The Works of John Skelton
Introduction by Isaac D'Israeli
At a period when satire had not yet assumed any legitimate form, a singular genius appeared in Skelton. His satire is peculiar, but it is stamped by vigorous originality. The fertility of his conceptions in his satirical or his humorous vein is thrown out in a style created by himself. The Skeltonical short verse, contracted into five or six, and even four syllables, is wild and airy. In the quick-returning rhymes, the playfulness of the diction, and the pungency of new words, usually ludicrous, often expressive, and sometimes felicitous, there is a stirring spirit which will be best felt in an audible reading. The velocity of his verse has a carol of its own. The chimes ring in the ear, and the thoughts are flung about like coruscations. But the magic of the poet is confined to his spell; at his first step out of it he falls to the earth never to recover himself. Skelton is a great creator only when he writes what baffles imitation, for it is his fate, when touching more solemn strains, to betray no quality of a poet—inert in imagination and naked in diction. Whenever his muse plunges into the long measure of heroic verse, she is drowned in no Heliconian stream. Skelton seems himself aware of his miserable fate, and repeatedly, with great truth, if not with some modesty,complains of
"Mine homely rudeness and dryness."
But when he returns to his own manner and his own rhyme, when he riots in the wantonness of his prodigal genius, irresistible and daring, the poet was not unconscious of his faculty; and truly he tells,—
"Though my rime
Tattered and jagged,
If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith."
Whether Skelton really adopted the measures of the old tavern-minstrelsy used by harpers, who gave "a fit of mirth for a groat," or "carols for Christmas," or "lascivious poems for bride-ales," as Puttenham, the arch-critic of Elizabeth's reign, supposes; or whether in Skelton's introduction of alternate Latin lines among his verses he caught the Macaronic caprice of the Italians, as Warton suggests; the Skeltonical style remains his own undisputed possession. He is a poet who has left his name to his own verse—a verse, airy but pungent, so admirably adapted for the popular ear that it has been frequently copied [see note]*, and has led some eminent critics into singular misconceptions. The minstrel tune of the Skeltonical rhyme is easily caught, but the invention of style and "the pith" mock these imitators. The facility of doggrel merely of itself could not have yielded the exuberance of his humour and the mordacity of his satire.
*Note: George Ellis, although an elegant critic, could not relish "the Skeltonical minstrelsy." In an extract from a manuscript poem ascribed to Skelton, "The Image of Hypocrisy," and truly Skeltonical in every sense, he condemned it as "a piece of obscure and unintelligible ribaldry;" and so, no doubt, it has been accepted. But the truth is, the morsel is of exquisite poignancy, pointed at Sir Thomas More's controversial writings, to which the allusions in every line might be pointed out. As these works were written after the death of Skelton, the merit entirely remains with this fortunate imitator.
This singular writer has suffered the mischance of being too original
for some of his critics; they looked on the surface, and did not always suspect
the depths they glided over: the legitimate taste of others has revolted
against the mixture of the ludicrous and the invective. A taste for humour is a
rarer faculty than most persons imagine; where it is not indigenous, no art of
man can plant it. There is no substitute for such a volatile existence, and
where even it exists in a limited degree, we cannot enlarge its capacity for reception.
A great master of humour, who observed from his experience, has solemnly told
us, that "it is not in the power of every one to taste humour, however he
may wish it; it is the gift of God; and a true feeler always brings half the
entertainment along with him*." Puttenham was
the first critic who prized Skelton cheaply; the artificial and courtly critic
In the public rejoicings at the defeat of the Armada in 1589, a ludicrous bard poured forth his patriotic effusions in what he called "A Skeltonical Salutation, or Condign Gratulation," of the Spaniard, who, he says,—
"In a bravado,
Spent many a crusado."
In a reprint of the poem of "Elynour Rumming," in 1624, which may be found in the Harl. Miscellany, vol. i., there is a poem prefixed which ridicules the lovers of tobacco; this anachronism betrays the imitator. At the close there are some verses from the Ghost of Skelton; but we believe it is a real ghost.
