Joseph S. Salemi
Today, real satirists are few and far between. The combination of hot rage and verbal ability, along with an insouciant contempt for received opinion, are discouraged in our effeminate schools and workshops. But it was not so in the past, when tougher characters and thicker skins prevailed. People freely traded both abuse and punches, whereas nowadays they immediately run for their lawyers or the Human Resources Office.
Moreover, educated persons back then recognized that satire (like dramatic comedy) was an accepted form of literary release, with license to be offensive and rude. You didn’t need to concern yourself about some stupid snowflake or government-certified victim being traumatized by what you wrote. Can you imagine giants like Aristophanes or Swift putting up with pious chickenshit from a “Diversity” committee?
John Skelton loved raillery and satire, and he had no problem tweaking people’s noses and generally causing trouble. He also didn’t scruple to pen biting answers to anyone who objected to what he wrote—he’d be quite at home in any modern blogosphere catfight. I just love the guy.
Skelton was born around 1460 in the north of England (perhaps Yorkshire), which might account for the marked anti-Scottish animus he exhibits in some of his poems. He also expresses anti-French feeling, since they were the traditional allies of the Scots. He attended both Oxford and Cambridge, receiving a “laureate” degree from each school in testimony to his skill in rhetoric and his knowledge of the classics. Later, he received a similar honor from the University of Louvain in Brabant. Skelton was especially known for his English translation of the historian Diodorus Siculus, done from the Latin of Poggio Bracciolini.
We don’t know Skelton’s family background, but he managed to move in high circles of the nobility. He was friendly with the Percys of Northumberland and the Howards of Norfolk. He became the tutor to the young Duke of York (the later Henry VIII), and his scholarship and learning were publicly lauded by the printer William Caxton, and then by Desiderius Erasmus, who called Skelton “that light and glory of English letters.” This was high praise indeed, coming as it did from the foremost humanist scholar of the time.
Skelton was ordained a priest in 1498, serving as the rector of a small parish in Norfolk, but this was likely arranged by his noble friends as a way to provide him with a steady income. He was not particularly suited to Holy Orders, and his congregation complained to the local bishop that Skelton kept a young concubine in his house, by whom he had a bastard child. He continued to come to London and Westminster to take part in court life, since his fame as a poet was at this time well established. Despite his connections he did make enemies with his very free speech, his mordant satires, and his impatience with foolish critics. In 1512 he was appointed Orator Regius (Royal Orator), and became in effect the Poet Laureate of England. He wrote several poems celebrating political and military victories of Henry VIII, his former pupil. But his savage attacks on Cardinal Wolsey (at that time a figure of great political power in the state) did get him into trouble, and he was compelled to take temporary sanctuary at Westminster Abbey to avoid arrest and prosecution.
Skelton presents two difficulties to the modern reader: his unfamiliar language, and his idiosyncratic “Skeltonics.” Concerning the first, he wrote at a time when Middle English was completing its metamorphosis into Early Modern English. For this reason one can go along for several lines in Skelton’s poetry with no more difficulty than one would find in Shakespeare, and then suddenly be baffled by an archaic verbal form, an obsolete term, or some medieval idiom. Reading him is like reading the famous Paston Letters from fifteenth-century Norfolk, where fairly clear passages of prose are occasionally studded with diction that demands recourse to an editor’s explanatory apparatus. John Scattergood’s excellent 1983 edition of Skelton’s Complete English Poems has 133 pages of detailed notes in small type, and another fifty pages of glossary. For those who prefer a modernized version, Philip Henderson’s 1931 edition of John Skelton’s Complete Poems will be useful, and this edition also contains all of Skelton’s Latin verse. In this essay I shall give modern English glosses to only two samples of Skelton’s verse; any other quotes will be from the poet’s original text.
