a pig or a calf, is it? What have you got to complain about to the bishop? The fact is, as I said in my text, Vos estis, you be, and have be and will and shall be knaves, to complayne of me without reasonable cause." Historians think that this jest-book story enshrines a tradition. It certainly fits in with what we know of the poet's fearless and abusive character.

Tenderness also entered into that character, though it did not often show itself. Tenderness inspires that poem I have quoted, and is to be found elsewhere in his gentle references to women; for instance, in the charming "Merry Margaret," which often appears in anthologies.

And in the less known but still more charming poem "To Mistress Isabel Pennell" which I will quote in full. Isabel was a little girl of eight—even younger than Jane of the sparrow. ("Reflaring," near the beginning of the poem, is "redolent." "Nept" means catmint.)

Women could touch his violent and rugged heart and make it gentle and smooth for a little time. It is not the dying tradition of chivalry, it is something personal.

But we must leave these personal and local matters, and turn to London and to the political satires. The main group is directed against Cardinal Wolsey. The allusions are often obscure, for though Skelton sometimes attacks his great adversary openly, at other times he is covering his tracks, and at other times complimentary and even fulsome. The ups and downs of which have furnished many problems for scholars. Two points should be remembered. Firstly, Skelton is not a precursor of the Reformation; he has sometimes been claimed as one by Protestant historians. He attacked the abuses of his church—as exemplified in Wolsey's luxury, immorality and business. He has nothing to say against its doctrines or organisation and was active in the suppression of heresy. He was its loyal if scandalous son.

Secondly, Wolsey appears to have behaved well. When he triumphed, he exacted no vengeance. Perhaps he had too much to think about. The story that Skelton died in sanctuary in St. Margaret's, Westminster, fleeing from the Cardinal's wrath, is not true. He did live for the last years of his life in London, but freely and comfortably; bills for his supper parties have been unearthed. And though he was buried in St. Margaret's it was honourably, under an alabaster inscription. Bells were pealed, candles were burned. Here again we have the bills.

The chief anti-Wolsey poems are Speke Parrot, Colin Clout, Why come ye not to Court? and the cumbrous Morality play Magnificence.

Speke Parrot—yet another bird; had Skelton a bird complex? ornithologists must decide—Speke Parrot is one of those convenient devices where Polly is made to say what Polly's master hesitates to say openly. Poor Polly! Still master is fond of Polly, and introduces him prettily enough.

Skelton's genuine if intermittent charm continues into the next stanza:

The "popinjay royal"—that is to say the bird of King Henry VIII, whose goodness and generosity Wolsey abuses. And parrot, given his beak, says many sharp things against the Cardinal, who "carrieth a king in his sleeve" and plays the Pope's game rather than his liege's. Subtly and obscurely, with detailed attention to his comings and goings, the great man is attacked. It is a London poem, which could not have been written in a Norfolk rectory.

Much more violent is Why come ye not to Court? where the son of the Ipswich butcher gets brutally put in his place.

Why come ye not to court?
To which court?
To the king's court
Or to Hampton Court?
The king's court should have the excellence
But Hampton Court hath the pre-eminence.

And at Hampton Court Wolsey rules, with

As for Colin Clout. The title is the equivalent of Hodge or the Man in the Street, from whose point of view the poem is supposed to be written. It is a long rambling attack on bishops, friars, monks, and the clergy generally, and Wolsey comes in for his share of criticism. I will quote from it not the abusive passages, of which you are getting plenty, but the dignified and devout passage with which it closes. Skelton was after all inside the church he criticised, and held its faith, and now and then he reminds us of this.

It is a conventional ending, but a sincere one, and reminds us that he had a serious side; his "Prayer to the Father of Heaven" was sung in the church here, to the setting of Vaughan Williams. He can show genuine emotion at moments, both about this world and the next. Here are two verses from "The Manner of the World Nowadays," in which he laments the decay of society.

Magnificence, the last of the anti-Wolsey group, is a symbol for Henry VIII, who is seduced by wicked flatterers from his old counsellor (i.e. from Skelton himself). Largess, Counterfeit-Countenance, Crafty-Conveyance, Cloaked-Collusion and Courtly-Abusion are some of the names, and all are aspects of Wolsey. At enormous length and with little dramatic skill they ensnare Magnificence and bring him low. By the time Stage 5, Scene 35 is reached he repents, and recalls his former adviser, and all is well.

Well, so much for the quarrel between Skelton and Wol sey—between the parson from Norfolk and the Cardinal from Suffolk, and Suffolk got the best of it. Skelton may have had right on his side and he had courage and sincerity, but there is no doubt that jealousy came in too. At the beginning of Henry VIII's reign he was a very important person. He had been the King's tutor, he went on a semidiplomatic mission, and as Poet Laureate he was a mouthpiece for official lampoons. With the advent of Wolsey, who tempted the king with pleasure, his importance declined, and he did not live to see the days when Henry preferred power to pleasure, and Wolsey fell.

The satires against the Scots, next to be mentioned, belong to the more influential period of Skelton's life. They centre round the Battle of Flodden (1513). King Henry's brother-in-law, James IV of Scotland, had challenged him, had invaded England, and been killed at Flodden, with most of his nobility. Skelton celebrates the English victory with caddish joy. In quoting a few lines, I do not desire to ruffle any sensitive friends from over the Border. I can anyhow assure them that our Poet Laureate appears to have got as good as he gave:

King Jamie, Jemsy, Jocky my jo,
Ye summoned our king—why did ye so
To you nothing it did accord
To summon our king your sovereign lord? …
Thus for your guerdon quit are ye,
Thanked be God in Trinitie
And sweet Saint George, our Lady's knight
Your eye is out: adew, good-night.

And still more abusively does he attack an enemy poet called Dundas who wrote Latin verses against him.

Gup, Scot,
Ye blot
Set in better
Thy pentameter
This Dundas
This Scottish ass,
He rhymes and rails
That Englishmen have tails….
Shake thy tail, Scot, like a cur
For thou beggest at every man's door
Tut, Scot, I say
Go shake thee dog, hey….
That drunk ass….
Dundee, Dunbar
Walk Scot,
Walk sot
Rail not so far.

The accusation that Englishmen have tails is still sometimes made, and is no doubt as true as it ever was. I have not been able to find out how Dundas made it, since his poem has vanished. We can assume he was forcible. Nor have I quoted Skelton in full, out of deference to the twentieth century. He is said to have written it in his Diss rectory. That is unlikely—not because of its tone, but because it implies a close contact with affairs which he could only have maintained at Court.

Our short Skeltonic scamper is nearing its end, but I must refer to the Tunning of Elinor Rumming, one of the most famous of Skelton's poems. Elinor Rumming kept a pub—not in East Anglia, but down in Surrey, near Leatherhead. The poem is about her and her clients, who likewise belonged to the fair sex.

Tell you I will
If that you will
A while be still
Of a comely Jill
That dwelt on a hill:
She is somewhat sage
And well worn in age
For her visage
It would assuage
A man's courage …
Comely crinkled
Wondrously wrinkled
Like a roast pig's ear
Bristled with hair.

You catch the tone. You taste the quality of the brew. It is strong and rumbustious and not too clean. Skelton is going to enjoy himself thoroughly. Under the guise of a satirist and a corrector of morals, he is out for a booze. Now the ladies come tumbling in:

Early and late
Thither cometh Kate
Cisly and Sare
With their legs bare
And also their feet
Fully unsweet
Their kirtles all to-jagged
Their smocks all to-ragged,
With titters and tatters
Bring dishes and platters
With all their might running
To Elinor Rumming
To have of her tunning.

They get drunk, they tumble down in inelegant attitudes, they trip over the doorstep, they fight—Margery Milkduck, halting Joan, Maud Ruggy, drunken Alice, Bely and Sybil, in they come. Many of them are penniless and are obliged to pay in kind and they bring with them gifts often as unsavoury as the drink they hope to swallow—a rancid side of bacon for example—and they pawn anything they can lay their hands on, from their husband's clothes to the baby's cradle, from a frying pan to a side saddle. Elinor accepts all. It is a most lively and all-embracing poem, which gets wilder and lewder as it proceeds. Then Skelton pulls himself up in characteristic fashion.

My fingers itch
I have written too mich
Of this mad mumming
Of Elinor Rumming.

And remembering that he is a clergyman and a Poet Laureate he appends some Latin verses saying that he has denounced drunken, dirty and loquacious women, and trusts they will take his warning to heart. I wonder. To my mind he has been thoroughly happy, as he was in the church at Diss when the naughty curate hawked. I often suspect satirists of happiness—and I oftener suspect them of envy. Satire is not a straight trade. Skelton's satires on Wolsey are of the envious type. In Elinor Rumming and Ware the Hawk I detect a coarse merry character enjoying itself under the guise of censoriousness.

Thought is frank and free:
To think a merry thought
It cost me little nor nought.

One question that may have occurred to you is this: was Skelton typical of the educated parish priest of his age? My own impression is that he was, and that the men of Henry VIII's reign, parsons and others, were much more unlike ourselves than we suppose, or if you prefer it, much odder. We cannot unlock their hearts. In the reign of his daughter Elizabeth a key begins to be forged. Shakespeare puts it into our hands, and we recover, on a deeper level, the intimacy promised by Chaucer. Skelton belongs to an age of transition: the silly Wars of the Roses were behind him; he appears even to regret them, and he could not see the profounder struggles ahead. This makes him "difficult," though he did not seem so to himself. His coarseness and irreverence will pain some people and must puzzle everyone. It may help us if we remember that religion is older than decorum.

Of his poetry I have given some typical samples, and you will agree that he is entertaining and not quite like anyone else, that he has a feeling for rhythm, and a copious vocabulary. Sometimes—but not often—he is tender and charming, occasionally he is devout and very occasionally he is wise. On the whole he's a comic—a proper comic, with a love for improper fun, and a talent for abuse. He says of himself in one of his Latin verses, that he sings the material of laughter in a harsh voice, and the description is apt; the harshness is often more obvious than the laughter, and leaves us with a buzzing in the ears rather than with a smile on the face. Such a row! Such a lot of complaints! He has indeed our national fondness for grumbling—the government, the country, agriculture, the world, the beer, they are none of them what they ought to be or have been. And although we must not affix our dry little political labels to the fluidity of the past (there is nothing to tie them on to), it is nevertheless safe to say that temperamentally the Rector of Diss was a conservative.

On what note shall we leave him? A musical note commends itself. Let me quote three stanzas from a satire called "Against a comely Coistroun"—that is to say, against a good-looking kitchen-boy. The boy has been conjectured to be Lambert Simnel, the pretender to the crown of England. He was silly as well as seditious, and he fancied himself as a musician and "curiously chanted and currishly countered and madly in his musicks mockishly made against the Nine Muses of politic poems and poets matriculate"—the matriculate being Skelton, the Poet Laureate. Listen how he gets basted for his incompetence: you may not follow all the words, but you can hear the blows fall, and that's what matters:

He cannot find it in rule nor in space,
He solfas too haute, his treble is too high
He braggeth of his birth, that born was full base,
His music without measure, too sharp is his Mi,
He trimmeth in his tenor to counter pirdewy,
His descant is busy, it is without a mean
Too fat is his fancy, his wit is too lean.

He rumbleth on a lewd lute "Roty bully joys"
Rumble down, tumble down, hey go now now!
He fumbleth in his fingering an ugly good noise,
It seemeth the sobbing of an old sow!
He would be made much of, an he wist how;
Well sped in spindles and turning of tavells;
A bungler, a brawler, a picker of quarrels.

Comely he clappeth a pair of clavichords
He whistleth so sweetly, he maketh me to sweat;
His descant is dashed full of dischords
A red angry man, but easy to entreat:
An usher of the hall fain would I get
To point this proud page a place and a room
For Jack would be a gentleman, that late was a groom.

Kitchen-boy Simnel, if it be he, was evidently no more a performer than he was a prince. Yet I would have liked to have him here now, red, angry, good-looking, and making a hideous noise, and to have heard Skelton cursing him as he screeched. The pair of them might have revived for us that past which is always too dim, always too muffled, always too refined. With their raucous cries in your ears, with the cries of the falconer in Diss Church, with the squawkings of Speke Parrot, and the belchings of Elinor Rumming, I leave you.


1 The quotations are not verbally accurate. The text has been simplified for the purpose of reading aloud

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


The Bouge of Court circa 1499

Ware the Hauke circa 1504-12

Phyllyp Sparowe 1508

A Ballade of the Scottisshe Kynge 1513

The Tunning of Elinor Rumming circa 1521

Speke, Parrot 1521

Collyn Clout 1522

Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? 1522

The Garlande of Laurell 1523

Divers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous 1528

Other Major Works

Magnificence (drama) 1516

Alan Swallow (essay date 1953)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "John Skelton: The Structure of the Poem," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, January, 1953, pp. 29-42.

[In the following essay, Swallow examines Skelton's unique poetic structure and determines how it differs from medieval literary traditions.]

In the work of John Skelton appears the first important Renaissance break with the medieval tradition in poetry. His work covers almost every type of verse practiced in his day, including the morality play; but he proceeded from acceptance of the medieval tradition, through varying stages of revolt against that tradition, to a new form which he devised. This type was highly individualistic, however, in the sense that it did not have much "carryover value." Though he finally broke with the medieval method, Skelton's experiment did not, as did Wyatt's, discover the method which was used so effectively by the great Elizabethan and Jacobean poets.

Skelton's two elegies—"On the Death of the Noble Prince, King Edward the Fourth," and "Upon the Dolorous Death and Much Lamentable Chance of the Most Honourable Earl of Northumberland"—and his three prayers—"To the Father of Heaven," "To the Second Person," and "To the Holy Ghost"—are clearly in the fifteenth-century literary manner, the manner of Lydgate. They belong to what Nelson calls "the tradition which conceived of literature to be a means of propagating virtue"1 The theme of the first elegy is that of the Fall-of-Princes:

The theme is old and is not at all re-vitalized in this poem. It has the same lack of imagery as in Lydgate and Hawes. Though the second elegy has a different theme, an argument against the commons who killed Northumberland and a recital of the earl's virtues, it may be characterized in the same fashion. Only a touch of the later Skelton is present, as in the word play of

Yet shamefully they slew him: that shame may them befall!

and the confused image

The prayers have a characteristic medieval rhetoric of abstractions:

Skelton's first major attempt marks his first unmistakable move away from the medieval tradition. In the large, The Bouge of Court is a typical fifteenth-century allegory. It has the

same astrological introduction, the insistence upon the necessity of "covert Terms," and the usual assumption of modesty: the poet then falls asleep and his dream becomes the substance of the poem: he wakes up at a critical moment in the action and writes his "little book," for which he makes a conventional apology.3

In addition, the characters of the poem, with the exception of one, are personifications such as might be found in late medieval allegory. They include Drede (the dreamer himself), Dame Saucepere, Danger, Bon Aventure, Favell, Suspect, Disdain, Riot, Dissimuler, and Deceit.

But the poem is not completely abstract in its conception. It is first of all definitely localized:

At Harwich port slumb'ring as I lay
In mine hostes house, called Powers Key.

More important yet, the descriptions of the personified characters are a mixture of medieval abstraction and of touches of reality. For example, in this description of Disdain,

only the fourth and fifth lines seem to belong to medieval description; such expressions as "His face was belimmed as bees had him stung," "pale as ashes," and "comerous crab" set before us a distinct and physical person. This quality of the poem has its climax, moreover, in the description of Harvey Hafter, a real person with a real name among abstractions:

John M. Berdan speaks of this last line as a "triumph of suggestiveness."4 The characterization of Harvey Hafter does not stop here, however; it continues through the medium of his own speech to Drede, one stanza of which is:

It is evident from this poem, then, that at the time he wrote it Skelton was not yet prepared to break completely with the medieval tradition. He had not yet, we may suppose, invented a structure for the poem which would be compatible with the direct way in which he approached experience and to the realistic materials which he wished to place in his poem. His answer to the problem at this time was to borrow an old shell and fill it with new drink.

The same method is also evident in Skelton's morality play, Magnificence. He borrowed the structure of a literary type well-known in his day but used for ecclesiastical and moral purposes. His characters all have abstract names. There is the typical abstract argument:

But the play is filled with much specific material. Occasionally an image, instead of abstract terms, is used to describe the characters, as in this comment upon the taking of the assumed name, Sure Surveyance, by the character Counterfeit Countenance:

Surveyance! where ye survey
Thrift has lost her coffer-key!

or this comment upon Cloaked Collusion:

By Cock's heart, he looketh high!
He hawketh, methink, for a butterfly.

There is a specific reference to King Louis XII. As Henderson comments, although Skelton's purpose "is distinctly moral, … he is chiefly concerned with showing that the wages of imprudent spending, through certain unnamed evil advisers, will be, for a certain unnamed rich prince, adversity and poverty. The case at issue is not so much universal as particular—although, of course, it can be interpreted universally—and the play contains much indirect satire of Wolsey's influence on the young Henry VIII."5

A further step from the medieval method is apparent in the first of Skelton's major satires, Speak, Parrot. At first thought it would seem that the poem is similar to the medieval type of the bestiary, since a bird is the main character. But in this poem the parrot is not at all approached as were the beasts in the Physiologi, with an attempt to find some allegorical significance to the animal's habits or physical character. Rather, here the parrot is realized as the brightly-colored bird who is captured in distant places and brought off in a cage to be a plaything for idle women:

Also, this parrot can speak Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean, Greek, Spanish, French, Dutch, English, and Portugese; and like the parrot Skelton garbles his smatterings of words and phrases from these languages. It is this near-confusion of language which has attracted the most attention from scholars, though the purpose of the indirection of statement is frankly admitted:

Underneath the confusion of language two principal attacks are readily apparent, one against the study of Greek, and the other, more violent, against Wolsey.

What is more interesting for our purposes here is the method involved. It certainly is not medieval, for no indirect preparation, no dream setting or allegorical structure, is provided. The poem starts with the description of the parrot, quoted above, continues the description for a number of stanzas, and then proceeds to the statements by the parrot. The parrot provides, then, the single structural element of the poem: about the facts that the parrot lives in places of court intrigue and that he can speak are gathered the satirical matters of the poem. And the principle by which the satirical matters are gathered is simply one of accumulation: the parrot speaks of matters which the author wishes to satirize, and at the time he wishes to satirize them. This is attested not only by the fact that there are two principal objects of satire, as noted above, but also by the fact that the poem has several envoys, each of them dated and "constituting a series of fortnightly reports on the current activities of Cardinal Wolsey."6 And the parrot remains the only connecting link among these accretions, whether in terms of time or of matter.

The complete break with the medieval manner is apparent in Colin Clout. "Here the dream-structure is abandoned in favor of a single dramatic ego; personification and allegory change to direct statement; and the rime-royal is abandoned in favor of the Skeltonical verse."7 There is no attempt at narrative to link together the various satirical matters of the poem. The structural element, bringing together into one poem such various matters, is provided by the figure of Colin Clout:

As the parrot is used in Speak, Parrot, so here also the structural element, the "single dramatic ego" of Colin Clout, is used to link not only various materials—which include attacks upon church corruption, the confusion of temporal and spiritual powers of the Church, the lack of learning and the laziness of many priests, and Wolsey's attempt at advancement—but also parts composed at different times.8 This is apparent also in the third major satire, Why Come Ye not to Court? In that poem, only a little more than a quarter of the way through the complete work, appear the lines:

Thus will I conclude my style,
And fall to rest a while,
And so to rest a while.

Thus the poem must have ended at this point once, to be taken up again as new instances of corruption came to Skelton's attention.

The structural relationship among these matters within the poem can be only slight. This is particularly true of Why Come Ye not to Court? which does not have a parrot or a Colin Clout to provide some semblance of unity. Combining such various matters at various times in the same poem, Skelton returned often to the same attack, securing intensification and a well-rounded picture by repetition and by the addition of many new examples. As Berdan comments of Why Come Ye not to Court?, "The natural result is that the poem is powerful only in detail. As a whole it has the incoherence of anger."9

This use of repetition, or parallelism, as it might be called, appears not only in the large units of these poems but also in smaller units. It is a striking characteristic of those poems by Skelton which are out of the medieval tradition; and the same structure, as Nelson notes,10 is just as strikingly absent from the poems composed in rime-royal. An example is this from Colin Clout:

Farewell benignitie,
Farewell simplicitie,
Farewell humilitie,
Farewell good charitie!

Another is from The Tunning of Elinor Rumming:

In these poems, then, Skelton has arrived at a method which is definitely not medieval. The writing is direct, not indirect; there is no allegorical covering, but instead an attempt to provide structure through the dramatic figure of a bird or a man who repeats what he hears. Above all, Skelton has thrown over the psychological and philosophical principles which underlie the medieval method. He does not approach experiences with preconceptions; experience is not intellectualized into categorical compartments. Instead he seems to be trying "to get the facts." His own program for church and civil reform is only slightly emphasized compared with his insistence upon the evils which exist. He is gathering data for a program, for a philosophy of action. The poems exhibit a sort of inductive thinking.

In terms of verse structure, we may, for the sake of convenience, term his method "accumulative." He gathers data not once but time after time to cover the same point again and again. "Over and over again he repeats the same things, devoid of all logical form and construction—although these pieces may be said to have certain concentric11 movement of their own—round and round the same point he goes, always coming back to where he started from."12 And this accumulative method is apparent not only in terms of materials but also in terms of the structure of the verse from line to line, as has been pointed out.

The same method of accumulation is characteristic of Skelton's best non-satirical work. It is especially evident in The Tunning of Elinor Rumming, an extreme example of a direct, non-intellectualized approach to sordid elements of experience. The poem is composed of scenes and portraits—almost photographic in their fidelity to fact—of women found at a tavern. And the scenes and portraits are left at the level of description: at the end the poet has merely written enough:

For my fingers itch,
I have written too mich
Of this mad mumming
Of Elinor Rumming!
Thus endeth the geste
Of this worthy feast.

At the same time, repetition and accumulation form the dominant verse-structure throughout the poem. One example has already been quoted. Of the same sort, but here used in conversation, is:

He calleth me his whiting,
His mulling and his miting,
His nobbes and his coney,
His sweeting and his honey,
With "Bass, my pretty bonny,
Thou are worth goods and money!"

Broad, indefinite metaphors and similes are often used in the portraits. They cannot be put together, as images, to make a clear picture, for the analogies are drawn from so many realms of experience. They function, then, as momentary impressions of detail, the complete portrait being achieved through the accumulation of many such images. The following, to give an example, are less than a fourth of the lines devoted to the portrait of Elinor Rumming:

Philip Sparrow is something of a special case, because for the first of its two parts Skelton has again gone to a convention to secure a structure for his poem. In this case, the convention, as Ian Gordon has pointed out, is the Services for the Dead of the Roman Church.13 Gordon lists all the forms of the Services for the Dead and com-ments:

Skelton uses all these forms except that of Matins, and Philip Sparow is remarkable in the way it uses first the Vespers in the Office for the Dead, then without indication or warning becomes the medieval Mass of the Birds … ; again without warning shifts into the Absolution over the Tomb; and then with a few lines on the coming on of night returns to the close of Vespers in the Office. After a section on the composition of a Latin epitaph … we find ourselves at the Commendatio—commendations, not of the soul of Philip Sparow, but, with an obvious play on the double meaning of the word, on the beauty of the girl who was supposed to have recited part one.14

Within this structure Skelton's method of accumulation of detail and perception is apparent, particularly in the second part, where he proceeds from one aspect of Joanna's beauty to another. The following is his comment upon her wart (perhaps a mole) upon her cheek:

Within the first part, also, the same verse-structure is used. A Latin phrase from the Services for the Dead introduces each new movement, and within each appear such passag-es as:


But it is to be noted that in addition to his accumulative method Skelton in this poem makes use of his convention in a way not characteristic of his other poems in which a convention is found. Here the Services for the Dead are not merely framework, as is the dream-framework of The Bouge of Court. The Services are integrated into the poem and act as an undercurrent of commentary on Joanna's sorrow and lamentation. Commenting on this usage, Gordon says, "The formulae of the various Services are introduced, but they are unchanged and perhaps not always even ridiculed. Instead they give a mock-serious background to the lament for Philip that is at any time liable to lose its mockery."15 It is this management of tone between humor and pathos, between burlesque and sentimentality, which is one of the important achievements of Philip Sparrow, and the use of the convention as a functional device in managing the tone represents a further step in Skelton's handling of structural elements in his poetry.

And just as in this poem there is a functional use of the framework, so also is there a functional modification of his characteristic accumulation. In one of her first laments, Joanna says:

Here the repetitive pattern for the verses is familiar. But it is not so straightforward as before; there is a balance of tone which we found extended throughout the poem by means of the undercurrent of commentary through the parody of the Services for the Dead. The first seven lines quoted seem all of one attitude, a genuine lamentation for the death of the sparrow. But the object of the lamentation is merely a pet bird; a single attitude of such pathos toward such an object would seem sentimental. So against the attitude is balanced one of mockery of the lamentation itself, expressed in this passage by the exaggeration of the metaphor hailed in the eighth line and by the near-humor involved in the name of the cat, in the implied situation, and in the exaggerated heroism of the words hath slain of the last line. Similar balancings of attitudes are found throughout Joanna's part of the poem. There is straightforward grief in some of the descriptions, as that of the bird crawling beneath the girl's night clothes:

And on me it would leap
When I was asleep
And his feathers shake,
Wherewith he would make
Me often for to wake,
And for to take him in
Upon my naked skin.
God wot, we thought no sin:
What though he crept so low?
It was no hurt, I trow,
He did nothing, perde,
But sit upon my knee!
Philip, though he were nice,
In him it was no vice!
Philip might be bold
And do what he wold:
Philip would seek and take
All the fleas black
That he could there espy
With his wanton eye.

Or, after a recollection that with a knowledge of magic she might be able to bring Philip alive again, Joanna thinks of the time she tried to stitch Philip's likeness in a sampler:

But when I was sewing his beak,
Methought my sparrow did speak,
And opened his pretty bill,
Saying, "Maid, ye are in will
Again me for to kill!
Ye prick me in the head! …
My needle and thread
I threw away for dread.

Finally, this accumulative method is the foundation of Skelton's best lyrics. Occasionally, there is a certain reverse process, a general statement followed by the realistic image; the organization is apparent in this quotation from Upon a Dead Man's Head:

Obviously even here the interest is not primarily upon the general statement but upon the actual effect of mortality.

At times appears the accumulation of detail towards a general statement, as in the last three stanzas of Knowledge, Acquaintance, Resort, Favour with Grace:

These two poems are also basically "occasional." The former is addressed to a woman who sent the poet a death's head "for a token," and the letter is addressed by the lover to the loved-one. In each case the realistic, accumulative method is at times confused, in the first poem by moralizings upon mortality, and in the second by the intrusion of a medieval personification of Absence. In Skelton's best lyrics, however, there is not this confusion. In a number of them, such as Lullay, Lullay, like a Child; The Ancient Acquaintance, Madam, between Us Twain; and Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale, the poem has a narrative basis. But the interest is not merely in the narrative. The first-named poem is a song, and the music for it has come down to us; it has the quality of statement and the repeated refrain common to the song tradition. In the others appears a greater attempt to get at the details of the narrative situation and of the characterization, with Skel ton's favorite method of providing detail:

At their best, then, Skelton's lyrics have dropped the generalization from a place of prime importance. In its place appears an interest in getting the details of characterization and of the experience. These details are expressed, not through a close analysis of the elements or through means of an extended metaphor, but through almost a riot of images which seem to have little connection or coordination but each of which expresses some facet of the experience; and by the accumulation of such facets a rounded, full communication of the experience is occasionally attained. Skelton's method produces at its best, in the lyric, such a poem as "To Mistress Margaret Hussey" from The Garland of Laurel:


1 William Nelson, John Skelton. Laureate (New York, 1939), p. 142.

2The Complete Poems of John Skellon, Laureate, edited by Philip Henderson (London, 1931), pp. 2-3. All quotations from Skelton are from this edition.

3ibid. p. XXVIII.

4 John M. Berdan, Early Tudor Poetry. 1485-1547 (New York, 1931), p. 97.

5 Henderson, p. XXVII.

6 Nelson, p. 135.

7 Berdan, p. 179.

8Ibid., pp. 195-198, gives indications that Colin Clout was circulated in fragments and thus must have been composed piecemeal.

9Ibid., p. 193.

10 Nelson, p. 87.

11 Ten Brink, as Arthur Koelbing points out ("Barclay and Skelton," The Cambridge History of English Literature [Cambridge, 1909], III, 84) called Skelton's method "concentric."

12 Henderson, p. XXIX.

13 Ian A. Gordon, "Skelton's Philip Sparow' and the Roman Service-Book," Modern Language Review, XXIX (1934), 389-396.

14Ibid., p. 390.

15Ibid., p. 396.

John Holloway (essay date 1960)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Skelton," in The Charted Mirror: Literary and Critical Essays, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960, pp. 3-24.

[In the following excerpt, Holloway praises Skelton's vernacular poetry as well as his careful attention to common experience.]

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 like a barbarian. But if a critic finds that his subject empowers him to do more, he ought to say so. Although Skelton was writing more than 450 years ago, there are certain respects in which his poetry offers us enlightenment and guidance in the literary and cultural problems which confront us today. To seize on the essence of his poetry is to be wiser for our own time. Were that not so, I should perhaps have left the subject of Skelton to others, because I find it congenial but do not find it reassuringly easy.

The problems of today upon which this poet casts light may be indicated by two quotations: one from Mr Robert Graves and one from Bernard Berenson. Mr Graves, writing in 1943 on the development of modern prose, referred to the 'eccentrically individual styles' of Meredith, Doughty, James, and others, and added, 'many more styles were invented as the twentieth century advanced and since there was keen competition among writers as to who should be "great" and since it was admitted that "greatness" was achieved only by a highly individual style, new tricks and new devices multiplied'.1 Forty years before this, Berenson in his essay on the decline of art pointed out how modern European culture, 'mad for newness' as he put it, has committed itself to a ritual of unremitting dynamism. 'We are thus perpetually changing: and our art cycles, compared to those of Egypt or China, are of short duration, not three centuries at the longest; and our genius is as frequently destructive as constructive.'1

Modern English literature surely illustrates what Berenson referred to. The unremitting search for a new way with words, a new kind of hero, a new device for carrying matters a stage further, a new model from some past writer or some foreign literature—these features of the scene are familiar. The search for newness is not itself new, and probably no age has been quite without it. Naturalizing foreign models was an integral part of Chaucer's achievement (though very far of course from the whole of it). But the question is not one merely of innovation; it is of a growing need for constant innovation, and a sense that however often the game of change is played, we are always soon back with what is played out and old-fashioned.

This attitude to writing seems to have become established in England in the course of the sixteenth century. There is a well-known passage in Bacon's De Augmentis Scientiarum, written towards the close of his life, in which he adverts to the playing-out first of the vogue for Cicero, then of the vogue for Seneca, shortly before, and shortly after, 1600. More to our immediate purpose is a passage from Puttenham's Art of English Poetry of 1589. Puttenham was himself the author of the best and best known manual of a new poetry, which was learning amply from ancient and from foreign models, and which had for many years been coming to dominate the English literary scene. The following passage not only illustrates how Puttenham saw Skelton as the last of the bad old days, and Skelton's immediate successors as those who laid the foundations for the new and stylish; it also points unconsciously forward, in several turns of phrase, to the derivativeness, the vacuous grandiosity, the empty ingenuity, which have plagued us intermittently ever since:

Skelton (was) a sharp satirist, but with more rayling and scoffery than became a Poet Lawreat, such among the Greeks were called Pantomimi, with us Buffons, altogether applying their wits to scurrilities and other ridiculous matters. Henry Earle of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyat, betweene whom I find very littel difference, I repute them… for the two chief lanterns of light to all others that have since employed their pennes upon English Poesie, their conceits were loftie, their stiles stately, their conveyance cleanely, their termes proper, their meetre sweete and well proportioned, in all imitating very naturally and studiously their Maister Francis Petrarcha.1

Ever since the time of these two indistinguishable lanterns of light, imitating one's master naturally and studiously, or finding a new master, or going one better than the old master, have figured prominently, in English verse; and whether the end sought has been stateliness and loftiness, or cleanness and propriety, or sweetness and naturalness, the underlying ideas of a regulation of poetry or a reform of poetry have seldom been far distant.

To take Skelton as representative of something different from this tradition, and as instructive on account of the difference, is not to see him merely as an illiterate extemporising buffoon. He has been seen in these terms in the past, but modern scholarship has made the view quite untenable. Skelton was one of a group of Latinists—the proto-humanists we might call them—whom Henry VII drew into his service, and of whom Polydore Vergil is perhaps the best known.2 He was an accomplished rhetorician, and his employment of the figures of rhetoric is as deliberate (if somewhat more intelligent) as that of his contemporary Stephen Hawes.3 His best known poem, Phyllyp Sparowe, is a kind of reverent burlesque of the ritual of the Mass in accordance with established medieval convention;4 and in the description of his heroine in this poem, we can recognize the two places, and no more, where Skelton the poet abandoned the literary model, for the sake one supposes of the real girl.5 That model was the first specimen descriptio in Geoffrey de Vinsauf's Poetria Nova, and this work was as much the medieval poetic handbook as Puttenham's work was the Elizabethan one. Skelton's own disclaimer 'though my rhyme be ragged',1 is itself something of a literary convention: his first modern editor, in 1843, pointed out that Sir David Lindsay and Spenser say the same of their own verse. William Caxton notices that in his translation of Diodorus Siculus Skelton wrote 'not in rude and old language but in polished and ornate terms craftily', and it is essentially the same kind of compliment as Caxton pays elsewhere, justly, to Chaucer ('crafty and sugared eloquence'), and as Spenser's spokesman E. K. was later to pay to the 'well trussed up' verse of Spenser. Skelton was a learned, a professional writer, conversant with his craft and art, an aureate poet as well as a laureate one.

There is always a danger, however, that in registering the qualities of a poem which have been laboriously and scrupulously brought into focus by scholarship, we become blind to the qualities which were never in need of such focusing, because they sprang off the page at us. This is a vital point for Skelton. One of his shorter poems, which begins: Knolege, aquayntance, resort, fauour with grace, has been described as 'an ecphrasis in the aureate manner of Lydgate'2 so it is: we can easily see that it conforms to a literary recipe, and there is little to see in it besides. A companion piece is in part very similar. Also an address to a woman, it closes with an appeal to her to observe the conventional courtly code. It opens with the literary convention at its limpest and most stilted:

But Skelton's tongue is in his cheek; this poem is rapidly transformed; its subject—a wife who has been playing fast and loose with her husband—turns into a hectic stable-yard scene, and a horseman struggling with a mare that has the devil in her, 'ware, ware, the mare wynsyth wyth her wanton hele!', 'Haue in sergeaunt ferrour (farrier)'. The violence and confusion veritably explode what was only a mock-decorous poem. It is not, of course, the first English poem to explode the convention in which it is ostensibly written; but to explode a literary convention it is necessary to obtain a powerful charge drawn from outside convention.