"A poet for his art,
Whose judgment sure was high,
And had great practise of the pen,
His works they will not lie;
His termes to taunts did leane,
His talk was as he wrate,
Full quick of wit, right sharpe of wordes,
And skilful of the state;
And to the hateful minde,
That did disdaine his doings still,
A scorner of his kinde."
When Dr. Johnson observed that "Skelton cannot be said to have attained great elegance of language," he tried Skelton by a test of criticism at which Skelton would have laughed, and "jangled and wrangled." Warton has also censured him for adopting "the familiar phraseology of the common people." The learned editor of Johnson's Dictionary corrects both our critics. "If Skelton did not attain great elegance of -language, he however possessed great knowledge of it. From his works may be drawn an abundance of terms which were then in use among the vulgar as well as the learned, and which no other writer of his time so obviously (and often so wittily) illustrated. Skelton seems to have been fully aware of the condition of our vernacular idiom when he wrote, for he has thus described it:—
tongue is rude,
And hard to be ennewed
With polished termes lusty;
Our language is so rusty,
So cankered, and so full
Of frowards, and so dull,
That if I would apply
To write ordinately,
I wot not where to find
Terms to serve my mind."
It was obviously his design to be as great a creator of words as he was of ideas. Many of his mintage would have given strength to our idiom. Caxton, as a contemporary, is some authority that Skelton improved the language.
Let not the reader imagine that Skelton was only "a rude rayling rhimer." Skelton was the tutor of Henry the Eighth; and one who knew him well describes him, as—
"Seldom out of prince's grace."
Erasmus distinguished him as "the light and ornament of British
letters;" and one, he addresses the royal pupil, "who can not only
excite your studies, but complete them." Warton attests his classical
attainments: "Had not his propensity to the ridiculous induced him to
follow the whimsies of Walter Mapes, Skelton would
have appeared among the first writers of Latin poetry in
Skelton was an ecclesiastic who was evidently among those who had
adopted the principles of reformation before the Reformation. With equal levity
and scorn he struck at the friars from his pulpit or in his ballad, he
ridiculed the Romish ritual, and he took unto himself that wife who was to be
called a concubine. To the same feelings we may also ascribe the declamatory
invective against Cardinal Wolsey, from whose terrible arm he flew into the
"Why come you not to Court—"—that daring statepicture
of an omnipotent minister—and "The Book of Colin Clout," where the
poet pretends only to relate what the people talk about the luxurious clergy,
and seems to be half the reformer, are the most original satires in the
language. In the days when Skelton wrote these satires there appeared a poem known
by the title of "Reade, and be not Wrothe,"
a voluminous invective against the Cardinal and the Romish superstitions, which
has been ascribed by some to Skelton. The writer was William Roy, a friar; the
genius, though not the zeal, of Roy and Skelton are far apart—as far as the
buoyancy of racy originality is removed from the downright earnestness of grave
After the death of the Cardinal it was reprinted, in 1546; but the
satire was weakened, being transferred from Wolsey and wholly laid on the
clergy. The very rare first edition is reprinted in the Harleian
Miscellany, by Parke, vol. ix. Tyndale has reproached his colleague with being
somewhat artful and mutable in his friendships; but the wandering man proved
the constancy of his principles, for as a heretic he perished at the stake in
In "The Crown of Lawrell" Skelton has himself furnished a catalogue of his numerous writings, the greater number of which have not come down to us. Literary productions were at that day printed on loose sheets, or in small pamphlets, which the winds seem to have scattered. We learn there of his graver labours. He composed the "Speculum Principis" for his royal pupil—
"To bear in hand, therein to read,"
and he translated Diodorus Siculus—"Six volumes engrossed, it doth contain." To have composed a manual for the education of a prince, and to have persevered through a laborious version, are sufficient evidence that the learned Skelton had his studious days as well as his hours of caustic jocularity. He appears to have written various pieces for the court entertainment; but for us exists only an account of the interlude of the " Nigramansir," in the pages of Warton, and a single copy of the goodly interlude of " Magnificence," in the Garrick collection. If we accept his abstract personations merely as the names, and not the qualities of the dramatic personages, "Magnificence" approaches to the true vein of comedy.
