To place John Skelton in a convenient niche in literary history is difficult, but it is even more difficult to find an appropriate artistic designation for the work of this early Tudor poet. Nearer in time to the writing of Sir Thomas Wyatt or Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, Skelton is much nearer in his style to the writing of the medieval Latinists.
Despite being called a Humanist scholar, Skelton did not have much in common with the Humanists and even indulged in some feuding with them. While the Humanists (a group of scholars, associated with Desiderius Erasmus, whose intellectual focus was on the human rather than the divine) were reviving an interest in the classical Greek and Latin writers and using them for examples, Skelton continued to copy the style of fourteenth and fifteenth century writers. What he had in common with the Humanists, however, was an interest in the world and in people as they are.
“The Bouge of Court” is typical of the medieval tradition in several ways. It uses rhyme royal to tell a dream allegory, relies heavily on personification and the use of court terms, and has the usual astronomical opening and closing apology. The prologue begins with allusions to the sun, the moon, and Mars. The narrator wishes he could write, but being warned by Ignorance not to try, he lies down and dreams of going aboard a ship, The Bouge of Court, which is owned by Sans Peer and captained by Fortune. The narrator, who reveals that he is called Drede, is first accosted and frightened by Danger, the chief gentlewoman of Sans Peer. Before Drede can flee, he is soothed by Desire, who persuades him to stay aboard.
After this introduction comes the main body of the poem, which consists of conversation between Drede and seven of the passengers, Skelton’s representations of the seven deadly sins. Drede first describes the approaching figure in unforgettable detail; then, as the figure speaks, an even sharper focus of his personality is achieved. The seven passengers are named Favel or Flattery, Suspect, Harvy Hafter, Disdain, Riot, Dissimulation, and Deceit. Harvy Hafter is Skelton’s most colorful creation in the poem, and he is still around.
But as I stood musing in my mind,Harvy Hafter came leaping, light as lynde.Upon his breast he bare a versing-box,His throat was clear, and lustily could fayne.Methought his gown was all furréd with fox,And ever he sang, ’Sith I am nothing plain . . .’To keep him from picking it was a great pain:He gazed on me with goatish beard;Whan I looked on him, my purse was half afeard.
Thus, Harvy Hafter is the typical confidence man, always optimistic, always ready to dispel all doubts and fears with pat answers and stale jokes.
After talking with these seven characters, Drede fears for his life and jumps overboard. The leap and hitting the water awaken him, and he seizes his pen and records his dream. In the final stanza, his apology, he states that what he has recorded is only a dream, but sometimes even dreams contain truth.
I would therewith no man were miscontent,Beseeching you that shall it see or readIn every point to be indifferent,Sith all in substance of slumbring cloth proceed.I will not say it is matter indeed,But yet oft-time such dreams be found true.Now construe ye what is the residue!
Though this poem is typical of the medieval tradition, its importance lies in how it deviates from the tradition: Its difference is Skelton’s...
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contribution. His characters are certainly types, as in a dream allegory they must be, but they are more than the mere pictured figures of medieval writing. They are highly individualized characters, as shown by Harvy Hafter’s description, and they are characterized not only by description but also by their own speech. Furthermore, Skelton’s setting is more concrete than is usual in the medieval tradition.
The allegory depicts the life at court as Skelton saw it. The highest achievement of the courtier was to be recognized by the king and to maintain his favor, no matter what the means. Those who attained his favor were openly praised but privately scorned and envied by the others. Thus, if one succeeded, he failed to maintain the true friendship of his fellow courtiers, for flattery, jealousy, disdain, suspicion, and other feelings all joined forces to destroy such friendship. To Skelton, the irony of such a life was that gaining the attention of the king was accomplished purely by chance. Since this kind of court life was demeaning, in Skelton’s view, he attacked it.
Another of Skelton’s early poems that shows the poet still working in the medieval tradition is “Philip Sparrow.” Following a medieval point of view, Skelton wrote this poem in the short-lined couplets, tercets, and quatrains now known as Skeltonic verse. This poem is Skelton’s most playful and most popular work; in it, readers see the poet in a mood in which he casts dignity and restraint aside and indulges himself in a bit of fantasy. He describes the activities of the bird, its death, and its funeral. It is a long and rather loose poem that can be broken into three distinct parts.