What this is may be seen, perhaps, by turning to the most misjudged of all Skelton's poems, The Tunnying of Elynour Rummyng. To say that the tradition of this rough, vernacular poetry has been lost, is not to say everything about it; but is certainly to point towards the difficulty which this poem has created for one critic after another. Henry Morley saw it as 'a very humble rendering to simple wits of the repulsive aspects of intemperance in women';1 Miss E. P. Hammond refers to its wallowing coarseness;2 even Professor Lewis seems to see the problem as one of tolerating ugliness for the sake of the liveliness, and expresses his preference for the Scottish poem Christis Kirk on the Grene, which he praises for melody, gaiety, and orderliness, and which attracts him through its occasional underlying lyricism.3

To experience these feelings about Elynour Rummyng is to wish that it were different in kind from what it is, rather than better in quality. This picture of a morning in a low country ale-house is if anything less coarse than Langland's superb account of Gluttony in the ale-house, in Piers Plowman,4 and melody and gaiety are as far from Skelton's purpose as they were from Langland's. Indeed, to mention Langland is at once to become aware that Skelton's piece is no thoughtless extemporisation, but has its literary antecedents. Its subject, and its attitude to that subject, were both recurrent in medieval writing;5 and it is possible that Skelton's poem, with its old and ugly alewife whose customers are all old and ugly women, is even a kind of calculated counterpart to a poem by Lydgate, the Ballade on an Ale-Seller, in which (to express oneself in modern terms) a bold and handsome barmaid attracts an exclusively male clientele. In Lydgate's poem, we certainly have orderliness, the order of the ballade; and we have a literary, even sometimes a lofty diction. But they are quite out of key with the subject; and

—that is perhaps the best that Lydgate's poem can do: a hasty glimpse of fact, a trite moral, a reader nonplussed with tedium.

The ugly side of Elynour Rummyng is simply an honest reflection of the poverty and primitiveness which were the staple of life for a rural peasantry in England at that time, as they doubtless are still for rural peasants over most of the planet. If we find coarseness, it is not through identifying what Skelton is trying to make of his material, but through plain unfamiliarity with the material itself. In a now almost unknown poem of just after Skelton's time (happily almost unknown, for in the main it is very bad), we can glimpse those same conditions, but they peer through despite the poet's almost admitted inability to render them. The poem is Copland's Hie Waie to the Spitale Hous, and the passage is that which describes the beggars and vagrants as the Watch sees them at night:

Copland virtually confesses, with that disastrous last line, how his facts defeat him. Skelton's poem is in another world; or rather, his ale-wife with her skin that is 'grained lyke a sacke', her customers who tie their hair up in a shoe-rag when they come to pawn their crocks for ale, her pigs that wander in and out of the bar and scratch themselves on the furniture, take us back with exuberant vitality into the real world.

This extraordinary vividness, where many find vividness an embarrassment, has prevented readers from grasping the full range of the poem, as a record of fact. Elynour Rummyng is not, as it has been called, a 'purely objective' record of peasant reality.1 It is not a moralizing poem, but it is full of an awareness of the essential humanity of the scene it depicts, and of a such comprehension of this (a comprehension neither harsh nor slack and casual) as is the only foundation for significant moralizing. It is easy to miss this subtler side to the poem; but it is there, in the customers who

It is there in those who sit glumly because they have nothing to barter for ale, and can only drink as much as they can chalk up on the beam. It shows in the differences among what customers bring to barter: some the reasonable merchandise of the prosperous peasant, some the last thing in the house or the last thing that they ought to part with. Once we are conscious of these aspects of the poem, even the character of Elynour herself takes on a new light. Her shocked indignation when one of the customers falls over and lets her skirts fly up is a genuine and convincing turn of peasant character. Some of the customers ask for drink and have no money. Skelton writes:

Elynour swered, Nay,
Ye shall not beare away
My ale for nought,
By hym that me bought!

This does not merely contrast the bargains which men and women strike, with that which Christ struck: it brings them disquietingly, revealingly together. With these things in mind, one can see that the opening description of Elynour herself has a somewhat similar deeper significance. It clearly resembles one of the most humane and moving passages in the whole of Chaucer's writings, the Reve's Prologe:

For sikerly, whan I was bore, anon
Deeth drough the tappe of lyf and leet it gon;
And ever sithe hath so the tappe yronne
Til that almoost al empty is the tonne.

Incidentally, the elderly Reeve's 'grene tayl' may have its connexion with 'Parot hath a blacke beard and a fayre grene tale' in Skelton's Speke, Parot, a poem which I shall discuss later. But there is a clear detailed link with Elynour Rummyng too. Chaucer's Reeve says:

But ik am oold, me list not for pley for age;
Gras tyme is doon, my fodder is now forage
This white top writeth myne old yeris.

Skelton uses just this idea of fresh plants and dead forage, and when he does so, it is difficult not to see both Chaucer's direct influence, and the general quality of his insight into human transience:

Her eyen…
… are blered
And she gray hered …
Her youth is farre past:
Foted lyke a plane
Leged lyke a crane;
And yet she wyll iet,
Lyke a jolly fet …
Her huke of Lyncole grene,
It had been hers, I wene,
More then fourty yere;
And so doth it apere,
For the grene bare thredes
Loke lyke sere wedes,
Wyddered lyke hay

As against this poem, Christis Kirk on the Grene is gay boisterous comedy with something even of slapstick; and to compare it with Skelton's poem is to bring out not the defects, but the distinctiveness, and the depth of the latter.

Miss M. M. Gray has pointed out that the spirit of poems like Christis Kirk on the Grene is not typical of the Scottish poetry of its period. ' If The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng is related instead to such poems as Tydingis fra the Sessioun, which is by Dunbar, or The Devillis Inquest, which is almost certainly not so, a quite new kind of difference emerges. In The Devillis Inquest we find:

'Be Goddis blud,' quod the taverneir,
'Thair is sic wyine in my selleir
Hes never come in this cuntrie.'
'Yit,' quod the Devill, 'thou sellis our deir,
With thy fais met cum downe to me.'

This is not a Chaucerian movement of thought; it is a vision which concentrates on the evil in the fact, sees it intensely, and is directed by uncompromising though sternly controlled indignation. One side of reality is brought into a clear focus by a cold and masterly economy of language. This is still a link with Chaucer, but it is not Skelton's kind of link. With rare exceptions, Chaucer's firm linguistic line, his masterly economy, do not serve purposes like these, but less severe ones. Dr Edwards, discussing Skelton's lyrics, wrote: 'He possessed none of Chaucer's smiling acceptance of men and women as they are.'2 Even as an account of Chaucer, that might need a little amendment; but what is relevant for the moment is that it distinguishes too sharply between Chaucer and Skelton.

In my view Elynour Rummyng is the most significant of the poems which Skelton wrote in the short metre which has been named after him. Philip Sparow has great grace and charm, but its chief character is to be an endearing poem, and one which deserves a rather higher place in our affections than it does in our minds as a whole. What may be found in it is not far from what may readily be found elsewhere, and its principle of organization lacks the vitality and distinctiveness of what integrates Elynour Rummyng, the single scene of the poem itself as that is brought progressively into focus….

Colyn Cloute and Why Come Ye Nat to Courte can by no means be passed over altogether, and if I pass them over for the moment, it is in order to give emphasis to a more general point. The poems which Skelton wrote in short lines, rhyming consecutively—in 'Skeltonics'—are usually thought of as his most distinctive and most interesting ones. Long ago, this idea supplied Isaac D'Israeli with a cumbrous joke and a mixed metaphor: 'Whenever (Skelton's) muse plunges into the long measure of heroic verse, she is drowned in no Heliconian stream.'1 The idea reappears implicitly in what has surely been the most influential of recent pronouncements on Skelton, Mr Graves' poem John Skelton,2 which is itself written in a kind of Skeltonics, and which catalogues most of 'helter-skelter John's' short-line poems, without any reference to his other works. And when Professor Lewis writes3 'the things that Mr Graves gets out of Skelton's work are much better than anything Skelton put in', he is clearly not taking issue with this conception of Skelton, even if it is not entirely clear that he is endorsing it.

This notion of what most distinguishes Skelton is erroneous; the Skeltonics are what stand out if we survey only the externals of his work, if our findings are a little too much like what a computer could find if Skelton's poems were fed into it. Some of the most remarkable qualities of Skelton's work are obscured and concealed by his short line. It is in what D'Israeli misleadingly called 'the long measure of his heroic verse' that these qualities are most abundantly manifested; and when this is realized, Mr Graves's

What could be dafter
Than John Skelton's laughter?
What sound more tenderly
Than his pretty poetry?

falls short of adequacy.

Skelton's The Bouge of Court is widely recognized as a poem which gives a new individuality to a conventional form, that of the dream-poem; but this is perhaps to praise that work on too easy terms. References to Skelton's avoidance of 'the conventional arbor'1 or statements like 'for the first time the medieval vision is given a strictly local habitat'2 ignore such things as the opening of the Kingis Quair: King James of Scotland's sleepless night, with his book at his bedside and the matins bell to disturb him. With this, one might perhaps take Henryson in his study mending the fire and taking strong drink to keep out the cold before he settles down to write The Testament of Cresseid. The distinction of Skelton's poem lies less in any simple change in its mechanical organization, than in something which is woven intimately into its texture. Among the various allegorical figures whom Skelton meets as passengers when he boards the ship, from which the poem takes its title, that of Riot is perhaps the best known.

This account, as a whole, is more than 'a brilliant sketch of the seedy, jazz-humming early Tudor roué' as it has been called;3 and it displays more than 'a genius for satirical portraiture'4tout court. The affinity with Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale may be partial, but it is unmistakable. The note of pathos, of tragedy in Riot's high spirits and gay tatters is not, surely, the mere interpolation of a modern mind. 'Counter he coude Ο lux vpon a potte,' Skelton writes; it is the medieval hymn Ο lux beata trinitas that Riot counters. We are never—even if only through the oaths that come incessantly throughout this poem—allowed to forget the religious dimension in which all these essentially human and mortal figures have their being. '… by that Lorde that bought dere all mankynde, I can not flater, I muste be playne to thë; 'by that Lorde that is one, two, and thre, I haue an errande to rounde in your ere' (an echo of Chaucer echoing Dante). This note might not be clear as irony, were it not for the constantly scriptural note, also sounding ironically, of the rest:

Loo, what it is a man to haue connynge!
All erthly tresoure it is surmountynge.


Nay, naye, be sure, whyles 1 am on your syde,
Ye may not fall, truste me, ye may not fayle


Maystress, quod I, I haue none aquentaunce,
That wyll for me be medyatoure and mene

—all these illustrate something which is sustained so much without intermission through the poem, that in the end it is quite inescapable. Skelton is leading us to see these figures—figures 'for whome Tybourne groneth both daye and nyghte'—as erring mortal creatures in the fullest sense; in fact his compassionate comprehension is if anything more in evidence here, and more sombrely and solemnly in evidence, than it was in Elynour Rummyng.

Something else is in evidence also. Skelton's insight into men's behaviour, exact and humane as it was, could not but equip him with real power for dramatization. English literature seems to have reached fully dramatic writing only with difficulty: perhaps because this demands a sense of realistic detail, a power of comprehension and selection which is more than realism, and also (if it is to be in verse) an appropriately developed metrical vehicle. Chaucer mastered it even as early as the Hous of Fame; most English medieval plays only strive towards it. In The Bouge of Court it is otherwise. Dyssymulation, for example, tells the poet that the people in the court are all malicious gossips. Then he makes an exception of himself:

These lines are typical, and to read them is to find oneself in almost total contact with the movement of a living mind as it works its way from word to word.

Contrast that moment in Stephen Hawes' Example of Vertue when the poet meets Dame Sensuality riding on a goat. If we have any hopes that her arrival will infuse a little vitality into the poem, the poet extinguishes those hopes with stunning celerity:

'Nay,' said Discretion, 'that may nat be'
'No,' said I, 'in no maner of wise
To her request will I now agree
But evermore her foul Lust despise …

'So forth I went … Hawes' next stanza baldly opens. That is a phrase which recurs throughout his poem: each time it marks an evasion of reality, a giving up by the poet before material he cannot handle.

By contrast, the personifications of The Bouge of Court have a vivid vernacular life….

I have not seen any explicit recognition of how much Skelton's work owes to proverbial language, and in doing so, to the whole way of life and cast of mind which finds its expression in proverbial language; although the first modern edition of his work is full of information on this very subject. Here the short line poems are relevant once again. 'Such apple-tree, such fruit'; 'loth to hang the bell / About the cattes neck'; 'hearted like an hen'; 'not worth a leek'; 'as wise as Waltham's calfe'; 'all is fish that cometh to net'; 'we may blow at the coal'; 'Mock hath lost her shoe'; '…. it is a wily mouse / That can build hys dwellyng house / Within the cat's ear'—it is not a matter merely of Skelton's using proverbial wise sayings. His verse draws on the proverbial kind of expression for a good deal of its vivid metaphorical wealth, and for something of its whole attitude to its subject—bold yet unassuming, essentially down-to-earth. It uses the clichés of ordinary people (which are not clichés at all, because instead of making the mind gloss over the plain facts, they bring it abruptly up against them) but it is using these in order to assimilate the whole idea which ordinary people form of reality. To notice Skelton's reliance on the proverbial expression is not to notice a literary trick or a literary routine, but to notice, at its most easily recognizable point, the essential quality of what was creative in his mind. It is the same quality which shows, if we consider the use that he made of the authors on whose work he draws. Juvenal in his eighth satire, for example, had written:

Skelton almost certainly has this passage in mind when he attacks Wolsey in Why Come Ye Nat to Courte. But what he writes is:

Ye may weare a cockes come;
Your fonde hed in your furred hood,
Holde ye your tong, ye can no goode:

Juvenal's line embodies penetrating diagnosis of a fact, and an attitude of angry superiority to it; Skelton replaces this by the common sense, and the impudence towards the great, of the plain man.1 In the Garlande of Laurell there is an account of how the Phoenix consumes itself in the fire. Skelton probably had a passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book XV, in mind. But he adds something of his own about this Phoenix:

Perhaps it is not fanciful to suggest that this comes nearer to an early morning scene in Skelton's own Norfolk parsonage, than it does to Ovid. Again, when Skelton in the same poem describes the bard Iopas singing his song in the garden of the Muses, he follows the closing lines of the first book of the Aeneid; but there is nothing in Virgil which corresponds to the lively turn of thought, humorous rather than witty, whereby Skelton's Iopas, in his songs about the constellations, includes

and there is nothing in Virgil, beyond a plain 'rainy Hy ades', which could produce the vividness in Skelton's homely touch of the Hyades' 'misling eye'.

Thus, Skelton's manner of drawing on proverbial language and of drawing away from literary models both show the essential quality of his mind. So, more important perhaps, do his rhythms. Dr Nelson argues that of all the various progenitors which have been suggested for Skelton's shortline verse, the brief chiming cadences of Latin rhyming prose are the most likely.2 In this he seems clearly right. It is much more open to question, though, whether he is right in suggesting that the transition from prose to verse was, in Skelton's case, one towards smoothness and regularity. Across Skelton's short lines there seems often to be an irregular longer rhythm; one which is essentially a long spoken rhythm, the angry accelerating tirade brought to a halt by an emphatic rallentando and pause. Why Come Ye Nat to Courte, 11. 65-81, seem to be a good illustration of this. If this is so, it is yet another example of how Skelton adapts what is literary in origin to vehement speech and to the cast of mind which lies behind that kind of speech.

However this may be, a parallel trend is quite indisputable in the case of Skelton's longer metre. His long lines, it is true, can sometimes be seen almost as two short 'Skeltonic' lines combined into one: but that is by no means the whole of the story. The convention that the poet should disparage his own work may have been why Skelton makes one of the characters in Magnyfycence say that his big speech—really a dramatic chorus—will be 'In bastarde ryme after the dogrell gyse'. But again, that is not the whole story. Ramsay, in his admirable Introduction to Magnyfycence, made it clear that Skelton's long line, even in the rhyme-royal sections of this poem, is not the regular five-stress line of Chaucer at all, but a four-stress line, which never carries the sense on from line to line; which is marked by constant alliteration; which may vary in length from seven to fourteen syllables; and which (in its ampler forms) centres round a very emphatic central pause. The result is a loose and exceedingly flexible verse form, which can vary from almost naive spareness to great amplitude and copiousness, which has as its metrical unit not the foot at all, but the self-dependent phrase, and which is such as we might expect, in fact, if the sense of rhythm which we have in Langland were to be forced into expression through a Chaucerian rhythmic form. It is essentially a metre dominated by the speaking voice, as against a metre which dominates the voice. Here is one part of its connexion with proverbial utterance, and the cast of mind which goes with that. Another part is how it resists enjambement—each line makes a separate statement—and how it naturally falls into two parts around its central pause, for this is also common in proverbs. (Many hands, light work; if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.)

Skelton may be the master of this metre, but he did not invent it. A fifteenth-century poem like 'Lex is layde and lethyrly lukys'1 falls not only into the metre, but also into the gnomic quality, the macaronics, and the general attitudes, which are common in Skelton:

Veritas is demytt to hange one the ruyde,
Verecundia was drownytt at the laste fluyde,
So that few freyndes may a man fynde,
ffor rectum iudicium commys so farre be-hynde.
ffraus is fykyll as a fox, and reuys in this lande
ffuror is hys freynde, as I vnderstande …

Another poem of this general period is especially interesting, because it shows the attitude of mind which tended to force a poet into using the stress metre. Like Skelton's Ancient Aqueyntaunce, it begins as a deceptively decorous compliment to a lady, and turns into a ribald and telling palinode against her. As it makes this transition in attitude, its rhythm changes from smooth, regular rhythm by feet, to an abrupt Skeltonic rhythm of the half-line and the independent phrase.2 The poem opens:

O mosy Quince hangyng by your stalke
The whyche no man may pluk away ner take

but by the time it is speaking out, as it were, we find lines like:

My louely lewde masterasse take consideracion
I am so sorrowfull there as yet be absent
The flowre of the barkfate3 the fowlyst of all the nacion
To loue you but a lytyll hit myne entent.

Counterfeit Countenaunce's chorus speech, to which I referred just now, is essentially in this stress-rhythm also; and it is this which enables it to move, with great freedom and ease, out of abrupt and lively dialogue into what is almost a rhetoric of moral denunciation. It opens with a light rhythm like

Fansy hath cachyd in a flye net
This noble man Magnyfycence

and little by little, in a kind of flux and reflux, it is amplified into lines like

Counterfet preaching and byleue the contrary
Counterfet conscyence, peuysshe pope holy:
Counterfet sadness, with delynge full madly;
Counterfet holyness is called ypocrysy;
Counterfet reason is not worth a flye;
Counterfet wysdome, and workes of foly;
Counterfet countenaunce every man doth occupy:

In fact, the general recurrent movement of this play is to modulate from dialogue to this kind of moralistic verse, solemn yet essentially popular and traditional in both its style and its attitudes.

This same kind of poetry is constantly breaking through the 'literary' tedium of The Garlande of Laurell:

But it is in Speke, Parot that these qualities of Skelton's work are most important, for that extraordinary poem is surely his masterpiece. Historically, this poem marks not only Skelton's hostility to Wolsey, and those policies of Wolsey which were inescapably bringing the whole traditional order to an end, but also Skelton's general hostility to the growing Erastianism of the time,1 and his now final abandonment of London and the Court, for the great conservative family of the Earl of Surrey. Indeed, everything which shows Skelton's place in the culture of his time seems to converge in this poem. Morality based upon the Bible and the people's proverbial wisdom goes here with an essentially vernacular use of language throughout, with a distinctive development of the polyglot macaronic kind of writing (a popular and goliardic mode rather than a literary one), and with a structure, perhaps, somewhat like those commonplace books which passed from hand to hand in the country houses of the time and contained, as Dr Person writes, 'poetry and prose, English, Latin, or French, long poems and scraps, religion and science, devotional and satiric works, riddles and proverbs'.1 Yet out of this gallimaufry, Skelton has made a poem which (though a chaos from a mechanical standpoint) is imaginatively perhaps the most unified of his works. It is unified in the persistent vivid presence and exceedingly distinctive tone—the tone of one who threatens and is himself in danger—of the parrot itself. Above all it is unified in the gathering power and directness of the attack as this gradually breaks through the speaker's prudence, and at last converts his glancing blows into the finale: a fierce and solemn denunciation of Wolsey himself:

We scarcely need to trace Wolsey's father the butcher in these lines, nor the Tudor greyhound, nor the swan of the Duke of Buckingham. The passionate, unflinching, comprehensive grasp of reality, and embodiment of it in an idiom wholly the writer's own, are unmistakable. If we think that we are not in the presence here of poetic greatness, it is because there is a kind of poetic greatness which we have not learnt to know.

To make this claim is not to make every claim. Nothing in Skelton has the poignancy, strangeness, and deep compassion of the scene in Henryson's poem where Cressid the leper begs an alms of Prince Troilus, and his memory of her swims halfway to the light, but then goes back into darkness. Skelton has nothing of the imaginative brilliance of Sir David Lindsay's Ane Satire of the Thrie Estatis, in the opening words of Sensualitie:

Luifers awalk, behald the fyrie spheir,
Behauld the naturall dochter of Venus.

This is not going far afield. But what we do see in Skelton is one quite distinctive kind of excellence. A variety of vernacular traditions, a vernacular kind of insight, a metre and a rhythm which had for long had contact with vernacular expression—all these are things that come together in Skelton's verse. Once again George Puttenham, cicerone of the new and more literary poetic which succeeded Skelton and put him out of favour, settles that matter for us (though he settles less than he thinks) when he ridicules

small and popular musickes song … upon benches and barrels heads where they have none other audience then boys or countrey fellowes that passe them in the streete, or else by blind harpers or such like taverne minstrels that give a fit of mirth for a groat, and their matters being for the most part stories of old time"… also they be used in Carols and rounds and such light or lascivious Poemes, which are commonly more commodiously uttered by these buffons or vices in plays then by any other person. Such were the rimes of Skelton … in our courtly maker we banish them utterly.1

To accept this view of Skelton as essentially in contact with the apprehension of life of the ordinary man is not to accept what Puttenham thought it meant: that his work was crude and artless. I hope I have shown how he drew upon, or sometimes transformed, the work of his precedessors or models. His rhythmic spontaneity and flexibility is in fact a high technical achievement, towards which we can see him working from The Bouge of Court on to Speke, Parot. But when we open our minds to what is most distinctive of the truly literary quality of his verse, what we find is amplitude, immediacy, rhythmic vitality, a suggestion of embodied power for growth. What Henry James called 'felt life' seems to operate in the texture of his language with a quite special freedom and directness; and when that language moves, as it often does, beyond plain speech, it moves in a different direction from that which is conspicuous in Donne, say, and the poets who followed Donne: it moves less towards wit and argumentation through figurative language, than towards the proverbial gnomic solemnity of the traditional and popular mind. The result is no mere mirror of life, no mere Skeltonic realism, but something of an embodiment of life's permanent contours and essential vitality. Much may be absent from Skelton, but this, with the deep refreshment which it brings, is not absent.

When a literature—like our own—is old, and has been forming and re-forming for centuries, and has been reacting with other literatures for centuries also, there is a strong tendency for your courtly maker or his counterpart to predominate, and for writers generally to seek and expect success through naturally and studiously imitating their master Francis Petrarch or whoever may be the Francis Petrarch of the hour. We cannot but recall at this point the views of Graves and Berenson, which I quoted earlier, about multiplying tricks and devices, achieving a highly individual style, perpetually changing, displaying genius which is as frequently destructive and constructive. 'What has not been done? What is left to do?' seems more and more insistently to become the cry. Perhaps this cannot but tend to happen, as the centuries go by, and the past tends to weigh down, more and more, upon the present. But in Skelton, although he had the interests of a serious poet, and although his civilization was old rather than young, something else has happened. In his work, the dominance of artistry by reality is peculiarly thorough-going, peculiarly intimate and genuine. This may or may not be the balance which we find at the very pinnacle of artistic achievement; but I think it is one which we greatly need to contemplate, and to learn from, today.


1The Reader over Your Shoulder (1943), p. 120.

1Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1938 edition), p. 331.

1op. cit., I. xxxi; ed. G. D. Willcock and A. Walker, 1936, p. 62.

2 W. Nelson, John Skelton (1939), pp. 4-59.

3 V. L. Rubel, Poetic Diction in the English Renaissance (1941), pp. 37-9.

4 See, e.g., lan A. Gordon, John Skelton (1943), pp. 122 et seq.

5 See the introduction to Skelton's translation of the Bibliolheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus (ed. F. M. Salter and H. H. L. Edwards, 1956; E.E.T.S. original series 229, p. xxxix).

1Colyn Cloute, l. 83.

2 Salter and Edwards, ed. cit. p. xxxvii.

1English Writers, Vol. 7 (1891), p. 190.

2English Verse between Chaucer and Surrey (1927), p. 337.

3 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954), p. 138; p. 106.

4 C Text, Passus VII, ll. 349-441.

5 Cf. R. L. Greene, Early English Carols (1935), No. 419 ('The Gossips' Meeting'); Greene compares this with the 'Good Gossippes Songe' in the Chester play of the Deluge, but this is too short and slight to have much in common with Skelton's poem.

1 Quoted from A. V. Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld (1930), pp. 4-5.

1 W. L. Renwick and H. Orton, The Beginnings of English Literature to Skelton (second ed., 1952), p. 114.

1 M. M. Gray, Scottish Poetry from Barbour to James VI, Introduction (1935 edition, p. xvii); these remarks relate specifically to another similar work, Peblis to the Play, but also generally to the humourous poems in the Bannatyne and Maitland MSS. which stand out (like Christis Kirke on the Grene) for their 'boisterous merriment and rough-and-tumble'.

2 H. L. R. Edwards, Skelton (1949), p. 53.

1Amenities of Literature (1841), Vol. II, p. 69.

2Poems (1914-26), pp. 6-8.

3op. cit., p. 143.

1 Nelson, op. cit., p. 78.

2 Edwards, op. cit., p. 62.

3 Edwards, op. cit., p. 63.

4 Nelson, op. cit., p. 82.

1 Juvenal, Satires, VIII, 144-5; Why Corne Ye Nat to Courte. ll. 1232-4. It should be noticed that at l. 1224 Skelton has quoted verbatim part of I. 140 of the Eighth Satire.

2op. cit., pp. 90 et seq.

1 Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the Fifteenth Century (1959), No. 176, p. 269.

2 Henry A. Person (ed.), Cambridge Middle English Lyrics (1953), No. 49, p. 40.

1 See J. M. Berdan, 'Speke, Parrot'; MLN, Vol. 30 (1915), p. 140.

1 Person, op cit., p. iv.

1op. cite d. Willcock and Walker, pp. 83-4.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Kinsman, Robert S. and Yonge, Theodore. John Skelton: Canon and Census. New York: Monographic Press, 1967, 88 p.

Primary and secondary listings of Skelton's work.


Nelson, William. John Skelton: Laureate. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, 266 p.

Survey of Skelton's life and the historical circumstances surrounding his poetry.


Archibald, Elizabeth. "Tradition and Innovation in the Macaronic Poetry of Dunbar and Skelton." Modern Language Quarterly 53, No. 1 (March 1992): 126-49.

Assesses the tradition of combining both English and Latin or Greek in the same poem.

Carlson, David. "John Skelton and Ancient Authors: Two Notes." Humanistica Lovaniensia XXXVIII (1989): 100-09.

Analyzes Skelton's allusions to Latin poetry and concludes that the poet's classical allusions, though accurate, were not of the same sophistication as Renaissance humanists.

Colley, John Scott. "John Skelton's Ironic Apologia: The Medieval Sciences, Wolsey, and the Garlande of Laurell" Tennessee Studies in Literature XVIII (1973): 19-32.

Explores the political climate surrounding Skelton's The Garland of Laurel.

Doherty, M. J. "The Patristic Humanism of Skelton's Phyllyp Sparowe." In From Cloister to Classroom: Monastic and Scholastic Approaches to Truth, edited by E. Rozanne Elder, Cistercian Publications, 1986, pp. 202-38.

Maintains that Skelton's satire promotes intellectual and spiritual values.

Evans, Maurice. "John Skelton." In English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 47-64. London: Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., 1955.

Determines Skelton's place in English literary history and suggests that he played an important role in the beginning of the English Renaissance.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. John Skelton's Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965, 268 p.

Critical study of Skelton's verse.

Gillespie, Vincent. "Justification by Good Works: Skelton's The Garland of Laurel. " Reading Medieval Studies VII (1981): 19-31.

Examines Skelton's ideas about the uses of poetry, particularly its role in religious and political debates.

Gingerich, Owen, and Tucker, Melvin J. "The Astronomical Dating of Skelton's Garland of Laurel. " Huntington Library Quarterly XXXII, No. 3 (1969): 207-20.

Links a descriptive passage in the poem with a known astronomical event to date the writing of the majority of the Garland of Laure.

Heiserman, A. R. Skelton and Satire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, 326 p.

Explores the relationship between Skelton's satirical works and medieval literary tradition.

Kinney, Arthur F. John Skelton, Priest as Poet: Seasons of Discovery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987, 236 p.

Maintains that the primary purpose of Skelton's poetry is religious instruction.

Kinsman, Robert S. "Skelton's 'Uppon a Deedmans Hed': New Light on the Origin of the Skeltonic." Studies in Philology L, No. 2 (April 1953): 101-09.

Traces the roots of the English meter known as the "Skeltonic" to Latin and English poetry from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

——. "Skelton Mocks the Muse: References to Romance Matters in His Poetry." In Medieval Epic to the "Epic Theater" of Brecht, edited by Rosario P. Armato and John M. Spalek, pp. 35-46. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1968.

Examines Skelton's poetic relationship to chivalric romances such as Morte Arthur.

Lawton, David. "Skelton's Use of Persona." Essays in Criticism XXX, No. 1 (January 1980): 9-28.

Explores Skelton's use of personae, or characters, to narrate his major poems.

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

Contends that Garland of Laurel "deserves attention because it evaluates, in a lively and imaginative manner, Skelton's poetic career and the meaning of literary fame."

Newman, Robert D. "The Visual Nature of Skeiton's 'The Tunnying of Elynour Rummying."' College Literature XII, No. 2 (1985): pp. 135-40.

Discusses both the visual details and the social panorama in Skelton's poem.

Scattergood, John. "Skelton and Traditional Satire: Ware the Hauke" Medium Aevum LV, No. 2 (1986): 203-16.

Examines the historical basis of Skelton's poem.

Skelton, Robin. "The Master Poet: John Skelton as Conscious Craftsman." Mosaic VI, No. 3 (Spring 1973): 67-92.

Contends that Skelton identified his own poetic skill with the medieval guild tradition of master craftsman.

Wallace, Nathaniel Owen. "The Responsibilities of Madness: John Skelton, 'Speke, Parrot,' and Homeopathic Satire." Studies in Philology LXXXII, No. 1 (Winter 1985): 60-80.

Considers the role of madness in Skelton's poem and asserts that the poem has a sharply defined moral purpose.

West, Michael. "Skelton and the Renaissance Theme of Folly." Philological Quarterly L, No. 1 (January 1971): 23-35.

Maintains that the fools in Skelton's poetry occupy a transitional position between medieval and Renaissance conceptions of folly.

Stanley Eugene Fish (essay date 1965)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Some Graver Fish," in John Skelton's Poetry, Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 82-123.

[In the following essay, Fish determines how Skelton utilizes the medieval rhetorical tradition in Philip Sparrow.]

Philip Sparrow is perhaps Skelton's best-known poem. Countless readers have been enchanted by what C. S. Lewis calls "the lightest—the most like a bubble—of all the poems I know."8 Yet it is one of the ironies of literary history that a good third of the poem is consistently ignored and sometimes deplored. Of its 1382 lines, only the first 833 (Jane Scrope's lament for her slain sparrow) are generally admired, while lines 834-1267 (the poet's extended commendation of Jane's beauty) and lines 1268-1382 (his reply to those who have objected on moral grounds to sections one and two) receive only passing attention. Ian Gordon remarks of the "Commendations," "It is a charming tribute, but of little importance beside the first part of the poem." "The structure of the 'Commendacions' is completely different from that of the lament and there is actually no great connection between the two parts."9

It seems to me that the critical silence on the third section is justified. Skelton had the disconcerting habit of attaching afterthoughts to his poems, and in this case the "adicyon made by maister Skelton" (which also appears in the Garland of Laurel) was probably written in 1523, some fifteen years after the composition of the main body of the poem. But with the dismissal of the middle section as "charming" (and, as Gordon implies, irrelevant), I cannot concur; for the very differences which separate it from the preceding 833 lines and lead Gordon, among others, to question its relevancy seem to me to provide the key to the poem's total meaning. Briefly, I see Philip Sparrow as a comparative study of innocence and experience, built around the contrasting reactions of its two personae to a single event, the death of the title figure. If we read only for the Skelton "whimsicality" celebrated by Robert Graves ("What could be dafter / Than John Skelton's laughter"), C. S. Lewis' partial encomium will seem wholly adequate; but the lightness which captivates Lewis is a single strain in a poem so complex that the resources of several disciplines are necessary for its interpretation.1

Once again Skelton builds his poem on the conventions of rhetoric. In Ware the Hawk the dramatic and the rhetorical are obviously incongruous, and a reader with no formal rhetorical training can respond fully to the humor. In Philip Sparrow Skelton makes more delicate discriminations, which can only be articulated against the background of a finely graduated formal system, and the reader must bring the system to the poem.

As Skelton comes to see a relationship between the difficulty of making moral distinctions and the inadequacy of language, the index of innocence becomes verbal. Conveniently, the rhetoric of his day provides him with formulae to measure that index. The dissociation of rhetorical method from the organic theory which gave it relevance engendered many curiosities. In the De inventione, Cicero lists the personal attributes (characteristics) which could legitimately be cited either to support or discredit testimony: "Omnes res argumentando confirmantur aut ex eo quod personis aut ex eo quod negotiis est attributum. Ac personis has res attributas putamus: nomen, naturam, victum, fortunam, habitum, affectionem, studia consilia, facta, casus, orationes."2 What is to Cicero one more area for legal argument becomes in medieval poetics a hard and fast rule of characterization. Both Marbodus in his De ornamentis verbis3 and Matthew de Vendôme in his Ars versificatoria4 advise aspiring authors to keep before them the natural characteristics of Cicero; John of Garland in the sixth chapter of his Poetria5 provides a list of the same—with illustrations; and Geoffrey de Vinsaufs descriptio's became authoritative models.

The doctrine of the three styles (high, middle, plain) underwent a similar transformation. Where Cicero had seen them in relation to the efforts of the orator (the "plain" for presenting evidence, the "middle" for gaining the ear of the audience, and the "high" for swaying the audience),6 they became in the poetry manuals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a means of indicating social norms. Atkins writes, "Classical doctrine had distinguished three main styles … which were differentiated … by their degrees of ornamentation."… By this date [the twelfth century] a new and strange meaning was often given to these terms. The distinctions were said to rest on the social dignity of the personages or subject matter concerned";7 and goes on to note that of the sixty-four figures described in the Ad herennium, the ten tropes or "difficult ornaments" (ornatus difficilis) were allowed only to the high style, while poets were forced in the middle and plain registers to limp along with the fifty-four figures of speech (yerborum) and thought (sententiarum). In short, by the thirteenth century, a hardening of the rhetorical arteries had combined with an imperfect understanding of Horace's doctrine of "decorum" to produce a highly stylized art of characterization. Tropes, not clothes, made the man (or woman) in the world of medieval poetic.8 Through the manipulation of this poetic Skelton will create in a context of artificiality and innuendo, a personality whose innocence and artlessness are overwhelming. In many ways, it will be his finest effort.