Skelton was, however, probably more gratified by his own Skeltonical style, moulding it with the wantonness of power on whatever theme, comic or serious. In a poem remarkable for its elegant playfulness, a very graceful maiden, whose loveliness the poet has touched with the most vivid colouring, grieving over the fate of her sparrow from its feline foe, chants a dirige, a paternoster, and an Ave Maria for its soul, and the souls of all sparrows. In this discursive poem, which glides from object to object, in the vast abundance of fancy, a general mourning of all the birds in the air, and many allusions to the old romances, "Philip Sparrow," for its elegance, may be placed by the side of Lesbia's Bird, and, for its playfulness, by the Ver Vert of Gresset.
But Skelton was never more vivid than in his Alewife, and all
"The mad mummyng
Of Elynoure Rummyng,"—
a piece which has been more frequently reprinted than any of his works.
It remains a morsel of poignant relish for the antiquary, still enamoured of
the portrait of this grisly dame of Leatherhead, where her name and her
domicile still exist. Such is the immortality a poet can bestow. "The Tunnyng of Elynoure Rumrayng" is a remarkable production of The Grotesque,
or the low burlesque; the humour as low as you please, but as strong as you can
imagine. Cleland is reported, in Spence's Anecdotes of Pope, to have said, that
this "Tunnyng of Elynoure
Rummyng" was taken from a poem of Lorenzo de'
Medici. There is indeed a jocose satire by that noble bard, entitled I Beoni, the Topers; an elegant piece of playful humour,
where the characters are a company of thirsty souls hastening out of the gates
A noble amateur laid on the shrine of this antiquated beauty 20l. to possess her rare portrait; and, on the republication of this portrait, Steevens wrote some sarcastic verses on the print-collectors in the European Mag. 1794; they show this famous commentator to have been a polished wit, though he pronounced the Sonnets of Shakespeare unreadable. These verses have been reprinted in Dibdin's Bibliomania.
The amazing contrast of these two poems is the most certain evidence of the extent of the genius of the poet; he who with copious fondness dwelt on a picture which rivals the gracefulness of Albano, could with equal completeness give us the drunken gossipers of an Ostade. It is true that in the one we are more than delighted, and in the other we are more than disgusted; but in the impartiality of philosophical criticism, we must award that none but the most original genius could produce both. It is this which entitles our bard to be styled the "Inventive Skelton."
But are personal satires and libels of the day deserving the attention of posterity? I answer, that for posterity there are no satires nor libels. We are concerned only with human nature. When the satirical is placed by the side of the historical character, they reflect a mutual light. We become more intimately acquainted with the great Cardinal, by laying together the satire of the mendacious Skelton with the domestic eulogy of the gentle Cavendish. The interest which posterity takes is different from that of contemporaries; our vision is more complete; they witnessed the beginnings, but we behold the ends. We are no longer deceived by hyperbolical exaggeration, or inflamed by unsparing invective; the ideal personage of the satirist is compared with the real one of the historian, and we touch only delicate truths. What Wolsey was we know, but how he was known to his own times, and to the people, we can only gather from the private satirist; corrected by the passionless arbiter of another age, the satirist becomes the useful historian of the man.
The extraordinary combination in the genius of Skelton was that of two most opposite and potent faculties — the hyperbolical ludicrous masking the invective. He acts the character of a buffoon; he talks the language of drollery; he even mints a coinage of his own, to deepen the colours of his extravagance—and all this was for the people! But his hand conceals a poniard; his rapid gestures only strike the deeper into his victim, and we find that the Tragedy of the State has been acted while we were only lookers-on before a stage erected for the popular gaze.