Meter can be another obstacle. Skelton did write in more orthodox meter in his earlier poems (which can seem Chaucerian), but some of his more notable pieces are done in the eponymous Skeltonics, which are not fixedly metrical at all, but a kind of running dimeter-trimeter clip-clop of monorhymes in various numerical groupings. They are usually in couplets, but sometimes the monorhyme will go on for seven or eight lines. Here’s the example of it given by The Oxford Companion to English Literature:
though my ryme be ragged,
Here is another sample, from his famous poem “Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?” (a political satire):
as touchynge dystrectyon,
Is he writing a form of free verse? No, not at all. But since we cannot be completely sure of Skelton’s pronunciation (especially the final e that is today silent in English orthography), we are somewhat at sea in scanning his lines. In fact, there is much more agreement about Chaucer’s pronunciation and scansion of Middle English than there is about Skelton’s phonetics, since in Skelton’s day English was in the midst of some growing pains. Occasionally Skelton includes lines or phrases of Latin in his poems, and we can use our knowledge of Latin stress patterns to help illuminate what he’s doing. But it’s still hit-or-miss at times.
It doesn’t matter, because Skelton is never boring. How many six-hundred-year-old texts can you pick up today, and find yourself chuckling and laughing as you peruse them? The man had the four absolute requisites for a satirist: fearlessness, contempt for bien pensant orthodoxy, a willingness to write savage descriptions, and an irrepressible playful streak.
Let’s start by looking at Skelton’s most celebrated poem, “The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummynge,” an amazing tour de force of 624 lines about an ale-house and brewery in Leatherhead, Surrey, run by a feisty and cantankerous old woman. Scholarly research has determined that such a woman and tavern did exist (the ale-wife “Alianora Romyng” of Leatherhead was fined tuppence in 1525 for overcharging her customers). The poem is a lengthy, warts-and-all description of the ugly Elynour; the bedraggled and disgusting clientele who show up to buy her ale; the utter filth of her brewing process; and the sundry goods she accepts as payment in lieu of ready coin. The poem is a celebration of drunken carousing, slovenliness, physical ugliness, and an easily imagined stench. It is probably the earthiest and most inelegant poem in pre-modern English. Here’s part of the description of Elynour herself, with my modern gloss:
Original: Modern gloss:
Her loathsome complexion
This goes on and on, in gruesome detail, with further description of her clothes, deportment, and general vulgarity. Chaucer’s portrayal of the Canterbury pilgrims is utterly lacking in the grittiness and hard-boiled realism that we get from Skelton. Chaucer gives us comic playfulness; Skelton presents us with cinéma vérité.
The bulk of Elynour Rummynge’s customers are women, and they are described as mercilessly as the ale-wife. All are lower-class females, dirty and deshabillées, with torn garments, bare legs, and even flopping naked breasts. All are anxious to partake of Elynour’s strong ale, and have brought various odds and ends in order to pay for it if they have no cash:
Original: Modern gloss:
wenches come unlased,
Some wenches come unlaced,
Other sections of the poem describe the unclean circumstances of Elynour Rummynge’s “tunnyng,” which means the brewing and storage of ale. Dogs and pigs defecate everywhere in her establishment, and chickens roost over the ale vat, dropping their dung into the liquor. Much of the remainder of the poem is a description of the items exchanged by customers for ale, and an unsparing picture of their gross habits and appearance. It is a truly marvelous poem, giving the reader a time-traveler’s glimpse into the early sixteenth century.
