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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

IV. Barclay and Skelton

§ 7. Phyllyp Sparowe

English literature he knew best. In Phyllyp Sparowe, he judges Gower, Chaucer and Lydgate fairly well and lays stress particularly on Chaucer’s mastership of the English language, whereas he calls Gower’s English old-fashioned. On the other hand, he places Lydgate on the same level with the two older poets, finding fault only with the darkness of his language. He was extremely well versed in popular literature, and refers to it often. Guy of Warwick, Gawain, Lancelot, Tristram and all the other heroes of popular romance, were well known to him. We also find in his writings many allusions to popular songs, now partly unknown. He had himself written a Robin Hood pageant, to which Barclay alludes scornfully and which is also referred to later by Anthony Munday. When, and how long, Skelton stayed at court, we cannot tell. In a special poem he boasts that he had a white and green garment embroidered with the name “Calliope” given him by the king; but, as the official documents never mention his name, it is not likely that he ever stood in any closer relation to the court after his pupil had come to the throne. That he must have been there occasionally is proved by the poems against Garnesche. Skelton was rector of Diss in 1507, and held this office nominally till his death in 1529, when his successor is mentioned. Some of his poems certainly were written there; but, in others, particularly in his later satires, he shows himself so well acquainted with the sentiments of the London people that he must, at least, have visited the capital frequently. There is a tradition that Skelton was not very much liked by his parishioners on account of his erratic nature, and that he had quarrels with the Dominicans, who denounced him spitefully to the bishop of Norwich for being married.

Of Skelton’s patrons, besides members of the royal family, the countess of Surrey, at whose castle, Sheriff Hutton, he wrote his Garlande of Laurell (c. 1520), may be mentioned. As the dedications of some of Skelton’s works to cardinal Wolsey are later additions of the publishers, it is doubtful if the omnipotent minister of Henry VIII was his patron too. In any case, Skelton attacked him from about 1519, and so unsparingly that he was at last compelled to take sanctuary at Westminster with his friend abbot Islip. There he remained until his death, 21 June, 1529. He was buried in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster; but no trace is left of his tomb.

As a poet, Skelton is extremely versatile. He practised his pen in almost every kind of poetry. Unfortunately, many of his works are lost. We know them only from the enumeration in the Garlande of Laurell (1170 ff.); and even this is incomplete, as the author self-complacently states. In many cases the titles given there do not even enable us to draw any conclusions as to their contents or character. Even his extant works offer many difficulties—sometimes to be met by conjecture only—as regards interpretation and chronology. First editions are missing in most cases, and, owing probably to their personal and satirical character, some of the poems must have circulated in manuscript for a considerable time before they were printed.

Of Skelton’s religious poems not many are extant, and, even of those ascribed to him, some, probably, are not his. From the titles in The Garlande of Laurell we must, however, conclude that he wrote many poems of this kind. Satires against the church, and even irreverence for her rites, are, with him, no signs of irreligiousness. He was as ardent a champion of the old faith as Barclay. In Colyn Clout he speaks contemptuously of Hus, Luther, and of Wyclif, whom he calls a “develysshe dogmatist,” but the best proof of his keen hatred for heretics is the Replycacion agaynst certayne yong scolers abjured of late, written, probably, in 1526. The poem is far too long to be impressive; but it is evidently dictated by strong conviction.

Skelton was not only a loyal son of the church, but, also, a patriotic Englishman, who hated his country’s enemies and exulted when they were defeated. When Dundas charged the English with cowardice, Skelton wrote a very vigorous little poem in defence of his countrymen. A splendid opportunity for showing his patriotism presented itself to the poet when James IV was defeated and killed with a great number of Scots nobles, on Brankston moor and Flodden hills, in 1513. Immediately after the event, he wrote a ballad which he retouched later and called Against the Scottes. And, again, ten years later, when the duke of Albany, allied with the French, was beaten, Skelton celebrated the victory in a long and vigorous poem. On 22 September, 1513, a choir at Diss recited an enthusiastic Latin hymn by Skelton on the victory of Flodden. A similar hymn was composed by him about the same time on the occasion of the conquest of Terouenne by Henry VIII and the battle of Spurs (16 August, 1513).

As Skelton’s authorship of an elegy Of the death of the noble prince, Kynge Edwarde the Forth seems a little doubtful, his first authentic court poem would seem to have been the lost Prince Arturis Creacyoun, 1489 (G. of L. 1178). In the same year he wrote a long elegy Upon the doulourus dethe of the Erle of Northumberlande, killed by Northumbrian rebels on 28 April, 1489.

Skelton admired Henry VII, but he did not ignore his weaknesses. In a Latin epitaph he laments the king’s death and praises him as a successful politician, but he alludes also to the avarice which made the first Tudor unpopular with his subjects. The general feeling of relief after Henry VII’s death reveals itself in Eulogium pro suorum temporum conditione, written in the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign. Skelton expected much of the young monarch, whom he praises in A Lawde and Prayse made for our Sovereigne Lord the Kyng, and especially at the end of the poem mentioned above on the victory over the duke of Albany.

