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Thinking Through Skelton (4)

This is the fourth in my Skelton series, which started here, then went here, and kept on track here. It’s the last for now, but not the last ever, I hope. I think the four posts are all connected, in that they all lead to the idea that Skelton knows how to put us under pressure. As I’ve said already, this might be a good thing for a satirist to do: if you want people to face up to the problems you’re castigating, you need to stop them feeling at ease.
      I once had a revelation of something obvious (this happens to me a lot) when I read about Jeffrey Archer’s love for the satirical puppet TV show Spitting Image. He was one of many public figures held up to look foul and ridiculous, but it turned out that some of them (Archer included) were keen to be featured, sent in voice tapes, and wanted to own their puppets after the demise of the show. I was horrified by this: having watched the show as if it were truly subversive, I found others were watching it as if it propped up their sense of importance.
      Some politicians blamed it for their failures, some palpable hits were scored, but this collusion between satire and satirised still troubles me, wherever it comes from, from the hidden nature of this mode of writing in many of its manifestations, or from the skill of the target who dodges — no, accommodates — the bullets. This isn’t something you can avoid around Skelton, because having written brilliant poems attacking Cardinal Wolsey, he ended his literary career writing poems advancing Wolsey’s point of view. Perhaps he had to seek patronage where he could; perhaps the poet and his prey felt a strange intimacy with one another and found a working affinity. There are probably things I will soon read about this that will enhance my understanding further, but the general phenomenon goes well beyond Skelton.
      Anyway, I do think that there is something special and unsettling about the way that Skelton’s poems work, and I hope I will try to put that into a bigger picture in the future.

Here’s the background bit, which I’ll put in every post in this series. John Skelton wrote in the very late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He was a renowned scholar who had various jobs, including tutor to the future Henry VIII and Rector of Diss in Norfolk. Most of his poetry is satirical. It demonstrates his learning with lots of classical and Biblical references, and lots of ingenious wordplay. However, it also involves wild personal attacks, rough language, voices coming from the streets and taverns as well as the wealthy households and institutions of the day. Some of it is written in a short, sharp metre referred to as ‘Skeltonics’. This in itself gets across the unusualness of his writing: while there are many interesting comparisons in writings of his time (and others), there’s something unique about him. You can read a lot of his work, with helpful notes, at http://www.skeltonproject.org/. Because that resource is available, I won’t do any more than essential annotation of the bits I am discussing. I’ll be quoting, though, from John Scattergood’s edition published by Liverpool University Press, which is an updated version of his classic Penguin Classic. If you ask me, Skelton is at his best in ‘Speke Parott’, ‘Collyn Clout’, and ‘Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?’. Another poem not to be missed is ‘Ware the Hauke’.

PART 4: DISGUST AND MORALS

After a long preamble, this will be a fairly short discussion. A while ago Emma Firestone and I published an essay (blog-featured) that built on psychological research into embodied morality. Experimental findings show that bodily sensations — disgust and cleanness — have an effect on our moral judgments — making them more and less harsh respectively. We took this idea towards Shakespeare’s problem plays, arguing that the profusion of disgust-inducing vocabulary in plays like Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well could well be related to the moral difficulties they pose. Patterns of language may be the cause of well-attested disorientation among those trying to compose their judgements about actions and characters.
      This same idea could work quite well for Skelton. The mixture of tones in his poetry, the turns towards bodies, fluids, dirt, and general grime, are mixed in with the flamboyantly learned bits he cannot resist. It is this juxtaposition, rather than the volume of disgusting stuff, that seems significant. Perhaps it is also the relentless, frantic way that Skelton unloads on us. Satirists have often listed vile things as they describe the vice and folly of their societies, but there seems something distinctive about the way we suddenly find ourselves among the fylth.
      Here’s a section from ‘Elynoure Rummyng’. This poem is ostensibly about a woman who runs a pub. It may have sharp purposes that have become obscure over time, but generally it seems to be a thick description of society, all the way down to a tavern underclass, a sort of realist street ‘‘. Not surprisingly it gets into some gross physical stuff:

