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Helter Skelton

January 14, 2008


In praise of Skelton Laureate

I praise the early sixteenth-century poet John Skelton, even though I gasp at his enormous egotism, his dashes of misogyny (or is it misanthropy?), his irregular bouts of bloody-minded English nationalism and his flagrant displays of poetic ineptitude. Skelton — otherwise “Skelton Poet”, the Rector of Diss, “Skelton Laureate, Orator Regius” — is an awkward case. He’s neither medieval nor early modern. Unlike his close contemporary Sir Thomas Wyatt, Skelton is an anti-Court Poet, unpolitic or just plainly impolite. He’s so good, because he’s so bad.

Go to Skelton’s page at the lovely Luminarium resource, where you’ll be greeted by a fun late-MIDIeval Skeltune and a picture of the man himself. My first thought was that this page is all wrong in tone and atmosphere, but I now think otherwise. The music and image (the same as the one produced below, showing Skelton poet robed and garlanded) combine to give an impression of weird serenity. You might call it the strange, perhaps strained, serenity of Skelton’s sense of entitlement in the face of failure. His most notable poetry is characterised by unrefined spite, but the persistence of his commitment to petty bitterness suggests a paradoxical calm. Skelton has the stillness, the regularity of a man who is always, always waving his arms like a furious lunatic. Robert Graves makes note of this serenity, in a poem about Skelton that otherwise completely re-writes the cantankerous old wanker as some kind of jolly old scribbler:

Helter Skelter John
Rhymes serenely on.


If you were to bump into Skelton at a party, there are two things he would have you know. The first is that he is the Poet Laureate. The second is that he hates Cardinal Wolsey.

Skelton insisted madly on his title of Laureate. Whether this title had any meaning to the general public remains unclear, but for what it’s worth the title is presumed to have come from Skelton’s proficiency in the discipline of rhetoric. This proficiency was then largely squandered by the essential lack of all discipline that followed Skelton’s obsessive insistence on his Laureateship. In his poem The Bouge of Court Skelton admits to his own inability to “touch an truth and cloak it subtly.”

As a younger man, at the close of the fifteenth century, Skelton joined the court of Henry VII and tutored the future Henry VIII. He received praise from the visiting Erasmus — but then Erasmus made a career out of praising folly. By 1502 Skelton was imprisoned for god knows what reason, and later gave up on the court and retired to East Anglia, becoming the Rector of Diss. Apparently his performances in this position were far more theatrical and egotistical than is proper in the pulpit. Neglected for further favour from Henry VIII and consumed by his monomaniacal hatred of the King’s favourite, Cardinal Wolsey, Skelton devoted the rest of his literary career to spiteful attacks on the court, on the local south-eastern population, and most of all on the Cardinal himself.

As a poet, Skelton is always an oddity, but not always terrible. Speak, Parrot is one of his more nuanced attempts at satire, speaking criticisms of the court through the unthinking voice — a kind of voice-machine, if you will — of a parrot. The Bowge of Court updates the Middle English dream vision, which Anglicises Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff, the text which popularised the well-known renaissance allegory of the ship of fools. But it’s Skelton’s really bad poems that I’m interested in.


Now, when I talk about Skelton’s “bad poems”, let me be clear that the bad poems are the reason I celebrate Skelton in the first place. The academy, as far as I can tell, either refuses to handle Skelton because he poems are bad, or handles him but pretends that his poems aren’t all that bad. I reckon both of these reactions to be unsuitable.

In The Tunning of Elinor RummingSkelton casts a disgusted eye over the rowdy and ribald middle class and peasanty, in a poem that at least has a Chaucerian or Rabelaisian earthiness:

Her loathly lere
Is nothing clear,
But ugly of cheer,
Droopy and drowsy,
Scurvy and lousy;
Her face all boozy,
Comely crinkled,
Wondrously wrinkled,
Like a roast pig’s ear,
Bristled with hair.


Why Come Ye Not To Court?, though, is the true triumph of Skelton’s petty-minded, obsessive and unstructured egotism. The poem is, perhaps, a one-sided, solo version of flyting, the tradition of the ritual insult that goes back beyond Old English and Old Norse literature. Attacking his enemy with such personal spite, Skelton ends up in an argument with himself — the viciousness of his use of rhetoric becomes an unintentional argument against himself. The critic Stanley Fish, who has the good fortune to have name a bit like a Skeltonic character, has noted:

By allowing his passion to overwhelm him, Skelton succeeds only in stripping his language of subtlety and denying his poem structure. In his desire to destroy Wolsey, he destroys his poem; Wolsey’s faults are absorbed by Skelton’s, and it is the satiric voice that irritates more than the abuses it condemns.

