The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868

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“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 loosely assembled, the work has been termed a “gallimaufry,” or confused medley. With “Speak, Parrot,” this is literally true, since the poem presents several different rhyming and rhythmic patterns as well as shifting from English to Latin with sometimes bewildering frequency.

However, this seeming confusion is deliberately manipulated by Skelton to suit his satirical purpose. Because of the open nature of the poem, it can address any subject freely and move from one to another without bothering with strictly logical consistency. Because of its hidden and allegorical nature, it can suggest and imply more than it openly states.

The “Parrot” of the title is the narrator of the poem and may be identified with Skelton. Within the poem, as a “byrde of Paradyse,” Parrot is a special pet of the ladies at the court, who beg him to speak to them: “ Speke, Parott, I pray yow,’ full curteslye they sey,/ Parott ys a goodlye byrde and a pratye popagay’” [prattling popinjay]. As a prattling popinjay, or chatterbox, Parrot is given leave to speak freely, much in the tradition of court jesters or royal fools, and he takes full advantage of this, especially in his attacks on Cardinal Wolsey.

The poem moves from the general to the particular. Its early stanzas set the context, placing Parrot in the court of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, then still Henry’s wife. Parrot is established not only as witty but also as learned: He knows a number of languages, including Latin, Hebrew, and Chaldean (the languages of the “New Learning,” or Renaissance) as well as Dutch, French, and Spanish (the languages of contemporary diplomacy). In addition, in the poem Skelton has Parrot imitate Scots and Irish accents. As Parrot modestly remarks, his mistress Dame Philology gave him the gift “to lerne all langage and hyt to speke aptlye.”

Having confirmed his linguistic abilities, Parrot uses them to paint a picture of contemporary abuses—the most important of the traditional roles of satire. He attacks the new method of teaching in English schools, especially Oxford and Cambridge Universities, where Greek is displacing the traditional Latin, and Latin itself is taught in a fashion that makes it less useful than before. On one hand, Skelton is defending the old order, while on the other he is covertly attacking Cardinal Wolsey, who openly supported the New Learning, especially the teaching of Greek. Having finished with this pedagogic matter, Skeleton has Parrot signify a change in subject by presenting his version of “My proper Besse,” a popular song of the period which had both an amorous and a moralistic meaning: It could be interpreted either as a lover’s carnal desire for his beloved or the soul’s longing for God.

Skelton then shifts the poem again, giving Parrot a series of envois in which he comments again on contemporary events, especially Wolsey’s diplomatic mission to France and Belgium during 1521. These attacks finished, the poem concludes with Parrot, in highly rhetorical and mannered language, railing against the abuses and excesses of the times, including those in the royal court, the church, and contemporary English life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745

Like so many Tudor and early Elizabethan poets, John Skelton made highly conscious and conspicuous use of rhetorical techniques and devices. These are central points of “Speak, Parrot,” as are the frequent Latin phrases and quotations which would have been easily read and quite familiar to his courtly readers.

The basic structure for most of the poem is a seven-line stanza, with a steady but varying meter that is not quite iambic pentameter but which provides a sense of order and regularity. It is against this sense of order that Skelton places what he, as a moralist and satirist, sees as the disorder of the world: the decline of learning in the universities, abuses of the clergy in the church, and, above all, the inordinate power and malign influence of Cardinal Wolsey over the court and the entire kingdom.

The three most noticeable rhetorical devices throughout “Speak, Parrot” are alliteration, anaphora, and antithesis. They bring artistic variety to the poem and help underscore its themes and meanings. The first, alliteration, appears early, in line 3 of the poem, when Parrot describes himself as “Deyntely dyetyd with dyvers delycate spyce.” It is found throughout the work, as in line 60, where Parrot notes that “Melchisedeck mercyfull made Moloc mercyles,” as well as near the end of the poem, in line 357, when one reads, “Go, propyr Parotte, my popagay.”

Anaphora is similar to alliteration. The latter is the repetition of a sound within a line, while the former is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive lines or phrases. This device is used throughout the poem but is generally limited, as in lines 205 through 207, which follow the same format: “Parrot is no pendugum,” “Parrot is no woodecocke,” “Parrot is no stamerying stare.” However, as the poem approaches its climax and Skelton wishes to underscore the work’s satiric content, he uses a highly anaphoric pattern to present and emphasize his message:

So many morall maters, and so lytell usyed;So myche newe makying, and so madd tyme spente;So myche translacion into Englyshe confused;So myche nobyll prechying, and so lytell amendment.

This is the pattern—constantly recycling the same limited set of words to introduce lines and phrases—for the final ten full stanzas of “Speak, Parrot.” It presents the culmination of Skelton’s argument to the reader in a fashion that is both powerful and memorable.

The impact is increased because the anaphora is frequently found with another rhetorical device, that of antithesis, in which two contrasting ideas are linked by being presented in similar grammatical and syntactic form. Thus, in the example above, “So many morall maters” is both joined to and contrasted with “so lytell usyed,” as “So myche newe makying” parallels “so madd tyme spente.” Antithesis allows Skelton to set the positive and negative aspects of contemporary life side by side, emphasizing how people should behave as opposed to how they actually act. The rhetorical pattern reinforces the moral meaning and the use of anaphora, with its insistent repetition, further strengthens the lesson that Skelton, through Parrot, is teaching his reader.

Finally, Skelton makes skillful use of languages other than English, but none more so than Latin. The second—sometimes first—language of any educated person during this period, Latin was regarded as the tongue for knowledge and artistry—although, as “Speak, Parrot” itself notes (and to some extent laments), Greek was quickly becoming a respectable rival.

Because of this universal knowledge of Latin among his readers, Skelton could lace his poem with Latin throughout, beginning with the opening epigraph, which can be translated, “The present book will grow greatly while I am alive; thence will the golden reputation of Skelton be proclaimed.” In other words, Skelton is staking out a bold claim for himself and his work: It will last, and the poet will long be remembered. This is a familiar conceit in European poetry, its most memorable statement was by the Roman poet Horace, echoed in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.”

Skelton closes his poem with another Latin epigraph, which is a slight variant of his opening lines. Now it is Parrot himself, rather than the book, which will live and preserve Skelton’s memory and message. Parrot, the created character who points out abuses and condemns them, will ensure the fame of “Skelton Lawryat/ Orator Regius” (Skelton the poet laureate, orator of the king).