Helen Cooper

  • John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Defining the Liberty to Speak by Jane Griffiths
    Oxford, 213 pp, £50.00, February 2006, ISBN 0 01 992736 3

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’.

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