In the first section, Skelton's strategy is largely negative. From the opening interrogatio,

Place bo
Who is there who?
Di le xi.
Dame Margery;
Fa, re, my, my,
Wherefore and why, why?
For the sowle of Philip Sparowe
That was late slayn at Carowe,

the fifteenth-century reader would expect (1) a parody of the Mass in the Goliardic tradition, (2) a play on the phallic possibilities of the sparrow in the tradition of Catullus and Ovid. As Skelton presents her, however, Jane is dramatically ignorant of either tradition, and the power of her monologue will depend on the disparity between the reader's (potential) sophistication and her naïveté. The possibility of blasphemy never occurs to her, nor, after the first hundred lines, to us. Although Jane does chant a Mass for Philip, she does not parody the service. Gordon, who has examined the services she draws upon—Officium Defunctorum (Breviary), 1-386, Miss a pro Defunctis (Missal), 387-512, Absolutio Super Tomulum (Missal), 513-70, Officium Defunctorum (Breviary), 571-6029—notes the fidelity of her borrowings and the absence of parody:

The borrowed passages run in pairs—in every case an antiphon followed by the first lines of the following psalm, the whole rigidly keeping to the order in the Office—and never, strange though it appears, once parodying it, though the temptation to parody … was obvious enough.1

From the opening lines the only departure from orthodoxy is the service itself, and if this assumes a belief in the immortality of the animal soul, her youth and sincerity (it is isincerity that characterizes the parodies) would seem to absolve her from the charge of heresy.

Although Skelton never allows us to question the reality of Jane's sorrow, he does undercut its significance. Lewis calls Philip Sparrow "our first great poem of childhood."2 Jane is a child, and her perspective is childlike (but not childish); if Skelton is to succeed, he must allow his reader to be simultaneously condescending and sympathetic; for like the persona of Ware the Hawk she will bring the entire universe to bear on her problem, and where he offends, she must charm.

She begins in the best elegiac style with a demonstratio, "When I remembre agayn / How mi Philyp was slayn" (17-18), which leads to a characteristically hyperbolic exclamatio: "I syghed and I sobbed, / For that I was robbed / Of my sparowes lyfe, / O mayden, wydow, and wyfe / Of what estate ye be, / Of hye or lowe degre, / Great sorowe than ye myght se, / And lerne to wepe at me!" (50-57). In these early lines the relationship between the figures is logical, even natural; recollection triggers reaction and the sense of formality is minimal. We hear echoes from medieval romance and even Marian lament;3 but we feel that the allusiveness of her complaint is accidental or unconscious or somehow not her own, and it is the hyperbole of it all rather than the erudition that captivates even as it amuses.

But at line 67 the comfortable pattern of demonstratio-exclamatio is broken by the first of a series of Skeltonic lists that are, in effect, formal digressio's: Jane prays that Philip's soul may be saved from

and from a score of other horrors that fill the next fifteen lines. What begins as a petition to Jesus becomes an encyclopedic recital of the mythology of the underworld, and it is difficult (for both speaker and reader) to return at line 114 to tearful reminiscence. For some 150 lines, the alternation of demonstratio-exclamatio is once again regular; but at line 273 a cry for vengeance "on all the hole nacyon / Of cartes" grows into a wonderfully imaginative catalogue of tortures:

Of Inde the gredy grypes
Myght tere out all thy trypes!
Of Arcady the beares
Might plucke awaye thynes eares!
The wylde wolfe Lyacon
Byte asondre thy backe bone!

and it is with a distinct shock that we come back at line 323 to the inspiration of this impressive performance:

Was never byrde in cage
More gentle of corage.

What is happening is clear. Skelton is using a rhetorical pattern to point up the central paradox of this section—a genuine sorrow which cannot, however, be sustained. Although Jane's affection for Philip can hardly be questioned, the natural recuperative powers of childhood will not allow her an extended period of mourning. She is still very much alive, very much enchanted with the wonders of the vital world she lives in, and, as the poem develops, it becomes more and more difficult for her to return from her excursions (or digressions) into life to her self-imposed preoccupation with the dead.4 Her difficulty is also the reader's difficulty. Trained to read "figuratively," he will recognize the demonstratio-exclamatio pattern and fall into its comfortable rhythm. The catalogues will break that rhythm and force him to construct a new pattern. In order to retain control of the reading experience, he must place this additional rhetorical component; and the name of the figure in question (digressio) will help him to see in its appearance and gradual ascendancy a comment on the figures it supersedes. The very demonstratio's she evokes to feed her sorrow defeat her, for sorrow can hardly be sustained in the face of such scenes as this:

Sometyme he wolde gaspe
Whan he sawe a waspe;
A fly or a gnat,
He wolde flye at that
And prytely he wold pant
Whan he saw an ant;
Lord, how he wolde pry
After the butterfly!
Lorde, how he wolde hop
After the gressop!

The fact that Jane is now the natural rhetorician whose verbal gestures are the inadequate signs of an emotional reality, and now the sophist who offers to her audience endless exercises in amplificatio, tells us more about her than do her own statements and explanations. It is in the effort to understand the rhetorical movement of the poem that the reader comes to understand its heroine.

As her dirge continues, Jane returns to Philip only as a pretext for another digression. At line 387 she calls upon "all manner of byrdes in your kynd" to "wepe with me" and presides, for one hundred lines, over a Bird-Mass in which the solemnity of the occasion is lost in the vivacity of a virtuoso performance. This one large digressio contains a host of smaller ones as the girl enlivens her assignments to the feathered clerics with a little unnatural natural history:

Chaunteclere, our coke,
Must tell what is of the clocke
By the astrology
That he hath naturally
Conceyved and cought
And was never tought
By Albumazar
The astronomer,
Nor by Ptholemy
Prince of astronomy,
Nor yet by Haly.

And at line 614 the necessity of an epitaph and Jane's admitted ignorance of "Elyconys well / Where the Muses dwell" lead to a 150-line recital of the literature she does know, a delightful collection of myth and folk tales:

These are an especially attractive illustration of what Skelton can do with the Skeltonic. By eschewing the feminine rhymes which go with the verse form in his flytings, Skelton draws attention to the couplets. In this way the Wife of Bath is delineated by the four rhyme words, "Bath," "scath," "tolde," "bolde," and Troilus and Cresseid by "hote" and "dote." At the same time the unusual pattern of run-on lines makes the basic unit of the passage (what the reader takes in between visual breaths) the capsule narrative itself rather than the line as in Colin Clout and Why Come Ye Not to Court?; and the closing line of each unit is somewhat fuller than its antecedents, forcing the reader to pause and consider what he has read. The end result of these effects is the characterization of the speaker who becomes identified with the Ogden Nash-like jingle of the rhymes (Bath, scath) and the charmingly simplistic reduction of complex emotional and narrative conflicts (hote, dote). In order to provide a rhyme for her couplet at line 744, Jane obviously seizes on the first filler line that comes to mind ("With whom he ledd a plesaunt life"), producing the kind of emphatic doggerel Skelton so easily avoids. In any other context "a plesaunt life" would be anticlimactic or bathetic or even suggestive; here we smile as literary and social sophistication fall before the naïveté of an innocent mind.

To appreciate Philip Sparrow one must recognize the effort of will Skelton exercises in making the first 833 lines Jane's. (Imagine, if you will, Marlowe writing both parts of Hero and Leander.) The poem has been misread because the girl has been denied her own opinions. When she com ments critically on Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate, literary historians assume that it is Skelton who speaks with all the authority of his profession; when she reflects on that medieval commonplace, mutability ("Of fortune this the chaunce / Standeth on varyaunce / … No man can be sure / Allway to have pleasure," 366-67, 370-71), we are to assume that the poet thus indicates his philosophical position. Skelton may or may not share Jane's opinion of the English poets (lines 393-448 of the Garland of Laurel suggest that he does), and he certainly is concerned with mutability; but as these passages appear in the poem, they flow naturally from the character of his persona as he has created it. Jane obviously delivers her critical clichés by rote, as a child might, and when she supports her musings on mutability by citing her own "tragedy" as an example, it is not difficult to see the poet at work, skillfully (though not maliciously) pointing up a childlike lack of proportion. Each block of digressive material is longer than the preceding block; the connection between them and the lament for Philip Sparrow becomes more and more tenuous, and when Jane reaches the "turn" in her elegy and commends Philip's soul to God, we know that sorrow has passed:

But whereto shuld I
Longer morne or crye?
To Jupyter I call
Of heven emperyall,
That Phyllyp may fly
Above the starry sky.

In the final two hundred lines of her monologue, it is the technical problem of fashioning an epitaph that concerns Jane; and the rhetoric is, as might be expected, external to her as a thinking and feeling being. The entire section is a complex expolitio, the most elaborate of the amplificatory figures in which variations on a single theme are supported by exempla, reasons, illustrations, and framed by a formal introduction and conclusion. Here the theme is the inexpressibility topos, introduced by Jane at line 605:

An epytaphe I wold have
For Phyllyppes grave:
But for I am a mayde,
Tymerous, halfe afrayde,
That never yet asayde
Of Elyconys well,
Where the Muses dwell.

This simple admission of ignorance is followed by the lengthy digressio noted above in which each myth or tale she refers to is, in a negative way, an example of the kind of literature to which she cannot refer. At line 754 the original declaration is rephrased,

Yet I am nothing sped,
And can but lytell skyll,

and supported by an amazing catalogue of the authors unknown to her:

Of Ovyd or Virgyll,
Or of Plutharke,
Or Frauncys Petrarke,
Alcheus or Sapho,
Or such other poetes mo,
As Linus and Homerus,
Euphorion and Theocritus,
Anacreon and Arion,
Sophocles and Philemon,
Pyndarus and Symonides,
Philistion and Phorocides;
These poetes of auncyente,
They ar to diffuse for me.

A third statement of self-disparagement,

For, as I tofore have sayd,
I am but a yong mayd,
And cannot in effect
My style as yet direct,

precedes an indictment of the English language as the source (or in terms of the expolitio, the reason) for her difficulty:

Our natural tong is rude,
And hard to be enneude
With pullysshed termes lusty …

I wot not where to fynd
Termes to serve my mynde.

This, in turn, suggests a survey of English poetry and a recital of the critical clichés of the day—"Gowers Englysh is olde," "Chaucer, that famus clerke, / His termes were not darke," "Johnn Lydgate / Wryteth after an hyer rate" (784, 800-01, 804-05). With the word "Wherefore" in line 813, Jane formally concludes the expolitio and offers a final variation of the basic assertion:

Wherefore hold me excused
If I have not well perused
Myne Englyssh halfe abused;
Though it be refused,
In worth I shall it take,
And fewer wordes make.

For the reader, Jane's expolitio is simultaneously an indication of her recovery from the shock of Philip's death, and a true statement of her intellectual limitations as they are mirrored in, indeed proven by, her stylistic limitations; it seals his attitude toward her. That attitude is, I think, compounded, in equal parts, of affection and condescension. As her exclamations lose contact with their supposed inspiration (the death of Philip), we fasten on them as relevant to what becomes the poem's real inspiration, the girl herself. We accept her stories, her judgments, her reflections, not because they tell us anything about birds, or myths, or poets or language, but because they are hers. In other words, while we reject her view of the situation as limited, we believe in her completely. At the same time, our understanding of her allows us to patronize her. We are so much wiser, so much more mature; unlike her, we do have terms to serve our mind; our English is aureate rather than rude; and we are aware, as she is not, of the sexual implications of her demonstratio's:

And many tymes and ofte
Betwene my brestes softe
It wolde lye and rest.

Wherwith he wolde make
Me often for to wake,
And for to take him in
Upon my naked skyn.

It is perhaps difficult to read these lines without questioning her innocence, but we make the necessary effort and accept her demurral:

What though he crept so lowe?
It was no hurt, I trowe,
He dyd nothynge perde
But syt upon my kne:
Phyllyp, though he were nyse,
In him it was no vyse.

It is, however, a conscious effort, and Skelton insists that we make it. If his poem is to succeed, we must be continually aware of the distance between what Jane in her innocence would intend and what we would interpolate. As its first section ends, Philip Sparrow may seem little more than an invitation to the luxury of condescension: we smile gently at a grief which is disproportionate and at protests which are at least naive. But if we have forgotten Catullus' sparrow and the Venus masses of the Goliardic tradition, Skelton has not; and at line 834 he enters his own poem to disturb our self-satisfaction, to suggest that the wonderful directness of a girl who can wrap her being about a sparrow and believe momentarily in the immutability of her affections is infinitely superior to the triumphs of sophistication.

It would not be exaggeration to say that every man who reads Jane's lament falls in love with her. Skelton takes great care to establish a relationship between his heroine and her audience, but in the second half of the poem the focus is narrowed as her creator becomes our surrogate. C. S. Lewis writes, "The lady who is lamenting her bird may not really have been a child…. But it is as a child she is imagined in the poem—a little girl to whom the bird's death is a tragedy and who though well read in romances, finds Lydgate beyond her, and has little skill in Ovid or Virgil.'… Skelton is not… ridiculing. He is at once tender and mocking—like an affectionate bachelor uncle or even a grandfather."5 He is far too conservative; the poet's affection is anything but grandfatherly. His entrance into the poem is unheralded; he merely continues the Latin hexameters of Jane's final farewell:

Semper erunt nitidoRadiantia sidera coelo;Impressusque meoPectore semper eris.

(There will always be gleaming stars in the brilliant sky and you will always be engraven in my heart.)

Per me laurigerumBritonum Skeltonida vatemHaec cecinesse licetFicta sub imagine texta
Candida Nais erat,
Formosior ista Joanna est;Docta Corinna fuit,
Sed magis ista sapit.

(I Skelton, laureated, Poet of Britain, have been permitted to sing this under an imaginary likeness… Nais was dazzling, but this Jane is more beautiful, Corinna was learned but this Jane knows more.)

Trumpets, however, are unnecessary. One realizes immediately that the style and tone of lines 826-33 and 834-43 are antithetical; from the moment he announces at line 872 "my pen hath enbybed / With the aureat droppes," artificiality and innuendo replace the ingenuousness of the first section, and in Skelton's characteristic fashion, the drama of Philip Sparrow is a drama of style.

Jane describes her epitaph for Philip as "Latyne playne and lyght," and in fact her entire monologue is conspicuously free of the studied stylization of aureate rhetoric. W. G. Crane divides rhetorical figures into three groups:

The first consists of the figures of thought, which are based upon the process of dialectical investigation…. The second group consists of a number of varieties of exclamation, interrogation, and description, all of which direct their appeal to the emotions. The third class comprises about one hundred and fifty figures of a somewhat mechanical nature, produced by alteration from normal spelling, diction or syntax.6

If we retain Crane's classification but shift our focus from the figures themselves to the audience which responds to them, we shall be able almost to graph Skelton's method in Philip Sparrow. All rhetoric, like all art, is studied; artlessness is an illusory and hard-won effect. It is to Crane's second group that the poet who would create this illusion must turn; for "the exclamations, interrogations, and descriptions which appeal to the emotion" will seduce the reader into an intellectual languor, while the process of dialectic and the precision of syntactical configurations will make him very conscious of the effort behind the effect. In other words, one kind of rhetoric calls attention to itself, the other is in hiding.

Jane's monologue is a triumph of emotional rhetoric. Although the educated reader is aware of its formality (the service itself is a formal situation), he would attribute the familiar apostrophes and the echoes of other, more stylized laments to the poet who stands behind his heroine and who speaks through her, but not with her, to his audience. (Skelton admits himself that it is he who writes this first section "under a feigned likeness." This is more than an admission of literary "unreality," for it complicates the relationship between the two voices in the poem which are now in some ways one.) Indeed, she seems uncomfortable with the literary machinery her situation requires (note her repeated declarations of incompetence, conventional, but in this case "sincere"), and is certainly unaware of either the suggestiveness of her exclamatio's or her own very real appeal. The poet, on the other hand, parades his rhetoric almost flamboyantly. When he announces that Nais is dazzling but Jane is more beautiful, Corinna learned, but Jane wiser still, he deliberately calls up the traditional body of love poetry in which such comparisons are made again and again. While in Jane's monologue the frequency and occurrence of the various figures exist in a describable relationship with her emotional development, the rhetorical pattern in the "Commendations" is static. The poet, as the master rhetorician, is always in control as he declares, "Now will I enterprise / Thorow the grace dyvyne / Of the Muses nyne / Her beauty to commende" (856-59). Exclamatio's in the form of tag lines from the Ordo Commendationis Animae follow a set refrain at regular intervals and call attention to themselves rather than springing (or seeming to spring) naturally from the poem:

For this most goodly floure,
This blossome of fresshe coulour,
So Jupiter me socour.
She floryssheth new and new

In bewte and vertew:
Hac claritate geminaO gloriosa foeminaRetribue servo tuo, vivifica me!

This passage, with variations in the Latin, is repeated eleven times in less than two hundred lines and establishes pronominatio (antonomasia) as the dominant figure of the section. Except for an extended attack on Envy (which, I shall argue, is not digressive), the poet proceeds in an orderly fashion with his markedly conventional descriptio, carefully noting the lips as red as cherries, the skin as white as a swan, the hands soft as silk, the hair golden as the sun. It is the self-consciousness of his art which impresses, as we involuntarily contrast him with his creation. In other words, the poet presents himself as everything Jane is not, cultivated, learned, mature, aureate; and since we have come to understand the distance between ourselves and the girl in exactly these terms, we feel a kinship with him. But as the poem proceeds, our identification with this aureate voice will make us increasingly uncomfortable.

The distance between them is obvious, even to the reader who knows nothing of tropes and schemes, although the social and intellectual codifications of tropes and schemes will give that distance meaning. Characterization through style is possible in any literature; one needs only the idiom of conversation and a formal (in this case, aureate) vocabulary that can be parodied. Skelton is able, in addition, to call on the resources of a system that measures style almost mathematically. Of the 126 instances of twenty-two figures in the first 833 lines, forty-five of these (or nearly forty per cent) involve what de Vinsauf lists as methods of amplification—circuitio, conformatio, correctio, digressio, exclamatio, expolitio, and interpretatio. Ten more instances (conduplicatio and repetitio) involve purely mechanical repetitions; and a majority of the thirty-nine exempla are found in the catalogue-like digressio's of the last 300 lines. Over 75 per cent of the figures in this first section are either repetitious or amplificatory. There are only seven instances (less than six per cent) of the "difficult figures." The statistics reverse themselves in the commendations: of 110 instances of twenty-two figures, there are fifty-two (nearly 50 per cent) of the "difficult" ornaments (denominatio, intellectio, pronominatio, simile, superlatio); conspicuously absent are the figures of repetition (conduplicatio, repetitio) and amplification (conformatio, digressio, interpretatio) which dominate the earlier section. The comparison, however, is more than statistical; it becomes moral. When Jane repeatedly proclaims her ignorance of rhetoric ("I wot not where to fynd / Termes to serve my mynde"), a stale verbal formula (what Curtius calls the modesty topos) seems fresh and disarmingly sincere, because her speech is demonstrably free of syntactical inversion, simile, word play; but when the poet writes, "My pen it is unable, / My hand it is unstable, / My reson rude and dull," the humility is a pose, and in the context of her simplicity, offensive.7

The "Commendations" is one long essay on contrasting sensibilities, as the reader is offered Jane's monologue from a new perspective which is in comparison unattractive. While Skelton pointedly avoids parodying the service in his first section, he risks blasphemy in this one. The Ordo Commendationis Animae, the commendation of the soul to God, becomes a courtly lyric in which the poet is the soul, "Now wyll I enterpryse, / Thorow the grace dyvyne / Of the Muses nyne, / Her beautye to commende," and Jane his God, "O gloriosa foemina, / Quomodo dilexi legem tuam, domina!" Every line is a potential double entendre. Lines from Psalm 118, which examines the relationship between the law of God and man, are placed to suggest a quite different relationship. "Deficit in salutatione tua anima mea," the psalmist cries, acknowledging his dependence on the Grace of God. In Philip Sparrow, this same petition (1090) is addressed to another deity who offers a grace that is hardly spiritual:

Who so lyst beholde,
It maketh lovers bolde
To her to sewe for grace.
Her favoure to purchase;
The sker upon her chyn,
Enhached on her fayre skyn,
Whyter than the swan,
It wold make any man
To forget deadly syn
Her favour to wyn.
[emphasis mine]

The liturgical framework which, in the first section, underlines Jane's virtual humanization of her sparrow is here the vehicle for a passion that can only be expressed through innuendo.8

In the same way, the girl's demonstratio's are echoed and even parodied; in his fantasy the poet replaces the sparrow, vicariously enjoying the no longer innocent delights of their play. Jane's artless

is here a studied compliment:

Her kyrtell so goodly lased,
And under that is brased
Such plasures that I may
Neyther wryte nor say.

The "modest hiatus" is, of course, conventional, but with Jane's childishly frank outbursts ringing in our ears, it is not only trite, but faintly prurient.1 The finality with which the girl's innocence has been established in Part One makes it difficult for us to accept her as even the passive object of a passion that is not at all innocent; and the careful patterning of detail forces us to do just that: if Jane recalls a daily scene,

With his byll betwene my lippes;
It was my prety Phyppes!
Many a prety Kusse
Had I of his sweet musse,

the poet imagines an assignation:

Her lyppes soft and mery
Emblomed lyke the chery,
It were an hevenly blysse
Her sugred mouth to kysse.

Her disclaimers are natural:

Phyllyp, though he were nyse,
In him it was no vyse;
Phyllyp had leve to go
To pyke my lytell too;
Phyllip myght be bolde
And do what he wolde;

His are forced and coy:

To tell you what conceyte
I had than in a tryce,
The matter were to nyse
And yet there was no vyce,
Nor yet no villany
But only fantasy.

The parallels are innumerable, and their effect is always the same, to force upon the reader an even greater awareness of the distance that separates them. He can never again capture the simplicity she brings to her every day. He can never express himself with the assurance and singlemindedness she commands. Experience has bound him to fetters of flesh, and sophistication has left him with only irony and innuendo. In the end it is almost obscene when Jane's plaintive cry, "Alas, my heart it stynges / Remembrynge prety thynges!" is absorbed into the sexual fantasies of a literary lover: "Yet though I wryte not with ynke / No man can let me thynke, / For thought hath lyberte, / Thought is franke and fre."

When all is said and done, however, his affection is as real as hers, and perhaps even more poignant. From time to time the elaborate screen of convention the poet builds around him falls away and reveals a shrillness which belies his characteristic composure. His response to a suggestion that his interest in the girl is less than impersonal is so overlong and overwrought that it becomes an admission of "guilt." And as his section of the poem closes, a final attempt at self-justification, a subiectio, is surprisingly nonaureate, a trifle desperate, and, I think, sincere:

I have not offended, I trust,
If it be sadly dyscust

Because I have wrytten and sayd
Honour of this fayre mayd;
Wherefore shulde I be blamed,
That I Jane have named,
And famously proclamed?
She is worthy to be enrolde
With letters of golde.

Curiously enough, it is in the most artificial of contexts that an undercurrent of real emotion is most clearly heard. When the poet exclaims, "Clamavi in toto corde, exaudi me," the anguish rings true, despite the Chinese box-like structure of a parody (of the liturgy) within a parody (of Jane). "Servus tuus sum ego," I am your servant, he admits, and we believe him. In terms of the dramatic crux of the poem, this is still another indication of the inverse relationship between maturity and the possibility of direct self-expression; but when we recall that Jane's "artless" lament is no less the result of complex rhetorical configurations, and is itself the product of this convention-bound mind, it becomes impossible to continue, since the terms of our comparison shift, Chaucer-like, before our eyes. The poet's admission that both parts of the poem are his (Ficta sub imagine texta) becomes a problem for the reader who is continually invited to distinguish between them. What is innocence, and can only the disillusioned recognize it? What is simplicity, and can only the artful produce its similitude? In Philip Sparrow Skelton is busily exploring the limits of his art, extending the intuition of "Knolege, aquayntance, resort"; language itself is incapable of mirroring reality; it is only through the juxtaposition of contrasting degrees of artificiality that man can suggest what is, or hint at what may be.

And the poet himself is aware of all this, even as he spins out his interminable compliment. It is Jane who has always fascinated, but to understand the poem is to realize that the truly complex personality is her (fictional) creator. For since it is he who has so painstakingly constructed the first section, he surely recognizes the hopelessness of his love. While Jane is capable of firing his passion, her monologue reveals her incapable of responding to it. When she presses his hand and his heart leaps ("Wher wyth my hand she strayned, / Lorde, how I was payned! / Unneth I me refrayned"), her heart no doubt beats on with a crushing regularity, and he is left to imagine a scene that will never take place:

Unneth I me refrayned

Enbrasynge therwithall
Her goodly myddell small
With sydes longe and streyte;
To tell you what conceyte
I had than in a tryce,
The matter were to nyse,

There is no resolution as the poem ends, because, as the poet knows only too well, no resolution is possible. Amidst the hyperbole of the mock curses in the third section, Skelton re-establishes momentarily the poignancy of the first two; the poem, laments its author, is so complex and so delicate that even the girl herself misunderstands, or understands too well:

Alas, that goodly mayd,
Why shuld she be afrayde?
Why shuld she take shame
That her goodly name,
Honorably reported,
Sholde be set and sorted,
To be matriculate
With ladyes of estate?

Alas, indeed, for all fallings away from innocence, for all impossible loves, for all misunderstandings and failures of communication.


8English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 138.

9John Skellon, Poet Laureate, pp 74, 131-32.

1 This section has appeared in another form in Studio Neophiloiogica, 34, No. 2 (1962), 216-38. In Philip Sparrow the evidence that Skelton not only knew rhetoric but wrote with the rhetorical vocabulary in the forefront of his consciousness is overwhelming. As Edwards and Salter note (Bibliotheca Historien, p. xxxix), the leisurely examination of Jane's anatomy in lines 998-1193 is a direct imitation of de Vinsaufs first descriptio; and when the girl turns to curse Gib the Cat, she prefaces her outburst with a citation of the proper figure, exclamatio: "vengeaunce I aske and crye, / By way of exclamacyon" (273-74). Again, when she concludes her recital of the Troilus and Cresseide legend by summarizing the consequences of their actions, she points to the rhetorical ploy involved, conclusio: "Thus in conclusyon / She brought him in abusyon." (Italics are mine.) The most obvious instance of Skelton's conscious use of rhetoric is Jane's capsule recapitulation of the Punic War at line 668: "How Scipion dyd wake / The cytye of Cartage, / Which by his unmerciful rage / He bete down to the grounde." These four lines translate the very circuitio offered as an example in the Ad herennium (4.32.43): "Circumitio est oratio rem simplicem adsumpta circumscribens elocutione, hoc pacto: Scipionis providentia Kartaginis opes fregit'" (ed. Harry Caplan, Cambridge, Mass., 1954, p. 336). Since the unknown author of this most popular of rhetorical manuals makes a point of the originality of his examples (as opposed to other rhetoricians who plundered the poets), it seems clear that Skelton either wrote with the document by his side or had committed it to memory.

2 1.24.34 (p. 70). "All propositions are supported in argument by attributes of persons or of actions. We hold the following to be the attributes of persons: name, nature, manner of life, fortune, habit, feeling, interests, purposes, achievements, accidents, speeches made."

3 Migne, Patrologia Lalina, CLXXI, cols. 1687-92.

4 Edmond Faral, Les Arts poétiques du XHième et du XMième siècle (Paris, 1924), pp. 118-19.

5 For text see Romanische Forschungen, 13 (1902), 893-965.

6Orator. XXI, 69.

7English Literary History: The Medieval Phase, p. 107.

8 Thus de Vinsauf writes: "Et tales recipiunt appellationes ratione personarum vel rerum de quibus fit tractatus. Quando enim de generalibus personis vel rebus tractatur, tune es stylus grandiloquus; quando de humilibus, humilis; quando de mediocribus, mediocris." "The styles receive such names from a consideration of the persons and things with which the style is associated. When the style is associated with universal things or persons, then the style is lofty; when it is associated with low persons or things, then the style is low; when the style is associated with middle persons or things, the style is the middle style." (Faral, Les Arts poétiques, p. 312). He goes on to stress the importance of consistency: "consideratum est ut stylum materiae non variemus, id est ut de grandiloquo stylo non descendamus ad humilem." "We must be careful not to vary the style of our matter lest from the lofty style we descend to the low." (Faral, Les Arts poétiques, p. 315). The initial section then is a notatio (character portrayal) and behind the girl's every word stands the poet, bound by the twin laws of decorum and consistency to put into her mouth a certain kind of rhetoric.

9John Skelton, Poet Laureate, p. 132. Gordon also cites the Ordo Commendationis Animae, or "Commendations," as the basis of the second section; but this service presents a special problem to be considered later.

1 Ibid., p. 125.

2English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 138.

3 "S o my soon is bobbid / & of his lif robbid' / forsooth than I sobbid, / Veryfying the wordis she seid to me. / Who cannot wepe may lerne at thee." From Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford, 1938), p. 18.

4 Edwards' (Skelton. p. 108) comment on this tension is especially fine: "while the vespers are murmured around her, Jane's attention flickers back over her memories … with all the vivid inconsequences of her girlish mind until, mysteriously, the elegy becomes transmitted into its opposite—a paean to life, its inexplicable loveliness."

5English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 138.

6Wit and Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New York, 1937), pp. 59-60.

7 For a more detailed statistical analysis see my "Aspects of Rhetorical Analysis: Skelton's Philip Sparrow." Studia Neophilologica, 34. No. 2 (1962), 216-38.

8 Edwards (Skelton. p. 110) was the first to note that "nothing could disguise the fact that the whole of the Commendations were a supreme blasphemy. It was not only that Jane replaced the soul of the defunct; more than that, she was quite literally deified."

1 This passage is also a form of praecisio or aposiopesis, the technique of significant omission, i.e., insinuation, a figure of which the poet seems especially fond.

Norma Phillips (essay date 1966)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Observations on the Derivative Method of Skelton's Realism," in JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXV, No. 1, January, 1966, pp. 19-35.

[In the following essay, Phillips discusses the influence of poets Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland on Skelton 's poetry.]

John Skelton has been fortunate in his critics during our century, and perhaps notably so during the last decade. Following closely upon the large number of books and articles which appeared in the 1930's, '40's, and early '50's, recent work on Skelton has attempted to answer rather more special questions and, in doing so, has shed considerable light on the nature of his literary relationships, an area of inquiry long neglected. My purpose here is to explore this vein a little further and to try to consider what relevance such evidence may have for our reading of Skelton's poetry and for our estimates of his particular talents as a poet. If I dissent from the highly flattering conclusions reached by some other critics, it is in the hope that such dissension may prove useful as a clarification of problems, if not as answers to them, for Skelton seems to me to illustrate singularly well some of the difficulties encountered in the criticism of a certain kind of poetry, poetry that is at once both undeniably original and undeniably derivative.

I shall isolate for comment three of Skelton's longer works which offer a substantial unity of material and which also represent fairly separated periods of the poet's career, The Bowge of Court, Magnificence, and The Tunning of Elinor Rumming.1 Of the three, the early dream allegory the Bowge of Court offers the best point of departure. The poem seems to me in significant ways the most impressive item in the Skelton canon, the one poem which, through a subtly wrought structure of poetic implication, creates a convincing world. Its distingushing quality is a pervasive tonality, a controlled and muted emotional environment of quiet intensity made possible chiefly by Skelton's complex use of the traditional persona of the narrator-poet; Dread, the poetic "I" who, like so much else in Skelton, traces his origin to a combination of influences from Chaucer and Langland,2 functions dramatically in this world, and the novelty and interest of the Bowge of Court lie far less in its application of the form of the dream-vision to the purposes of satire than in this skillful use of a wholly negative dreamer who functions as the integrating and harmonizing factor for the entire poem.

An argument which makes of Dread a kind of Tudor antihero, wistfully attracted to and excited by the Establishment he both loathes and envies, would not be difficult to construct. It is, for example, noteworthy that the one positive choice which he makes in the entire poem is the decision to follow the advice of Desire and to implicate himself in the struggle for favor, and that, having done so, he becomes helpless and passive, unable to cope with the real conditions into which he is thrust. During his brief sojourn on the Bowge of Court he oscillates between his desire for participation in the things to be got from Lady Fortune in this world which she whimsically governs and his increasingly fearful perception of the moral and rational aberrations which such participation entails. Skelton's means of dramatizing this state of mind are simple but very effective. From Dread's opening remarks in which, as the still aloof narrator, he comments, in an admittedly very conventional medieval formula,

it is the uncertainty and instability of things which he sadly but resignedly sees reflected everywhere. And throughout the nightmare which becomes his poem his remarks on what he sees or on what happens to him, as well as his decisions, are intoned in a similar key; they are made tentatively, almost always with a qualifying "me thoughte," or similar phrase revealing hesitation and unwillingness to commit himself as to the truth and reliability of his own vision. Even at the end, when he sees his enemies approaching to slay him, his quality of thinking remains tentative:

Significant, too, in creating the special environment of this poem, is the poet's strategic interweaving of monologue, description, and gesture with carefully spaced, graduated scenes of revelation. Events move to and away from Dread, the seven courtiers play scenes in front of him which he must creep forward, as on a stage, to overhear, and all of the characters gesticulate and speak as if in a theater. These scenes, however, which operate chiefly to delineate the seven rogues by showing their representative sins at work, never for a moment remove the real focus of the poem from the narrator-poet, for it is he who interprets them, filters them through his own sensibility, gives them the stamp of his terror and timidity, and their cumulative effect, both for him and for us, is increasingly to isolate him in the awareness of his dilemma.

Dread exists, in fact, like the Bowge of Court itself, in a kind of suspension between reality and sheer illusion; throughout the narration he seems to be hesitating, hanging between his initial decision to play the game with these people and his increasingly horrified recognition of the kind of world which they inhabit. This indecisiveness, coupled with his muffled fear, accounts for the peculiar floating quality of the poem: events, images, characters rise as if from a vacuum and pass as if unattached to anything, even to an unequivocal point of view. The apprehension and uncertainty of Dread's divided and confused mind act as a kind of stained glass through which the reality it both faces and avoids is reflected, and give to the poem its distinct and cumulative atmosphere of muted and sinister intensity.

Dread seems to me, then—and largely through him the poem—a striking instance of Skelton's imaginative development and renewing of medieval formulas. Other elements in the poem, however, lead to other and to more characteristic and recurrent Skeltonic problems. Most obtrusive and thorniest of these is the question of Skelton's technique of literary realism, projected in this poem and in the others we are considering chiefly, though not entirely, through the satirical portraits. I take it we need not argue the old, standard biographical snares, whether or not the people and situations were drawn from life, whether or not he really met an historical Alianora Romyng, and similar questions, and that we may concentrate only on the relevant textual ones. Almost every critic praises Skelton for just this realistic dimension in his work, for the freshness, vigor, and density of realistic detail with which he invests his low life characters and scenes in all three poems, the ability with which, for example, he revivifies the old tradition of ale-wife poems in Elinor Rumming and carries the courtiers and vices of the Bowge of Court and Magnificence out of the traditional context of the Deadly Sins and applies conventional terminology to secular purposes. If I am dissatisfied with this judgment, it is mainly because it bypasses questions raised by the method intrinsic to these portraits and situations, questions which are not answered by invoking vague concepts like tradition or even by speaking generally of a pervasive influence from Chaucer and Langland.

The phenomenon which the realistic materials of these poems seem to me to reveal is nothing less than an immense and scarcely to be exaggerated reliance on very limited and definite portions of the work of the two great fourteenth-century English poets. This reliance may take the form of direct and circumstantial borrowing of descriptive details; it may involve taking the name, moral cast, or psychological structure of a character from them; it may be a question of a revealing phrase in Skelton suggesting that certain lines of association recalled for him parts of their poetry so vividly that he echoed it almost automatically; or it may even be a question of the ordonnance of a poem being directly dependent on structural motifs in their work.