Skelton knew, also, how to glorify noble ladies, especially when they patronised him and flattered his vanity. Most of his poems in this vein are inserted in The Garlande of Laurell, an allegorical poem, full of grotesque self-glorification, and telling how Skelton is summoned before lady Pallas, to prove himself worthy of his name’s being “regestred with lawreate tryumphe.” Among the crowd of all the great poets of the world he meets Gower, Chaucer and Lydgate, and is at last crowned with a “cronell of lawrell” by the countess of Surrey and her ladies.

The Garlande of Laurell is a very long poem, of 1600 lines, built up with motives from Chaucer’s House of Fame and the Prologue of the Legend of Good Women, and Skelton’s self-conceit shown therein is not relieved by any touch of humour. The eleven little lyrics in praise of the poet’s patroness and her ladies are somewhat monotonous; but they have a certain grace and are good examples of conventional poetry. Skelton’s originality is more evident in Phyllyp Sparowe, a poem addressed to Jane Scroupe, a young lady who was a pupil of the black nuns at Carow, and whose pet sparrow had been killed by a cat. The bird is pictured at great length and its mistress’s grief described in exaggerated language. All the birds under the sky are summoned to the burial, and each one there is appointed to its special office. Amongst the mourners we find our old friend Chaunteclere and his wife Pertelote from Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and the fabulous Phoenix, as described by Pliny. The sparrow’s soul is recommended to God and Jupiter. To compose an epitaph for him proves too much for Jane, who, however, shows herself a well read young lady. The second part of the poem, connected rather loosely with the first, is a praise of the heroine in the typical manner. There is no clear design in the poem. Skelton seems quite unable, or unwilling, to stick to his theme. The whole is an odd medley of the most incongruous ideas, full of literary reminiscences and long digressions, which, very often, have no relation to the subject. But the short and lively metre is very effective and keeps up the attention throughout. The “addition” shows that there were people who did not like this sort of poetry, especially as the ceremonial of the requiem is used for comic purposes in a manner that must have shocked pious souls. Barclay had mentioned the poem scornfully at the end of his Ship of Fools and the “addition” seems to be Skelton’s reply. Barclay’s allusion proves that Phyllyp Sparowe was written before 1508.

There are other poems of Skelton, written for ladies with whom he was acquainted, as conventional and insincere as are other productions of their kind. One of them even ends with the laconic remark: “at the instance of a nobyll lady.” Who the lady was, we cannot tell; but another of Skelton’s friends was “mastres Anne, that farly swete, that wonnes at the Key in Temmys strete,” with whom the poet must once have been on very good terms. Of his “pretty lines” to her, none are extant; but there are two poems in which he treats her in a different fashion, evidently because she had slighted him and had chosen a new lover. Another poem, caused by a similar disappointment, describes the once beloved lady at first very eloquently and then, all of a sudden, takes a sarcastic turn. The satirical poem “My darlyng dere, my daysy floure” is very impressive and a most happy attempt to write in a popular vein.

As we have seen already, it was not advisable to rouse Skelton’s anger. Vain and irritable, he was bent on quarrelling with everybody, especially when his pride in his knowledge or academic honours was hurt. Besides the quarrel with Lily mentioned above, he had an encounter with the French historian Gaguin (G. of L. 374 ff., 1187). One of Skelton’s satirical productions, now lost, Apollo that whirrlyd up his chare (G. of L. 1471 ff.), seems to have particularly annoyed certain people. Skelton himself, wonderful to relate, is sorry for having written it. The somewhat loosely constructed poem Against venemous tongues is worth mentioning only as the expression of personal experience.

There are other poems showing how dangerous it was to offend Skelton or to be disliked by him. When he was rector of Diss, he punished two “knaves” of his parish who had shown disrespect to him and did not go to church (G. of L. 1247 ff.), by composing a very unflattering epitaph for them. In a similar strain is the epitaph In Bedel. In these poems, church rites are travestied as in Phyllyp Sparowe. In Ware the Hauke, Skelton censures a parson who had profaned his church by baiting a hawk in it. Except for its length and exaggerated language, the poem is not remarkable. Two other obscure poems, apparently directed against certain musicians or minstrels may also be mentioned.

All the poems referred to above show that Skelton had an amazingly large stock of abusive terms. But by far the best examples of his talent in this direction are his poems against the royal chamberlain Christopher Garnesche, who, at the king’s command, had challenged him. Unfortunately, the poems of Skelton’s adversary, which might have thrown some light on the poet’s biography, especially on his relation to the court, are not extant. He abuses the chamberlain violently, using the strongest expressions imaginable and the most grotesque comparisons. That the whole was not a serious affair is repeatedly stated in the poems. It was nothing but an imitation of the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, composed 1504–5, and printed in 1508, and, like its model, is an interesting instance of the coarse vituperation common to the time.

Remarkable, also, for its coarseness is The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng, a fantastical description of an old ale-wife and her guests. Again, there is no plan to be discerned; but, sometimes, a sort of dramatic action is suggested, as the tipsy women come and go, misbehave themselves, chat and quarrel, or are turned out. There are some touches of humour in the poem; but it is drawn out too long and many accessories render it somewhat monotonous. The metre is the same short verse as in Phyllyp Sparowe.