Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750

Although “Speak, Parrot” is one of Skelton’s greatest poems (perhaps his masterpiece, according to a number of scholars) it is a difficult poem to read and understand. Its themes are masked by its allegorical method, which hints at but does not always openly disclose its references. In addition, Skelton’s languages (since he includes a goodly portion of Latin, French, and other tongues) can be difficult, even obscure.

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There are valid reasons for this difficulty, chief among them the fact that “Speak, Parrot” is a poetic satire—an attack on what Skelton felt to be the follies and abuses of the times. Specifically, he is concerned with the state of education in English universities, the conduct of the court of Henry VIII, and the position and activities of Thomas Wolsey, cardinal of the Catholic Church and Lord Chancellor of England, about whom he is particularly vehement.

Skelton was closely connected with the higher education of his day. A graduate of Oxford, he had served as both court poet and as tutor to Prince Henry, who later became king, and in 1512 he was appointed orator regius (orator of the king). He was recognized with a number of honorary academic degrees, or “laureated,” by colleges and universities in England and in Europe. In all these areas he was greatly concerned with the education of the rising generation, especially in Latin, which was still the universal language of any educated person. In “Speak, Parrot” Skelton attacks the new fashion of favoring Greek over Latin:

In Achademia Parrot dare no probleme kepe,For Greci fari [Greek] so occupyeth the chayre,That Latinum fari [Latin] may fall to rest and slepe.

Parrot goes on to state his fear that in addition to supplanting Latin, Greek studies will replace the “Tryvyals and quatryvyals” (the Trivium and Quadrivium, the traditional “seven liberal arts”), which had been the basis of European learning since the early Middle Ages. Skelton, through Parrot, takes an essential conservative position, accepting the place of Greek in the New Learning but insisting that the older ways are better than the new.

The poem’s second major theme concerns abuses in contemporary England, especially in the court of Henry VIII. Skelton, who was an ordained priest, had a strongly moralistic streak and deplored the excesses of his day. He attacks these same abuses in other of his works, such as his earlier poem “The Maner of the World Now a Dayes” and the later “Colin Clout.” In “Speak, Parrot” he reaches a sustained pitch of feeling, especially in the long set of closing stanzas that speak of “So manye bolde barons, there heartes as dull as lede” and “So hote hatered agaynste the Chyrche, and cheryte [charity] so colde.” Clearly, in many ways the times are out of joint in Henrican England.

One great reason this is so is Thomas Wolsey, cardinal and Lord Chancellor. To Skelton, Wolsey seemed to embody all the abuses and excesses of the times. Wolsey’s accumulation of wealth, titles, and power must have made him seem the very personification of the seven deadly sins, especially those of avarice, gluttony, and, above all, pride. Having risen from humble beginnings (his father was a butcher), Wolsey had, through his brilliance and ability, made himself indispensable to the young king. In 1521, when “Speak, Parrot” was most likely composed, Wolsey was in Europe on a delicate diplomatic mission to France and the low countries, seemingly to mediate a peace between France and the Holy Roman Empire, but more likely to support Emperor Charles V, who had promised Wolsey help in his quest for the papacy. Skelton was greatly offended by such blatant political maneuverings, which subordinated England’s welfare to Wolsey’s personal ambition. His distaste for Wolsey is clear throughout the poem, especially when he declares that Wolsey “caryeth a kyng in hys sleve.” The reference to Henry VIII, whose dependence on his chief counselor was well known, is clear. When Skelton describes Wolsey himself, his invective is scathing:

So rygorous revelyng, in a prelate specially;So bold and so braggyng, and was so baselye borne;So lordlye of hys lokes, and so dysdayneslye [disdainfully];So fatte a magott, bred of a flesshe-flye.

The image is clear and highly unflattering. Skelton, himself a clergyman and a social conservative, is highly offended by Wolsey’s inappropriate, even scandalous behavior. Perhaps the worst aspect of that behavior, and the major offense against which Parrot speaks, was his meteoric rise from his humble beginnings.

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