The first part, which takes over half of the 1,382 lines in the poem, is a dramatic monologue with Jane Scroop as narrator telling of her Philip Sparrow. Through her, Skelton gives the reader his appraisal of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate, and uses the opportunity to display his wide reading in Greek and Latin. He parodies the funeral mass by having the whole host of birds chant over the dead body of Philip Sparrow. The most delightful lines are those in which Jane talks of her pet.
It had a velvet cap,And would sit upon my lap,And seek after small wormes,And sometimes white bread-crumbes;And many times and oftBetween my breastes softIt woulde lie and rest;It was proper and prest. Sometime he would gaspWhen he saw a wasp;A fly or a gnat,He would fly at that;And prettily would he pantWhen he saw an ant.Lord, how he would pryAfter the butterfly!
In the second part of the poem, “The Commendacione,” Skelton commends and defends Jane Scroop as the composer of the first section. He also spends much time reporting “the goodly sort/ Of her features clear,” and ends each section of the “Commendacione” with a refrain: “For this most goodly floure,/ This blossom of fresh colour,/ So Jupiter me succour,/ She flourisheth new and new/ In beauty and virtue.” The third part of the poem, the “Addition,” was clearly added after the other two had been written. It is an answer to the critics of the poem and a protest against their criticism.
“The Tunning of Elinour Rumming,” more than all the other poems together, has earned for Skelton the title of scurrilous or, as from Alexander Pope, “beastly.” It is Skelton’s most notorious work. The first part of the poem introduces the host, Elinour. Then follow seven sections of various scenes in a tavern. This study of the Tudor lower classes is extremely realistic. To show the stench and squalor of the bar, Skelton eliminates no details, no matter how crude or coarse. Still, there is a vitality in the realism of the scene, and the impression—no matter how unpleasant it may be to some, though to others it may be only humorous—is an unforgettable one. For example,
Maud Ruggy thither skippéd:She was ugly hippéd,And ugly thick lippéd,Like an onion sided,Like tan leather hided.She had her so guidedBetween the cup and the wallThat she was there withalInto a palsy fall;With that her head shakéd,And her handes quakéd,One’s head would have achédTo see her nakéd.
Even Skelton decides he has gone too far in his description of the tawdry existence: “I have written too much/ Of this mad mumming/ Of Elinour Rumming.”
Like many others after him, Skelton excuses himself for his descent by saying that he has written the poem to show others how to escape from such a fall. The gusto of the representation shows a familiarity with the subject that is unexpected in such a scholar and churchman.
Perhaps Skelton’s most puzzling work is “Speak, Parrot.” There are several reasons for the vagueness of the poem, which has been called unintelligible. In the first place, there is strong evidence to suggest that the work is a collection of many poems written at various times. Although some of the poems are even dated, the method Skelton used to date them is not conventional, so that any attempt to decipher these dates is mostly guesswork. Another reason for the vagueness is that Skelton thought that to protect himself from charges of treason he had to veil his allusions to topical incidents in allegorical language. He uses the book of Judges for many terms of this language. Present knowledge of particular events of the day also cloud an intelligible interpretation. Finally, the device Skelton uses as framework for “Speak, Parrot” compounds the vagueness. He puts the whole narration into the mouth of a parrot who relates the poem in no particular chronological sequence, and at times the parrot speaks only gibberish.
In this poem Skelton still relies on the medieval use of allegory, and the verse form is basically rhyme royal. Except in these particulars, he is much farther from the medieval tradition in this poem than he is in, for example, “The Bouge of Court.” Since Skelton went to such pains to conceal his message, his targets must have been powerful and the events well known; and members of the court probably had little trouble understanding just what Skelton was writing about. Still, by having the parrot speak, he was able to deny any treasonous charges.