I take as instances first several of the rogues of the Bowge of Court and the corresponding vices οf Magnificence. The most obvious of these is Favell, a figure coming directly of course from Langland's field full of folk and, in Skelton as in Langland, flattering through his "faire speche."4 Again, from the same poem, the two allegorical figures, Suspect and Disdain, derive their details of symbolic realism directly from Langland's Invidia, whose various disfigurements are set forth in the confession scene:

These details, the paleness, palsy, the biting of the lips, the body corroded with envy, have given to Skelton's vignettes virtually all of their circumstantial realistic life. The initial description of Suspect,

and Dread's first glimpse of him,

as well as his description of Disdain,

provide their own obvious documentation.

Invidia's confession does service again and again in Skelton, though perhaps not elsewhere so successfully as here. The long monologue of Cloaked Collusion in Magnificence represents the virtual wholesale importation of the psychology of envy as it had been conceived by Langland. Here the influence is so all-pervasive that only fairly extensive quotation of the two relevant passages can effectively illustrate Skelton's procedure. Langland's lines are as follows:

Eche a worde that he warpe was of an addres tonge,
Of chydynge and of chalangynge was his chief lyflode,
With bakbitynge and bismer and beryng of fals witnesse;
This was al his curteisye where that euere he shewed hym.


I haue a neighbore neyze me I haue ennuyed hym ofte,
And lowen on hym to lordes to don hym lese his siluer,
And made his frendes ben his foon thorw my false tonge;
His grace and his good happes greueth me ful sore.
Bitwene many and many I make debate ofte,
That bothe lyf and lyme is lost thorw my speche.
And whan I mete him in market that I moste hate,
I hailse hym hendeliche as I his frende were;


And of mennes lesynge I laughe that liketh myn herte;
And for her wynnynge I wepe and waille the tyme,
And deme that hij don ille there I do wel worse;


"I am sori," quod that segge "I am but selde other,
And that maketh me thus megre for I ne may me venge.
Amonges burgeyses haue I be dwellynge at Londoun,
And gert bakbitinge be a brocoure to blame mennes ware.
Whan he solde and 1 nouzte thanne was I redy
To lye and to loure on my neighbore and to lakke his chaffre."

The monologue of Cloaked Collusion retains the confessional attitude (it is perhaps worth noting that both characters are wearing clerical garments), though certainly Skelton's context is not an explicitly religious one. But the monologue clearly follows the model provided by Langland:

And though I be so odyous a geste,
And euery man gladly my company wolde refuse,
In faythe, yet am I occupyed with the best;

Ful fewe that can themselfe of me excuse.
Whan other men laughe, than study I and muse,
Deuysynge the meanes and wayes that I can,
Howe I may hurte and hynder euery man.


Comberaunce and trouble in Englande fyrst I began;
From that lorde to that lorde I rode and I ran,
And flatered them with fables fayre before theyr face,
And tolde all the Myschyef I coude behynde theyr backe,
And made as I had known nothynge of the case,—
I wolde begyn all Myschyef, but I wolde bere no lacke.
Thus can I lerne you, Syrs, to bere the deuyls sacke;
And yet, I trowe, some of you be better sped than I
Frendshyp to fayne and thynke full lytherly.
Paynte to a purpose Good Countenaunce I can,
And craftely can I grope howe euery man is mynded;
My purpose is to spy and to poynte euery man;
My tonge is with Fauell forked and tyned.
By Cloked Colusyon thus many one is begyled.
Eche man to hynder I gape and I gaspe;
My speche is all Pleasure, but I stynge lyke a waspe.
I am neuer glad but whan I may do yll,
And neuer am I sory but whan that I se
I can not myne appetyte accomplysshe and fulfyll
In hynderaunce of Welthe and Prosperyte.
I laughe at all Shrewdenes, and lye at Lyberte.
I muster, I medle amonge these grete estates;
I sowe sedycyous sedes of Dyscorde and debates.5

Comparison of the two passages reveals that the accents in Skelton are, as in Langland, on envy not only as an internal state but as an active way of life, though predictably Skelton prunes away a good deal of the earlier poet's proliferation of rich, evocative detail, and the effect is thinner, more abstract, and more naively didactic.

A final note on Skelton's use of Invidia in these poems should point out his rather incongruous brief reappearance, quaking hands and all, in the portrait of the unfortunate Maude Ruggy in The Tunning of Elinor Rumming:

Maude Ruggy thyther skypped:
She was vgly hypped,
And vgly thycke lypped,
Lyke an onyon syded,
Lyke tan ledder hyded:
She had her so guyded
Betwene the cup and the wall,
That she was there wythall
Into a palsey fall;
Wyth that her hed shaked,
And her handes quaked:

Ones hed wold haue aked
To se her naked:
She dranke so of the dregges,
The dropsy was in her legges;
Her face glystryng lyke glas;
All foggy fat she was;
She had also the gout
In all her ioyntes about.6

Here, though, it should be noted that Invidia is given the thick lips and tanned, leathery skin of Langland's Avaricia, a casual, loose, and seemingly haphazard jumbling of items appropriate to Skeltonics, with their affinity for the irresponsible accumulation of physical details.

Another example revealing roughly the same process of derivation will perhaps suffice. Skelton's portrait of Riot, the seedy, impoverished, lecherous court hanger-on in the Bowge of Court, is one of his most complex and interesting. Here the primary source for the details of the physical description is the confession scene of Avaricia in the Visio. The borrowing is so close and so precise that parallel quotations are instructive:

But although Langland's Avaricia has given him his clothes and his ill health, I am in complete agreement with John Holloway that Chaucer's Pardoner is his real spiritual ancestor. The headlong, spasmodic rhythm of the monologue, the disorderly, nonsequential gestures and almost hysterical ejaculations impart a total effect very much like that of the Pardoner's self-revelation.8

This monologue offers another curious and revealing Chaucerian motif. Riot's advice to Dread includes the admonition,

Plucke vp thyne herte vpon a mery pyne,

in which one hears the echo of Placebo's flattery of January in the Merchant's Tale,

Youre herte hangeth on a joly pyn.9

This is precisely similar to an instance noted long ago by F. P. Magoun,10 who observed that the remark made by the prince Magnificence to Courtly Abusion in their discussion of women,

A, I haue spyed ye can moche broken sorowe,11

might well have derived from January's remarks on the widows whom he did not wish to marry,

They conne so muche craft on Wades boot,
So muchel broken harm, whan that hem leste.12

There seems to me no doubt whatsoever about the influence, but again it is the mode of operation of that influence which is most interesting. Such echoes, occurring with so little change and in such parallel contexts, indicate the way Skelton's poetic mentality worked when it approached these recurrent problems of realistic representation: it employed static models—certain situations and lines—taken from his reading, and it made constant, perhaps even automatic, associations of such problems with analogous problems and solutions in Chaucer and Langland. Moreover, and equally important for our understanding of Skelton, the same models—especially Invidia, Avaricia, the Merchant's Tale, and the Wife of Bath13—which served him in 1499 were still serving him, and in the same way, some twenty years later, just as his vocabulary of denunciation reveals, as a valuable essay on Magnificence has recently put it, that "the whole system of psychological, ethical, and political ideas conveyed by the terms underlies not the play and the satires alone but the whole career of Skelton."14

We can watch the operation of this derivative technique in another dimension of Skelton's work also; in the structure of these poems, in their disposition of materials, we find again diligently applied the lessons Skelton learned from his medieval masters. Before the turn of our century, Albert Rey commented in passing that the "hypothesis that Langland's Piers Plowman furnished the original idea of the Bowge of Court might well be produced," and he noted the similar societies of the poems, grouped respectively around Lady Meed and Lady Fortune.15 Since then other critics have also observed the probable influence of the House of Fame on this and on other Skelton poems,16 and it has become almost a commonplace to link Glutton's tavern in the Visio with Elinor's in Leatherhead, for Skelton's whole conception of the tavern scene, the women's names, the analogous activities, especially the single most distinctive piece of realism,17 in short, almost everything "realistic" reveals a direct adaptation from Langland.18

The case of Magnificence is subtler but discloses the same pattern of borrowed structural motifs, even of ideological scaffolding. The fundamental thematic opposition of the morality, that of Measure to Liberty, is established in the debate which opens it, and what follows is little more than an exemplum of the abuse of the conclusions of the debate. Ramsay, whose edition of Magnificence held for so long an oracular position in Skelton studies, could do no better than to attribute the source of this opposition to Aristotle, and he hoped that the then lost Speculum Principis of Skelton would hold the answer to the "introduction of the quite new conception of Liberty to put over against Felicity,"19 but although his edition has recently come in for some long-overdue criticism, no one has yet observed, I believe, that the mysterious source is again simply Piers Plowman in another of its myriad appearances. The triumvirate of the earlier poem, Reason, Conscience, and Lady Meed, and their relationship with the nameless king, have their counterparts in Skelton's Measure, Felicity, and Liberty in their ideal relationship to the prince, Magnificence. The philosophical, political, and ethical status given Reason are not only paralleled in Measure, but each is called upon to settle the debate, in the one case between Conscience and Meed, in the other between Felicity and Liberty; each is made the first coun selor of the king-prince, each is given dominion over the others. In adapting Conscience to his more secular situation, Skelton reduced Felicity to an almost purely materialistic symbol, and, unlike Conscience, he functions in the debate largely as a yes-man.

But perhaps the most interesting contribution of Piers Plowman to the aligning of relationships, and incidentally the answer to Ramsay's puzzle, is that of the inconstant and wayward Lady Meed to the inconstant and wayward Liberty. The two characters occupy the same neutral position, neither essentially good nor bad, but only potentially so according to the uses to which they are put. As defined by their contexts, however, they show a natural affinity for evil and incline inevitably toward manipulation by its agents. Hence, the necessity, emphasized throughout both poems, of keeping them under careful observation and stern control.20

The deliberate parallelism in the two debate situations is so sustained throughout and is made so apparent by their resolutions that again quotation is useful. In each case the king or prince has been awakened to the perilous qualities natural to Meed or to Liberty, and in each case he has selected the two advisers who are to reign with him. The closing lines of this episode in Piers Plowman are as follows:

Skelton's lines are much more repetitious, but a specimen will suffice to reveal the resemblance:

MAGN. Conuenyent persons for any prynce ryall.
Welthe with Lyberte, with me bothe dwell ye shall,
To the gydynge of my Measure you bothe commyttynge;
That Measure be mayster, vs semeth it is syttynge.

MEAS. Where as ye haue, Syr, to me them assygned,
Suche order I trust with them for to take,
So that Welthe with Measure shalbe conbyned,
And Lyberte his large with Measure shall make.

FEL. Your ordenaunce, Syr, I wyll not forsake.

LYB. And I my selfe hooly to you wyll inclyne.

MAGN. Then may I say that ye be seruauntys myne.
For by Measure I warne you we thynke to be gydyd;
Wherin it is necessary my pleasure you knowe:
Measure and I wyll neuer be deuydyd,
For no dyscorde that any man can sawe;
For Measure is a meane, nother to hy nor to lawe,
In whose attemperaunce I haue suche delyght,
That Measure shall neuer départe from my syght.

FEL. Laudable your Consayte is to be acountyd,
For Welthe without Measure sodenly wyll slyde.

LYB. As your grace full nobly hath recountyd,
Measure with Noblenesse sholde be alyde.

MAGN. Then Lyberte, se that Measure be your gyde,
For I wyll vse you by his aduertysment.

FEL. Then shall you haue with you Prosperyte resydent.

MEAS. I trowe Good Fortune hath annexyd vs together,
To se howe greable we are of one mynde.21

As striking as the imitation, of course, is the difference in poetic effect; the mechanical, automatic quality of the debate in Magnificence contrasts strangely with the passion and even the humor of Langland's poem where, in spite of the not infrequent conceptual ambiguity, the movement of the Meed-Conscience debate is urgent and real; that of Liberty-Felicity is a monotonous shuttling back and forth from one speaker to another, a continual rhetorical amplification of initially simple points. Moreover, all the arguments in Skelton are intellectually one-dimensional and static. The devices so carefully manipulated, repetition, metrical patterning, rhyme variations and similar stylistic ornaments,22 reveal that quality which W. H. Auden probably had in mind or at least suggested when he spoke of Skelton's "best poems, with the exception of Speke Parrot," being "like triumphantly successful prize poems."23 Their subtlety is extrinsic; in the movement of the language itself we feel little urgency, intellectual or otherwise.

Similarly, one notes the prominence of proverbs in this play and elsewhere in Skelton's work. John Holloway, in commenting on this phenomenon, has remarked that "To notice Skelton's reliance on the proverbial expression is not to notice a literary trick or a literary routine, but to notice, at its most easily point, the essential quality of what was creative in his mind.'"24 With this I should agree, and if I find the element less impressive than he does, that is of no consequence. Still, it is at least worth distinguishing Skelton's use of it a little more carefully, for he clearly does not use the proverb, as Chaucer so frequently does, for example, as a manipulated literary device within the texture of the poem, capable of making a nexus for a complex of meanings. Nor does he, like Langland, employ the proverb critically and tentatively, as one of the many roads by which truth may be approached and tried, but never asserted. In Skelton the proverb or maxim is most likely to appear, with startling insistence and aggressive simplicity, at a climactic point in a poem. The self-styled "argument" of Measure, for example, is simply a catalogue of rhetorical parallelisms, a hypnotically repetitious string of proverbs and maxims:

Where Measure is mayster, Plenty dothe none offence;
Where Measure lackyth, all thynge desorderyd is:
Where Measure is absent, Ryot kepeth resydence;
Where Measure is ruler, there is nothynge amysse.
Measure is treasure; howe say ye, is it not this?25

(It is perhaps not irrelevant to remark here that Felicity's brief responses to Measure's long speeches, often linked to them by rhyme, are so pat as to be almost antiphonal, thereby intensifying the atmosphere of make-believe which prevails throughout the debate.) In short, the proverbial element in Magnificence, and not infrequently in Skelton's other work, acts as an assimilated part of the very ideology on which the poem rests, and one sees in its functioning a characteristic strategy: it provides, like his other derivative materials, a field of easy and immediate judgment, with again the tendency to make a simple and direct connection between a problem and a pre-established solution.

A brief summary is now perhaps in order. I have tried to demonstrate that in three of Skelton's major poems, those in which he was most concerned with building fictional frameworks that demanded low-life scenes and figures, he relied in precise, deliberate, and extensive ways on the poems of his two great English predecessors, Chaucer and Langland. It should perhaps be stressed again that this reliance was not simply a matter of "tradition," the inevitable process of literary continuity, but involved a direct, concrete, and specific influence upon his poems by their poems. The area in which this influence operated was primarily that of realistic representation, and the method was that of relevant association. When confronted with the need to represent envy or some similar quality, either in its psychological state or in its symbolic physical manifestions, as in the varying cases of Suspect and Disdain in the Bowge of Court, Cloaked Collusion in Magnificence, or just the abstract "odyous Enui" in Philip Sparrow,26 Skelton turned to the confession of Invidia in the Visio of Piers Plowman. When lechery in a seedy court sycophant had to be depicted, whether in Riot's advice to Dread or in the conversation about women between Courtly Abusion and Magnificence, Skelton was reminded of the quintessential moral degeneracy and callousness of the Merchant's Tale, and particularly of the analogous conversation of January and Placebo. Both the lady in the monologue of Counterfeit Countenance and Elinor Rumming had, by the same logic, to draw upon the inspiration of the Wife of Bath, and the events in Elinor's tavern had to be patterned on those of Glutton. Sometimes, of course, the connection was not especially predictable, as in the case of Maude Ruggy, who borrows from Invidia and Avaricia. Again, the derivations are sometimes rather complex; in Riot, for example, Avaricia, the Pardoner, and January-Placebo meet in one.

Skelton's debts, however, were not confined solely to problems of characterization and to the activities of the tavern; in all three poems they also involved structural and even ideological borrowings. In the Bowge of Court the poetic structure was determined at least in part by the House of Fame, by the whole Chaucerian use of the persona, and by the tableau of Lady Meed and her corrupters in the field full of folk. In Magnificence the entire scaffolding of ideas which underlies the most important figures and their interrelationships is derived from the Meed-Conscience-Reason debate in the Visio; the monologues of the vices, in addition to their circumstantial debts to Chaucer and Langland, may well represent an attempt at a pattern somewhat like that of the confessions of the Deadly Sins in Piers Plowman, just as the surface organization of The Tunning of Elinor Rumming into passus may similarly represent another result of Langland's influence.

It is more than probable that much additional documentation of this kind is to be found throughout Skelton's work, but we have enough, I believe, to permit us to draw a few tentative conclusions. I wish at all costs to avoid incurring the suspicion that I have assembled this material as a kind of exposure of Skelton's plagiaristic sins, for whatever inferences may be deduced from such evidence are clearly not so simple. That Skelton is an "original" poet, whatever that may mean to different critics, is hardly a point to prove or refute. His adaptation of traditional forms and formulas to his own purposes, his innovations in language and experiments in prosody, the stirrings and murmurings we do sense in him of changes to come in ideas and perspectives, the passion of his denunciation, which was perhaps the most directly personal quality in him, all of these are certainly there. Still, whatever final values we may assign to Skelton's work, we should at least be sure that those values are founded on accurate reading. We cannot really go on asserting his lack of "real predecessors,"27 his refusal to "approach experience with preconceptions,"28 and praising his fresh, unacademic delight in the real world, when it is frequently the very academic, cautious skill in filling out his own defects through borrowing and adapting the work of his predecessors which is his most impressive attribute. Such evidence as we have, it seems to me, points to a glaring disparity between Skelton's, medieval immersion and his own secularized, non-introspective, antisymbolic, abstract sensibility. At the heart of his retreat into extremes of rhetorical rigidity, on the one hand, and Skeltonics, which have their own kind of rigidity, on the other, and of his willingness to surrender so much to the eyes and language of others, lay a peculiar impersonality, just as behind all of his overt ebullience and nervous energy was a profound intellectual inertia. Perhaps he thought that many areas of experience and the world had been interpreted and definitively glossed by the giants who had gone before; what remained for Skelton was something else. Fortunately, literature has many worlds and there are many ways of writing interesting poems, but if part of the vexing problem of Skelton is, as I remarked at the beginning of this essay, the problem of approaching a poetic imagination which is both original and supinely imitative, we shall approach it better if we know something of the way that imagination worked.


1The Poetical Works of John Skelton. ed. Alexander Dyce, 2 vols. (London, 1843), is still the standard edition for most of Skelton's work and will be the source for all quotations from or references to these poems in this essay, unless otherwise noted.

2 For Langland I have in mind those lines from Piers Plowman where the corrupt attendants of Lady Meed are on the point of being dispersed and Dread stands at the door eavesdropping; see William Langland, The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman in Three Parallel Texts, Together with Richard the Redeless, ed. W. W. Skeat, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1886), I, B, II, 205-209. All citations of Langland in my text are from the first volume of this edition. For Chaucer it is principally the situation in the House of Fame with the rout surrounding Lady Fame crying for largesse which influenced the beginning of the Bowge of Court and the crowds surrounding Lady Fortune begging favor; see especially, in The Poetical Works of Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson (Cambridge, Mass., 1933)—hereafter cited as Works—ll. 1282-87, 1307-15, 1356-67 of the House of Fame. There are also a number of parallels between the role of Dread in Skelton's poem and Chaucer's manipulation of the poet-dreamer in the House of Fame. There is a much fuller discussion of these matters in my unpublished dissertation, "John Skelton and the Tradition of English Realism" (Yale, 1957), pp. 51 ff. I have not thought it necessary to reproduce here the arguments and evidence concerning Dread and his origins because A. R. Heiserman's Skelton and Satire (Chicago, 1961; pp. 42-51) has produced roughly the same evidence, thereby rendering further documentation of this particular point superfluous. Judith Larson, in her recent article, "What Is The Bowge of Court?" (JEGP. LXI [1962], 288-95), has suggested other possible items of Chaucerian influence, chiefly from his translation of the Roman de la Rose and from the Book of the Duchess.

3 L1. 3-6. See Dyce, 1, 30-50, for the text of The Bowge of Court.

4 See especially ll. 134-35 and 147; for Langland note especially B, II, 41, and B, II, 64.

5 Ramsay, ll. 703-709, 715-37; Dyce, ll. 713-19, 725-47. Since R. L. Ramsay's celebrated edition of this morality, Magnyfycence, A Moral Play by John Skelton. EETS, extra ser., XCVIII (London, 1908 [1906]), is in general the more available text, I shall base my quotations and line references on it rather than on Dyce. For the possible convenience of some readers, however, I shall give the line numbers of both.

6 For the text of The Tunning of Elinor Rumming see Dyce, I, 95-115.

7 Albert Rey (Skelton's Satirical Poems in Their Relation to Lydgate's "Order of Fools." "Cock Lorell 's Bote," and Barclay's "Ship of Fools" [Bern, 1899], p. 28) comments, "Langland's Auaricia is likely to have lent him some features, at least covetousness also has two bleared eyes and a lousy hat."

8 This point is discussed more fully in my Yale dissertation of 1957 (see above, n. 2) and in John Holloway's valuable essay, "Skelton," Chatterton Lecture on an English Poet, read 26 February 1958 and published in the Proceedings of the British Academy: 1958 (London, 1959), p. 92.

9 Chaucer, Works, E 1516. I owe the discovery of this item, and very much more not so easily documented, to Professor E. Talbot Donaldson, of Yale, who first perceived the immense debt of Skelton to Chaucer and Langland and set me working on it some time ago.

10 F. P. Magoun, '"Muchel Broken Harm,' C.-T., E 1425," Anglia, LIII (1929), 223-24.

11 Ramsay, 1. 1587; Dyce, 1. 1606.

12Works. E 1424-25.

13 Skelton's description of Elinor Rumming, ll. 64-79, is fairly clearly based on Chaucer's description of the Wife in the General Prologue, Works, A 449-458. And the monologue of Counterfeit Countenance in Magnificence, when it touches on the subject of pride and hypocrisy in women (Ramsay, 452-65; Dyce, 458-70), reverts to the language originally intended for the Wife at the beginning of the Shopman's Tale—Works, B 1201-1209.

14 William O. Harris, "Wolsey and Skelton's Magnyfycence: A Reevaluation," SP, LVII (1960), 111-12.

15Skelton's Satirical Poems, p. 58.

16 See above, n. 2. That Skelton knew the House of Fame very well indeed is hardly a recent discovery, however; see, for example, for its detailed influence on the Garland of Laurel Albert S. Cook, "Skelton's 'Garland of Laurel' and Chaucer's 'House of Fame,'" MLR, XI (1916), 9-14.

17 Compare B, V, 346-51, with Elinor Rumming, ll. 565-79.

18 One wonders if Elinor Rumming was not also influenced by the confession of Avaricia in those lines where he speaks of setting up his wife in the brewery trade; see B, V, 219-27. But for the most part the materials of Elinor Rumming are drawn from Glutton's confession, especially B, V, 310-26, 344-51. Ian A. Gordon, in John Skelton, Poet Laureate (Melbourne and London, 1943; p. 76), was the first, I believe, to note that Langland's "picture of the ale-house in the sketch of gluttony gave Skelton the form of the poem."

19 Ramsay, p. Ixxiii. See F. M Salter, "Skelton's 'Speculum Principis,'" Speculum, IX (1934), 25-37, for a reprint of the text of this treatise.

20 T. P. Dunning's Piers Plowman: An Interpretation of the A-Text (Dublin, 1937; pp. 69-112) gives a long and interesting analysis of the theological significance of Meed and of her episodes with the king, Conscience, and Reason.

21 Ramsay, ll. 173-99; Dyce, ll. 175-201.

22 Ramsay, pp. li-lxxi, gives an exhaustive account of the versification of Magnificence, of the types of poetic lines employed, and of its use of metrical variations. His enthusiasm over the mechanical complexity of these variations, however, led him to rather simple value judgments; see pp. lxv-lxvi: "The possession of so rich a scale of metrical variations, far richer than any other morality can boast, gave Skelton the opportunity of making subtle and effective distinctions in characterizing the tone of different scenes and characters; and the studied care with which this is done is perhaps the play's best title to be considered a work of conscious art." A rather different point of view is suggested by J. E. Bernard, Jr., The Prosody of the Tudor interlude, Yale Studies in English, XC (New Haven, 1939), pp. 35-39; see especially p. 39: "The most striking feature of John Skelton's dramatic prosody is the disregard of all the Latin he learned. He follows the English tradition alone in his tetrameter couplets and in his rime royal…. Quite unlike the original methods of prosodie treatment, the varying of verse in Magnificence is extrinsic. There is no connexion between character and verse or between theme and verse…. On the whole, the use of couplets and rime royal seems to be owing only to the dramatist's desire to talk to his audience with more or less concentrated zeal. It betrays a lack of interest in character as such, and even in morality as such, morality play though this is."

23 W. H. Auden, "John Skelton," The Great Tudors, ed Katherine Garvin (London, 1935), p. 62.

24 "Skelton," p. 96.

25 Ramsay, ll. 121-25; Dyce, ll. 122-26.

26 Dyce, 1, 78, ll. 902-49.

27 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford, 1954), p. 143.

28 Alan Swallow, "John Skelton: The Structure of the Poem," PQ, XXXII (1953), 35.

John Scattergood (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Skelton's Garlande of Laurell and the Chaucerian Tradition," in Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer, edited by Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 122-38.

[In the following essay, Scattergood compares Skelton 's The Garlande of Laurell to Geoffrey Chaucer's House of Fame and discusses Skelton's belief in the "all-embracing relevance of poetry."]

Of all the English Chaucerians nobody wrote more about poetry, about the nature of the poetic tradition, and his own role in it than Skelton, and The Garlande of Laurell is in many ways his most considered statement. Usually his comments appear in the context of some other subject, but this poem is about poetry and nothing else. For all that, it is not a particularly unified or cohesive performance, partly due to the circumstances of its composition. From the astrological opening1 it would seem that Skelton began the poem in 1495 on the occasion of a celebration at Sheriff Hutton Castle (Yorkshire) organized by Elizabeth Tylney Howard, Countess of Surrey, and her circle, to mark Skelton's laureations by three universities—Oxford in 1490, Louvain in 1492, and Cambridge in 1493. But the revised version published by Richard Fakes on 3 October 1523 included a defence of Phyllyp Sparowe (lines 1261-1366) which must post-date 1509 and a list of works including some which date from the early 1520s. In a sense, this is not unusual: Skelton's poems frequently grow by addition and augmentation. What is important in relation to The Garlande of Laurell, however, is that by 1523 its original celebratory purpose had waned somewhat, and it had become rather a retrospective review of a lengthy career spent on poetry, and an attempt at justifying that career.

In view of its subject matter, it is a less complacent poem than it might have been. Skelton's dream of fame is set in a forbiddingly unfavourable context. The traditional enemies of fame are chance, time and death, and Skelton contextualizes his examination of the subject as he meditates, at the beginning of his poem, on the mutability of things:

In place alone then musynge in my thought
How all thynge passyth as doth the somer flower,
On every halfe my reasons forth I sought,
How oftyn fortune varyth in an howre,
Now clere wether, forthwith a stormy showre;
All thynge compassyd, no perpetuyte,
But now in welthe, now in adversyte.

In his despair he leans for rest on the stump of an oak tree in Galtres Forest, but it provides no comfort and merely reinforces those fears that are troubling his mind, for the once mighty and noble tree is now no more than an emblem of the ravages of time: its 'bewte blastyd was with the boystors wynde', its leaves were gone and the sap had left its bark. He aspires instead to the everlasting laurel, 'Enverdurid with leves contynually grene', the symbol of poetic fame, and this is granted him, though with reservations. Pallas, goddess of wisdom and the deity controlling the academic curriculum ('Madame regent of the scyence sevyn'), vouches for Skelton's excellence and the Quene of Fame allows his name to be registered 'With laureate tryumphe in the courte of Fame' because he has spent his time 'studyously', but this is only after a rigorous examination of his case and the raising of a number of serious objections. For Skelton, fame is not easily acquired. And even after he is acclaimed and accepted, once out of his dream the poem ends with another figure of transience—the double-faced Janus, Roman god of beginnings and endings, who is making calculations about time with his 'tirikkis' and his 'volvell'. In order to come to terms with what constitutes everlasting fame for the poet Skelton meditates profoundly on the past and the future.

Everlasting fame, glory, and honour are frequent subjects in poetry and in The Garlande of Laurell, Skelton uses many traditional ideas. There is no agreement, however, about whether he used closely any specific source. It has been argued, by Edvige Schulte, that his inspiration came from Italian, from Dante's Purgatorio and from Petrarch's Africa, the Triumph of Fame Chapter III and from Canzone CCXXIII.2 On the other hand, Gordon Kipling has seen the French rhétoriquer tradition, as developed in the courts of Flanders, as providing Skelton with models for this and other poems.3 Again, Gregory Kratzmann proposes Gavin Douglas's Police of Honour as a significant influence.4 It may be that Skelton derived something from all these sources; it is clear that in The Garlande of Laurell he identifies himself with a tradition of poetry which he takes back to its mythic origins and which incorporates many languages and many periods both ancient and modern. But predominantly, this concern is with England and the English tradition. The poem is infused with a sort of literary nationalism: Skelton pays particular attention to the gate of the palace of Fame which is called 'Anglea' and which bears the English heraldic beast, 'a lybbard, crownyd with golde and stones'; and it is Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate 'Theis Englysshe poetis thre' who escort him to the Quene of Fame. The most substantial earlier treatment of the subject of The Garlande of Laurell in English poetry was Chaucer's House of Fame, and this is the poem, as was long ago proposed, which seems to me most important to Skelton here.

It is perhaps unfortunate that A. S. Cook chose to make the case for the 'dependence' of The Garlande of Laurell on Chaucer by citing parallel passages.5 His evidence shows that the same general ideas and literary strategies occur, but that there is no specific verbal correspondence. Though both poems are dream-visions in which the narrator confronts allegorical figures of authority, Skelton's poem is much simpler than the House of Fame: it is less inventive (there is no Dantean eagle to act as guide, and no aerial flight through the cosmos as there is in Chaucer's lines 496-1053); it is philosophically less enquiring (there is no disquisition on the way sound travels as in lines 765-852, or on the relation of rumour to fame in lines 1916-2120); and crucially it is much narrower in its conception of fame (there is no comparable equivalent to the various companies who put their cases to Chaucer's goddess in lines 1520-1867). Skelton is concerned, almost exclusively, with literary fame.

Yet something of Chaucer's poem is recalled by Skelton, though transmuted so as to be almost unrecognizable. In the House of Fame Eolus blows 'bad fame' or 'shame' out of his black trumpet to one company of petitioners:

… thrughout every regioun
Wente this foule trumpes soun,
As swifte as pelet out of gonne
When fyr is in the poudre ronne.
And such a smoke gan out wende
Out of his foule trumpes ende,
Blak, bloo, grenyssh, swartish red,
As doth where that men melte led,
Loo, al on high fro the tuel.
And therto oo thing saugh I well,
That the ferther that hit ran,
The gretter wexen hit began,
As dooth the ryver from a welle,
And hyt stank as the pit of helle.

Chaucer is concerned to show how bad fame spreads, and uses, amongst other comparisons, some of the traditional images associated with vainglory—smoke and stench.6 Though Eolus appears also in Skelton he is not an agent for the distribution of fame, being now no more than someone who performs ceremonial duties, calling for attention and such like. Yet Skelton remembers and responds to Chaucer's passage, though not by direct imitation. He takes Chaucer's simile, 'as pelet out of gonne', and literalizes it. He causes the presumptuously clamouring, unworthy figures who are besieging the palace of Fame to be scattered by gunfire from the walls:

With a pellit of pevisshenes they had suche a stroke,
That all the dayes of ther lyfe shall styck by ther rybbis.
Foo, foisty bawdias, sum smellid of the smoke …

—retaining the two traditional images. Similarly, in Chaucer 'good fame' from Eolus' golden trumpet is spread like a fragrance:

And, certes, al the breth that wente
Out of his trumpes mouth it smelde
As men a pot of bawme helde
Among a basket ful of roses.

This reappears in Skelton as the fragrance from the olive-wood fire kindled by the phoenix in the top of the laurel tree in Fame's garden: 'It passid al bawmys that ever were namyd'. Though he steals odd lines here and there, Skelton rarely makes extensive use of literary sources: the relationship between these poems is not one of direct borrowing. Rather, Skelton engages with some of the ideas in the House of Fame, and in some of Chaucer's other poems, in order to define his own position.

Even a cursory examination of the two poems, however, is enough to indicate that Skelton makes claims for his own importance as a poet—claims about the status of the poet writing in English, about his relation to the literary tradition, about his role as a perpetuator of noble subjects, and about fame acquired through labour and the multiplication of readers—which are more substantial than Chaucer ever felt able to make. This, as I shall seek to argue, is not simply to be attributed to Skelton's vanity,7 but is rather a reflection of a substantially different way of thinking about literature which had emerged in England in the hundred and fifty years separating the two poems, and of a new confidence which English poets were beginning to feel.

Chaucer sought to invest poetry with more dignity and significance than his predecessors in English. In a mode of high clowning, he frequently presents himself as a minstrel or a court entertainer and little more, but as A. C. Spearing rightly points out, the three invocations or apostrophes in Proem II of the House of Fame, imitated from Dante, are important in that Chaucer envisages, for the first time in English, the idea of poetry as a vocation, the idea of the poet as prophet, and the idea that sublime poetry was possible in the vernacular.8 Chaucer is also the first poet in English to use the evocative image of the laurel, symbolic of the everlasting fame of poets: the Muse Polyhymnia sings 'with vois memorial in the shade / Under the laurer which that may not fade' (Anelida and Arcite). And in Proem III to the House of Fame Chaucer asks Apollo, the god of poetry, for his help and promises, if he receives it:

Thou shalt se me go as blyve
Unto the nexte laure y see,

And kysse yt, for hyt is thy tree.
Now entre in my brest anoon!

But he also knew about Petrarch's laureation in Rome in 1341, a ceremony which formed the model for similar Renaissance occasions, for he refers to 'Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete' whose sweet rhetoric had spread the idea of poetry over all Italy. But Chaucer never claims the laurel, and expresses no pretensions to fame through laureation.

This modesty clearly disappointed his fifteenth-century followers, for they repeatedly suggest that he ought to have been invested with the honour. Lydgate praises Chaucer for 'the golde dewe dropes of speche and eloquence' in English and says that he 'worthy was the laurer too have / of poetry',9 and elsewhere suggests that he has an equal right to 'be registred in þe house of fame' with Petrarch.10 Caxton, in the Prohemye to the second edition of the Canterbury Tales, commends Chaucer 'the whiche for his ornate wrytyng in our tongue maye wel have the name of a laureate poete'.11 And in the final stanza of The Kingis Quair, James I of Scotland extends the claim to include Gower as well as Chaucer, who were together 'Superlative as poetis laureate / In moralitee and eloquence ornate'.12

When Skelton confronts Gower, Chaucer and Lydgate in The Garlande of Laurell, he honours them as the establishers and enrichers of the English language as a medium for poetry: one of them 'first garnisshed our Englysshe rude', and another 'nobly enterprysed/How that our Englysshe myght fresshely be ennewed'. He remarks, however, that 'Thei wantid nothynge but the laurell'—an enigmatic line which has been read off as a not very subtle attempt on Skelton's part to enhance his own reputation, because he had been laureated, at the expense of theirs.13 The implication of it, however, may be the same as when Lydgate, Caxton and James I had treated the subject earlier, that because of the nature and importance of their achievements in poetry these English poets ought to have been awarded the laurel, but had not been. In the House of Fame, Chaucer approaches Apollo's laurel but does not claim it, just as he approaches the palace of Fame, but not to get fame. Skelton hesitates ('A made it straunge, and drew bak ones or twyse') but not for long; fame and the laurel are his due, he feels, not necessarily because he is a better poet than his English predecessors, but because English poetry itself and its representatives, including Skelton, deserve more honour and in more formal terms than had been accorded to them previously. Skelton appreciated the importance for English poets of claiming fame through status: he insists on his titles of 'laureate' and, after 1512-13, of orator regius. He may be following the example of the rhétoriquers in this: Octavien de Saint-Gelays refers to himself as 'simple orateur du roi'.14 But Skelton is the first English poet to feel able to do this.

