The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Speak, Parrot” has been regarded as John Skelton’s masterpiece, a brilliant tour de force which links his strong sense of moralism, keen observations of contemporary court and political events, and his extraordinary poetic talents. It is a long poem, over 520 full or partial lines in its definitive modern edition. While it is written largely in blocks of seven-line stanzas with a consistent ababbee rhyme pattern, it is also interspersed with various other line lengths and rhyme patterns, and it includes snatches of dialogue, much of it in languages other than English.

“Speak, Parrot” is typical of much of Skelton’s work. It is a commentary on public events that would have primarily interested the court of Henry VIII but also would have had wider political implications. As court poet (essentially the same as the modern poet laureate) Skelton would have been expected to produce such works. In addition, the poem carries a strongly moralizing element, which again is characteristic of Skelton’s verses. The combination of the two threads produced a rich, densely compact poem presented in a brilliant but sometimes enigmatic style.

The poem is one of Skelton’s most difficult to understand, not only because of its vocabulary and organization but also because it is an extended allegory, many of whose meanings and references are presented in veiled imagery that would have been familiar to a limited number of persons at the time the poem was written and that has become fainter over the years. Still, the work retains a vigorous sense of form and meaning that makes it accessible to the modern reader.

In large part a political satire on life and affairs in the court of the English king Henry VIII, the poem takes as its central target Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s most important minister. However, a number of other topics, including new ways of teaching Latin in English universities and the moral decay of the times, are included. Because of this range of subjects, and because “Speak, Parrot” has a structural pattern that, like its language, is rather freely and...

(The entire section is 868 words.)