John Skelton should be one of the great figures of English poetry. He is widely regarded as the most significant poet in the 130 years between the death of Chaucer and the flourishing of Thomas Wyatt; but it has to be said that the competition for the top ranking south of the Scottish border is not very fierce, and until the 1930s such a judgment would have struck most people as bizarre. His poetry had come to be little regarded within fifty years of his death, and his primary reputation by the end of the 16th century was for buffoonery: he was turned into a jest-book figure, and in Anthony Munday’s Robin Hood play within a play, The Downfall and Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon, a ‘real-life’ Skelton takes the role of Friar Tuck. His recovery came on the back of the rise of Modernism, with its opening of readers’ minds to new kinds of non-traditional poetry, and it was confirmed with the appearance of Philip Henderson’s modern-spelling edition in 1931. This put him within reach of the general reader, and the general reader, eager for a change from the post-Romantic pieties of the Golden Treasury and newly trained to rejoice in the toughnesses of Donne and the fragmentations of Eliot, responded with interest, warmth and general incomprehension.
The incomprehension was largely shared by the professionals. Skelton was writing on the cusp between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and almost all criticism of him grounds itself on a recognition of that transitional or ambiguous quality in him. His fit is equally bad in either period, and recent criticism that erodes the conventionally accepted differences between them finds him no less of a puzzle. His contemporaries, unburdened by any of our confusion over periodisation, were likewise bewildered: the young Skelton was praised by Caxton for his learning and was the subject of a fulsome panegyric by Erasmus, but later references to him were often hostile. He seems to share common ground with those great humanist proponents of folly, Rabelais and Erasmus himself, but his scathing views on the teaching of Greek place him outside the central ground of humanism. He was equally vituperative in his opposition to the laxities of the contemporary Church and to the doctrines of the Reformation. He was one of the first English poets to have the option of print publication, but after the appearance of The Bowge of Court in 1498 (an allegorical satire on court life in the form of a nightmare poem), he largely retreated into the coterie circulation of manuscript, and most of his poems that reached print did so only after his death. He interspersed his poetry with Latin of sometimes fiendish obscurity, and produced, in the Brueghelesque Tunning of Elinor Rumming, a work of frenetic energy about the disgusting practices of an ale-wife and her customers. In the beguiling series of lyrics contained in his Garland of Laurel, which were addressed to the various high-born ladies in the household of Sheriff Hutton Castle, this poet who rejoiced in his admiration of Chaucer and his academic title of poeta laureatus compares the women at various points, without apparent irony, to Cressida (unfaithful), Tomyris (bloodthirsty), Deianira (unwitting means of killing her husband), Canace (incestuous), Phaedra (who hanged herself after failing to seduce her stepson) and Pasiphae (who gave birth to the Minotaur after making love to a bull). He is the kind of writer who translates brevitas as ‘the succyncte and compendious brievete of wrytynge’; and he is the inspiration for what must be one of the all-time most implausible titles of an academic article, John Considine’s ‘Pendugum: John Skelton and the Case of the Anachronistic Penguin’.
Skelton was a Yorkshireman by birth, though he was educated at Cambridge and spent his whole adulthood in the south. By 1490 he had acquired a laureateship in rhetoric from Oxford (and at some point from Cambridge and Louvain, too) and a high reputation for learning. He made enough of an impression at the court of the arriviste Tudors to be appointed tutor to the young Prince Henry; he wrote a Latin treatise of advice for him and his elder brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, but like many of his poems it does not survive. When Arthur’s death transformed his pupil’s prospects, Skelton found himself relegated to a rectorship in Norfolk. Some of his poems embed themselves in the locality: his diatribe Ware the Hawk, against a neighbouring vicar whose hawk pursued its prey into his church at Diss; and Phillip Sparrow, a dirge for the young Jane Scrope’s pet bird, a poem one would describe as charming were it not for the fact that its opening liturgical lament is succeeded by his fantasies as to what goes on under the sparrow’s owner’s clothes. Phillip Sparrow also demonstrates his fondness for never using one word, or bird, where seventy will do, as in the list of species – from the goldfinch to the ostrich – who assist at Phillip’s funeral. His trademark form, the skeltonic, first appears in these Norfolk poems, a tumbling riot of short lines of two or three stresses rhyming on the same sound for anything from two lines to 14. It was a big change from his other favourite form, rhyme royal, the seven-line Troilus stanza that marked its users as writing within the high Chaucerian courtly tradition. He can subvert even that, however, as in his short poem that starts out as a plea to a hard-hearted mistress – ‘The ancient acquaintance, madam, between us twain’ – but finishes up in a bouncing rule-defying rhythm that mimics her enthusiasm for being ridden by ‘good horsemen’. Alongside all this, he constantly boasts of his poetic supremacy, and demands acknowledgment of it from his readers.