In the second place, Skelton appears to have believed that fame consisted, in part, of belonging to a tradition of notable writers, of being able to set oneself in the context of illustrious predecessors. Norman Blake has pointed out the lack of a sense of tradition in much Middle English literature, and that 'texts often seem to appear quite fortuitously without past or future',15 though they are sometimes used as sources or quarried for ideas. With Chaucer this altered. He habitually seeks to define his own position by referring to authors of the classical and medieval past, usually with a sense of uneasiness and anxious deference: at the end of Troilus and Criseyde he urges his 'litel bok' to 'kis the steppes' of 'Virgile, Ovide, Orner, Lucan and Stace' (v, 1786-92). Chaucerian poets of the fifteenth century follow his example and, in addition, defer to him: he is referred to by Hoccleve as 'maister deere' or 'fadir reverent', and others echo this.16

Chaucer's method of definition by reference to other poets was taken over by Skelton's admirers (of whom in his lifetime there were many) and later by Skelton himself, who was doubtless encouraged by what he read about himself. The earliest praise of Skelton, by Caxton in 1490, sets him in a context of classical authors: 'he hath late translated the Epystlys of Tulle, and the Boke of Dyodorus Syculus and diverse other werkes out of Latyn into Englysshe … as he that hath redde Vyrgyle, Ovyde, Tullye and all the other noble poetes and oratours …17 In 1499 Erasmus goes further. Skelton has not only read classical authors, but is their equal: What Greece owes to Homer, and what Mantua owes to Virgil, by so much is Britain in debt to Skelton:

…Te principe Skelton
Anglia nil metuat
Vel cum Romanis versu certare poetis.18

[While you are its principal poet, O Skelton, England need fear nothing, for you are worthy to vie in versifying with Roman poets.]

This is elaborated by Roberet Whittinton in 1519 in his In Clarissimi Scheltonis Louaniensis Poeti: Laudes Epigramma. On Parnassus Apollo praises the 'monumenta suorum vatum' mentioning Homer, Orpheus, Musaeus, Aristophanes, Aeschylus and others among the Greeks, and Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Statius and others among the Romans. Then he turns to Britain, a land which nourishes poets, and at considerable length he praises Skelton for his rhetorical speech, his eloquence and his power to move. He is in no doubt about Skelton's claim to fame: 'Ecce virum de quo splendida fama volat', and he calls upon the Muses to make his glory eternal:

[Let him flourish in the eternal honour with which he celebrated you, and let his fame be perennial in the stars.]

Similarly, Skelton's contemporaries testify to his fame by setting him in a tradition of English poetry and among English poets. In 1510 the author of The Great Chronicle of London, perhaps Robert Fabyan, links him with William Cornish, Sir Thomas More, and Chaucer 'if he were now in lyffe'.20 And a little later Henry Bradshaw twice defers to the authority of Skelton in association with Chaucer, Lydgate and Barclay.21

In The Garlande of Laurell, Skelton sets himself in a comprehensive tradition of poetry incorporating Greek and Latin authors, poets from the Middle Ages such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, Renaissance figures such as Poggio 'that famous Florentine' and contemporaries such as Robert Gaguin; the list is closed by his three eminent English predecessors. In the fiction of his poem, the poets of this tradition approve his claim to fame: 'Triumpha, triumphal they cryid all aboute'. His vanity has provoked criticism from modern scholars, in part justifiably: 'For him, the poetic tradition which he evokes so fully seems to exist for his sake, rather than he for its … the tradition of poetry exists in order that Skelton may be its latest and most glorious representative'.22 But it has to be remembered that Skelton is here not claiming for himself anything more than his contemporaries thought he deserved.

When one turns, thirdly, to the subject of fame and poetry as perpetuation one finds on Skelton's part the same engagement with traditional ideas, with Chaucer and his followers, and the same desire to equal or outdo. The idea appears early that poets bestowed eternal fame on those whom they celebrated in their verses, and by doing so acquired fame for themselves.23 Chaucer takes the idea up in the House of Fame where the notable poets of antiquity, whose durability is indicated by their positions on pillars of metal like caryatids, 'bar… up the fame' of men, events and peoples of the past, like Aeneas, Caesar, Pompey, the Jews, the Greeks, the Trojans, or the fame of mythical personages, like the 'god of love' or Pluto and Proserpina. So far as is known, Chaucer never wrote for patrons, but his followers—Hoccleve, Lydgate, Ashby, and the like—appear to have sought readily the favour of the great and powerful, and in return provided the kind of verses which were asked for: apart from any material benefits which may have been forthcoming, to have a famous patron provided some assurance of acceptability and eminence for the poet. Frontispieces to presentation copies of poems which show the poet kneeling before the patron become common. So too do headings like the following to the copy of Lydgate's Guy of Warwick from BL MS Harley 7333 fol. 33r: 'Here now begynnebe an abstracte out of the Cronicles in Latyn made by Gyrarde Comubyence the worpy Croniculer of Westsexse, and translated in to Englishe by Lydegate daun Iohan at be requeste of Margarite Countas of Shrowesbury Lady Talbot fournyval and Lisle of the lyf of the most worþy knyght Guy of Warwike, of whos blood she is lyneally descended'.24 The fame of one's ancestors and hence the fame of one's family and one's own fame may be procured and perpetuated in poetry.

Skelton's earliest datable poem is written firmly within this tradition. In Upon the Dolorus Dethe … of the … Erie of Northumberlande he seeks to 'make memoryall' for Henry Percy, the Fourth Earl, murdered by tax rebels at Topcliffe, near Thirsk, in 1489. He appeals to Clio, the muse of history, to help his 'elect uteraunce' by refreshing his 'homely rudnes' and adverts to the idea that poetry of this sort preserves fame:

Of noble actes auncyently enrolde
Of famous princis and lordes of astate,
By thy report ar wonte to be extolde
Regestringe trewly every formare date …

Whether Skelton was commissioned to write this poem is difficult to tell, but he offers his services to the son of the dead earl in a prefatory Latin verse: 'Ad libitum cuius ipse paratus ero'. And an elaborately written and rubricated copy of the poem is preserved in BL MS Royal 18. D. ii, a sumptuous Percy manuscript.25 Thereafter, from time to time, but especially after 1512-13 in his capacity as orator regius, Skelton writes in praise of Henry VIII to memorialize his achievements and those of England. So when Skelton thinks of his own fame in The Garlande of Laurell it is partly in these terms: it depends on the mutual interest of those celebrated in poetry and the poet who celebrates them. The Countess of Surrey and her companions feel bound to 'rewarde' Skelton with an embroidered garland of laurel (779) to signal his pre-eminence as a poet because he has in the past celebrated the fame of ladies:

… of all ladyes he hath the library,
Ther names recountyng in the court of Fame;
Of all gentylwomen he hath the scruteny,
In Fames court reportyng the same"…

In his turn he has to thank them, at the prompting of Occupacyon, with a series of lyrics 'In goodly wordes plesauntly comprysid'. The whole process is then perpetuated 'in pycture, by his industrious wit' by 'maister Newton', presumably a painter or illuminator. Skelton's frequent allusion to those who appear to be his patrons—the Percy family, Henry VIII, the Howards, and latterly Wolsey—was no doubt in part a recognition of kindnesses received or expected, but it may well also have had the function in his mind of establishing his fame by associating him with the famous.

However, the fourth aspect of the poet's claim to fame as treated in The Garlande of Laurell—the expenditure of labour over a long time to produce a body of work which will be read—is probably the most important to Skelton. The formula 'Idleness is to be shunned' is a favourite topic of the exordium among classical authors. Seneca's warning, 'Otium sine litteris mors est et hominis vivi sepulta' (Idleness without studies is death and a sepulture for a living man), was often quoted, and the practice of poetry came to be seen as a virtuous cure for sloth.26 On one occasion Chaucer uses the idleness topic in a prefatory position: the Second Nun sees the telling of the life of St Cecilia as a way to avoid 'ydelnesse' by means of 'leveful bisyness'.27 But the idea also occurs in the House of Fame: the seventh company ask for Fame but the goddess instructs Eolus to blow 'a sory grace' for them from his black trumpet because they are 'ydel wrechches' who will 'do noskynnes labour. Fame without labour is impossible, and for a poet labour consists of producing poems which will be read by posterity and recognized.

Chaucer worries about the stability of his texts at the end of Troilus and Criseyde: the 'gret diversite / In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge' may cause the metre of his book to be ruined or its sense misunderstood (v, 1793-8). He curses his scribe Adam for his incorrect copying and complains that he has to 'rubbe and scrape' the parchment in correction of Adam's versions of his texts. These complaints may to some extent be traditional28 and the second is deliberately amusing, but behind the comedy lies a deep concern for the lastingness of his works. And doubtless it was this same motive—the wish to establish his fame by ensuring his identification with certain works which he hoped would last—that caused Chaucer to include lists of his works in his writings. None of the lists is very formal or complete and all are contextualized by disparaging reservations about the poet's achievement. In the F Prologue to the Legend of Good Women it is said that 'he kan nat wel endite' though he has written a great deal about love. According to the Man of Law, 'thogh he kan but lewedly / On metres and on rymyng craftily', Chaucer has told, in one place or another, all the seemly stories there are to tell—and he lists some of Chaucer's works about women. And in the Retractions to the Canterbury Tales Chaucer, in his own person, asks that God 'foryeve me the synne' of his secular writings which, nevertheless, he names along with those works which he feels are morally sound and need no apology. In his habitual, self-deprecating way Chaucer talks himself down, but at the same time seeks to establish his fame, for the first time in English, by associating his name with a defined body of work.

Chaucer's followers pick up and develop these ideas, too. The idleness topic is frequently used—poignantly by George Ashby, who wrote while in the Fleet Prison, 'Thus occupying me'.29 Yet one of its most assiduous users was Caxton, than whom there can have been few more active men of letters. In his Prologue to the 1483 edition of the Game of Chesse he mentions that he undertook the translation 'in eschewyng of ydlenes',30 and in the Prologue to Charles the Great (1485) he asks God for grace so that he may 'laboure and occupye myself vertuously that I may come oute of dette and dedely synne'.31 Most interesting, however, in his Prologue to the Golden Legend (c. 1481) which begins with a quotation from Jerome, 'Do alweye somme good werke to th'ende that the devyl fynde the not ydle', and in a lengthy passage he adds quotations from a number of other authorities to the same effect.32 Most of the Prologue is based on the introduction to the French version of the work which Caxton was using, but he adds a certain amount—notably an extensive but incomplete list of translations made before 1482 which justify the way he has spent his time. Though he worries, like Chaucer, about 'dyversite and chaunge in language'33 and though he worries about his own literary capacities, he has faith in the virtues of hard work and productivity.

And so too does Skelton. The Quene of Fame makes the point to Dame Pallas that Skelton will have to be banished from her court 'As he that aquentyth him with ydilnes' unless he can give a convincing account of his productivity. In response, Occupacyon reads off an enormous list of his works which, nevertheless, is said to be merely a selection 'in as moche as it were to longe a process to reherse all by name that he hath compylyd'. It is in many ways an odd list. Not all the descriptions of extant works are very accurate, and a great many of the works are evidently lost.34 Perhaps some never existed at all, and it may be that the list is partly parodie. Chaucer's lists included items which, to a sixteenth-century reader such as Skelton as to a twentieth-century reader, must have appeared lost: 'Origenes upon the Maudeleyne', 'the book of the Leoun', and so on. It may be that Skelton invented his own 'lost' works in emulation of Chaucer. Yet he shows no uneasiness about the lastingness of his achievement: the stability of print was, no doubt, reassuring to him. Indeed, this very stability imposed its own pressures and responsibilities: 'Beware, for wrytyng remayneth of recorde' warns Dame Pallas. On one occasion, in the person of Jane Scrope, Skelton complains that the English language is 'rude', 'cankered', and 'rusty', and that it is difficult to find the terms in which to write 'ornatly' (VII, 774-83). But this doubt about the capacity of the language for eloquence did not extend to fears about durability. At the end of The Garlande of Laurell, Skelton reassures his 'littill quaire' that though it is written in English and not Latin that does not mean that people will not read it:

That so indede
Your fame may sprede
In length and brede.

His fame is assured through the multiplication of readers of his works—a point he makes in other places.35

It seems clear, therefore, that Skelton saw himself, in much the same way as his contemporaries saw him, as a poet whose lasting fame was secure: he had status because of his laureation, poetic identity because he belonged to a definable historical tradition which embraced classical authors and his illustrious English predecessors, a role as perpetuator and memorialist of the famous, and a body of work to his credit that was likely to be read down the ages. Yet, for all this, he is sufficiently self-aware and self-critical to realize that there were aspects of his poetry that might cause his fame to be questioned, and in The Garlande of Laurell he expresses these doubts.

They principally concern his satires and polemical verses. When questions are raised, Dame Pallas interprets the Quene of Fame's reservations about accepting Skelton into her court as having to do with the fact that he does not always write in the style of courtly compliment and that he is therefore 'sum what to dull'. In order to defend him she seeks to broaden the notion of what are acceptable forms of poetry, and to justify his use of more demotic styles. The lines:

And if so hym fortune to wryte true and plaine,
As sumtyme he must vyces remorde,
Then sum wyll say he hath but lyttil brayne …

express similar misgivings to lines in the opening of Collyn Clout:

Or yf he speke playne
Than he lacketh brayne.

What is being referred to here is the low style of direct invective used by Skelton in his later satires, which, he affirms in Collyn Clout, may be 'tattered and jagged', but, nevertheless, is of some substance: 'it hath in it some pyth'.36 A few lines later Dame Pallas refers to the indirect Galfridian manner of political prophecy:

A poete somtyme may for his pleasure taunt
Spekyng in paroblis, how the fox, the grey,
The gander, the gose, and the hudge oliphaunt,
Went with the pecok ageyne the fesaunt …

This is the mode of some lines of Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? (XX, 118-22), which he may have in mind here, and for most of Speke Parott, where Skelton defends himself by saying that metaphor and allegory shall be 'his protectyon, his pavys and his wall', presumably against charges that he has defamed and slandered those he writes about. The disadvantage of this style is its obscurity and difficulty. At the end of Speke Parott, Galathea asks in desperation for a change of style of the poem: 'Sette asyde all sophysms, and speke now trew and playne', and this and other remarks indicate that Skelton had some sense that his readers found it hard to understand. In The Garlande of Laurell Dame Pallas defends this manner by affirming that those who are 'industryous of reason' will find in 'suche an endarkid chapiter sum season', but even she admits it is 'harde'.37

Skelton is also concerned about the fate of satirists: Dame Pallas recalls the banishment of Ovid by Augustus Caesar and the threats to Juvenal, perhaps by Domitian, because he 'rubbid sum on the gall'. She defends Juvenal by saying, 'Yet wrote he none ill', but she later admits that in this sort of writing it is difficult to satisfy everybody: " '… harde is to make but sum fawt be founde'. These examples are adduced to help defend Skelton, 'to furnisshe better his excuse'. And, indeed, throughout his work he is conscious of his role as a controversialist, and aware that there are those who disagree with what he writes. The traditional prayer of the medieval poet:

I aske no more but God, of his mercy,
My book conserve from sklaundre and envy …38

takes on an added force in Skelton's writings. Though it is not always possible to identify them, his enemies are not vague figures, for he often feels it necessary to answer specific charges. He writes a reply to the 'dyvers people' who thought his verses on the death of James IV at Flodden tasteless (XII 'Unto Dyvers People … '). Similarly, he appends to Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? some lines 'Contra quendam doctorem/Suam calumpniatorem'—a doctor of canon law evidently, who has not been further identified. Some of his enemies are, however, known by name. In 1509 Barclay attacked Phyllyp Sparowe for its 'wantones'39 and Skelton wrote a 115-line reply which is appended to the poem in the printed editions: he notes in the account of Phyllyp Sparowe in The Garlande of Laurell that some 'grudge' at his poem 'with frownyng countenaunce' and includes the reply, closing with the line 'Est tamen invidia mors tibi continua'. And among the writers who are called upon to approve his laureation there is at least one former opponent who appears not to have entirely forgiven him:

… a frere of Fraunce men call Sir Gagwyne,
That frowned on me full angerly and pale

—Robert Gaguin, with whom Skelton had earlier engaged in polemical exchange.40 For a controversial writer fame does not imply universal approval, and it is Skelton's consciousness of this which, no doubt, caused him to ponder at length the case of Aeschines, defeated in controversy by Demosthenes in 330 BC. He is allowed a place in her court, according to the Quene of Fame, because he provoked Demosthenes to great works, because he was overcome by no one but Demosthenes, and because of his subsequent acknowledgement of Demosthenes' superior ability: 'though he were venquesshid, yet was he not shamyd'. There is generous inclusiveness in Skelton's conception of fame, particularly in relation to satirists and polemicists.

But Skelton's view of poetry was also an extremely inclusive one, and one which conferred a dignity and an importance on poetry and poets which was far greater than Chaucer or most of his followers ever felt able to give it. Poetry embraced everything and the poet's realm was everywhere. In the paradisal garden of the Quene of Fame performs no courtly entertainer and no love poet, but the Carthaginian bard Iopas who sang before Aeneas in Dido's palace, and, as in Aeneid, 1, 740 ff., he sings of the whole cosmic order, 'Of Atlas astrology, and many noble thyngis … Of men and bestis, and whereof they begone … ', to which, as A. C. Spearing has acutely pointed out,41 Skelton adds a line of his own which suggests that his subjects include the whole moral order also: 'How wronge was no ryght, and ryght was no wronge'. The poet is privileged to speak of all things.

It is a large claim but Skelton develops and goes beyond it in ' A Replycacion', his last extant poem. Here he undertakes to defend the Christian faith against heresy by means of satirical verse and in the course of his poem he also finds himself defending the right of poets to deal with theological matters,42 for which he uses the impeccable authority of Jerome who, in his letter to Paulinus prefacing the Vulgate, had praised the poetry of the psalms of David:

Than, if this noble kyng,
Thus can harpe and syng

With his harpe of prophecy
And spyrituall poetry,
And saynt Jerome saythe,
To whom we must give faythe,
Warblynge with his strynges
Of suche theologicall thynges,
Why have ye than disdayne
At poertes, and complayne
Howe poetes do but fayne?

What is more, says Skelton, those who disparage the 'fame matryculate/Of poetes laureate' do wrong, because poetic inspiration comes from God, and it is this which causes poets to write:

… there is a spyrituall,
And a mysteriall,
And a mysticall
Effecte energiall,
As Grekes do it call,
Of suche an industry
And suche a pregnacy,
Of hevenly inspyracion
In laureate creacyon,
Of poetes commendacion,
That of divyne myseracion
God maketh his habitacion
In poetes whiche excelles,
And sojourns with them and dwelles.

By whose inflammacion
Of spyrituall instygacion
And divyne inspyracion
We are kyndled in suche facyon
With hete of the Holy Gost,
Which is God of myghtes most,
That he our penne dothe lede,
And maketh in us suche spede
That forthwith we must nede
With penne and ynke procede …

Skelton fuses classical and Christian ideas about poetic inspiration in this comprehensive defence. It rests on a well-defined tradition but probably takes its immediate origin from Boccaccio's De Genealogia Deorum Gentilium XIV, 7: 'Thus poetry, which ignorant triflers cast aside, is a sort of fervid and exquisite expression, in speech or writing, of that which the mind has invented. It proceeds from the bosom of God, and few, I find, are the souls in whom this gift is born, indeed, so wonderful a gift it is that true poets have always been the rarest of men. This fervor of poetry is sublime in its effects: it impels the soul to a longing for utterance …43 And this inspiration, given to the few, rare poets, operates whether they write for 'affection', 'sadde dyrection', or 'correction'—that is to say, it encompasses satire. It is hard to imagine how a Christian poet could make a more complete vindication of his practice: the poet partakes of the divine, and this validates all aspects of his art.

In The Garlande of Laurell Skelton tries to come to terms with his poetic lineage, particularly with Chaucer, and to establish a claim to fame by justifying a career spent in the service of poetry. Skelton is not unaware of possible criticisms of past writers: according to Jane Scrope, Gower's English is 'old / And of no value told'; Lydgate is difficult and 'some men fynde a faute / And say he wryteth to haute'. Skelton's references to Chaucer, however, are always admiring, though it is equally clear that he recognizes how different he is. In Seneca's terms Skelton resembles him 'as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original'.44 And that he should be more assertive than Chaucer is perhaps not surprising. In the House of Fame, if the Egle is to be believed, poetry is for Chaucer something to be indulged in 'when thy labour doon al ys', a bookish, essentially solitary, pastime which keeps him in ignorance of 'tydynges' from far and near in the world at large. And though this may not be the whole truth, it is at least part of it: Chaucer recognizes the marginal nature of poetry and the poet in his society, though he is uneasy about it and takes some, albeit hesitant, steps to change things. Skelton, in a way that was becoming common, confident of the allembracing relevance of poetry and confident also of his capacities and status as a poet, seeks to put himself at the centre of things, whether the sphere is social, political or spiritual. Part of Skelton's self-respect, indeed, derived from his status as a poet. When he defends himself in verse against Sir Christopher Gameshe45 he says on one occasion: Ί am laureat, I am no lorell' and, no doubt pleased with the pun, elaborates on it later:

A kynge too me myn habyte gave
At Oxforth, the universyte,
Avaunsid I was to that degre;
By hole consent of theyr senate,
I was made poete lawreate.
To cal me lorell ye ar to lewde …

Skelton had acquired a way of thinking in which it was inconceivable for a 'laureate' to be a 'lorell' (= worthless person, wretch). The dignity of the poet's calling enhances and validates the dignity of the individual. The essentially modest claims for their status and art characteristic of most Chaucerian poets are insufficient to contain this.


1John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, ed. John Scattergood (New Haven and London, 1983). References and quotations are from this edition.

2 'Skelton, Petrarca e l'amore della gloria nel The Garland of Laurel', Annali Islituto Universitario Orientale Napoli, Sexione Germanica 5 (1962), 135-63, repr. in La Poesia di John Skelton (Napoli, 1963).

3 'John Skelton and Burgundian Letters', in Ten Studies in Anglo-Dutch Relations, ed. Jan van Dorsten (Leiden and London, 1974), pp. 1-29.

4Anglo-Scottish Literary Relations 14JO-1550 (Cambridge, 1980), p. 165.

5 'Skelton's Garland of Laurel and Chaucer's House of Fame', Modern Language Review, 11 (1916), 9-14.

6 See Piero Boitani, Chaucer and the Imaginary World of Fame (Cambridge, 1984), pp 161-3. Many of the ideas on fame and poetry which I use were suggested by this comprehensive survey.

7 See, for example, the remarks in The Poetical Works of John Skelton, ed. Rev. Alexander Dyce, 2 vols. (London, 1843), vol. 1, p. xlix. See also H. L. R. Edwards, Skelton: The Life and Times of an Early Tudor Poet (London, 1949), pp. 22-3 for a similar judgement.

8Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 22-30. 1 am much indebted to this fine account of the poem. See also the interesting article by Vincent Gillespie, 'Justification by Good Works: Skelton's The Garland of Laurel'. Reading Medieval Studies, 7 (1981), 19-31.

9 See The Lyfe of Our Lady. ed. J. Lauritis, R. Klinefelter and V. Gallagher (Pittsburg, 1961), lines 1628-34. See also Chaucer: The Critical Heritage, ed. Derek Brewer, vol. 1, 1385-1837 (London, 1978), p. 46.

10 See Troy Book. ed. H. Bergen, 4 vols., EETS. e.s. 97, 103, 106, 126 (London, 1906-20) III, 4534-59. See also Chaucer: The Critical Heritage vol. 1, p. 48.

11Caxton 's Own Prose, ed. N. F. Blake (London, 1973), p. 61. See also Chaucer: The Critical Heritage, vol. 1, p. 76.

12 ed. John Norton-Smith (Oxford, 1970).

13 A. C. Spearing, Medieval Dream Poetry (Cambridge, 1976), p. 214 says he deals 'patronisingly' with them. See also Stanley Eugene Fish, John Skelton's Poetry (New Haven and London, 1965), pp. 231-2. Compare the interesting account of Richard Firth Green, 'the lavish praise which fifteenth-century writers heaped on Chaucer, Gower, and, later, Lydgate was rarely completely disinterested; living poets were manifestly raising their own stock by venerating their predecessors' (Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages (Toronto, 1980) p. 208.

14 See H-J. Molinier, Essai Biographique et Littéraire sur Octavien de Sainl-Gelays: Évêque d'Angoulême 1468-1502 (Rodez, 1910), pp. 58-9. See also Pierre Jodogne, 'Les Rhétoriquers et l'Humanisme' in A. H. T. Levi (ed.), Humanism in France at the End of the Middle Ages and in the Early Renaissance (Manchester, 1970), pp. 160-1.

15The English Language in Medieval Literature (London, 1977), p. 14. See also pp. 21-7 for other relevant comments on this problem.

16Hoccleves Works, ed. F. J. Fumivall, EETS, es. 61, 72 (London 1892-7), III, II. 1961-2. See also Chaucer: The Critical Heritage, vol. 1, p. 62.

17Caxton s Own Prose, p. 80

18 See Skelton: The Critical Heritage, ed. A. S. G. Edwards (London, 1981), pp. 44-5.

19Ibid. pp. 49-53.

20Ibid. pp. 46-7.

21Ibid. pp. 47-8.

22 See A. C. Spearing, Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry, ρ 243.

23 For the background to the idea of poetry as perpetuation, see E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. W. R. Trask (London, 1953), pp. 476-7.

24 See The Minor Poems of John Lydgate. ed. H. N. MacCracken, 2 vols. EETS, o.s. 107, 192 (London, 1911-34), vol. 2, p. 516.

25 On this poem see my essay 'Skelton and the Elegy', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. 84 C10 (1984), 333-47; and for some interesting comments on the manuscript see Mervyn James, Society, Politics and Culture Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 83-90.

26 On this topic see Curtius, European Literature, pp. 88-9, whence I derive the example from Seneca.

27 On the background to this Prologue, see Richard Hazleton, 'Chaucer and Cato', Speculum. 35 (1960), 357-80.

28 See R. K. Root, 'Publication before Printing', PMLA, 28 (1913), 417-31. For a famous instance see Petrarch's complaint in Epistolae de Rebus Senilium, v, i, in Franciscus Petrarcha, Opera (Basel, 1581), pp. 790-2.

29George Ashby's Poems, ed. Mar y Bateson, EETS, e.s. 76 (London, 1899), p. 12.

30Caxton 's Own Prose, p. 88.

31Ibid. p. 68.

32Ibid. pp. 88-9.

33Ibid. p. 80.

34 For a comprehensive survey, see R. S. Kinsman and Theodore Yonge, John Skelton: Canon and Census. Renaissance Society of America: Bibliographies and Indexes No. 4 (New York, 1967).

35 See, for example, the epigraphs to Speke Parott: 'Lectoribus auctor recepit opusculy huius auxesim. / Crescet in immensem me vivo pagina presens / Hinc mea dicetur Skeltonidis aurea fama.' [By his readers an author receives an amplification of his short poem. The present book will grow greatly while I am alive; thence will the golden reputation of Skelton be proclaimed]. See also Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? 29-30: 'Hec vates ille / De quo loquntur mille' [About these things the famous bard of whom a thousand speak] This is repeated at the end of the poem.

36 For the deliberately rustic nature of Collyn Clout see R. S Kinsman, 'Skelton's Colyn Cloute: The Mask of Vox Populi', in Essays Critical and Historical dedicated to Lily B. Campbell (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1950), pp. 17-23. For the literary antecedents for this style see A. R. Heiserman, Skelton and Satire (Chicago, 1961), 208-43.

37 For the stylistic affinities of Speke Parott see Heiserman, Skelton and Satire, pp. 126-89.

38The Court of Sapience, ed. E. Ruth Harvey (Toronto, 1984), lines 69-70.

39 This comes in Ά brefe addicion to the syngularyte of some new Folys' added to his Shyp of Foles: see Skelton: The Critical Heritage p. 46. In 1519 the grammarian William Lyly attacked Skelton as 'neither learned nor a poet' (see ibid. p. 48).

40 See also Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? 718-41. For Skelton's dispute with this man see H. L. R. Edwards, 'Robert Gaguin and the English Poets 1489-1490', Modern Language Review, 32 (1937), 430-4. Another enemy appears to have been Rogerus Stathum, referred to by means of a number code in The Garlande of Laurel 742-65; he is also called Envyous Rancour, but so far as is known was not a poet.

41Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry, p. 246.

42 For the background to this problem see Curtius, European Literature, pp. 214-27, and for the sixteenth-century development of some of these ideas John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, 1982), pp. 14-19, 209-31.

43 Quoted in the translation of Charles G. Osgood, Boccaccio on Poetry (Princeton, 1930), pp. 39-42.

44Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales LXXXIV, 7-8 "'… quomodo filium, non quomodo imaginem"… ' from Seneca ed. and trans, by Richard R. Gummere, 10 vols. (Loeb Classical Library: Cambridge: Mass., 1970), vol. 5, pp. 280-1.

45 For the background to these poems see Helen Stearns Sale, 'John Skelton and Christopher Garnesche', Modern Language Notes, 43 (1928), 518-32.

Richard Halpern (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Twittering Machine: Skelton's Ornithology of the Early Tudor State," in The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 103-35.

[In the following excerpt, Halpern relates Skelton's poetry to political and cultural changes in Tudor England, particularly the transition from a feudal society to an absolute monarchy.]

If he was nothing else, John Skelton was certainly one of the most obstreperous English poets; his literary gifts were inseparable from a bottomless and apparently free-floating aggression. Henry VIII employed him briefly as a writer of vituperative verses against the French and Scots and then to entertain the court in a display of "flytyng," a crude form of poetical name-calling. Yet the self-styled orator regius remained a marginal figure at court, and in his resentment he composed a series of vicious and ill-considered satires against the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, even taking a few swipes at Henry himself. Just as abruptly he then changed face and put himself in Wolsey's employ to write attacks on Protestant heretics and a rebellious Scots duke. Yet Wolsey witheld the promised reward of an ecclesiastical living, and the poet never succeeded in making nastiness anything more than an intermittently profitable vocation. Even after his death Skelton was regarded largely as a bundle of quirky and unassimilable energies. Despite his priestly calling, his name soon became attached to a collection of "merry tales," according to which he kept a woman in his church at Diss, fathered a bastard, defecated on a sleeping friar, and otherwise distinguished himself for piety and devotion.1 Wordsworth complimented him as "a demon in point of genius,"2 but Pope simply dismissed him as "beastly Skelton."

In matters of poetic influence he was no less difficult. Skelton portrayed his own genius as both autogenerated and prodigious; he describes himself as England's incomparable "phoenix" in Ware the Hawk, and he seems largely to have arrogated to himself the titles of poet laureate and king's orator. Indeed, as C. S. Lewis correctly observed, he had "no real predecessors and no important disciples."3 His turbulent verse owed little to the polish of Chaucer and even less to the dullness of fifteenth-century predecessors such as Hoccleve or Lydgate.4 His influence on English verse was just as small as its influence on him. It is true that he enjoyed brief fame as a prophet of the Reformation and that Spenser borrowed the name of Skelton's Colin Clout for his Protestant pastorals. Yet no important successors took up Skelton's distinctive verse form, doubtless finding it too colloquial, too jarring, and too deeply imprinted with his personality. Skelton also developed a bitter hatred for the Erasmian humanism that began to take hold in the early sixteenth century. He was a vigorous participant in the so-called Grammarians' War of 1519, during which he and his fellow "Trojans" defended the old scholastic method of learning Latin against the humanist innovations of the "Greeks."5 Skelton deemed it absurd that

Platus with his comedies a chyld shall now reherse,
And medyll with Quintylyan in his Declemacyons,
That Pety Caton can scantly construe a verse,
With, "Aveto" in Greco, and such solempne salutacyons,
Can skantly the tensis of his conjugacyons;
Settyng theyr myndys so moch of eloquens,
That of theyr scole maters lost is the hole sentens.
(Speke Parottf)6

Skelton even exchanged insulting Latin verses with the humanist grammarian William Lily. Here, as elsewhere, his conservative instincts put him on the losing side, and in rejecting humanism he cut himself off from the future of Renaissance verse. Skelton's relative uninterest in "eloquens" also probably impeded his career as a court poet.7 It sometimes seems as if Skelton tried to write himself out of literary history by sheer force of will. His career testifies to the fact that a poet can indeed be too original.

Skelton's idiosyncracies have caused problems for critics trying to fit him into the scheme of cultural periodization which characterizes traditional literary history. Ian Gordon delineated the problem in 1943 when he wrote that "Skelton fell between two periods, the receding Middle Ages and the advancing Renaissance, without being a part of either." Reverting, Pope-like, to the vocabulary of the monstrous, Gordon calls Skelton "a Mr. Facing-Both-Ways" and adds, "Seldom has a poet borne the marks of a transition age so clearly as Skelton."8 In John Skelton's Poetry (1965), Stanley Fish nuances Gordon's formulation but does not fundamentally alter it. "Skelton's poetry," he writes, "gives us neither the old made new nor the new made old, but a statement of the potentiality for disturbance of the unassimilated. It is a poetry which could only have been written between 1498 and 1530, when the intrusive could no longer be ignored as Lydgate had ignored it and before it would become part of a new and difficult stability as it would after 1536."9 Fish's formulation suggests that Skelton's poetry is historically determined, or at least bounded; yet the agent of this determination is, paradoxically, a gap or hiatus between periods. It is as if Skelton sailed his lyrical boat by the force of a vacuum. A. C. Spearing conveys a similar sense of paradox, arguing that "Skelton's attitude is more, not less medieval than Chaucer's," yet finding that the difficulty and poetic manner of Speke Parott strongly anticipate The Waste Land.10 The problem here is Skelton's seemingly perverse refusal to act like a "transitional" figure. He was the only poet of really considerable talents writing at the beginning of the sixteenth century and was therefore in a perfect position to bridge the gap between medieval and Renaissance poetics. Yet he seems somehow to have sensed his literary-historical mission and then mischievously to have dodged it. Or perhaps his mission was to dodge it, to occupy the transitional space in such a way as to reveal a dramatic gap or break between periods, and even to scramble the linear model that underlies this history.

One way around this problem is to look for influences outside of the literary canon and thus to situate Skelton's poetics in a larger cultural field. Some scholarly work has elucidated Skelton's poetry by demonstrating both the formal and thematic influence of church liturgy and by considering Skelton's vocation as poet-priest.11 A very different approach has traced Skelton's career as failed or frustrated courtier and read his work in relation to the political events of the 1520s. These two paths intersect, of course, especially when Skelton begins his series of satires against Cardinal Wolsey. Yet they have not so much resolved the problems of Skelton's difficult transitional status as they have displaced and enlarged them. For the Christian interpreters have produced a conservative and strongly "medieval" Skelton, the orthodox and devoted priest who fights for traditional church and aristocratic privileges and against the encroachments of the early Tudor state. But the courtly Skelton is a more recognizably modern figure—self-promoting, dissatisfied with his duties in a rural parish, lacking strong convictions or social allegiances, willing to use his literary talents in any way that will serve his own ambitions.12 Skelton's alleged social role thus splits as well into irreconcilably "medieval" and "Renaissance" components.

