John Skelton

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In addition to the poems listed above, John Skelton wrote a play, or, more properly, an interlude (a short allegorical morality play), called Magnyfycence (1516), which counsels monarchs against excessive liberality. Skelton also participated in a popular form of court entertainment called “flyting,” in which two courtiers trade insults before an audience of their peers. In particular, Skelton flyted one Christopher Garnish, and some of his “insults” persist in the Poems Against Garnish (1513-1514).

Finally, Skelton translated a significant number of works and had a reputation as an excellent Latinist. His translations apparently included the works of Diodorus Siculus, Cicero’s Ad familiares (62-43 b.c.e.; The Familiar Epistles, 1620) and Guillaume Deguilleville’s La Pélerinage de la vie humaine. The latter two works, mentioned in The Garlande of Laurell, do not survive. Skelton also composed a moral guidebook: Speculum Principis (1501, also known as A Mirror for Princes).


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Modern readers find John Skelton’s work hard to understand and appreciate. He lived and wrote just as the literary Renaissance and political Reformation began to reshape England. Skelton reveals in The Garlande of Laurell that he perceived himself to be the heir of the medieval poets Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate. His language resembles the Middle English of these three forebears, but like the English of his contemporary Sir Thomas Malory, borders on what is now termed Modern English (the conventional boundary date between Middle and Modern English is 1500). The difficulty in reading Skelton, then, comes not from the archaic quality of his language but from its deliberate, often playful, polyglot tendencies and its unusual metrical properties. Skelton intermingles French and Latin words and phrases in many of his poems, often producing the kind of interlingual mix known as macaronic verse. He also loads his poems with allusions to the Bible and to contemporary political events. Metrically, Skelton’s poetry surprises readers used to the iambic pentameter line that became the norm for English poetry after William Shakespeare. In many poems, Skelton uses trimeter (six-syllable) couplets with irregular rhythm. This meter is so characteristic of his poetry that it has become known as Skeltonic.

In his lifetime, Skelton was well rewarded and admired, although perhaps not as completely, or as consistently, as he might have liked. He is thought of today as the first poet laureate of England: That honor, however, was conferred on him not by the king but by the University of Oxford (1488) and later by the University of Louvain (1493) and the University of Cambridge (1493). The laureateship, which today implies particular patronage of the king or queen and entails the responsibility of writing public occasional verse, titled Skelton to be recognized as a graduate with a degree in rhetoric. Although the implications of laureateship were not the same for Skelton as for a poet such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson (laureate to Queen Victoria), the honor was nevertheless great, and Skelton doted on the accomplishment for the rest of his life. Indeed, he named his last major work, which sums up his poetic career, The Garlande of Laurell. Skelton did enjoy the special attention of Henry VII, by whose grace he wore a robe of green and white, the Tudor colors, embroidered “Calliope,” for the muse of epic poetry.

The first collected poems of Skelton appeared in 1568, were edited by Thomas Marshe, and were reissued in 1736. A two-volume edition, produced by the Reverend Alexander Dyce (1843), bridged the gap between the Renaissance and the current editions, notably The Complete Poems of John Skelton, Laureate (1931), edited by Philip Henderson.


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Carlson, David R. John Skelton and Early Modern Culture: Papers Honoring...

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Robert S. Kinsman. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2008. A collection of essays on Skelton that analyze his writings in terms of the time in which he lived.

Carpenter, Nan Cooke. JohnSkelton. New York: Twayne, 1968. This overview contains a preface, a chronology, and an outline of Skelton’s life. Carpenter discusses all his important poetic works and highlights the poet’s intimate technical knowledge of music, dance songs, and popular song tags. Skelton’s reputation and influence is also discussed. Includes notes and references.

Griffiths, Jane. John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Defining the Liberty to Speak. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. This work reassesses Skelton’s place in English literature and links his work as a translator and writer to his poetic theory.

Kinney, Arthur F. John Skelton, Priest as Poet: Seasons of Discovery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Maintaining that Skelton’s primary vocation, the priesthood, was fundamental to his literary work, Kinney attempts to give a comprehensive evaluation of his poetry. Includes notes and an index.

Richardson, J. A. Falling Towers: The Trojan Imagination in “The Waste Land,” “The Dunciad,” and “Speke parott.” Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992. Examines Skelton’s Speke, Parrot and compares and contrasts it with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1728-1743).

Scattergood, V. J. Reading the Past: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press, 1996. Includes a critical essay on the works of Skelton, bibliographical references, and an index.

Walker, Greg. John Skelton and the Politics of the 1520’s. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Discusses the political and social views of Skelton and gives a history of English political satire as well as a view of the politics and government in England during the first half of the sixteenth century.


Critical Essays