Diss was never going to content a man of such ambition, and the accession of Henry VIII saw Skelton firing off poems of congratulation to his former pupil. Within three years he was back at court, as king’s orator. In addition to his official duties, he produced further poems of praise, lament and vituperation, the latter often in the form of ‘flytings’, the object of which was to be as insulting to an enemy or rival as the wit could manage. They didn’t necessarily demand much intellectual input – ‘At bothe endes ye stinke’ is the standard level – but they did demand the verbal hyperactivity at which Skelton excelled. He also wrote a lengthy morality play, Magnificence, designed as a mix of advice to the ruler and court satire. Magnificence himself is a king who is distracted from the serious business of just rule into luxurious self-indulgence by figures such as Fancy, Cloaked Collusion and Courtly Abusion; downfall and despair follow, until he is narrowly rescued from suicide by Good Hope, Redress and Sad Circumspection. The play belongs with the medieval tradition of direct instruction to a monarch. The new Renaissance form of advice opted instead for the indirection of flattery, with the ruler portrayed as ideal but with a coded subtext reminding him that this is how he should be acting. Henry was aware of the agenda lurking within the flattery, but made it clear that he much preferred his advice to come in that form. It was about this time that he decided that the traditional title of ‘Your Grace’, with its inherent reminder that grace and mercy were indeed the duties of the monarch, could usefully be replaced by the innovative ‘Your Majesty’, a title that imposed no obligations whatsoever. So far as Magnificence was concerned, it may have been rather too easy to recognise in the monarch of the play, who declares, ‘Lusty Pleasure is my desire to have,’ the young king who wrote: ‘Pastime with good company/I love, and shall until I die’. It seems to have been written for a London merchant audience rather than for presentation to the king himself, but Skelton may still have overdone the plain speaking.
Whatever the reason – there was also the little matter of his increasing hostility to the all-powerful Cardinal Wolsey – he soon found himself again dismissed from the court. He retreated to the precincts of Westminster Abbey (perhaps for sanctuary, perhaps just as a tenant), where he wrote a series of forceful satires against the cardinal. In two of these he takes on a public role, to give voice to the vast rumble of discontent he hears from across the country. The third, Speak, Parrot, a diatribe against the corruption of the times in general and against the new educational methods and the cardinal in particular, is individual to the point of hermeticism. It rejoices in an obscurity of form and a tumble of multilingualism that puts The Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos in the shade, but which, like them, catches the ear and the imagination ahead of any perception of coherent meaning. To make matters still more complicated for textual scholars, it survives only as incompletely overlapping fragments, two in manuscript in a commonplace book and the others in posthumous prints. The bite of the satire is somewhat weakened for modern readers since Skelton’s opposition to the cardinal is grounded not so much on disapproval of his policies or on his abuse of his ecclesiastical role, as on his low birth: he couldn’t reconcile himself to the notion that the most powerful man in the land after the king should be a butcher’s son. Skelton believed in the monarchy, the aristocracy and the dignity of the Church, a set of convictions that could be turned to the production of invective or panegyric as the occasion required. Wolsey seems to have decided that the poet was worth wooing over to his side, and Skelton found resources within his multiple personalities to name the cardinal as the dedicatee of his final poems, of the late 1520s. He died in 1529 and was buried at Westminster, not in the Abbey alongside his revered Chaucer, but before the high altar in the adjacent St Margaret’s. Nobody has ever suggested moving him to Poets’ Corner.