This is, clearly, the moment to wheel a Marxist theoretical apparatus onstage and triumphantly announce its ability to sublate these contradictions within a larger totalizing movement. I will not do so, however, because Skelton's poetical career signifies in its most interesting way when it remains fissured. It is these Skeltonic gaps and discontinuities that I want to articulate more precisely, by posing them in relation to the rise of the absolutist state and its role in reorganizing the late feudal polity.

Cultural Territoriality in Ware the Hawk

It has long been recognized that the absolutist state played a decisive part in the transition to capitalism, though precisely what this part was has been the subject of extended debate. Marx and Engels held that absolutism represented a balance of political power between the feudal ruling class and the emergent bourgeoisie and that it prepared the way for capitalist production by carrying out many of the functions of primitive accumulation.13 Nicos Poulantzas rejects the first half of this thesis and develops the second in order to argue for the relative autonomy of the absolutist state, as I discuss in the Introduction. Perry Anderson takes a somewhat different (though not irreconcilable) approach, contending that absolutism reorganized the rule of the nobility in response to certain mutations in the late feudal economy:

Feudalism as a mode of production was originally defined by an organic unity of economy and polity, paradoxically distributed in a chain of parcellized sovereignties throughout the social formation. The institution of serfdom as a mechanism of surplus extraction fused economic exploitation and politico-legal coercion at the molecular level of the village. The lord in his turn typically owed liege—loyalty and knight—service to the seigneurial overlord, who claimed the land as his ultimate domain. With the generalized commutation of dues into money rents, the cellular unity of political and economic oppression of the peasantry was gravely weakened, and threatened to become dissociated (the end of this road was "free labor" and the "wage contract"). The class power of the feudal lords was thus directly at stake with the gradual disappearance of serfdom. The result was a displacement of politico-legal coercion upwards towards a centralized, militarized summit—the Absolutist State. Diluted at village level, it became concentrated at "national" level.14

Yet while Anderson argues that the absolutist state reorganized the conditions of feudal class rule, he does not hold that it was in any simple sense the instrument of the landowning classes. For one thing, the whole process was overdetermined by the interests of the mercantile bourgeoisie.15 For another, political centralization was achieved at the expense of baronial power, beginning with Henry VII's "primitive accumulation" of state power after the Wars of the Roses.16 The emergence of absolutism thus dislocated the structural conditions of feudal rule; insofar as it protected the economic interests of the landlord class, it did so by drastically reducing their independent political authority. By de- and reterritorializing the parcelized sovereignty of feudalism, the absolutist state dissolved its own concrete implication in a structure of pyramidized dependency in order to represent the ruling groups. "The sovereign commanded authority not as the person residing at the apex of the hierarchy," John E. Martin notes, "but as the detached symbolic representative of the unity of the landlord class."17 The state thereby achieved a relative autonomy with respect to the class it represented and could claim to act in the interests of the nation as a whole.

The relations between state and church in the early Tudor period—of central importance to Skelton's career—were largely determined by absolutism's rearticulation of class rule, for the church represented a significant fraction of the landlord class. It owned about one-ihird of the land in England, enjoyed a jurisdiction at least partially independent of the king's law, and exercised an especially rigorous, conservative, and tenacious form of feudal land-ownership.18 The crown viewed the church as at once a desired source of wealth, an impediment to political centralization, and even a potential source of sedition (aristocratic families often furnished monastic leaders). The Dissolution was therefore prompted by political as well as economic considerations.19 Even before the Dissolution, however, the Tudors made significant efforts to restrict the independent jurisdiction of the church, for the most part by attacking sanctuary rights. The privilege of sanctuary was "purely secular and jurisdictional," according to Isabel Thornley, that is to say, purely an effect of the church's political authority as feudal landowner, "but long before the Tudor period had opened, circumstances had given it a false ecclesiastical cover," and this enabled the church to retain its protective jurisdiction after similar rights had already been taken from lay persons.20 Sanctuary was both a symbolic and a real affront to royal jurisdiction, and one that could be exploited for seditious purposes.

Significantly, Henry VII's first major assault on the sanctuary privilege was designed to suppress a threat of political revolt. In 1486 when the Yorkist Thomas Stafford was dragged from sanctuary and taken to the Tower, the King's Bench ruled that "sanctuary was a common-law matter in which the Pope could not interfere … and that the privilege did not cover treasonable offenses."21 As Henry VIII's lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey continued this assault on church privilege by dissolving some monasteries and further restricting rights of sanctuary.

For all privileged places
He brekes and defaces,
All placis of relygion
He hathe them in derisyon.

So wrote Skelton in Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? (1522). If the jurisdictional privilege represented by sanctuary was, in one sense, indistinguishable from secular forms of par celized sovereignty, its "false ecclesiastical covering" nevertheless imparted a significant ideological difference, for sanctuary was not perceived as just another expression of feudal landownership. It was, rather, invested with a sacred character, and its inviolability was thus hedged about with the massive ideological resources of the medieval church. It is largely for this reason that sanctuary outlived secular forms of independent jurisdiction. Indeed, I think it is fair to view sanctuary as the ideological paradigm for such jurisdiction, and thus to say that the distinction between "sacred" and "profane" ground provided an ideological undergirding for the entire feudal system of parcelized sovereignties. This is why attacks on sanctuary were of political as well as cultural or religious significance, and why the early Tudor state directed such considerable energies toward incorporating the church in its jurisdiction.

The traditional account of Skelton's life and career places him in a simple and unitary relation to this process: as a vigorous, life-long opponent. According to this account, Skelton was for most of his career a client of the Howard family. They in turn belonged to a group of conservative lords opposed to Wolsey, whom they blamed for the execution in 1521 of Edward Stafford, third duke of Buckingham and a relative by marriage of the Howards.22 The anti-Wolsey satires, in this view, grew in part from the patronage of a group of powerful northern lords frustrated by the loss of influence over the king and angered by the death of an ally on possibly trumped-up charges of treason. If this version is correct, Skelton would be in the employ of powerful victims of Tudor centralization. At the same time, he was a priest, whose work was deeply influenced by Christian liturgy and belief, and he therefore felt a more purely personal and religious objection to Wolsey's attacks on church privilege.23 The anti-Wolsey satires were all prompted in part by Wolsey's dissolution of some monasteries in 1521. They were, moreover, written from the confines of the Abbey at Westminster, where Skelton had lived since 1518 and where he enjoyed the relative protection of sanctuary.24 By combining political loyalty to a group of aggrieved feudal lords with personal dependence on and fervent religious belief in the church's rights of sanctuary, Skelton allied himself in every conceivable fashion with the conservative forces fighting the consolidation of absolutist rule.

Recently, however, this portrait of Skelton has been subjected to a devastating revisionist critique by Greg Walker. He finds no evidence for a Howard-Wolsey feud in the 1520s; on the contrary, the Howards seem to have been loyal and happy supporters of Wolsey's handling of crown policy. Further, the theory that they were patrons of Skelton is based on spurious suppositions and misdatings of poems.25 There is reason to doubt the sincerity of Skelton's religious convictions as well, for he clearly viewed his move to a rectory at Diss in Norfolk as a calamitous falling off from his earlier position at court, where he had served as a Latin tutor to the young Prince Henry. When Henry ascended the throne, Skelton sent his former pupil a desperate letter describing himself as "a man utterly doomed to oblivion and, so to say, dead in his heart" and then compared his exile to Ovid's.26 In any case, he aban doned Diss forever at his earliest opportunity and never resumed his priestly duties.27 The notion that the anti-Wolsey satires were prompted by sincere outrage is challenged by the reversal in 1523, when Skelton turned around and wrote not only on behalf of Wolsey but in apparent collaboration with him.28 "He seems to have swiftly considered the advantages to be gained from aligning himself with his erstwhile target," writes Walker, "compared them with the less certain gains to be won by continuing his wooing of patronage from the city [of London], and promptly thrown in his lot with Wolsey."29

In place of the conservative and somewhat romantic image of Skelton as defender of church and nobility Walker offers a rather less flattering image of the poet as a self-serving mercenary whose rise was inhibited by misjudgments and ineptitude. He makes a largely compelling case for viewing the satires not as expressions of prophetic wrath but as a search for patronage and advancement, first from the king and then, failing that, from among the prosperous and disaffected citizens of London. This Skelton is neither a sworn enemy of absolutism nor a reliable defender of it but someone who is ready to profit from it if given the chance.

Walker successfully destroys many of the historical assumptions that underlie the traditional view of Skelton, but his own version isn't quite coherent either. He argues, for instance, that Speke Parott attempts to profit from apparent tensions between Henry and Wolsey in order to secure royal patronage.30 Yet if this is the case, how does one explain lines such as "Bo-ho [Henry] doth bark wel, Hough-ho [Wolsey] he rulyth the ring" (130)? Even someone as eccentric as Skelton couldn't possibly expect to please the king with language like this. It also seems likely that Skelton's ultimate reconciliation (or cooperation) with Wolsey was at least partly determined by ideological commitments as well as by considerations of personal gain, for his poetic assignments on Wolsey's behalf involved writing satires against foreign invasion (Skelton was, if nothing else, a sincere xenophobe) and religious heresy. A residue of the "old" Skelton thus persists despite attempts to banish him. The fact is that no fully coherent or unified account of his career is possible. Skelton is neither the conservative prophet nor the self-serving courtier, neither the consistent opponent nor the consistent parasite of the Tudor court, but someone who oscillates erratically between these positions, and whose career is therefore full of strange folds and detours. His poetry is obsessed with the changes in the late feudal polity wrought by absolutism, but his reactions to them are shifting and contradictory. Skelton's historical significance can be read primarily through his internal divisions and fissures if he is understood as a kind of relay or switching station through which conflicting social energies are routed.

Ware the Hawk was composed while Skelton was rector at Diss, presumably around the time he wrote Phyllyp Sparowe (1505?). This period witnessed Skelton's peculiar and somewhat inexplicable "break" with the conventional formulas of late medieval lyric. The poem, which exemplifies the beginnings of Skelton's distinctive poetics, describes and denounces the actions of a neighboring priest who becomes so involved in his hawking that he pursues his prey right into Skelton's church. There the hawks tear a pigeon apart on the holy altar and defecate on the communion cloth, while the priest himself overturns the offering box, cross, and lectern. The poem vents its rage at the desecration of holy places, flinging both crude and pedantic insults at the offending priest.

Ware the Hawk directs its anger at an act of profanation which it understands primarily as the violation of a boundary or territory; it condemns those who

Skelton's church is, of course, the literal as well as the metaphorical "ground" of faith; the hawking priest offends not only because he has intruded on divine territory but because he has intruded on Skelton's territory. "For sure he wrought amys / To hawke in my church of Dys" (41-42, my emphasis). I do not wish to suggest that the concept of the holy place merely expresses property rights, either for Skelton or in general. But the sanctity of the medieval church, which was articulated within the feudal structure of parceled sovereignty, represents Skelton's primary experience of this structure. Certainly the violation of the church's boundaries in Ware the Hawk seems to threaten its sovereignty:

Or els is thys Goddis law,


Thus within the wals
Of holy church to deale,
Thus to ryng a peale
Wyth his hawkys bels?
Dowtles such losels
Make the churche to be
In smale auctoryte.

For Skelton, the whole hierarchical taxonomy of late medieval culture is interwritten with the church's territorial sanctity. When this is broken, all other structures collapse like a house of cards.31

These objections are not particularly novel in themselves. The interest of Skelton's poem arises from its formal reaction to the trespass, for Ware the Hawk responds to the violation of a politico-religious territory by subjecting itself to a strict rhetorical territoriality. The poem is meticulously constructed according to what Stanley Fish aptly calls the "machinery of the artes praedicandi." After a formal exordium (prologus), "the text is punctuated by eight hortatory exclamations (Observate, Deliberate, Vigilate, Deplorate, Divinitate—probably for DivinateReformate, and Pensitate) which correspond to the development of the thema as taught in the manuals."32 The conspicuous rhetorical formalism of the poem clearly represents a kind of reaction formation to the disturbance of the church's boundaries; the anarchic trajectory of the hawk finds its answering principle in an exaggerated reterritorialization by the poet, thus producing a striking—and, for Skelton, characteristic—cohesion between political and rhetorical topographies. This coincidence of spaces produces brilliant formal effects in Phyllyp Sparowe and offers the privileged means by which Skelton transcodes history into literature.

But an additional element transforms the nature of the poem's process. Stanley Fish describes Ware the Hawk as "a burlesque in the Chaucerian tradition." Both the incident itself and Skelton's indignation, Fish argues, are ironized; despite its obsessive formalism, the poem's rhetoric constantly undercuts itself, thereby dissolving the seriousness of the priest's offense.33Ware the Hawk may not be as thoroughly ironic as that, but a festive excess of rhetoric certainly renders the poem and its defensive reterritorialization highly ambivalent. A gay destructiveness delights in the violation of boundaries and in the consequent evaporation of the authority constituted by them. At least part of Skelton's imagination both enjoys and extends the profanities committed by the neighboring priest, who, the poet claims,

The pleasurable onomatopoeia of "dowves donge downe" exemplifies the festive counterlogic of Ware the Hawk, which can enjoy polluting even that final cultural territory, the space of the blessed sacrament. The poem's very title, which seems at first to mean "beware the hawk" and thus to make a defensive or warning gesture, was actually "a proverbial cry used to encourage the hawk to obtain its prey."34 It is as if Skelton had marshaled the forces of rhetorical territoriality in a mock-defensive gesture, the better to overthrow all boundaries in one totalizing motion….

Speke Parott and the Delegation of Speech

Speke Parott, the first of Skelton's anti-Wolsey satires, does go considerably farther than Phyllyp Sparowe in maintaining a quarrel with state authority. Written in 1521, when Skelton was already residing in sanctuary at Westminster, Speke Parott both develops and dramatically revises the poetics of Phyllyp Sparowe. A bird is once again the center of attention, but this bird is very much alive—immortal, in fact—and is no longer merely the subject but the speaker of the poem:

My name ys Parott, a byrde of Paradyse,
By Nature devysed of a wonderowus kynde,
Deyntely dyetyd with dyvers delycate spyce,
Tyll Eufrates, that flodde, dryvythe me into Ynde,
Where men of that contre by fortune me fynde,
And send me to greate ladyes of estate;
Then Parot moste have an almon or a date.
A cage curyowsly carven, with sylver pynne,
Properly payntyd to be my coverture;
A myrrour of glasse, that I may tote therin;
These maydens full meryly with many a dyvers flowur
Fresshely they dresse and make swete my bowur,
With "Speke, Parott, I pray yow," full curteslye they sey,
"Parott ys a goodlye byrde and a pratye popagay."

Wythe my beke bente, and my lytell wanton iye,
My fethyrs fresshe as ys the emerawde grene,
Abowte my necke a cerculett lyke the ryche rubye,
My lytell legges, my fete both fete and clene,
I am a mynyon to wayte apon a quene;
"My propyr Parott, my lytell pratye fole."
With ladyes I lerne and goe with them to scole.

With his "lytell wanton iye," Parott is clearly a ladies' bird, just as Phyllyp Sparowe was.53 One of the literary models for Speke Parott is the Epistres de l'amant verd by Jean Lemaire de Belges, a series of despairingly erotic letters from a pet parrot to his departing mistress. Yet even from these opening lines it is clear that Skelton's Parott, unlike Lemaire's, is primarily autoerotic. He lovingly enumerates his own body parts, "totes" in his mirror, and seems to value the ladies of the court mostly because they make much of him. Parott thus appropriates not only speech but sexuality as well; in his disturbing autonomy he is like a strange hybrid of Phyllyp and Jane.54 Parott's sexuality is not entirely innocent, however, and his is given to knowing, phallic innuendo.55

Not only sexually but more generally, Speke Parott may be said to rewrite Phyllyp Sparowe into a song of experience. Parott has fallen from Paradise, "that place of pleasure perdurable" (186), which may in part be identified with Phyllyp Sparowe's realm of "rien que playsere." Parott is a polyglot who both embodies and masters the curse of Babel. "Yn Latyn, in Ebrue, and in Caldee, /In Greke tong Parott can bothe speke and sey" (25-26)—as well as in French, Spanish, Dutch, and several English dialects. And he employs this multilingualism together with dense layers of figure to protect himself in the dangerous world of court:

But of that supposicyon that callyd is arte,
Confuse distrybutyve, as Parrot hath devysed,
Let every man after his merit take his parte;
For in this processe, Parrot nothing hath surmysed,
No matter pretendyd, nor nothyng enterprysed,
But that metaphora, alegoria withall,
Shall be his protectyon, his pavys [shield] and his wall.

But allegory is not the only means of defense on which the poem relies. A. C. Spearing has suggested that Parott's cage may represent the confinement and relative safety of the sanctuary of Westminster.56 I say "relative safety" because one of the poem's satirical targets is Wolsey's assaults on sanctuary rights: "So myche sayntuary brekyng, and prevylegidde barryd—/ Syns Dewcalyons flodde was nevyr sene nor lyerd."57 In every way, the world of Speke Parott is therefore more dangerous, covert, and sinister than that of Phyllyp Sparowe, and accordingly, Parott is a cannier type of bird.

In its rambling course, Speke Parott criticizes numerous evils in the early Tudor polity, for almost all of which it blames Thomas Cardinal Wolsey. As Greg Walker has observed, Skelton's satires almost entirely abjure social analysis in favor of ad hominem attacks58 against a man who seemed to embody in his person the entire machinery of the Tudor state. Nor was Skelton alone in this perception. The Venetian ambassador Sebastian Giustiani described Wolsey as a man "of vast ability and indefatigable. He alone transacts the same business as that which occupies all the magistracies, offices and councils of Venice, both civil and criminal, and all state affairs are likewise handled by him let their nature be what it may."59 Even more than Henry VIII, Wolsey represented the concentration of administrative and jurisdictional power carried out by early absolutism. Not only did he run most of the governmental apparatus as lord chancellor, but in 1518 he was granted vast ecclesiastical powers when he was named papal legate a latere. Wolsey used his new authority to reorganize and interfere with the government of every diocese, "appointing his own protégés, regardless of the rights of patrons, and setfting] up legatine courts to which he summoned men from all over England,"60 in addition to dissolving monasteries and attempting to curtail rights of sanctuary. By centralizing diocesan government and subjecting it to the interests of the crown, Wolsey helped prepare the way for the Tudor state's more formal rule of the church. It is Wolsey, far more than Henry, who embodies for Skelton the centralizing force of early Tudor absolutism.

Superficially, Speke Parott seems to react to Wolsey as Phyllyp Sparowe reacted to its own despotic signifiers: by de- and reterritorializing into autonomous parcels. Parott even devises a name for this poetic mode—"confuse distrybutyve" (198)—and describes the recombinatory method that produces it:

Suche shredis of sentence, strowed in the shop
Of auncyent Aristippus and such other mo,
I gader togyther and close in my crop,
Of my wanton conseyt, unde depromoDilemata docta in pedagogieSacro vatum,61 whereof to you I breke;
I pray you, let Parot have lyberte to speke.

Parott's "wanton conseyt" works according to the mechanisms of poetic imagination I described in Chapter 1, atomizing and scrambling received texts so as to decode them ideologically. The poem thus registers a tension between Parott's role as a conscious and unified speaker who is an apparent source of speech and his position as mere relay or switching station in an uncontrolled and seemingly random field of language-flows. The figure of the parrot, a bird who memorizes "scraps of sentence" and repeats them unexpectedly, offers a striking image for the decontextualizing labor of poetic imagination. The more speech that is fed into Parott, the more uncanny and disconcerting he becomes: "Thus dyvers of language by lernyng I grow." Unlike those of Phyllyp Sparowe, the textual fragments shuttled through Speke Parott are not even subjected to the constraints of a consistent poetic voice or persona; Parott shifts abruptly between languages and dialects, like a tape recorder gone mad:

Ulula, Esebon, for Jeromy doth wepe!
Sion is in sadness, Rachell ruly doth loke;
Midionita Jetro, our Moyses kepyth his shepe;
Gedeon is gon, that Zalmane undertoke,
Oreb et Zeb, of Judicum rede the boke.
Now Geball, Amon and Amaloch—"Harke, harke,
Parrot pretendith to be a bybyll clarke!"

Yet the slippery, obscure, and seemingly aleatory surface of the poem conceals a dense allegorical coherence. While "some folys say ye arre furnysshyd with knakkes, / That hang togedyr as fethyrs in the wynde" (292-93), they lack the learning to construe the poem's message—so says the first of the envoys that Skelton attached to Speke Parott in an attempt to explain it to an uncomprehending audience.62 Recent commentators have unveiled most of the poem's linguistic, scriptural, and allegorical mysteries and found a coherent, detailed attack on Cardinal Wolsey. Once interpreted, the poem reveals not incoherence but, if anything, a hypercoherence verging on paranoia that traces almost all of England's social, political, and religious disorders back to this one source. It is around the cardinal as fetishized signifier that all the poem's allegorical codes crystallize and congeal, thus establishing a stark dialectic between de- and reterritorialization. What Phyllyp Sparowe distributed between two parts of the poem Speke Parott enacts simultaneously, at once flying apart to avoid capture and recomposing itself to direct all its obsessive force at a single target.

The formal and linguistic strategies of Speke Parott, though they owe more than a little to some of Skelton's earlier works, are both honed and transformed by the poet's engagement with real political authority. Wolsey, in fact, confronts Skelton with a very specific model for the relation between language and power: that of delegation, the transfer of juridical or administrative authority by means of speech or language. Wolsey had recently become the recipient of two different forms of delegated power. Having already been appointed papal legate in 1518, he was then sent by King Henry to Calais for a series of diplomatic negotiations in the fall of 1521. Wolsey's ostensible purpose was to mediate between French and imperial forces in order to avoid a war into which England would be drawn by treaty, but his real purpose was to arrange a secret agreement with the imperial delegates for a combined assault on France. In any case, Wolsey brought the Great Seal of England with him to Calais as a sign of his plenipotentiary powers—an event of some symbolic importance.63

Delegation is itself a complex symbolic act in that the delegate becomes an actual bearer of authority but only by representing or standing in for the delegating power. Paradoxically, the act of delegation can grant a certain autonomy if delegates are asked to exercise their own judgment; yet ultimately their decisions must all serve the interests of another, so that they are at once both actant and symbol. Delegation as speech act, the sending forth of the delegate to act on behalf of another, is a real linguistic transfer or exchange of power but one that is bounded by the relation of representing or signifying. It serves as a linguistic conduit for centralized power, allowing it to extend its operations and jurisdiction over a wide territorial field. Delegation is therefore a characteristic mode of propagating authority within despotic, absolutist, or bureaucratic states.

That Wolsey tended to drive the tensions or complexities of delegation into open contradiction was, I think, part of his fascination for Skelton. Wolsey accumulated enormous jurisdictional and administrative authority in the course of his various duties, and if this allowed him to carry out the will of his superiors more fully, it also threatened to destabilize or overturn the relations of power that bound him to them. England's papal legate was well known to covet the papacy himself and had already engaged in unsuccessful machinations to attain it. "Hyt ys to fere leste he wolde were the garland on hys pate," warns Parott. As to secular power, the Venetian ambassador observed that "the Cardinal, for authority, may in point of fact be styled ipse rex,"64 and Speke Parott likewise warns Henry that his indulgence allows Wolsey to "rule the ring." Skelton apparently took advantage of some tensions that developed between king and lord chancellor during the course of the Calais negotiations to launch his satire, though in the end he misread both these and the true nature of Wolsey's mission.65Speke Parott thus finds an opening for satire in the assumption that Wolsey has arrogated so much power that he betrays his diplomatic tasks.

It is in relation to Wolsey's position as unreliable or usurping delegate, I believe, that the persona of Parott takes on his full satirical force. Parrots, of course, are known for repeating only what their masters teach them. Incapable of independent thought, they can only mimic the words of others, and they thus represent a simple and absolute relation between language and authority. The parrot is pure linguistic instrument, subject to another, without understanding, unable to argue back. "Speke Parott," the phrase that titles Skelton's poem, suggests an absolutist brand of linguistic delegation which determines both the moment and the content of speech. Accordingly, Parott can be a shameless flatterer of authority:

In Englysshe to God Parott can supple:
"Cryste save Kyng Herry the viiith, owur royall kyng,
The red rose in honour to flowrysshe and sprynge!"

"With Kateryne incomporabyll, owur royall quene also,
That pereles pomegarnat, Cryste save her nobyll grace!"

In one sense, then, Parott's role is to debase or degrade Wolsey's position as delegate. Skelton's satire relies on an implicit parallel between Parott's position as poetic persona, speaking only the words that his creator supplies, and the lord chancellor's role as mere instrument or tool of royal policy: "A narrow unfethered and without an hed, / A bagpype without blowynge standeth in no sted." In one sense the arrow is Wolsey, whose flight has taken him from England to Calais, and Skelton reminds him that without his "head" (Henry) and "feathers" (presumably, diplomatic finery and status), the lord chancellor is useless and impotent.66 But this image also figures Skelton's poem as satirical arrow, with its feathered persona and guiding poetical author or "head." However much he may plume himself on his borrowed authority, Skelton suggests, Wolsey is just a trained bird, provided with a few phrases to utter on behalf of another. Like Parott, Wolsey is only a vain and lascivious "popagay."

The notion of parroting, incidentally, connects the satire of Wolsey with another, apparently unrelated part of the poem: Skelton's attack on humanist methods of language instruction. Wolsey was known to have sponsored the "Greeks" at Oxford, and this in itself was sufficient provocation for Skelton's attack.67 But what Speke Parott objects to more specifically is humanism's divorce of speech from content or "matter" and hence from understanding. The child who can say "'Aveto' in Greco, and such solempne salutacyons," yet "Can skantly the tensis of his conjugacyons" seems uncomfortably like a parrot who can repeat phrases without knowing what they mean or how to use them. Skelton regarded humanist education as a degrading form of linguistic delegation producing servile and ignorant speakers, a reflection of its hated patron.

If the parrot symbolized a flattering and obedient form of imitation, however, another and somewhat contradictory tradition viewed it as a wanton, mischievous, or satirical speaker, "roughly comparable to the court jester who offers garbled scraps of wisdom in snatches of foreign tongues, an outspoken revealer of confidences, indulged because he is not responsible for his sometimes telling juxtaposition of random phrases."68 The seemingly mechanical repetition of speech which makes parrots seem so subservient from one perspective can also make them appear uncanny or disturbing from another. Maybe they really are independent intellects whose phrases aren't random. In mimicking us, do they mock us? Skelton's articulate Parott raises just this doubt; he derives more than a little of his satirical energy from his ability to twist and garble various kinds of speech, thus rendering them either strange or risible. Parott embodies repetition as alienation, where it gives birth to the illusion of a weirdly autonomous mind. Parott is "wanton"; he demands "lyberty to speke" and thus appropriates a power that was seemingly only lent to him. In this, of course, he also represents Wolsey, another mouthpiece or verbal instrument who (Skelton thinks) has gotten out of hand. Like Parott, Wolsey is a delegated speaker who mysteriously becomes a source of speech and authority.

Through its feathered persona, Speke Parott adopts a complex and contradictory stance toward linguistic delegation. In some respects the poem enacts a kind of latent pun on the word: it "delegalizes" speech, not only by investing it with unofficial or seditious meanings but, more fundamentally, by collapsing the law of speech, by disarticulating or decoding those linguistic structures that make language a reliable conduit for the transmission of authority. Here Parott plays his crucial role as a language machine run amok, switching suddenly from shrewdness to frenzy, from wisdom to foolery, shuttling textual fragments and lingusitic flows in unpredictable directions, oscillating unexpectedly between communication and mechanical sound production. Parott dislocates the speaking subject, referring to himself by name and in the third person, as if he were elsewhere, not in this voice that emerges from his body. Parott, in fact, does for language what Jane Scrope does for sexuality, snatching it from the stroke of a despotic signifier.

But Speke Parott is not Phyllyp Sparowe, and thus while it traces lines of flight from power it also tries to mount a counterattack by harnessing the force of delegation for its own purposes. If Greg Walker's reading of the poem is accepted—and I think it should be, at least in part—then Speke Parott is Skelton's attempt to regain royal favor by exploiting what he thought to be Henry's serious dissatisfactions with Wolsey's diplomatic efforts. The poem is thus an unsolicited barb loosed on Henry's "behalf" and a proleptic resumption of Skelton's post as orator regius, the title by which he identifies himself at the poem's end. The second envoy, dated three days after Henry sent a letter recalling Wolsey from Calais, rejoices over the apparent failure of the lord chancellor's mission, and contrasts what it takes to be Skelton's new poetic delegation with Wolsey's failed diplomatic one:

Passe forthe, Parotte, towardes some passengere;
Require hym to convey yow ovyr the salte fome;
Addressyng your selfe, lyke a sadde messengere,
To owur soleyne Seigneour Sadoke, desire hym to cum home,
Makyng hys pylgrimage by Nostre Dame de Crome:
For Jerico and Jerssey shall mete togethyr as sone
As he to exployte the man owte of the mone.

Skelton's poetic missive steps in for Henry's letter recalling the failed and wayward ambassador; just as Parott is sent to speak for his author, so Skelton believes himself now to be speaking for the king. The only problem with this royal delegation is that it was entirely fictive, an autodelegation. Relying on gossip and rumor, Skelton was uninformed of Wolsey's real mission at Calais and was apparently taken by surprise when the king welcomed and thanked the returning lord chancellor.69 Ironically, then, it was Skelton, not Wolsey, who abused the power of delegation by appropriating royal powers of speech while only posing as the representative of authority. If he thought Wolsey capable of almost magical powers of usurpation, mightn't this be in part because his own career was based on the usurpation of titles, those of poet laureate and king's orator?

At the same time that Skelton puts his pretended authority as orator regius up against the secular power of the lord chancellor, however, he also invokes a second, prophetic delegation with which to berate the worldly cardinal. The poem's prophetic voice and vocation emerge most clearly in the final envoy, where a complaint against contemporary abuses is joined to an implicit threat of divine retribution:

So many thevys hangyd, and thevys neverthelesse;
So myche presonment, for matyrs not worth a hawe;
So myche papers werying for ryghte a smalle exesse;
So myche pelory pajauntes undyr colowur of good lawe;
So myche towrnyng on the cooke-stole for every guy-gaw;
So myche mokkyshe makyng of statutes of array—
Syns Dewcalyons flodde was nevyr, I dar sey.


So many trusys takyn, and so lytyll perfyte trowthe;
So myche bely-joye, and so wastefull banketyng;
So pynchyng and sparyng, and so lytell profyte growth;
So many howgye howsys byldyng, and so small howse-holdyng;
Such statutes apon diettes, suche pyllyng and pollyng—


So many vacabondes, so many beggers bolde,
So myche decay of monesteries and relygious places;
So hote hatered agaynste the Chyrche, and cheryte so colde;
So myche of my lordes grace, and in hym no grace ys;
So many holow hartes, and so dowbyll faces;
So myche sayntuary brekyng, and prevylegidde barryd—
Syns Dewcalyons flodde was nevyr sene nor lyerd.
(477-83, 491-95, 498-504)

Skelton's jeremiad nicely balances a sense of social dissolution with an awareness of the increasing centralization and severity of royal power, so that his depicted polity is at once anarchic and totalitarian. If only empirically, he manages to grasp the dynamic of primitive accumulation. But this contradictory state is also that of his poem and its two delegations. For as orator regius, Skelton attempts to recall the aberrant and excessive Wolsey in the name of the king, and thus to restore the political order of the kingdom. From this perspective Henry is viewed as a "mercyfull" ruler, the embodiment of a feudal or limited monarchy, and emergent absolutism is mistakenly regarded as the product of a renegade lord chancellor. As prophet, however, Skelton stands apart from all political authority. Now he seems to promise not the restoration of a lost order but the loss of all order, for "Dewcalyons flodde" suggests a divine punishment that would both complete and literalize the dissolution of the late feudal polity.

The de- and recoding operations of Skelton's later poetics are thus tied to two incompatible concepts of poetic delegation, explaining, I think, the sometimes contradictory stance of Speke Parott, which seems on the whole to criticize Wolsey on behalf of the king, yet sometimes inexplicably attacks Henry as well. As papal legate and lord chancellor Wolsey was able to effect a preliminary subordination of church to state, and this double role was reflected in an unacceptably "worldly" manner. Skelton, by contrast, endures an unstable alternation between his delegated roles, and this constitutes his divided experience of early absolutism. Ironically, however, his most fully elaborated statement on the prophetic nature of poetry occurs in his final work, "A Replycacion" (1528), written on behalf of the formerly reviled Wolsey, whom it fulsomely praises. This final turn of Skelton's career has proven to be a puzzling one, at least to those who thought that Skelton had fought a principled and even dangerous battle against the lord chancellor. It certainly suggests a mercenary or at least an opportunistic side to his character. This development is foreshadowed, however, by Skelton's own poetical birds, all of whom have undergone some degree of taming. Even the irascible Parott "must have an almon or a date" and probably isn't too choosy about where he gets it. Yet it is also unfair to privilege "A Replycacion" just because it was Skelton's last poem. Had he lived, the poet might well have turned wild once more and bitten the hand that fed him.


1Merrie Tales … by Master John Skelton (1567), in Shakespeare Jest-Books, ed. W. Carew Hazlitt (1864; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, [196?]), 2:1-36.

2 In a letter to Allan Cunningham, 23 November 1823, quoted by Arthur B. Kinney in John Skelton, Priest as Poet: Seasons of Discovery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 206.

3 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 143.

4 In a fine discussion of Skelton's place in literary history, A. C. Spearing maintains that "Skelton is the only English poet … [of his age who] wants something more than to be Chaucer" and that this larger desire paradoxically enables him to develop Chaucer's work. Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 234. For an argument that the dullness of fifteenth-century poetry was a consciously adopted literary and political strategy, see David Lawton, "Dulness and the Fifteenth Century," ELH 54 (1987), 761-99.

5 For a description of the Grammarians' War see William Nelson, John Skelton. Laureate (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), pp. 148-58.

6 All quotations of Skelton's poetry are taken from John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, ed. John Scattergood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

7 Greg Walker, John Skelton and the Politics of the 1520s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 48.

8 Ian A. Gordon, John Skelton: Poet Laureate (Melbourne, Aus.: Melbourne University Press, 1943), pp. 9, 45.

9 Stanley Fish, John Skelton's Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), p. 249.

10 Spearing, Medieval to Renaissance, pp. 229, 265. Spearing's very suggestive reading of the transition from medieval to Renaissance poetics is based on a similar structure of anticipation. Briefly, Spearing argues that Chaucer really became the first "Renaissance" poet as a result of influences he picked up on his travels to Italy. His English successors then re-medievalized what they found in Chaucer, so that the literary history of the fifteenth century progresses, in a sense, backward.

11 F. L. Brownlow, "The Boke of Phyllyp Sparowe and the Liturgy," English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979), 5-20; Kinney, John Skelton.

12 Walker, John Skelton.

13 See Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1974), pp. 15-17.

14 Ibid., p. 19.

15 Ibid., pp. 20-24.

16 Ibid., p. 119.

17 John E. Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism: Peasant and Landlord in English Agrarian Development (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983), p. 109.

18 "In England the religious foundations made extensive use of labourrent and demesne production, they tended to persist with labour-services longer, to manage their estates more carefully and to supervise production more thoroughly, and to defend their rights of labour-service more tenaciously, than any other type of feudal landlord." Barry Hindess and Paul Q. Hirst, Pre-capitalist Modes of Production (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 253. Also see G. R. Elton, England under the Tudors (2d ed.; London: Methuen, 1974), p. 103.

19 J. Thomas Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose: Monks, Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977), p. 3.