The poem proceeds in patterns along these lines: Skelton describes a general, nation-wide problem with the state of things; he then haphazardly and illogically narrows his focus from this general complaint to a personal attack on specific (and unsubstantiated) details of Wolsey’s conduct:

To keep his flesh chaste,
In Lent, for a repast
He eateth capons stewed,
Pheasant and patridge mewed,
Hens, chickens and pigs:
He froyns and he frigs,
Spareth neither miad ne wife:
This is a ‘postle’s life!

This pattern repeats, and repeats.

So I agree with Fish’s diagnosis of the “problem”, but I don’t agree with his conclusion. Fish would have it that Skelton’s incompetence makes the poem unreadable; I believe the poet’s failure makes the poem intensely readable, a kind of grotesquely compelling study in self-defeat.

A few years ago, some chap in Melbourne (also called Skelton, funnily enough) jocoseriously explained how Skelton is the godfather of rap, taking as evidence the poet’s competitiveness and feuding, his materialism expressing an obsession with status (Skelton had himself robed in gold, silk and pearl), but most importantly Skelton’s persistent, audacious rhyming.

This mad, tumbling rhyming in an irregular metre, a type of verse known as Skeltonics, is the man’s lasting gift to the English language. It’s a dirty kind of poetry, probably a kind of folk poetry in the best sense of the word, although you wouldn’t know it, due to Skelton’s failed aloofness. Poetic form, in Skelton’s hands, is never allowed to become a convenience: he begins when he wants, and will end when he wants –but the chances are, you know, that he’s still rhyming away right now. Skelton Laureate, sing us out!

What can it avail
To drive forth a snail,
Or to make a sail
Of an herring’s tail?
To rhyme or to rail
To write or to indict,
Either for delight
Or else for despite?
Or books to compile
Of divers manners style,
Vice to revile
And sin to exile?
To teach or to preach
As reason will reach?

Say this, and say that:
His head is so fat
He wotteth never what
Nor whereof he speaketh;
He crieth and he creaketh,
He prieth and he peeketh,
He chides and he chatters,
He prates and he patters,
He clitters and he clatters,
He meddles and he smatters,
He glozes and he flatters!

Or if he speak plain,
Then he lacketh brain,
He is but a fool;
Let him go to school.
A three-footed stool!
That he may down sit,
For he lacketh wit!
And if that he hit
The nail on the head,
It standeth in no stead;
The devil, they say, is dead,
The devil is dead!

It may well so be,
Or else they would see
Otherwise, and flee
from worldly vanity,
And foul covetousness
And other wretchedness,
Fickle falseness,
With unstableness.
And if ye stand in doubt
Who brought this rhyme about,
My name is Colin Clout.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. CPT permalink
    January 14, 2008 6:58 pm

    Considering that he invented rap, I always thought the Rector of Diss was an appropriate office for Skelton to hold.

    If Sir Philip Sidney is the R Kelly of the 16th Century poets, who does that make John? Nas, perhaps?

  2. January 14, 2008 10:44 pm

    incidentally, Sidney’s theme tune on Luminarium is my favourite of all.

  3. Mat permalink
    January 15, 2008 1:10 am

    What’s glorious about the lines you close with – one small part of their glory – is there is genuinely no way to make them scan except by adopting a kind of Joe Strummer on Sandinista rapping style. Which I have just done.

    Incidentally, the Skelton as rapper thesis is presented beguilingly by Geoffrey Hill – whom Skelton deserved to have a chance at hating – in Speech! Speech! I don’t have it to hand, alas, but it’s in one of the passages addressed to RAPMASTER. You’ll be glad to know that Hill calls him Skelton Laureate, and includes him as one of those who knows “how best to outrap you.”

  4. January 15, 2008 1:31 am

    Mat! I wondered about you when I wrote this, because I was trying to remember who the Elizabethan prose writer was, who was also quite bad… except his incompetence was grounded more in a kind of compulsive subservience and eagerness to please, if I remember rightly, rather than Skelton’s beligerence.

    I’ll look up Hill on Skelton… sounds promising.

    Two comments is good going for this blog — I should write about Skelton more often.

  5. acquaintance, madam permalink
    January 19, 2008 2:30 pm

    I don’t have anything productive to add, i just wanted to say how much i enjoyed reading this post and some of Skeltons poetry at the Luminarium (you really have to read at least some of it out loud, if only to guess what the next word’s going to be).

    ‘I should write about Skelton more often’

    Yes, more old poetry, misanthropy and medieval MIDI!
    (BTW this blog is criminally undercommented on).

  6. January 21, 2008 5:04 am

    Thankyou, thankyou. More Skelton it is, then. I’ve just written a song about him, actually.

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