Skelton is, in other words, a maverick, as Jane Griffiths calls him in the very first line of her book. We have plenty of mental and critical compartments (medieval, early modern; scholastic, humanist; courtly, demotic; satirical, panegyric; dissident, conservative), and an abundance of poems or sections of poems, but no way to bring the two into order. Critical understanding of Skelton’s work has thus proceeded only fitfully. Historically, he has appealed much more strongly to poets than to scholars or critics: Southey, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves and Auden were all enthusiasts. It was Southey’s endorsement that inspired Alexander Dyce to produced the first scholarly edition in 1843, and that remained the only source for academic study until John Scattergood’s Complete English Poems 140 years later. Although an increasing number of critics have turned their attention to him, a young Stanley Fish among them, one still had the feeling that the code had not been cracked, that he was a poet who had not yet found his critic. In the event, there has been no single great breakthrough: just a series of books and articles that have, little by little, lifted some of the bewilderment he creates, cast light on his obscurities, elucidated the politics behind the works, and made sense, first of the individual poems and so gradually of his work as a whole. Skelton still doesn’t fit at all tidily into our categories, but now we have some better-shaped compartments: language theory, the ‘grammarians’ war’ over teaching methods, a greater understanding of everything from codicology to economics to the generic conventions governing abuse.
Jane Griffiths’s book is an indication of how far we have got, and itself takes a big stride forward: one begins to feel that we – she – may at last have got him sorted. She herself, in keeping with the great tradition of Skelton appreciation, is no mean poet. She offers an analytical toolkit that looks so postmodern as to be anachronistic, but the tools are the ones provided by Skelton himself. He is, she suggests, interested in ‘the freedom and unpredictability of thought itself’, so that his refusal to fit the normal poetic or intellectual categories becomes entirely deliberate. Most of the great writers in all languages have covertly trained their audiences to a new level of understanding; Skelton set out to do it explicitly too, the aggressive novelty of his more unprecedented forms serving as a ‘challenge to the reader to undertake reading as a kind of leap of faith, a process of invention, rather than the passive reception of precept’. The demands he makes of his readers are the corollary of the importance he accords to the written word. History itself, as he understands it, is recorded memory, a definition that puts great weight on the recorder. His greatest gift, eloquence, is also dangerous: the most articulate figures who appear in his works are the smooth-talking vice figures who ensnare the dreamer Dread in the Bowge, or who persuade Magnificence not to give audience to wiser voices and to value what he wants to hear over what he ought to hear. Parrot’s eloquence is crippled twice over, by the risk of not being listened to and by the risks that follow if he is, while a series of Latin marginal glosses to the poem variously contradict the text, or urge the reader to ignore the obvious meaning, or suggest that they won’t understand anyway.
Poetry, in this presentation, ceases to be a transparent way of conveying meaning, and functions instead to call attention to the problems of the medium itself: to the fact that language is a scheme independent of what it purports to describe, and that it can function just as well to prevent comprehension as to enable it. Words to Skelton are too fascinating to be allowed to get on with their conventional job of communication. He claims to be variously inspired by the Muses and the Holy Ghost, but his high vision of the function of the poet, and of himself as laureate, perpetually takes second place to his high-octane frustration at the inability of poetry to make itself heard over the voices of falsehood, or to move eloquence on from the skilled deployment of rhetoric and learning to performative persuasion. When he speaks in his satires on behalf of the suffering commons, he has to do so from almost as marginal a position as theirs.
If Modernism first made Skelton look interesting, he begins to appear comprehensible in a postmodern age that thrives on fragments and discontinuities. That, perhaps, raises a new risk. We are beginning to feel comfortable with Skelton; and that may be the worst possible reaction to him. If he were writing now, we might well regard him as a reactionary snob; but even on his own terms, he’s not a poet who wants his readers to feel comfortable.