My own surmise is that “Skeltonics” are simply the poet’s way of hearkening back to the old four-stress Anglo-Saxon line, with input from the alliterative tradition of his northern English heritage. Chaucer had no interest in that tradition, but Skelton, as a northerner, may have felt some loyalty to it. If I am right, then a typical Skeltonic couplet may be another way of writing the four-stress Anglo-Saxon line, and the separation of the line into a rhyming pair may be a reminiscence of the caesura of the older form:
x / x x
x x /
Skelton did not always use Sketonics. Another famous piece is “The Bowge of Courte,” written in the more traditional iambic rhyme royal. It is from an early period of Skelton’s career, when he was still a young man. The word bowge means “provision” or “court-ration,” and refers to the fixed allotment of food, drink, spending money, and other benefits that an official resident at the royal court could expect to receive. Every courtier, attendant, or permanent companion at the king’s palace would receive a “bowge” that served as one’s room, board, and salary. Skelton’s poem takes the word in a metaphorically satiric manner, in order to speak of “what you can expect” at court. The poem is profoundly medieval in style and tone—there is an overarching dream vision, an extended allegorical narrative, and all the speaking characters are personified abstractions decked out as courtly figures (“Dread,” “Disdain,” “Riot,” “Dissimulation,” “Suspicion”). The poem’s speaker dreams of the court as a great ship, which he boards, but which eventually sickens him with all of the lying and pretension and malice that are present. In the end he leaps off the vessel as he awakens from his dream:
as he rounded this in myne ere
Skelton is famous for his “flytings,” or poetic fights with rivals and enemies. A flyting differs from a satire by being a sustained invective against one person rather than a critical commentary on some abstract fault. If one’s target answers in kind, so much the better—the thing becomes “a contest in obloquy,” as one writer describes it. A notable flyting is Skelton’s “Against Dundas,” written in answer to the Scot George Dundas, who had composed some nasty lines of verse against Englishmen, accusing them of having tails. Skelton’s reply is macaronic, using both English and Latin to insult Dundas in an obscene manner. Skelton calls Dundas “Thou donghyll knyght,” a “Scottishe asse,” and assures him that Englishmen do not have tails:
behynd in our hose
In other words, smell our English arses if you want to know what we have back there. This sort of savage, take-no-prisoners rhetoric is typical of Skelton, who never pulled his punches in a fight. His lengthy three-part flyting “Against Garnesche” (partially in rhyme royal and partially in Skeltonics) is a thesaurus of opprobrium, contempt, and ridicule directed at Sir Christopher Garnesche, a rival at court. Like all effective flytings, it denigrates and belittles the intelligence and literary ability of its target. Garnesche is called an illiterate, a witless scribbler, and an incompetent poet, as well as being metaphorically described as a toad, a scorpion, a baboon, a stinking goat, a parrot, and a greasy dish-washer and kitchen servant. And it also gets very personal:
brethe ys stronge and quike;
Yet it was not Skelton’s flytings that got him into trouble, but rather his long satires that took aim at Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of the Realm and Archbishop of York. This cleric was widely hated in England as an insufferable careerist, time-server, money-grubber, and social climber who had risen from base origins to a position of unexampled arrogance, wealth, and political power. His extortionate taxation of the nobility made him a bête noire of the landed aristocracy. Other classes hated the undue influence he wielded in English politics and foreign diplomacy, where sometimes Wolsey acted as if he himself were the King. The man’s dissolute life, his lack of real religious commitment, his vindictive disposition, and his willingness to use his authority and preeminence as a whip against any opponents, all made him a natural target of popular dislike. Skelton, as a member of the royal court and also in touch with the common folk, was perfectly positioned to lambaste Wolsey from many angles, while being protected in some measure by his position as Orator Regius.
His satire “Colin Clout” is both a general complaint about widespread corruption in the Church, and also a personal attack on Wolsey’s character and behavior. The name Colin Clout (which was borrowed many years later by Edmund Spenser for his pastoral eclogue with a similar title) is that of the poem’s speaker, a simple English rustic who has decided to speak his mind freely about the abuses that he sees around him. It is completely in Skeltonics, and runs for over twelve hundred lines.