With “Colin Clout” comes Skelton’s complete severance from the medieval tradition. He abandons the dream structures for one narrator, personification and allegory for direct statement, and rhyme royal for Skeltonic verse. His use of Colin Clout as narrator is fortunate, for Colin simply repeats what he hears during his travels: “Thus I, Colin Clout,/ As I go about,/ And wandering as I walk/ I hear the people talk.” Thus, he cannot vouch for the truthfulness of what he hears, nor can he be blamed for his crudeness. This flexible framework also allows him to repeat in any order what he has heard, and this order, or lack of it, is sometimes frustrating.
One of Skelton’s attacks in the poem is against the conflict between church and state. He is on the side of the Catholic Church, but, like Erasmus, he takes a humanistic viewpoint. He argues that the Church should be independent, not parasitic on the state; that the selling of salvation leads to total disorganization of the Church; and that the clergy are ignorant, mainly because of the careless selection of priests. All of this leads the laity to distrust the clergy. As Erasmus does in his writings, Skelton calls upon the Church to cleanse itself, to carry out reform from within. He is not calling for a change in doctrine, but rather asks that the old doctrines be more closely followed. His bitterness is directed against those who are defiling the sacraments of the Church and those who allow this defiling. Thus, the focus of the attack is Cardinal Wolsey, who, in Skelton’s opinion, is the epitome of the sacrifice of the interests of the Church to those of the state. The power of the poem lies not in the bitterness of the invective, but in the appeals for reform.
“Why Come Ye Not to Court?” is Skelton’s third and most direct indictment against Wolsey. Like “Speak, Parrot” and “Colin Clout,” this poem lacks any basic organization, and the lines tumble one upon another with a seeming lack of order. Furthermore, there is no chronological order to the events referred to in the work. This loose structure might lead one to assume that the poem was composed in pieces at various times.
Skelton does not use allegorical language or biblical terms to describe Wolsey but rather speaks of him plainly as the cardinal or “red hat.” The cardinal is in complete control of the kingdom, so the situation is bad, because Wolsey is concerned only with money and lavish living.
We have cast up our war,And made a worthy truceWith, ’gup level suse!’Our money madly lent,and more madly spent:. . . . . . . . . . . . . With crowns of gold emblazédThey make him so amazédAnd his eyen so dazédThat he ne see canTo know God nor man!. . . . . . . . . . . . . Why come ye not to court?To which court?To the kingés court,Or to Hampton Court?Nay, to the kingés court.The kingés courtShould have the excellence,But Hampton CourtHath the preéminence.
One of Skelton’s last poems, and one of his longest, is “The Garland of Laurel.” Strangely enough, it is dedicated to Wolsey; therefore, some degree of reconciliation must have taken place, for Skelton died while living in the protection of the Church. Once more the poet reverts to his medieval tradition of the dream allegory, using mostly rhyme royal to tell how the garland of laurel has come to be placed on his head. A long procession of poets, headed by Gower, Lydgate, and Chaucer, come to Skelton. He agrees to carry on in the tradition and places the garland on his own head. “The Garland of Laurel” is in one respect the most remarkable poem in all literature, for no other poet has ever written sixteen hundred lines to honor him- or herself.
Had Skelton given more time and energy to developing his lyrical poetry, he might be better known today, for he did have a definite gift for shaping verse. There are, however, only a few poems as evidence; unfortunately, Skelton did not spend much time or effort on lyrics. Some of his better ones are “Woefully arrayed,” “The Manner of the World Nowadays,” “Womanhood, Wanton, ye want,” and “My Darling Dear, my Daisy Flower.”
Skelton is not an imitator of those who went before him, nor is he a founder of any style or school much copied by those who came after him. True, he did write in the medieval tradition, but not entirely, and he is better in those poems in which he does not follow the tradition. He had some imitators of his style in his day, but they made no significant contribution to literature. Thus, Skelton is unique. He was a poet following the medieval tradition while the other scholars were heralding England’s Renaissance, yet a poet creating his own particular style; a tender poet capable of the warm humor of “Philip Sparrow”; a realistic poet capable of the crude grossness of “The Tunning of Elinour Rumming”; a religious poet, loving his Church yet calling for its inner reformation; a secular poet knowledgeable in the ways of the world; and most of all, a courageous poet who spoke his mind to the powerful and pursued his individual artistic gifts.