John Skelton, (born c. 1460—died June 21, 1529, London), Tudor poet and satirist of both political and religious subjects whose reputation as an English poet of major importance was restored only in the 20th century and whose individual poetic style of short rhyming lines, based on natural speech rhythms, has been given the name of Skeltonics.
His place of birth and childhood is unknown. He was educated at the University of Cambridge and later achieved the status of “poet laureate” (a degree in rhetoric) at Oxford, Leuven (Louvain) in the Netherlands (now in Belgium), and Cambridge. This success and also his skill at translating ancient Greek and Roman authors led to his appointment in 1488 first as court poet to Henry VII and later, in addition, as “scolemaster” to the Duke of York (later Henry VIII). In 1498 Skelton took holy orders and in 1502, when Henry became heir to the throne and the royal household was reorganized, he became rector of Diss, in Norfolk, a position he held until his death, though from 1512 he lived in London. In about 1512 Henry VIII granted him the title of orator regius, and in this capacity Skelton became a forthright adviser to the King, in court poems, on public issues, and on church affairs.
Little of Skelton’s early work is known, but his reputation was such that Desiderius Erasmus, greatest figure in the northern Renaissance, visiting England in 1499, referred to him as “the incomparable light and glory of English letters.” His most notable poem from his time at court is Bowge of courte, a satire of the disheartening experience of life at court; it was not until his years at Diss that he attempted his now characteristic Skeltonics. The two major poems from this period are Phyllyp Sparowe, ostensibly a lament for the death of a young lady’s pet but also a lampoon of the liturgical office for the dead; and Ware the Hawke, an angry attack on an irreverent hunting priest who had flown his hawk into Skelton’s church. Skelton produced a group of court poems, mostly satirical: A ballad of the Scottysshe Kynge, a savage attack on the King’s enemies, was written in 1513 after the Battle of Flodden; and in the next year he entertained the court with a series of “flyting” poems of mock abuse. In 1516 he wrote the first secularmorality play in English, Magnyfycence, a political satire, followed by The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummynge, a portrayal of a drunken woman in an alehouse, which, though popular, contributed largely to Skelton’s later reputation as a “beastly” poet. His three major political and clerical satires, Speke Parrot (written 1521), Collyn Clout (1522), and Why come ye nat to courte (1522), were all directed against the mounting power of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, both in church and in state, and the dangers—as Skelton saw them—of the new learning of the Humanists. Wolsey proved too strong an opponent to attack further, and Skelton turned to lyrical and allegorical themes in his last poems, dedicating them all to the Cardinal himself. Skelton’s reputation declined rapidly in a 16th-century England predominantly Protestant in religion and Italianate in poetic style. A new appreciation of his qualities, however, emerged in the 20th century.
John Skelton (c.1463-1529) is in many ways a poet of contradictions. He was esteemed by his contemporaries for his eloquence and aureate style, but in the judgement of less sympathetic readers his scurrility, his use of the demotic and his irregular verse forms violated canons of literary decorum and good taste. A religious conservative and a trenchant opponent of evangelical reform, his pugnacious onslaughts against Cardinal Wolsey were interpreted by subsequent generations of poets and controversialists as a more generalised attack on the corruption of the Catholic clergy, and he came to be seen as a proto-Protestant and his work as a model of anti-Catholic satire. He was a polyglot humanist who took his place among the international community of scholars, but his polemics, particularly those directed against the French and the Scots, can be ruthless in their deployment of the most xenophobic and chauvinistic of nationalistic stereotypes.
Skelton has therefore proved a problematic figure for critics. Not only does his diverse body of work, which encompasses a vast array of genres, styles and subject matter, resist easy categorisation but his persona as a public poet, combatively assertive yet at the same time deferential – even obsequious – to the wishes of those in authority, does not fit comfortably with modern notions either of poetry, or of the place of the poet in public life.
John Scattergood’s meticulously detailed exploration of Skelton’s writing career directs its attention squarely at the poems themselves. Although he provides a great deal of contextual material, his commentary and analysis do not seek to impose a particular interpretation, but as far as possible allow the work to speak for itself. The breadth of Skelton’s writing – the sheer range of his interests and the diversity of genres in which he wrote – is well served by his literary biographer. Scattergood writes about the different stages of Skelton’s career, from his arrival at the court of Henry VII in the late 1480s all the way through to his response to the emerging Lutheran “heresy” 40 years later, with equal insight and authority.
Skelton is often seen as a forbiddingly “difficult” and opaque poet, and his writing is rooted in the public life and personal rivalries of the early Tudor court, all of which require careful exposition for a modern reader. But at times his obscurity is a conscious poetic strategy, creating a mode in which to assert dangerous political opinions while simultaneously concealing those opinions beneath a veil of allegory and metaphor. Scattergood offers a rigorous analysis of Skelton’s literary experimentation and innovation, and carefully charts the ways in which his writing develops in response to changing political circumstance.
The nature of Skelton’s poetry – the fact that it not only engages with but also sees itself as an intervention in public affairs – means that it creates relatively little space for the subjective exploration of selfhood. His poetic persona can seem rather flat as a result, and the fractious and quarrelsome quality of much of his verse suggests, in Scattergood’s words, that “tact and insight into the feelings of others were never [his] strong points”. Yet despite the insensitive figure that often emerges from the poetry, Scattergood is unfailingly judicious, understanding and sympathetic in his treatment of his subject, and his excellent analysis highlights Skelton’s importance to both the literary and political history of the period.
John Skelton: The Career of an Early Tudor Poet
By John Scattergood
Four Courts Press, 356pp, £50.00
Published 11 July 2014