The poem begins with a long litany of indictment against corrupt and worldly bishops who neglect their flocks, and against unlearned and unworthy priests who lack both religious education and pious devotion. But it gradually focuses on Wolsey (who is never named) as the perfect symbol of greed, presumption, and arrogance in the higher clergy. Skelton himself is a doctrinally orthodox Catholic, but his main point in “Colin Clout” is that ignorant clergy and bishops of Wolsey’s ilk are driving ordinary Englishmen into heresy and apostasy. He makes his position clear in a passage that insists on his respect for good bishops and clergy, and that underlines the fact that he has very deliberately not named names:
no good bysshop speke I,
Nevertheless, every contemporary reader of the poem knew quite well that Skelton was directing his fire at Cardinal Wolsey when they came to passages such as this, which express the general public anger against Wolsey’s overweening pride, ambition, and naked lust for power:
is a besy thynge
I cannot quote more from “Colin Clout,” but I can attest to its power as a work of invective and satire, as well as its value as historical documentation of the state of English opinion in the immediate pre-Protestant period. Hatred of Wolsey and his arrogance was mixed with a general dissatisfaction with many churchmen who did not live up to their religious obligations. Skelton is especially angry over the fact that this dereliction of duty was giving rise to a variety of heresies, both home-grown (Wycliffites and Lollards) and imported (Hussites and Lutherans).
Keeping in mind that Skelton was a classicist and a churchman helps us understand why he includes so much Latin in his poems. Quotes and small tags from Roman authors, the Bible, canon law, and other sources pepper his text, and sometimes they go on for eight or ten lines, becoming intrinsic to the narrative flow of the poem. This kind of thing is frowned upon today, in a poetic world dominated by the strictures of drabness, enforced plebeianism, and a terror of appearing erudite to one’s audience. But we should keep in mind that all educated persons in Skelton’s day were conversant in some degree with Latin, and heard it or used it regularly. It did not appear to them as something utterly opaque and impenetrable. Even as late as when Kipling went to school (in the 1880s), ordinary teenage schoolboys were expected to know Latin, and in Kipling’s longish stories about his schooldays (the Stalky & Company collection) the young roustabout characters all make various comments and jokes in Latin as part of their conversation and games.
Skelton’s macaronic skills are on dazzling display in his amazing poem “Speke Parott,” one of the strangest and most bewildering works in early English. He makes use of Latin, French, Spanish, Lingua Franca, Greek, Italian, Dutch, Scottish dialect, German, Gaelic, and Welsh to put together a kaleidoscopic farrago of satire, allegory, philosophic commentary, criticism of corruption in both church and state, attacks on Wolsey, self-praise, and sage advice—all laid out against a background of biblical, medieval, and humanistic learning. The metrics are generally of more traditional iambic lines, with other passages in Skeltonics. In some places, the text is as difficult to follow as the denser parts of Joyce’s Ulysses, or Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave.
The speaking voice of the poem is “Parott,” a bird who is certainly Skelton himself. The poem is a tour de force by a master, displaying his unique abilities in a complex mosaic of styles, voices, tones, and samples of genre. I can only give a small sample here:
name is Parrot, a byrde of Paradyse,
cage curyowsly carven, with sylver pynne,
Wythe my beke bente, and my lytell wanton iye,
There are many more Skelton poems that, for imitations of space, cannot be discussed here. The famous “Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?” (in Skeltonics) is a devastating attack on Wolsey, and most surely provoked the Cardinal’s wrath. “Agaynst the Scottes” (in both iambics and Skeltonics) spews forth savage contempt on the defeated nation after the English victory of 1513 at Flodden Field. “Phyllyp Sparowe” is a delightful mock-funereal dirge on a young lady’s pet bird, killed by a cat. “Against Venemous Tongues” is the kind of shattering punch that every poet dreams of delivering to his enemies. His allegorical play “Magnyfycence” is a somber plea for good government rooted in a virtuous and sensible ruler.
All of Skelton’s works show a febrile, impetuous, energetic mind, with an almost uncontrollable impulse to write copiously and fiercely. It is a great misfortune that so many of his poems have not survived—the list of his compositions that he gives in a long poem of self-praise mentions many things that are now lost. But what we have is powerful, intense, rowdy and rambunctious, fearless, intolerant of fools and time-servers and critics—everything that a savage satirist should be. He was perfectly positioned in time to carry forward the earthiness of medieval England into the incipient bloom-time of Renaissance New Learning. We could use his vigor today.
Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize. His upcoming book, Gallery of Ethopaths, is forthcoming.