Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 9. Colyn Clout

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

IV. Barclay and Skelton

§ 9. Colyn Clout

In Colyn Clout, written about 1519, we are told by Colyn, the roaming vagabond, that everything is wrong in England and that the clergy are to blame for it. The bishops do not look after their flocks, but strive after worldly honours and promotion by every means. Haughty, covetous and ignorant, they set a bad example to all the rest, are fond of hunting and hawking and live in luxury, whereas the poor people starve. The worst are the upstart prelates, whose former poor lives Colyn describes with grim humour. They should beware of God’s punishment and mend their ways, for “after gloria, laus, may come a soure sauce.” There is, however, little hope; for, blinded by flatterers, they are incorrigible. Like “prynces aquilonis” they sit on their thrones, live in great palaces and erect costly tombs for themselves. They vex the poor people with arbitrary jurisdiction and take away from them the little they have with high taxes. For many other things they are also to blame. “Bestiall and untaught” men, who are not able to read or to spell their names, they appoint as priests, preferring habitual drunkards that lead disorderly lives to worthy candidates. Monks and nuns are seen roving about everywhere, their monasteries being dissolved. Swarming all over the country, also, are glosing friars, flattering the people, especially silly women, to get a scanty living, and cheating poor parish-priests of their small revenues. Partly the lay-folk, especially noblemen, are also to blame. For, if they tried to become better educated and cared more for politics than for pleasure, they would not be compelled to leave the rule of the country to the clergy. The most dangerous thing seems to Colyn—or the poet—that one man has all the power. This, of course, is a hint at the omnipotent minister-cardinal Wolsey, who, towards the end of the poem, appears more and more as the representative of the higher clergy.

Skelton’s heavy charges against the clergy, and especially against prelates, are the same as Barclay’s, only put forward with far greater energy and passion. They are not arranged after a fixed plan. His method is, as ten Brink has put it, “concentric.” The same reproaches recur again and again, intensified continually by the addition of new instances, until we get an all-round picture of the general corruption. The idea of putting the whole into the mouth of a representative of the people is extremely happy. With increasing interest we follow the arguments of Colyn, who tells only what he has heard the people say. We even see the effect on the stubborn prelates, who declare that they will go on in their wickedness in spite of all attacks. The idea, however, is not kept up to the end. The personality of the poet comes forth more and more till, at last, he throws off the mask altogether. But, for all that, the poem appears throughout as the expression of popular sentiment. The lively metre adds considerably to the vivacity of the whole and is much more developed and refined than, for instance, in Phyllyp Sparowe.