20 Isabel D. Thornley, "The Destruction of Sanctuary," in R. W. Seton-Watson, ed., Tudor Studies (London: Longmans, 1924), pp. 183-84.

21 Elton, England under the Tudors, pp. 21-22.

22 Walker, John Skelton, p. 5.

23 Kinney, in particular, argues this line (John Skelton).

24 Walker, John Skelton. p. 88

25 Ibid., chap. 1.

26 Ibid., p. 42.

37 Ibid., p. 151.

28 Ibid., chap. 6.

29 Ibid., p. 190.

30 Ibid., pp. 53-100.


The Gospels, vessels and vestments, a hawk with its bells and unreasoning animals and other such things are all the same to you. (Scattergood trans.)

32 Fish, Skelton's Poetry, p. 89.

33 Ibid., pp. 89-98.

34 Kinney, John Skelton. p. 83.

35 53 Cf. Phyllyp Sparowe 182: "With his wanton eye."

54 Compare Phyllyp Sparowe 175-76—"Phyllyp had leve to go / To pyke my lytell too"—with Speke Parolt 107—"With my beke I can pyke my lyttel praty too."

55 See Fish, Skelton's Poetry, p. 146; and F. L. Brownlow, "The Boke Compiled by Maister Skelton, Poet Laureate, Called Speake Parrot," English Literary Renaissance 1 (1971), 21.

56 Spearing, Medieval to Renaissance, p. 269.

57 Cf. also 124-25: "And assilum. whilom refugium miserorum, / Non phanum, sed prophanum, standyth in lytyll sted [And asylum, formerly the refuge of wretches, is not a sanctuary but is to be made secular]" (Scattergood trans).

58 Walker, John Skelton. pp. 85-86, 132.

59 Sebastian Giustiani, quoted ibid., p. 162.

60 Kinney, John Skelton. pp. 133-34.

61 "Whence I bring forth arguments in a sacred school of poets" (Scattergood trans).

62 Walker, John Skelton, p. 91, says that the poem's obscurities baffled its original readers.

63 Ibid., pp. 79-80.

64 Quoted ibid., p. 173.

65 Ibid., pp. 73-78, 80-89.

66 The headless arrow also has another, more specific reference During the negotiations at Calais the emperor Charles asked Henry to send six thousand English archers in fulfillment of his treaty obligations. Henry and Wolsey disagreed over whether the archers should be sent at all while the negotiations were still proceeding, and they then quarreled bitterly over who should "head" them. See J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 86. The issue of the archers marked the first serious breach between Henry and his negotiator and raised the issue of which of the two was the other's "head." Thus I read the image of the arrow as referring both to the specific subject of the quarrel and to Wolsey in his role as delegate.

67 Nelson, John Skelton, p. 182.

68 Fish, Skelton's Poetry, p. 135.

69 Walker, John Skelton, p. 93.

Peter C. Herman (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Leaky Ladies and Droopy Dames: The Grotesque Realism of Skelton's The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge," in Rethinking the Henrician Era: Essays on Early Tudor Texts and Contexts, edited by Peter C. Herman, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 145-67.

[In the following essay, Herman deems Skelton's poem The Tunning of Elinor Rumming as grotesque realism and maintains that the action of the poem is best understood as a reversal of power relationships typical of the Tudor era.]

Despite John Skelton's consistent presence in modern anthologies of sixteenth-century literature, he occupies the margins of the canon rather than a central position.1 Erasmus's praise for Skelton's abilities notwithstanding, the majority of Skelton's contemporaries considered him more of an embarrassment than an adornment to English letters.2 Indeed, his antics were so bizarre that they became the subject of a jest book, making Skelton the only major poet, let alone priest, so honored. While he was alive, Skelton enjoyed a modicum of fame as the class clown of English literature, and after his death his already dubious reputation managed to plummet even further. Pope, for example, called the man "beastly," and as we shall see, few have dissented from this opinion. Skelton's ill repute among the elite did not prevent his works from enjoying a certain popularity in the Renaissance or his style (if not his life) from serving as a model for other writers; however, his work endured in spite of the disparagement of such influential tastemakers as George Puttenham, who found both the man and his works "ridiculous," and Sir Philip Sidney, who omits him altogether from the canon set out in his Apology for Poetry.3

Not insignificantly, critics have singled out Skelton's most popular work, The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge, as the prime target for abuse. In The Plaine Man 's Pathway to Heaven (1590), for example, the Elizabethan divine Arthur Dent linked "Ellen of Rumming" with other "vaine and frivolous bookes of Tales, lestes, and lies," which he dismissed as "so much trashe and rubbish."4 Nor do modern critics depart all that much from their Renaissance counterparts. John Berdan set the tone by describing Elynour Rummynge as "a poem rather notorious than known," and evidently most critics concur, which helps explain the rather amazing silence about this text.5 Susan Staub's "Recent Studies in Skelton (1970-1988)" does not contain even one article devoted to Elynour and her crew, and the rare critic who does grant the poem's existence6 usually does so only to condemn it. Like Berdan, C. S. Lewis calls the poem a "shapeless volley of rhymes," granting it a legitimate place in the canon but only barely so: "it works, but we cannot forget that art has much better cards in its hand."7 And Stanley E. Fish, doubtless for the first and last time, agrees with Lewis: The Tunning of Eleanor Rumming [sic] is a picture, a verbal painting—and designedly nothing more…. As one of the few really abstract poems in the language, Eleanor Rumming pleases (if it pleases at all) because of its virtuosity. One doesn't think about the poem, one only takes it in."8

The distaste, if not outright disgust, of both Renaissance and modern critics originates in the poem's unsparing physicality, especially its treatment of the female body. Lewis sums up the poem thus: "We have noisome details about Elinor's methods of brewing, and there are foul words, foul breath, and foul sights in plenty. The merit of the thing lies in its speed: guests are arriving hotfoot, ordering, quarrelling, succumbing to the liquor, every moment. We get a vivid impression of riotous bustle, chatter, and crazy disorder."9 The poem is meaningless and gross, meaningless because it is gross. Such Christian interpreters as Arthur F. Kinney and Robert D. Newman agree that the poem's treatment of the body is vile, but they try to rescue Elynour Rummynge by reading it as an orthodox condemnation of sin.10 Feminist critics also condemn the poem, but in place of a description of vice, a topers' Mass, or a mindless series of images, Elizabeth Fowler, Gail K. Paster, and Linda Woodbridge interpret Elynour Rummynge 's descriptions of the female body as a rehearsal of either clerical antifeminist satire or more generalized masculine fears of women meeting together.11

Now, to our sensibilities, Skelton's treatment of women does seem repulsive:12

Her lewde lyppes twayne,
They slaver, men sayne,
Lyke a ropy rayne,
A gummy glayre
She is ugly fayre:
Her nose somdele hoked
And camously croked,
Never stoppynge
But ever droppynge;
Her skynne lose and slacke,
Greuyned lyke a sacke;
With a croked backe.

Only a mother could love such a face. But how to interpret Elynour's ugliness remains less obvious than critics have assumed. On the one hand, Elynour's looks can be interpreted as sign of evil. Deborah Wyrick, for example, notes that Elynour's features correspond to "the archetype of the maleficus" Along these lines, Kinney also suggests that the poem describes a witch's sabbath that burlesques the Resurrection, the Crucifixion, and other church rituals.13

However, it is exactly Elynour's physical appearance that provides the key to a more sympathetic, more complex view of this work. Rather than interpreting Elynour's visage using the conventional standards of beauty or orthodox Christianity, I want to argue that Elynour's startling appearance begs to be interpreted through the lens of what Mikhail Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His World, terms "grotesque realism."14 In other words, instead of judging Skelton's representations of the female body as evidence of personal or cultural misogyny, I suggest we consider that he challenges conventional expectations by turning Elynour and her customers into vessels, albeit leaky ones, for the festive values of transgression, contestation, and inversion. The alehouse itself clearly constitutes a festive marketplace writ small, a delimited area where holiday license rules amid the noise and confusion. But at the same time, Skelton's text is far from monological, and just as one strand valorizes Elynour, another draws us away from unqualified sympathy with the denizens of the alehouse, making Elynour Rummynge a much more difficult, much more dialogical, to invoke another of Bakhtin's terms, work whose thematic range comprehends both gender and the nature of interpretation.15 However, we first need to locate Elynour Rummynge within the discourse of grotesque realism. Although the general outlines of Bakhtin's theories are by now quite familiar, I shall briefly rehearse his morphology, partially for the sake of clarity, but also because in recent years the linguistic Bakhtin has displaced the Bakhtin of Rabelais and His World.

Bakhtin defines carnival as "the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions." Not only suspension but also inversion of power relationships mark carnival: the woman rules the man, the student whips the teacher, the ass drives the man, the mouse chases the cat, and so on.16 Festive transgressions include the disruptions of physical as well as political or social boundaries, and the bodily images in Rabelais illustrate what Bakhtin calls "the concept of grotesque realism." Just as carnival challenges the social order, the grotesque body, Bakhtin writes, "is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits."17 More precisely, if one can be precise about something whose essence lies in mutability: "The grotesque body … is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body…. [I]t outgrows its own self, transgressing its won body." The classical body, on the other hand, is constructed in the opposite fashion. Where the grotesque body emphasizes and celebrates its porousness, "[a]ll orifices of the [classical] body are closed"; where perpetual flux marks the grotesque body, "[the classical body] presents an entirely finished, completed, strictly limited body." And where the ideology underlying the classical body privileges the upper body, the mind, the head, to the denigration of the lower strata (i.e., the genitalia and the anus), the grotesque body privileges "the material acts and eliminations of the body—eating, drinking, defecation, sexual life" because the body finds renewal in these activites. The grotesque foregrounds and exaggerates the anus and the phallus because dung is recycled as fertilizer, eating restores life, sex creates life, and so on. Consequently, the activities of the grotesque body center on the areas of "interchange." The classical body, on the other hand, is constructed as "opaque," denying and hiding the seepages that distinguish the grotesque body.

Bakhtin's theories of carnival and the grotesque have not gone unchallenged, and Peter Stallybrass's modifications are particularly relevant to my argument. Stallybrass rightly points out that even though Bakhtin concentrates on class, not gender, he nonetheless leaves himself open to be critiqued for not bothering to "gender" the body described above, for assuming that the ungendered body will of course be a male body.18 Stallybrass then argues that the distinction between the grotesque and the classical body very much concerns gender because of the widespread assumption that the female body is ipso facto grotesque, that "[i]t must be subjected to constant surveillance precisely because, as Bakhtin says of the grotesque body, it is 'unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.'"19 Now, both Bakhtin and Stallybrass focus on post-1530 texts, assuming that the cultural discourses they talk about come after the early Henrician era. Stallybrass, for example, cites Norbert Elias, who documents in The History of Manners the creations of new kinds of behavior that will go under the rubric of civilité. According to Elias, these developments will follow in the wake of Erasmus's De civilitate morum puerilium (1530; first published in English, 1531).20 In other words, critics appear to have assumed that Skelton predates the transformation of the body into a locus of class and gender conflict, thereby ruling out the possibility of analyzing his texts using the same theoretical paradigms. However, even though Bakhtin defeminizes, as it were, the grotesque body through his masculinist assumptions, his analysis contains two salient points. First, the tradition of grotesque realism vastly predates the 1530s, and Bakhtin cites many examples taken from late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Second, the earliest expression of this tradition uses the female body as its vehicle. Bakhtin found the principle of grotesque realism first embodied in the Kerch terracotta figurines of naked, laughing, senile hags. To understand the full complexity of Skelton's treatment of women, we need to recognize the validity of the misogynist traditions brought to bear by Kinney or Wyrick and to reinscribe these women back into the discourse of feminine grotesque realism that begins at least as far back as the Kerch terracottas, a discourse that for Skelton had not yet faded into obscurity.

The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge so perfectly fits Bakhtin's descriptions of grotesque realism that it seems as if Skelton magically used Rabelais and His World as a blueprint for his poem. The treatment of the body, says Bakhtin, constitutes the most important aspect of grotesque realism, and so let us begin there.

The proprietress of Skelton's imaginary tippling house establishes the standard that her customers will follow. As per Bakhtin's morphology, Elynour's body continuously overflows its limits. Her lips slaver, "lyke a ropy rayne," her nose never stops dripping, and her skin hangs loosely about her like a sack. Even though "her youth is farre past," yet she still "wyll jet, / Lyke a joyly fet" about the town in an ancient, threadbare coat, which is of course green, the color of life. And her brew so rejuvenates her and her mate that:

Ich am not cast away,
That can my husband say,
Whan we kys and play
In lust and in lyking.
He calleth me his whytyng,
His mullyng and his mytyng.

Like the Kerch terracottas that sparked Bakhtin's thinking, Elynour combines physical decrepitude with a sense of life, of renewal, and of joyful sexuality. As we have seen, her body refuses stability, various fluids (sweat, drool, nasal mucous) are perpetually seeping out of it and are reintroduced in the form of ale.

The bodies of Elynour's customers similarly refuse closure. Indeed, it seems that the abandonment of all corporeal boundaries acts as the price of admission into the tavern. The first group enters having thrown off the conventional means of restraining their breasts and their hair:

Some wenches come unlased,
Some huswyves come unbrased,
Wyth theyr naked pappes,
That flyppes and flappes
It wygges and it wagges
Lyke tawny saffron bagges.

Others arrive without "herelace, / Theyr lockes aboute theyr face / Theyr tresses untrust, / All full of unlust" or "Unbrased and unlast." Or if they come suitably reined in, upon entering this restraint quickly disappears:

There came an old rybybe;
She halted of a kybe,
And had broken her shyn
At the threshold comyng in,
And fell so wyde open
That one might see her token.

Nearly all are so ugly that they scarcely seem human. One Maude Ruggy "was ugly hypped, / And ugly thycke-lypped / Lyke an onyon syded, / Lyke tan ledder hyded." Another anonymous patron has a neck "lyke an olyfant; / It was a bullyfant, / A gredy cormerant." Margery Mylkeducke tucks her kirtel about an inch above her knee, so that:

Her legges that ye might se;
But they were sturdy and stubbed,
Myghty pestels and clubbed
As fayre and as whyte
As the fote of a kyte.
She was somwhat foule,
Crokenebbed lyke an oule.

And just as Elynour is always leaking one fluid or another, so do their bodies transgress their limits at every opportunity. Some "renne tyll they swete" to the alehouse; one's "mouth formed / And her bely groned." Another manages to combine nearly every form of physical and verbal seepage into one visit. She arrives "full of tales," which she gladly shares with the accompaniment of "snevelyng in her nose." Then, as Gail K. Paster neatly puts it, "having overflowed at one end, she proceeds to flow at the other."21 After taking a long swig of ale, "She pyst where she stood. / Than began she to wepe." Like the anonymous tale-teller, the open pores are matched by open mouths. Elymour yells and swears at her customers and her customers yell and swear right back:

Jone sayd she had eten a fyest.
"By Chryst," sayde she, "thou lyest.
I have as swete a breath

As though, wyth shameful deth!"
Then Elynour sayde, "Ye calettes,
I shall breke your palettes,
Wythout ye now cease!"
And so was made the peace.

In his analysis of the Kerch terracottas, Bakhtin isolates how these figures intertwine life and death: "It is pregnant death, a death that gives birth…. Life is shown its twofold contradictory process; it is the epitome of incompleteness." Elynour herself, as we have seen, constantly transgresses the barrier between youth and old age. And the food brought to her establishment also straddles the border between ripeness and rottenness. To pay for her ale, Margery Mylkeducke totes along "A cantell of Essex chese [that] / Was well a fote thycke, / Full of magottes." Skelton depicts the cheese as grotesquely large (one foot thick), but more importantly, it is simultaneously wholesome and decaying, life-giving and poisonous. And Skelton concludes this section with the food singled out by Bakhtin as the most emblematic of grotesque realism: "trypes that stynkes." Tripes are so resonant (or redolent) because they combine the ambivalence of life's processes: intake and elimination, nutrition and excrement. In addition, tripes represents the near erasure of the boundary separating the swallower from the swallowed: "the belly does not only eat and swallow, it is also eaten, as tripe." Finally, tripes represent both death, because the animal had to be disembowelled, and life, because its consumption leads to regeneration: "Thus, in the image of tripe life and death, birth, excrement, and food are all drawn together and tied in one grotesque knot; this is the center of bodily topography in which the upper and lower stratum penetrate each other."

The same applies to the composition of Elynour's ale. On the one hand, Elynour touts her ale as a fountain of youth:

Drinke now whyle it is new;
And ye may it broke,
It shall make you loke
Yonger than ye be
Yeres two or thre,
For ye may prove it by me.

And she proves its virtues by providing scenes from her connubial erotic life. Now, the image of a sexually active Elynour appears grotesque in precisely the same way that the Kerch terracottas are grotesque; what I want to note here is that Skelton depicts Elynour's restorative ale as a carnivalesque food. Like tripes, her ale ties together rebirth and decay in a "grotesque knot" because Elynour's secret ingredient is chicken shit:

But let us turne playne,
There we lefte agayne.
For, as yll a patch as that,
The hennes ron in the mashfat;
For they go to roust,
Streyght over the ale-joust,
And donge, whan it commes,
In the ale tunnes.
Than Elynour taketh
The mashe bolle, and shaketh
The hennes donge awaye,
And skommeth it into a tray
Where as the yeest is,
With her maungy fystis.
And sometyme she blennes
The donge of her hennes
And the tale togyder.


For I may tell you,
I lerned it of a Jewe,
Whan I began to brewe,
And I have found it trew.

If one chooses to interpret this poem solely from the standpoint of orthodoxy, the source of this recipe only further condemns both Jews and Elynour. However, its Jewish origin only increases the complexity, the ambivalence, of the "grotesque knot." Jews were commonly associated with the death of the spirit, but Elynour's brew reinvigorates. Furthermore, the alliance between Elynour and her anonymous teacher is particularly apposite since the dominant powers marginalize and demonize both (the former for religious reasons, the latter because she is an unruly woman), and much of carnival's point lies in the reevaluation of the rigorously opposed and excluded.

Pigs function in this text in much the same way. At every opportunity, Skelton associates Elynour with swine. In his opening description, for example, Skelton compares Elynour's face to "a rost pygges eare, / Brystled with here," and her customers must compete with them for her brew:

With, "Hey, dogge, hay,
Have these hogges away!"

With, "Get me a staffe,
The swyne eat my draffe!
Stryke the hogges with a clubbe,
They have dronke up my swyllyng tubbe!"

If one opts to read the poem through the template of orthodoxy, the pigs, long a symbol of everything low and bestial, suggest Elynour's own depravity. But as Stallybrass and White pointed out, "the pig"… occupied a focal symbolic place at the fair (and in the carnival)."22 Simultaneously demonized and praised for their ability to ingest offal, for their skin's similarity to human skin, for the closeness of their food to human food, they are both among the most essential of barnyard animals and the most hated.23 Ironically, given the traditional Jewish view of pigs, the two occupy the same ideological position as both represent the socially peripheral, if not outrightly demonized, that in a carnivalesque universe becomes symbolically central—the Jew, because he gave Elynour his (or her) "grotesque" recipe, pigs, because they challenge the binary opposition between the human and the nonhuman.

It should be clear that all the elements of grotesque realism are not only copiously present in Skelton's text but that each overlaps and reinforces the other. The drinking and the physical coarseness suggest the pigs, whose carnivalesque overtones point us back toward the leaky, droopy female bodies; the ale again brings us back to the pigs, whose defecations remind us of the hens's, the tripe, Elynour's Jewish teacher, and so on. In sum, nearly every detail in this poem joins in the "grotesque knot" that firmly holds The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge within the carnivalesque tradition. But when we have ascertained that Skelton scrupulously inscribes Elynour and her customers within this discourse, the question arises as to what sort of intervention, what sort of cultural work, this inscription performs.

Critics and anthropologists have pointed out that carnival and carnivalesque texts can serve to reinforce rather than subvert the dominant social structures.24 Festivity and festive texts, to simplify the argument greatly, provide a "safetyvalve" for the release of tensions or resentments that might otherwise build into an effective oppositional social movement, and so carnival preserves and strengthens the culture or the values that it ostensibly opposes. This interpretation has found recent support in the later work of Michel Foucault, who in such works as Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality argued that power operates not so much by repressing opposition as by organizing and producing it, and in Stephen Greenblatt's earlier model (much indebted to Foucault) of an authority which produces subversions only to contain them. Thus, using this mode of analysis, whatever challenges Elynour Rummynge delivers are contained by the degradation of women's bodies, the reader's laughter, and by the reauthorization of misogyny at the end of the text. But if the relationship between carnival and contestation is more complicated than Bakhtin initially allows, to assume that carnival is always contained also oversimplifies the matter. Sometimes the critiques are contained, sometimes not, and a considerable body of evidence has been collected illustrating how carnival and carnivalesque texts can function effectively as social critiques. As Michael D. Bristol writes, "Carnival misrule is overt and deliberate, but, by accurately mimicking the pretensions of ruling families, the covert and possibly willful misrule of constituted authority is exposed."25 Natalie Z. Davis and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie have both shown how carnivals have led to genuine political upheavals, and Peter Stallybrass has written on the complicated relations between the carnivalesque Robin Hood ballads and the dominant authorities.26 I propose that Skelton's The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge also constitutes a similarly complicated, similarly festive intervention into the gender politics of the Henrician era.

Elynour Rummynge 's most obvious target would be the discourse of the closed, classical body soon to be codified in such texts as Erasmus's De civilitate.27 The leaky, droopy bodies of the alehouse women, like their Jonsonian progeny, Ursula the pig-woman, not only destabilize the boundaries separating the body from the outer world, they privilege exactly those aspects of the body that Erasmus et alii wish most to suppress.28 Furthermore, their carnivalesque bodies uncover the nexus where the construction of gender roles and the rules of politeness intersect. Thus, the refusal of breast and hair restraints in the initial description of Elynour's customers suggests that from the start these women are declaring their independence from the cultural imperative to bind up, hide, and control the emblematically feminine parts of their bodies. Similarly, their crude, loud (impolite) speech defies the patriarchal attempt to silence women.29

However, the text's grotesque realism also has a less obvious and more subtle focus: the place of women within a dominantly male economy. First, Skelton transforms Elynour's establishment into an exclusively female club. Although the narrator initially describes the alehouse as open to all kinds of people, so long as they are "all good ale-drynkers," all of Elynour's customers are women, a fact that would have appeared quite remarkable to Skelton's original audience since there were no alehouses serving only women.30 Moreover, the popular ballads and carols that made up Skelton's sources place at least some men, if only waiters and bartenders, in the tavern.31 None exclude men altogether, as Skelton does. The first to enter are "Kate, / Cysly and Sare," then come "wenches" and "huswyves," then a host of anonymous female patrons, "haltyng Jone," the sniveling, urinating, tale-teller, Margery Mylkeducke, with her huge Essex cheese, and Maude Ruggy. Furthermore, going to the alehouse, according to the women in the poem, constitutes an act of defiance against male domination:

Some go streyght thyder,
Be it slaty or slyder;
They holde the hye waye,
They care not what men saye!

Elynour's husband remains the only male allowed to enter the poem's narrative, but even he constitutes an "absent presence" since Elynour only talks about him: he never actually sets foot in the ale-house. And since the spirit of carnival informs nearly every detail of this poem, Elynour's treatment of her husband suggests that she has become a "woman on top" insofar as she reverses the customary hierarchy by reducing her husband to a sexual object whose purpose is to service his wife and to praise her unstintingly. In other words, she casts him as the ideal wife.

Having created a women-only alehouse, Skelton then pro ceeds to feminize the alehouse's legal tender. In place of utilizing a money economy, Elynour's customers prefer to barter for their ale:

In stede of coyne and monny
Some brynge her a conny,
And some a pot with honny,
Some a salt, and some a spone,
Some their hose, some their shone;
Some ranne a good trot
With a skellet or a pot.

The goods brought to the alehouse can be divided into roughly three categories, all of which emblematize the mandated and subservient roles of women within patriarchy. The first group consists of culinary items, foodstuffs and such cooking utensils as pots, frying pans, and cutlery. The next category consists of items that symbolize women's labor in general, but especially weaving and spinning:

And some went so narrowe
They layde to pledge theyr wharrowe,
Theyr rybskyn and theyr spyndell,
Theyr nedell and theyr thymbell.

Another group brings in a "sylke lace," a pincase, a "pyllowe of downe" and "some of the nappery," while other women enter with "a skeyne of threde, / And … skeyne of yarne." Finally, a number of women bring their husbands' property and even the symbols of their marriages for swapping. One women offers "Her hernest gyrdle, her weddynge rynge," while "some bryngeth her husbandis hood"… / Another brought her his cap / To offer to the ale tap."

True, Elynour's customers appear to take whatever they can lay their hands on to satisfy their dipsomania, but they are also challenging patriarchy in a number of very interesting ways. First, the women are fashioning a precapitalist economy in which goods circulate through bartering rather than money. By deliberately ("In stede of coyne and monny") returning to an older form of economy in which women had more opportunities for empowerment than in the later money-based economy, the text's women seem to be undoing the economic process by which they were increasingly marginalized.2 In addition, the bartering system itself has contestatory overtones because the women trade in symbols of female labor and subjugation. In an analogous fashion to how the grotesque realism of their bodies challenges women's subservient role, bringing these symbols within the festive confines of the alehouse/marketplace allows these women the freedom to invert these emblems of female disempowerment, to first metamorphose them into a currency of their own and then utilize it to buy a product made by a woman for women. In sum, the pins, pans, and wedding rings that Elynour's customers barter for their drinks are more than simple domestic items, they are the constitutive elements of an autonomous, exclusively female economy that challenges the increasing marginalization of women.

Skelton's use of grotesque realism in his depiction of female bodies and his invention of a contestatory female economy takes on further point when one situates them within the history of women's labor. The historicizing of Elynour Rummynge conventionally begins and ends with the identification of Elynour with one "Alianora Romyng," a "common tippellar of ale" who was fined in 1525 for selling her product at "at excessive price by small measures," the ruling interpretation being that Elynour is as criminal as her real-life counterpart.33 The identification of Elynour with a dishonest woman remains significant (we shall return to it below), but we need to complicate the easy interpretation by looking at the position of women ale-brewers circa 1520.

From the twelfth to about the end of the fifteenth century, the production of ale was (given a certain amount of regional fluctuation) a predominantly female activity. According to Peter Clark, in the early thirteenth century almost all of Wallingford's fifty or sixty brewers were women, and a century later the proportions had not significantly altered, the records showing only four male brewers as compared to over fifty women. And Wallingford does not represent an atypical example.34 Judith M. Bennett, in her study of the role of women in medieval Brigstock's industries, confirms that in the fourteenth century women made up the majority of those involved in the brewing and selling of ale.35 By the end of the 1400s, the alewife had started to become a stock figure in literature, as evidenced by the appearance of the dishonest brewster in the Chester mystery cycle lamenting her lot from hell:36

Of cans I kept no true measure
My cups I sold at my pleasure
Deceiving many a creature
Though my ale was nought

The pronouns employed in the various bylaws regulating the cost and quality of ale testify to the degree to which women dominated the brewing industry. Whereas the laws pertaining to other industries (e.g., textiles or baking) assume that they will apply to men, the laws directed at the brewing industry consistently employ feminine pronouns (i.e., brewster, not brewer).37

How much the feminization of brewing contributed to the empowerment of women remains in dispute. Bennett, for example, argues that the preponderance of female brewers did not contribute significantly to the betterment of their situation because the complexity and the expense of this enterprise necessitated marriage and a full household. Single women could not raise the capital to buy the necessary ingredients or do all the work brewing required. Consequently, "Ale-wives were classic female workers: their work changed with shifts in marital status, their work was relatively lowskilled, their work was unpredictable and unsteady, and their work was highly sensitive to male economic priorities (and susceptible to male incursions)."38 However, others suggest that the female near-monopoly on brewing did contribute materially to female empowerment. Alice Clark asserts that the later exclusion of women from the trade "seriously reduced [the] opportunities [open to women] for earning an independence."39 And Rodney Hilton argues that marriage notwithstanding, brewing allowed women to enjoy a not insignificant amount of independence, even legal standing. Hilton cites manorial court records indicating that "a considerable body of pleadings … seems to have been conducted by women in their own names and only rarely through attorneys." Furthermore, despite the political marginalization of women during the Middle Ages (and the Renaissance), women were allowed to become official ale-tasters.40

The crucial event that led to the defeminization of the ale trade was the introduction of hops into the brewing process in the late fourteenth century, which allowed beer (as the drink was now called) to last much longer without souring.41 The exact relationship between this innovation and the professionalization of the industry remains unclear; nonetheless, the two developments coincide with each other, and it seems likely that the discovery of beer's commercial viability resulted in women's being pushed out of this suddenly more profitable enterprise.42 Alice Clark has suggested that the seventeenth century witnessed the exclusion of women from brewing, but one can see this movement starting to begin within the late fifteenth century as well. The establishment of guilds and monopoly usually meant the exclusion of women from profitable trades, a process especially evident in the beer industry. In 1464, for example, a group approached the mayor and43 aldermen of London with a petition asking for more official recognition of their trade; significantly, they refer to themselves as "bruers of Bere," using the masculine term, not the feminine "brewster."44 On September 24, 1493, the brewers were officially recognized as a guild, and their request assumes that the master brewers would be men, not women (e.g., "That no member take into his service any one who had been proved by the Fellowship to be an 'untrue or a decyvable servaunt in myscarying or mystailling' between his master and his customers").45

Even though the brewing industry underwent considerable growth throughout Henry's reign, the independent female producer began to die out.46 Women were not banned from the industry, but because the guilds allowed only men to become masters, they tended to be relegated to positions of inferiority. For example, the records of a late-fifteenth-century guild feast record that "2 women [were] engaged to draw the ale in the buttery for 2 days and 2 others … were kept busy washing and cleaning dishes." A century earlier, those women might have been paid to produce the ale; now, however, they hold the same position as dishwashers.47 In sum, the actual position of women within the trade steadily deteriorated as the industry became more formalized, more professionalized, a trend which only accelerated during the later Tudor and Stuart eras.48

By situating Elynour Rummynge within the shift from a female-dominated to a male-dominated beer industry, we can see that the poem's cultural work goes beyond mere satire or misogyny. Elynour represents a type that by Skelton's time was already an endangered species—the independent female producer of ale and beer. In all probability, the text's first audience would have recognized Skelton's originality because his sources always present women as consumers, never as producers, a convention that will obtain well into the seventeeth century.49 In sum, notwithstanding the popularity of the literary topos of the alewife, Skelton's poem intervenes in the gradual exclusion of women from this industry by representing activities that sound for all the world like an early modern economic self-help group. By setting up a business run by a woman only for women, a business not dependent upon masculine capital or patronage, Elynour keeps herself in business while the other women of the beer industry were being pushed out.

The text's protofeminism exhibits itself, then, in two complementary ways. Just as the carnivalesque representation of female bodies contests patriarchal attempts at enclosure and control, the precapitalist barter system of the alehouse resists women's economic disempowerment. The combination of the two suggests that Elynour's alehouse performs roughly the same function as the women's clubs described by the anthropologist Ernest Crawley in The Mystic Rose. After enumerating several primitive male associations designed to keep women in subjection, Crawley then shows how the opposite side returned the favor: "Women in their turn form such organisations amongst themselves, in which, for instance, they discuss their wrongs and form plans of revenge. Mpongwe women have an institution of this kind which is really feared by the men. Similarly amongst the Bakalais and other African tribes."50 Like these clubs, Elynour's alehouse forms a kind of society of consolation, but instead of plotting physical retributions for wrongs done, this "club" supports women's business ventures as well as translates symbols of female oppression into a currency supporting female independence.51

However, if there are many elements of this text that val orize female autonomy, it contains important qualifying elements as well. Most obviously, Skelton uses the name of a woman who was hauled into court and fined for dishonesty, which strongly suggests that the poem's immediate audience would catch the reference and judge Skelton's Elynour accordingly. Also, the life-affirming aspects of grotesque realism are balanced, if not subverted, by the narrator's repeated assertions that these women are sexually repulsive. Elynour's face, all "Scurvey and lowsy" would "aswage / A mannes courage." Maude Ruggy is so "ugly hypped, / And ugly thycke-lypped" that "Ones hed wold have aked / To se her naked." And a third anonymous "dant" "was nothynge plesant; / Necked lyke an olyfant; / It was a bullyfant, / A gredy cormerant." Furthermore, the narrator makes his disgust with these ladies apparent at every opportunity. At one point he describes them as a "rabell," frequently calls them foul sluts, and associates them with the devil. For example, the narrator says that "The devyll and she [Elynour] be syb," a customer "could make a charme / To helpe withall a stytch; / She semed to be a wytch," and when another customer stumbles, exposing her "token," the narrator exclaims "The devyll thereon be wroken!" Finally, Skelton's Latin colophon interprets the poem as a tirade against the wicked and invites the guilty to listen and learn: "All women who are either very fond of drink ing, or who bear the dirty stain of filth, or who have the sordid blemish of squalor, or who are marked out by garrulous loquacity, the poet invites to listen to this little satire. Drunken, filthy, sordid, gossiping woman, let her run here, let her hasten, let her come; this little satire will willingly record her deeds: Apollo, sounding his lyre, will sing the theme of laughter in a hoarse song" (Scattergood trans.).

The narrative stance of this text, a masculine "I" reporting on an exclusively feminine gathering and then turning to the reader at the end with an antifeminist moralization, is a common motif of this genre. William Dunbar, for example, uses this technique in his roughly contemporary Tretis of the tua mariit Wemen and the Wedo, and one also finds it in the late-fifteenth-century ballad, A Talk of Ten Wives on their Husbands Ware.52 As Linda Woodbridge suggests, the eavesdropping motif implies, at the very least, male curiosity about what women do when they are alone, and more probably, considerable anxiety at the thought of autonomous women.53 Critics have tended to assume that Skelton's text follows this convention to the letter, that the voice of the colophon represents a misogynist authorial intention. In other words, the narrative "I" and the Latinate voice are coterminous and meant to be taken as authoritative. This view, however, needs complicating because Skelton's text repeatedly calls attention to the role gender plays in the formulation of the "I'"s and the audience's views.

Elynour's looks would "aswage / A Mannes courage," "A man wolde have pytty" to see her gums, "As men say," Elynour lives in Surrey (my emphasis). Having established at the start that the "I'"s reactions are not neutral but masculine, Skelton then masculinizes the audience. What women say about Elynour, we may assume, does not count because women do not make up this poem's audience. They are not part of the "one" whose heads would have ached to see Maude Ruggy naked. And the invitation to listen and learn (although the colophon sounds more like an invitation to abuse) would perforce fall on uncomprehending female ears because Elynour and her customers, on account of their relative poverty and their gender, were barred from having an education. In general, only men had access to the "universal" language, Latin.

Now, the gendering of audience and narrator cuts two ways. Certainly, one could argue that the text shows no sign of irony, that Skelton intended his audience to regard Elynour and company with contempt. However, another view also presents itself as equally plausible—by rendering explicit the gender of both audience and narrator, Skelton also renders explicit the conditions of interpretation by forcing us to recognize that both the narrative "I"'s and the implied reader's reactions are grounded in their masculinity, not objective reality. The question implied, then, by the opening emphasis on what men say or think is whether or not women might agree. By raising the possibility of difference, Skelton reminds us that interpretations are not universally valid but contingent upon any number of factors, not the least of course being gender. Given that the few critics who have looked seriously at Elynour Rummynge all agree on its misogyny, my own interpretation may sound more fanciful than plausible, but this process also occurs in Elynour Rummynge 's companion poem.

