John Skelton Skelton, John (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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 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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

E. M. Forster (essay date 1950)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Alan Swallow (essay date 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Holloway (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Stanley Eugene Fish (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Norma Phillips (essay date 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Scattergood (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Richard Halpern (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Peter C. Herman (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Celia R. Daileader (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 694 words.)