Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by John Churton Collins
John Skelton (1460?1529)
[The date of Skeltons birth is not known; it probably took place somewhere about 1460. He began his career as a sober scholar; he ended it as a ribald priest. In his first capacity he was tutor to Prince Henry (afterwards Henry VIII), the Laureate of three Universities, and the friend of Caxton and Erasmus, who has described him as litterarum Anglicarum lumen et decus. In his second capacity he was rector of Diss in Norfolk and a hanger-on about the Court of Henry VIII. He died at Westminster, where he had taken sanctuary to escape the wrath of Wolsey, in 1529. Some of his poems are said to have been printed in London in 1512; a completer collection of them appeared in 1568, but it was not until Dyces admirable collection in 1843 that they were published in their integrity.]
SKELTONS claims to notice lie not so much in the intrinsic excellence of his work as in the complete originality of his style, in the variety of his powers, in the peculiar character of his satire, and in the ductility of his expression when ductility of expression was unique. His writings, which are somewhat voluminous, may be divided into two great classesthose which are written in his own peculiar measure, and which are all more or less of the same character, and those which are written in other measures and in a different tone. To this latter class belong his serious poems, and his serious poems are now deservedly forgotten. Two of them, however, The Bowge of Court, a sort of allegorical satire on the court of Henry VIII, and the morality of Magnificence, which gives him a creditable place among the fathers of our drama, contain some vigorous and picturesque passages which have not been thrown away on his successors. As a lyrical poet Skelton also deserves mention. His ballads are easy and natural, and though pitched as a rule in the lowest key, evince touches of real poetical feeling. When in the other poems his capricious muse breaks out into lyrical singing, as she sometimes does, the note is clear, the music wild and airy. The Garlande of Laurell for example contains amid all its absurdities some really exquisite fragments. But it is as the author of The Boke of Colin Clout, Why come ye nat to Court, Ware the Hawke, The Boke of Philipp Sparowe, and The Tunnyng of Elinore Rummyng, that Skelton is chiefly interesting. These poems are all written in that headlong voluble breathless doggrel which, rattling and clashing on through quick-recurring rhymes, through centos of French and Latin, and through every extravagant caprice of expression, has taken from the name of its author the title of Skeltonical verse. The three first poems are satires. Colin Clout is a general attack on the ignorance and sensuality of the clergy. The second is a fierce invective against Cardinal Wolsey, and the third is directed against a brother clergyman who was, it appears, in the habit of flying his hawks in Skeltons church. These three poems are all in the same strain, as in the same measuregrotesque, rough, intemperate, but though gibbering and scurrilous, often caustic and pithy, and sometimes rising to a moral earnestness which contrasts strangely with their uncouth and ludicrous apparel.
Though my rime be ragged,
Tatterd and jagged,
Rusty and moth-eaten;
If ye take wel therewith,
It hath in it some pith.
And the attentive student of Skelton will soon discover this. Indeed he reminds us more of Rabelais than any author in our language. In The Boke of Philipp Sparowe he pours out a long lament for the death of a favourite sparrow which belonged to a fair lay nun. This poem was probably suggested by Catullus Dirge on a similar occasion. In Skelton, however, the whole tone is burlesque and extravagant, though the poem is now and then relieved by pretty fancies and by graceful touches of a sort of humorous pathos. In The Tunnyng of Elinore Rummynge his powers of pure description and his skill in the lower walks of comedy are seen in their highest perfection. In this sordid and disgusting delineation of humble life he may fairly challenge the supremacy of Swift and Hogarth. But Skelton is, with all his faults, one of the most versatile and one of the most essentially original of all our poets. He touches Swift on one side, and he touches Sackville on the other.