Susan Schibanoff has cogently argued that in Phyllyp Sparrowe Skelton involves us "in the conscious examination of how we are actually reading," and I would argue that the same project informs Elynour Rummynge.54 In Phyllyp Sparrowe, Jane illustrates how gender can govern reading through her (re)readings of medieval and liturgical texts.55

Rewriting in her own image, an important part of which is her sex, Jane models her grief on that of two female mourners, Thisbe and Mary. As a reading woman, she has, in other words, rewritten the placebo, the psalm subtitled "the prayer of the just man in affliction," to give herself the role of a female mourner. And Skelton has enormously empowered this fictional female reader to make a place for herself in the predominantly male world of textuality. In her text she can even transform Gyb, the familiar tomcat of earlier vernacular literature, into a female.

But having given with one hand, Skelton then takes away with the other by reclaiming ownership of Jane's text "and arrogates to himself the exclusive control of her body."56 In The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge, Skelton applies analogous strategies. He first valorizes the alehouse's women by situating them within a contestatory tradition but then condemns them for their trangressiveness.57 He inscribes numerous testimonials to the women's sexual and moral repulsiveness, but then he brackets these testimonials by ascribing them to the masculine gender, suggesting at least the possibility that a feminine interpretation of Elynour, like Jane's interpretation of the tradition, might be different. Finally, just as Phyllyp Sparrowe moves in the end to comment upon reading, Elynour Rummynge follows suit by suggesting how the text's use of grotesque realism parallels a concern with the text's interpretations of itself and of narrative in general.

To conclude, then, The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge moves in two directions simultaneously, and the trick in reading this poem is not to totalize it into either an expression of misogyny or a carnivalesque challenge to male hegemony. To claim that the text belongs exclusively to either discourse, the reader would have to repress necessary evidence, and so Elynour Rummynge privileges neither reading while insisting upon the partiality of any interpretation. Thus Skelton's text works in a fundamentally different manner than other examples of grotesque realism but rather similarly to Elynour Rummynge's companion poem, Phyllyp Sparrowe.58 The carnivalesque construction of female bodies is undeniably qualified by the disgusting physical details of the poem and the misogyny of both the narrator's asides and the colophon, in which Skelton's "I" re-presents the alehouse's women as objects of ridicule. But at the same time, the "I'"s judgments are not objectively valid either, since they stem from a masculine perspective. Furthermore, the narrator, or even the reader, may not much like or be attracted to the alehouse's women, but the very act of representing independent women, especially, given the conditions of the beer industry circa 1520, an independent producer of ale, grants them a legitimacy that cannot be entirely contained. The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge, then, should not be considered a purely carnivalesque or a purely antifeminist text but rather an unstable, complex mixture of both.


1 Although the editors of the Norton Anthology grant that Skelton is a "major" poet, they are among the few who mention him without condescension. For example, Roy Lamson and Hallett Smith cite Skelton's "roughness, his vulgarity, and his mediaeval prolixity" as reasons for his obscurity over the ages (The Golden Hind [New York: Norton, 1956], 16). John Williams damns Skelton with faint praise. He is a "primitive" poet, but "within the limits of that primitivism … [his poetry is] always skillful and frequently moving" (English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson [Garden City: Anchor Books, 1963], 1).

2 As Greg Walker reminds us, at the time that Erasmus penned his eulogy he could not read English and probably had never heard of Skelton before. Furthermore, in 1519, Erasmus created a list of the distinguished scholars who graced the court of Henry VIII, and Skelton is not among them (John Skelton and the Politics of the 1520s [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988], 40-41).

3 Quoted in Anthony S. G. Edwards, Skelton: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), 61.

4 Quoted in ibid., 16-17.

5 John M. Berdan, Early Tudor Poetry: 1485-1547 (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 215.

6 Susan Staub, "Recent Studies in Skelton (1970-1988)," English Literary Renaissance 20 (1990), 505-16. Actually, Staub omits the solitary (albeit very short) publication on The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge: Robert D. Newman, "The Visual Nature of Skelton's 'The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummyng,"' College Literature 12 (1985), 135-40.

7 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), 138.

8 Stanley E. Fish, John Skelton's Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 251 and 255.

9 Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 138.

10 Arthur F. Kinney, John Skelton. Priest as Poet: Seasons of Discovery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 172.

11 Elizabeth Fowler, "Elynour Rummynge and Lady Mede: The Sexual Conduct of the Money Economy" (paper presented at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Mich., 1989), 2; Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 225; Gail Kern Paster, "The Incontinent Women of City Comedy," Renaissance Drama 18 (1987), 51. I am grateful to Fowler for allowing me to read her paper and to make use of it.

12 All references to Skelton's poems are to John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, ed. John Scattergood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

13 Deborah B. Wyrick, '"Within that Develes Temple': An Examination of Skelton's The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge," Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 10 (1980), 249-50; Kinney, John Skelton, 177-79.

14 Using Bakhtin to analyze Skelton seems anachronistic until one realizes that "grotesque realism" is a tradition that stretches back to antiquity and to which Skelton belongs (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Michael Holquist [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984]; all further references will be given parenthetically).

15 By dialogical, I mean to apply Bakhtin's sense that each utterance contains within it competing definitions for the same things. In this case, the competing definitions that defy a centralized, unitary meaning would apply to the different interpretations of Elynour and her customers. See Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 272, and the editors' definition of dialogical in the accompanying glossary (426-27).

16 I have in mind the illustrations of the mundus inversus reproduced and analyzed by David Kunzle in "World Upside Down: The Iconography of a European Broadsheet Type," in The Reversible World, ed. Barbara Babcock (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 39-94.

17 I am assuming here that the subversions of licensed misrule are not either necessarily or completely contained by the dominant culture.

18 Peter Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed," in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 125. For a very different view of the grotesque, see Geoffrey G. Harpham, On the Grotesque: Strategies in Art and Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982). Harpham understands the grotesque as occupying the margins, neither inside nor outside, neither art nor non-art; it is, as Harpham says, "a species of confusion" (xxi). Although I find Harpham's arguments provocative, he is more concerned with the aesthetics of the grotesque than with their social and political implications.

19 Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories," 126, and Bakhtin, Rabelais, 26.

20 Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories," 124-25.

21 Paster, "Incontinent Women of City Comedy," 51.

22 Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 44.

23 Ibid., 46-47.

24 See, for example, C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedies: A Study of Dramatic Form (New York: Meridian Books, 1963); Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. J. Swain (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1982); Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974) and The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).

25 Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Routledge, 1985). The same paradigm also applies to the exposure of rule as role in Shakespeare's history plays. See, for example, David Scott Kastan, "Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule," Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986), 459-75, and Peter C. Herman, "O, 'tis a Gallant King': Shakespeare's Henry V and the Crisis of the 1590s," in Tudor Political Culture: Ideas, Images and Action, ed. Dale Hoak (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

26 Natalie Z. Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975; reprint, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 97-151; Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival in Romans, trans. Mary Feeney (New York: G. Braziller, 1979); Peter Stallybrass, '"Drunk with the Cup of Liberty': Robin Hood, the Carnivalesque, and the Rhetoric of Violence in Early Modern England," in The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence (London: Routledge, 1989), 45-76.

27 Stallybrass and White, Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 64.

28 On Ursula as the embodiment of the material bodily principle, see ibid., 64-66, and Jonathan Haynes, "Festivity and the Dramatic Economy of Jonson's Bartholomew Fair," ELH 51 (1984), 647.

29 In this sense, The Tunnynge of Elynour Rummynge is a protofeminist text rather than solely an expression of cultural misogyny. On the justifications for calling Renaissance literature feminist (or even protofeminist) long before the term actually existed, see Constance Jordan, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 1-10.

30 Peter Clark, The English Alehouse: A Social History (London: Longman, 1983), 131-32.

31 R. H. Robbins, "John Crophill's Ale-Pots," Review of English Studies 20 (1969), 182-89; "How Gossip myne," in The Early English Carols, ed. Richard I. Greene (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), 280-84; and "Four Witty Gossips," The Pepys Ballads, ed. H. E. Rollins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929), 174-79. The only critical survey of alewife literature remains Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance, 224-43.

32 On the increasing exclusion of women from the European and English work force throughout the 1400s and early 1500s, see David Herlihy, Opera Mulieria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990), 178-80. Although the barter economy dominated the rural areas until much later in the century, the towns (like Leatherhead, Surrey) and cities had a money economy (W. G. Hoskins, The Age of Plunder: King Henry's England 1500-1547 [London: Longman, 1976], 225).

33 See Fowler, "Elynour Rummynge and Lady Mede," 4-5, and Kinney, John Skelton, 167. The citation is quoted in Edwards, Critical Heritage. 115; in Kinney, John Skelton, 167; and in Scattergood's notes for this poem.

34 Peter Clark, English Alehouse, 21.

35 Judith M. Bennett, "The Village Ale-Wife: Women and Brewing in Fourteenth-Century England," in Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe, ed. Barbarba A. Hanawalt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 22-23.

36 Quoted in Peter Clark, English Alehouse, 30.

37 Alice Clark, The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London: George Routledge, 1919), 221-22.

38 Bennett, "Village Ale-Wife," 24-25 and 30. See also Herlihy, Opera Mulieria, 190.

39 Alice Clark, Working Life of Women, 228.

40 H. Hilton, The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 104-5.

41 Bennett, "The Village Ale-Wife," 35, n. 32.

42 On the reduction of the numbers of brewers in the fifteenth century and the gradual professionalization of the industry, see Christopher Dyer, Lords and Peasants in a Changing Society: The Estates of the Bishopric of Worcester, 680-1540 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 347.

43 Herlihy, Opera Mulieria, 196-87.

44 Quoted in Herbert A. Monckton, A History of English Ale and Beer (London: Bodley Head, 1966), 68. Cf. Alice Clark, Workinv Life of Women. 225-33.

45 Quoted in Monckton, History of English Ale, 70-71.

46 Hoskins, Age of Plunder, 231.

47 Monckton, History of English Ale, 81.

48 On the professionalization of the beer industry, see Peter Clark, English Alehouse, 14.

49 E.g., Samuel Rowlands, 'Tis Merry When Gossips Meet (London, 1602).

50 Ernest Crawley, The Mystic Rose: A Study of Primitive Marriage and of Primitive Thought in Its Bearing on Marriage, ed. Theodore Besterman, 2 vols. (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927), vol. 1, 55. Woodbridge, citing this passage, thinks that Elynour Rummynge and all the other Good Gossip poems suggest "male apprehensiveness that women, intractable enough as individuals, might begin making a habit of banding together to improve their lot" (Women and the English Renaissance, 241-42).

51 Perhaps because he found himself marginalized during his life, in his poetry Skelton repeatedly and sympathetically deals with liminal characters who trangress boundaries. Susan Schibanoff, for example, persuasively reads Phyllyp Sparrowe, which is commonly taken as a companion poem to Elynour Rummynge (e.g., H. L. R. Edwards, Skelton: The Life and Times of an Early Tudor Poet [London: Cape, 1949], 212), as a text that empowers the female reader by presenting Jane, whose marginality rests in her gender and her age, rewriting the canon so as to privilege the feminine ("Taking Jane's Cue: Phyllyp Sparrowe as a Primer for Women Readers," PMLA 101 [1986], 835 and 834). The same paradigm functions in the satires as well. Richard Halpern notes that even though Ware the Hawk directs its anger at the falconer who violates the Church's boundaries, the poem's "gay destructiveness delights in the violation of boundaries and in the consequent evaporation of the authority constituted by them" (The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991], 112). On Skelton's rocky political career, see Walker's important revisionary work, John Skelton and the Politics of the 1520s, cited above, n. 2.

52A Talk of Ten Wives on their Husbands ' Ware, in Jyl of Brentford's Testament, ed. F. J. Furnivall (London: Taylor, 1871); William Dunbar, Poems, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958).

53 Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance, 236.

54 Schibanoff, "Taking Jane's Cue," 835.

55 Ibid., 834.

56 Ibid., 841.

57 Ibid., 841.

58 One could argue that by setting the "protofeminist" and "misogynist" strands in the text against each other, I have created a false dichotomy because such double-edged treatment is typical of the carnivalesque tradition, that it always degrades while it celebrates. Although this paradigm may accurately describe (and I am not sure that it does) such other examples as Chaucer's Wife of Bath, Rabelais, and Jonson's Ursula, these texts lack Elynour Rummynge's overtly misogynist narrator and the most uncarnivalesque Latinate voice in the colophon. In this text, Skelton departs from the tradition by separating the two edges, as it were, and then pitting one against the other.

Celia R. Daileader (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "When a Sparrow Falls: Woman Readers, Male Critics, and John Skelton's Phyllyp Sparowe," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. 391-409.

[In the following essay, Daileader provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Skelton's Phyllyp Sparowe.]

In the lush, wild terrain of John Skelton's Phyllyp Sparowe, the few paths laid by critics are fraught with pitfalls. Scholars who have taken up this initially charming but ultimately unsettling poem about a girl, a dead sparrow, and a lascivious poet, have been hampered by two questions. Firstly, how many "voices" does the poem contain? Three decades ago, Stanley Fish laid the groundwork for interpreting the poem in terms of two voices: the voice of "innocence" embodied in the persona of Jane Scrope, and the voice of "experience" embodied in the persona of "Skelton, Poet Laureate," who breaks into the poem roughly halfway through, reminding us retroactively (and some might add, annoyingly) of his role in creating the child speaker of the sparrow's elegy.1 Secondly, how are we to reconcile the religious and the erotic elements of the poem? The tension between these elements manifests itself not only in the apparently dichotomous first and second halves of the poem, but also in several corresponding dichotomies: the Catullan, phallic connotation of the "wanton" sparrow versus the biblical connotation of the sparrow whose fall is marked by God; Jane's apparent innocence versus her sensual delight at Phyllyp's provocative flutterings (and her perhaps naive references to sex); and Skelton's Marian language in the Commendacions versus their cupiditous overtones. Which of the foregoing elements should determine our approach to the work?

My answer to these questions is a resounding "all of the above," and I base this answer upon the text's collapsing of the artist/subject or creator/creature binarism. For Jane, like the speaker, is an artist herself: in her lament she recreates and re-presents Phyllyp, while Skelton as poet simultaneously represents her; the three figures thus reflect one another in endlessly complex, often paradoxical ways. And this triptych, in unhinging one zero sum, brings on the collapse of other binarisms: man/woman; human/ animal; sacred/profane; innocence/experience; redemption/ sin. Thus the poem's central symbol and namesake, the sparrow, embodies not either lust or mortality, but both; he is Jane in miniature and hence he is also Skelton in miniature; in short, he is humanity, with all the weaknesses that name implies—the frailty which requires protection, the sinfulness which requires forgiving, the death which requires salvation….

In the case of Phyllyp Sparowe we have, for the umpteenth time, a male poet depicting a female subject, and we have, in this essay, a female reader responding to her. As in any case of this sort, the feminist critic faces a "schizophrenic" task. First, she must take a more sympathetic approach to the female poetic subject, must never assume that we are getting "her side of the story"; that is the easy part, the part that comes, so to speak, naturally to women readers. Yet alongside this reflex, feminist critics must cultivate a counter-response which insists that the poetic "she" we may react to so viscerally, so empathetically, does not exist as such, that "she" is merely a creation of the male poet/poet-speaker, and hence reflects his own fantasies and biases—or rather, those of his culture. This last is particularly obvious in Phyllyp Sparowe, where the poet-speaker makes explicit his role in creating Jane:

Per me laurigerum
Britanum Skeltonida vatem
Hec cecinisse licet
Ficta sub imagine texta.

[I Skelton laureat, poet of Britain, have been permitted to sing this under an imaginary likeness.]

Although much criticism of the poem gestures toward the import of the above lines, few critics are willing to follow the passage to its fullest implications: that there is, technically, only one voice, that of the poet-speaker; that the poem does not consist of two diametrically opposed halves, one "Jane's" and one "Skelton's"; that questions regarding Jane's characteristics, her age, her maturity, her sexual "innocence" or lack thereof, are only relevant in light of why or why not "Skelton" would have us perceive such qualities in his heroine. And to be aware of these things is not to rule out a careful consideration of "Jane's" own experience, as the text presents it to us, for "Jane"—regardless of the poem's biographical resonances—had in Skelton's world and still has in our own real relevance to real women by virtue of the fact that readers want to make her real.

A feminist reading of Phyllyp Sparowe must therefore eschew the binarism of Fish's reading and look for connections rather than contrasts, elisions rather than interruptions, must look for places where the poet slips into his subject. One such moment occurs in the passage describing Jane's attempt to stitch an image of her lost sparrow, for her own "comfort" and "solace."

But whan I was sowing his beke,
Me thought my sparow did spek,
And opened his prety byll,
Saynge, 'Mayd, ye are in wyll
Agayne me for to kyll!
Ye prycke me in the head!'
With that my nedle waxed red,
Me thought, of Phyllyps blode.
Myne hear ryght upstode,
And was in suche a fray
My speche was taken away.
I kest downe that there was,
And sayd, 'Alas, alas,
How commeth this to pas?'
My fyngers, dead and colde,
Coude not my sampler holde;
My nedle and threde
I threwe away for drede.

Although we know that, in effect, Jane has been re-creating Phyllyp's image throughout her elegy, here we see her pick up a phallic instrument very like Skelton's stylus and attempt to sketch Phyllyp, as Skelton sketches Jane, on a blank text or rather textile (both from textare, to weave). The passage is so heavy with gender-play it is almost too good to be true: here Skelton reverses the familiar trope of male stylus and virgin female text, placing the phallic needle in female hands and gendering the text(ile) as male. The blood, of course, suggests some kind of sexual initiation for this "sparow whyte as mylke"; yet the gender reversal becomes muddled when we consider that the virginal blood "really" is Jane's, not Phyllyp's. What does this passage say, then, about the act of "representation" (this is Jane's surprisingly post-modern term)—and how is Skelton as an artist reflected in this crucial scene? Does Jane, in experiencing the frustrations and the (here, literal) pain of creativity parallel Skelton and his poet-persona? Or does her ultimate throwing aside of her needle/pen confirm her feminine ineptitude in the phallic act of creation? Do these lines thus reassert the poet/subject dichotomy?

In answering these questions, it may help to look at another moment when we are called upon to think of Jane as an artist—or as an aspiring artist, at least—and this is where she apologizes for her lack of poetic skill:

For as I tofore have sayd,
I am but a young mayd,
And can not in effect
My style as yet direct
With Englysh wordes elect….

Richard Halpern is one critic who cannot resist reading Jane's poetic "lack" in a Freudian light:

What Jane has, then, is matter—enough to 'fyll bougets and males'—but she cannot 'direct' her 'style'…. A bouget is a pouch, bag, or wallet; the word, related to bulge, comes from the Latin bulga, a leather bag or a womb. A male is also a leather bag or wallet, but the word lends itself to witty associations with the testicles. Jane thus bulges with the necessary matter for a poem but cannot 'direct' her 'style'…. She cannot direct her stylus … with its all-too-obvious symbolization….13

At this point Halpern's Freudian reading seems to reinforce the Skelton/Jane opposition posited above. Here, once again, Jane struggles to direct a phallic implement, to appropriate the male role of creator, with the consequence, however, of hurting herself. At this point Fish's male reader can smile upon Jane with "affection and condescension."14 To him it is no surprise that Jane slips up in her attempts to represent her beloved, and that when given the patriarchal stylus, she fumbles, pricks herself, bleeds. Having read Catullus, he knows that, after all, the sparrow is the phallus, and having read Freud, he knows that Jane is castrated, sparrow-less, helpless.

And yet Jane is not the only one who stumbles in the act of phallic creation. Here "Skelton" describes his own artistic impotence:

My pen it is unable,
My hand it is unstable,
My reson rude and dull
To prayse her at the full….

We may recognize here the "inexpressibility motit" ubiquitous in the genre, but I would argue that the emphasis on the unstable pen takes on a new significance in relation to Jane's artistic struggles. Halpern adds an unexpected twist to his own Freudian reading of the poem: he extends Jane's phallic "lack" to the poet-persona himself. For despite his attempt rhetorically to master his young subject, the poet's tone throughout the Commendacions is one of extreme "erotic submissiveness." Halpern argues:

'Skelton' unwittingly illustrates his shortcomings in his very first English phrase, when he promises to devote his 'hole imagination' to praising his mistress. If this persona organizes things into wholes, he also reduces them to holes…. The phallic organizer who pretends to totalize and complete the poem proves to be precisely the space of its 'hole' or lack.15

I would only modify Halpern's judgment to say that the poet-speaker is not the space of lack in the poem, but rather he demonstrates the lack which imbues the entire poem. As Halpern himself points out, "Phyllyp Sparowe is, in some sense, founded on the void, specifically that left by the disappearance of its namesake. Elegy is supremely the genre of lack…."16 What links Skelton and Jane is their mutual experience of lack, of separation from a beloved. Jane lacks Phyllyp, Skelton lacks Jane, and both attempt (with limited success) to fill this void by means of representation. It is the yearning in both "voices"—as Jane relives her time spent with Phyllyp, and as "Skelton" indulges in "fantasy" of the delights Jane will always withhold from him—that unifies the poem. I think it is not unreasonable to assume that many or most readers bring to the poem some experience of this bittersweet play of the imagination against the absence of a beloved. This is the key to the poem's poignancy.

Yet I would like to move away from "lack" in the Freudian sense. For the sparrow whose loss occasions the poem need not exclusively stand for the phallus. Beryl Rowland, in her extensive study of bird symbolism, documents the medieval literary tradition of the lecherous sparrow, but also points out an alternative vein of symbolism.

In general the Biblical sparrow was a very different breed from the bird which, according to Bartholomew the Englishman, was 'full hot … and lecherous.' 'Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?' said Christ. 'And one of them shall not fall on the ground, without your Father knoweth.' Under mosaic Law two sparrows were a purification offering…. St. Ambrose regarded the sparrows as the body and the soul, 'For both are lifted up to God by spiritual wings'…. 'Even the sparrow finds a home… where she may lay her young, at Thy altars, Ο Lord of Hosts!' cried the psalmist, (lxxxiv.3)17

It seems likely that Skelton, a clergyman, was as conscious of the biblical connotations of the sparrow as of the Catullan tradition: it is possible, in fact, that he intended both symbolic valences to play in the minds of his readers. And why need one choose? The biblical use of the sparrow highlights its delicacy, its humble size, in order to illustrate the pervasiveness of divine providence (a lesson that Jane might find comforting)—but there is no need to consider this sparrow "a very different breed" than Catullus' sparrow. Why should a lecherous sparrow, any more than a lecherous person, slip between the fingers of divine providence? Let us not forget that lechery is a sin only in humans, not in animals, who have neither reason with which to combat sin nor souls with which to be damned.18 When Chaucer describes his Summoner as "lecherous as a sparwe,"19 undoubtedly he means us to fault, if anyone, the man, not the bird.

Indeed, there is no denying that Phyllyp is (or was) as sexual as any bird. Perhaps the most startling and comic moment in Jane's elegy is her wish

That Phyllyp may fly
Above the starry sky,
To treade the prety wren
That is our Ladyes hen.
Amen, amen, amen!

The beautiful absurdity of this prayer lies in its naive conflation of animal doings with the afterlife of the human spirit. Jane does not seem to realize that, as intimated above, one might find neither wrens nor "treading" in heaven. But more importantly, these lines reveal Jane's delight in Phyllyp's sex-life, a sex-life she imagines she has shared with him by letting him under her clothes. And if some readers find these quasi-sexual references jarring within what otherwise seems a child's prattle, ultimately it is not inconceivable that a young girl coming of age in the isolation of a nunnery would seek entertainment in the mating of birds or in a make-believe romance with a sparrow. I would argue that it is only in retrospect, when we learn of the poet-speaker's presence throughout Jane's elegy, that her delight in Phyllyp's sexuality begins to look less than naive, and that Phyllyp's fluttering contact with her bosom takes on an intense eroticism. But I will come back to these issues. In any case, I feel that our over-riding impression of this bird is of his birdlike rather than his supposedly phallic qualities: like any other bird, he was small and feathered, and he spent his day singing and hunting for females or bugs. Like any other bird, he was prey to cats.

And ultimately, it all comes down to Phyllyp's death. The focus of the poem is Phyllyp's vulnerable and mortal nature—something he of course shares with human beings. I have already pointed out Jane's link to the sparrow as an object of love and a subject of poetry. Both girl and bird are adored, are described as "whyte as mylke"; another common quality is that of smallness, delicacy, vulnerability—something brought to light in the pinpricking scene discussed above. The Commendacions, in fact, foreground these features: the poet's doting eye traces not only Jane's ruby lips and white cheeks, but also a scar on her chin. Despite the poet's attempt to trope the scar into something celestial, this detail works against the overall deifying language of the Commendacions by pointing up the maiden's mortality, her susceptibility to wounding, bleeding, harm. The flower image Skelton reiterates in each refrain was a common symbol for mutability, for the frailty and transience of beautiful things; the poet's use of epithets like "smale" and "quickly veined," however conventional in this type of poetry, reinforce our sense of Jane as a tender little specimen. Thus we are apt to smile in charmed disbelief when the speaker declares:

Ther is no beest savage,
Ne no tyger so wood,
But she wolde chaunge his mood….

Another poetic convention? Certainly—but in light of the Jane-Phyllyp parallel we have been pondering, the reference to the tiger may work on more than one level. Can it be any accident that the speaker chooses a cat as the potential enemy that Jane's beauty (he claims) will vanquish? Were it not for the fact that Phyllyp—Jane's counterpart—has fallen prey to a cat; were it not for the scar on Jane's chin (a cat scratch?); were it not for Jane's smallness and delicacy, we might perhaps dismiss as mere embellishment the speaker's hyperbolic claim. But I read these lines as a subtle hint that Jane is in more peril than she knows—and not from imaginary tigers.

For there is one binarism whose undoing can be far more unsettling on a subliminal level than the collapsing of the erotic and the sacred (something which Kinney argues can be done without profanity): this is the human versus the bestial. For, in my reading-as-a-woman, something about the poem's animal imagery struck me as vaguely troubling. My unease began with Jane's use of the term "treading" to depict Phyllyp's animal love-making. Any Chaucerian, of course, would associate the term with our favorite barnyard Casanova, Chaunteclere. And a glance at the OED proves that the term was used to describe birds mating for as long as it was used to mean "to step upon" (both uses occur, in fact, in Phyllyp Sparowe: see 1149). Still, I cannot help but feel that the potential violence of the primary meaning is intrinsic to the secondary, as suggested by Jane's off-hand reference to Chaucer's ever-popular rooster:

Chaunteclere, our coke, …
With Partlot his hen,
Whom now and then
He plucketh by the hede
Whan he doth her trede.

I would hazard to guess that most women readers cannot help but flinch here on poor Partlot's behalf. Even if a male bird literally does "tread" or grab hold of the female's back with his claws during mating, one can hardly forget the sense in which "to tread" means "to step or walk with pressure on (something) esp. so as to crush, beat down, injure, or destroy it; to trample." And perhaps Skelton wishes both senses to play here. Clearly, the "treading" Chaucer depicts in the Nun 's Priest's Tale functions as a crucial factor in the tale's mock-romantic effect; the "treading" satirically comments on the essentially bestial act that the romance genre prettifies. The word is meant to be somewhat jarring, an unsettling reminder of the animal element in human sexuality.

Yet I would argue that Skelton's version of treading goes farther in its suggestions of violence than Chaucer's depiction of Chaunteclere's barnyard antics, and not only by adding the brutal pluck of the head. Viewing these lines in the context of the poem's other animal references brings to light a disturbing emphasis on the predatory. It is, after all, a predatory act which occasions the poem: Phyllyp falls prey to Gyb the cat, just as the fleas on Jane's skin fall prey to him, and just as the female birds fall prey, in a sexual sense, to the male birds in the poem. Placed within this predatory framework, the longing of the poet after Jane's physical person takes on a rather sinister aspect; his ocular absorption of her every bodily feature begins to resemble the mesmerized stare of the poised feline just before the fatal pounce. Perhaps it is this predatory view of sex which underlies Skelton's feminizing of the traditionally male tomcat Gyb—something critics have remarked upon but not, to my knowledge, accounted for.20 Perhaps Gyb must be female in order to prey, sexually, on Phyllyp, a male.

This focus on the predatory provides, in part, an explanation for some of the discomfort inspired by the poem's sensuality. Why does it disturb readers when "Jane" describes Phyllyp's contact with her "naked skyn"? According to Fish, "It is perhaps difficult to read these lines without questioning her innocence"—but I protest that there is nothing at all un-childlike or worldly about the sensual thrill attributed to Jane here. Rather, what readers find unsettling is their voyeuristic participation in these scenes. I do agree with Fish's claim that "we must be continually aware of the distance between what Jane in her innocence would contend and what we would interpolate,"21 but I would add that his sophisticated reader must also contend with a suppressed sense of guilt at making these sexual interpolations in a child's elegy to a dead pet. And when the amorous poet-speaker interrupts Jane's narrative, this discomfort is raised to a pitch. Now we learn that all along there has been an invisible third party, a sophisticated older male, not only witnessing, but in fact orchestrating our less-than-innocent responses to this girl's private moments. As "Skelton" launches into his obsessive musings, and we wonder to what degree the poet has "planted" the sexual innuendo in Jane's narrative, we feel implicated in his moral universe. And it cannot assuage the reader's discomfort to realize that this moral universe equates human sexual urges with barnyard rutting.

Given Skelton's pointed use of animal imagery, there is a delightful irony in Alexander Pope's epithet of "beastly Skelton," as well as in Elizabeth Barret Browning's more laudatory description of the poet as "rabid … a wild beast in a forest…. In his wonderful dominion over language, he tears it, as with teeth and paws, ravenously, savagely; devastating rather than creating…. Mark him as a satyr of poets! fear him as the Juvenal of satyrs!"22 Yet, I have a hunch that Skelton would not have disputed this description. The three-way linkage of poet, maiden, and sparrow implicates the Skelton persona in base animal impulses. And Skelton the satirist may indeed have intended, in implicating his persona, to implicate all humankind.

Also, Browning's misuse of the term "satyr" strikes me as a fruitful and perhaps deliberate misuse. The OED provides a long heritage to the etymological and semantic confusion surrounding the terms "satyr" and "satire"—which in fact are not linguistically related. The satyr, a creature human to the waist and goat below (another reputedly lecherous animal),23 embodies the human race at its basest, and reifies the philosophical commonplace most succinctly stated by Pope's "Essay on Man," which situates mankind "on this isthmus of a middle state" between God and beasts. It is therefore a happy semantic accident that the term "satyr" so closely resembles "satire," a genre that often deploys animal imagery in order to deflate human presumption. Browning, in dubbing Skelton "a satyr of poets," both lauds the poet's satirical wit, and conflates him with the universal target of satire. The satyr of satire mocks even himself.

Although I do not call Phyllyp Sparowe a satiric poem, I find subtly satirical its collapsing of human and animal sexuality. One is reminded of the bizarre landscapes of Hieronymous Bosch, filled with half-bird, half-human monsters and with the orgiastic intermingling of naked human bodies and animal and vegetable life forms. Of course from our post-modern secular perspective these pictorial dream-visions seem more psychedelic than moralistic, but contemporaries of Bosch were inclined to view his work as painterly sermonizing, as "a stern warning against the vice of Luxuria."24 Either way, in light of these bizarre images and their melding of feathers and human flesh, Phyllyp's contact with Jane's virginal skin becomes even more sexually suggestive.

But perhaps this is to over-stress the negative uses of animal iconography. I do not read Phyllyp Sparowe as a blanket condemnation of human vice, but as a symbolically complex and a profound statement about human behavior at its most exalted and most base. The medieval bestiaries attested to the belief that since all of God's creation reflected its maker, the "Book of Nature" could be turned to for moral instruction as readily as the book of Scripture. And if, as Augustine holds, God's symbols carry meanings25 both in bono and in malo,26 any beast, including humankind, can be read both ways. Just as human physicality could serve either as a vehicle to God (through, for instance, imitatio christi) or as an instrument of sin, nature could either direct the soul to contemplation of its creator, or else distract the soul through sensual pleasure. Likewise, we might say that literary critics, over the years, have presented in bono and in malo readings both of Skelton's iconographic sparrow and of the poem as a whole. Either: the bird is a phallus; Jane has found sexual fulfillment in his contact with her "naked skyn"; the poetspeaker pines to fill the sexual lack Jane suffers in the wake of Phyllyp's death. Or: Phyllyp is a symbol of di-vine providence; both bird and girl are innocent playmates; the poet-speaker views Jane in her grief as a pieta figure, worships her chastely, and attempts to solace her with his verse.

I present my reading as a means of reconciling these discordant critical voices. By recognizing the poem's complex dynamic of representation, by looking at the points in the text where binary categories collapse—male into female, poet into subject, human into animal—we can see how Skelton's art embraces all the paradoxes of human existence. Is Phyllyp a phallic symbol or a sign of God's all-sheltering love? He is both, and much more. Is Jane a child or a young woman; is she "innocent" or knowing? She is both; as representative of the poet, she is the voice of innocence spoken through the voice of experience; she is poet and poem, stylus and text. And finally, we can answer this question: what is Phyllyp Sparowe? an elegy or a love-song? a sexual fantasy or a Marian prayer? Once more, the poem is all of these things. For, however startling and disturbing, however singular we find the text's phantasmagoria, Phyllyp Sparowe can yet be understood in terms of those two common literary themes, sex and death. The poem's central figure—as both "wanton" phallus and the frail, mortal body to which it belongs—represents in the end human fleshly existence in its joys and limitations, in its sinfulness and its need for salvation. Like the sparrow, we rise and fall, love and hurt, mate and die. Like the sparrow, Skelton tells us, we are small, so small in the order of things.


1 Stanley Eugene Fish, John Skelton s Poetry (Yale U. Press, 1965), 99.

2 Susan Schibanoff, "Taking Jane's Cue: 'Phyllyp Sparowe' as a Primer for Women Readers," PMLA 101 (1986): 832.

3 Fish, John Skelton s Poetry, 112.

4 F. W. Brownlow, '"The Boke of Phyllyp Sparowe' and the Liturgy," English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979): 5.

5 All references to Phyllyp Sparowe are from John Skelton, The Complete English Poems, ed., John Scattergood (Yale U. Press, 1983) and will be cited in the text of my essay.

6 Fish, John Skelton s Poetry. 105.

7 Ibid., 138.

8 Ibid., 18n16.

9John Skelton, Priest as Poet: Seasons of Discovery (U. of North Carolina Press, 1987), 107.

10 Ibid., 115.

11 Schibanoff, "Taking Jane's Cue," 832.

12 Kinney, John Skelton, 116.

13The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Cornell U. Press, 1991), 121-22.

14 Fish, John Skelton 's Poetry, 111.

15 Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation, 124-25.

16 Ibid., 122.

17 Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls: A Guide to Bird Symbolism (U. of Tennessee Press, 1978), 158.

18 Beryl Rowland, Blind Beasts: Chaucer's Animal World (Kent State U. Press, 1971), 20.

19 Geoffrey Chaucer, The General Prologue, in The Canterbury Tales, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1987), 1.626.

20 See Schibanoff, "Taking Jane's Cue," 834.

21 Fish, John Skelton s Poetry, 112.

22 Anthony S. G. Edwards, ed., Skelton: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), 75, 99.

23 Rowland, Blind Beasts, 126.

24 Francis Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, ed., Evelyn Antal and John Harthan (The Μ. Ι. Τ. Press, 1971), 488.

25 Robert P. Miller, ed., Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds (New York U. Press, 1977), 3-5.

26 St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1958), 99-101.


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