      ‘Soft,’ quod one hyght Sybbyll,
      ‘And let me wyth you bybyll.’
      She sat down in the place,
      With a sory face
      Whey-wormed about;
      Garnysshed was her snout
      Wyth here and there puscull,
      Lyke a scabbyd muscull.
      ‘This ale,’ sayd she, ‘is noppy;
      Let us syppe and soppy,
      And not spyll a droppy,
      For so mote I hoppy,
      It coleth well my croppy.’
      ‘Dame Elynour,’ sayde she,
      ‘Have here is for me,
      A clout of London pynnes.’
      And wyth that she begynnes
      The pot to her plucke,
      And dranke a good lucke.
      She swynged up a quarte
      At ones for her parte.
      Her paunche was so puffed,
      And so wyth ale stuffed,
      Had she not hyed apace,
      She had defoyled the place. (549-73)

The disgust is more front-and-centre in this poem; elsewhere it is less widespread and more unexpected. It seems to me that the link between disgust and morality described above could be one aspect of Skelton’s destabilisation of the reader’s experience, and specifically of moral judgement. I feel assailed by Skelton: it’s not an unpleasurable sensation, in fact I laugh and laugh, but I am not sure how to work with the poem, or how to push back against it, how to identify what it wants to change, and how it wants me to change it. I don’t think this is just a matter of historical difference; it’s also the result of Skelton’s shrewd exploitation of what makes us tick, and what throws us off. Satire often aims to create physical and/or moral disgust in the reader, but it’s interesting to see this done in such a disorderly (or, more accurately, unpredictable, as in this post) manner.

This refers to a contemporary and older tradition, mostly emerging in Scotland, of extravagant invective argument poetry.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Brookner Got It

* Anita Brookner, Look At Me (1983)
* Philip Larkin, A Girl In Winter (1957)

I have become a fan of the ‘Backlisted’ podcast (website here), where the discussion of books is entertaining, informed, and substantial. What I like most is the time taken to express appreciation and admiration: they like to read out long passages and just enjoy how well-crafted the prose is. It has become a source of reading suggestions for me: they have guided me to several absolute gems that I wouldn’t have dredged up in my usual searches. One was R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, which I wrote about here. Another was Anita Brookner’s Look At Me, which I thought was superb: so well-written and so unhurriedly compelling.
      Reading further into Brookner, I realised I was having thoughts related to one of this blog’s most persistent interests, what I could call the ‘Kidd and Castano Thread’ (as here). That is, some believe that literature tells us things about other minds and makes us better at empathy (as in a much-discussed experiment by K and C). Others, myself included, think this is probably an over-simplification, and that literature may do quite different things in relation to our understanding of others. For example, it might make us more aware of what we don’t know (which would be quite a beneficial realisation in its own right).
      Brookner, for example, gives us characters who don’t reveal all that much about themselves. Frances in Look At Me is in some ways entirely exposed by what happens to her, but she also refuses to say anything more than the minimum about a previous love-affair, and is interestingly reticent, and/or unperceptive, and/or discreet, and/or… it’s very intriguing. Thanks to Backlisted I heard about a very interesting thing she said in an interview with Blake Morrison, when confronted with the possibility that she often focused on characters rather like herself:

I am interested in people who live on their own, people who get left behind, who drop through the net, but who survive. They seem to me quite heroic characters sometimes, but no one inquires about them because they’re people who do without much conversation, whose loudest moments are internal. If such characters persist through my novels that’s because I don’t know much about them, not because I know them too well. I write to find out what makes them tick.

You can find the intervew here but I would also recommend the Brooknerian blog (http://brooknerian.blogspot.co.uk/), where this quotation can be found among many other good things. Anyway, Brookner is of course playing a part here, and not necessarily offering the key to her fiction. However, I like this idea that she thinks of fiction as a means of approaching the opaque.
      I also like the way that the characters seem to become external things (‘them’) that one might come to know, even though they are always being constructed by the fiction. ‘To find out what makes them tick’… what she is portraying here is a sort of experiment, I would say, not really an act of discovery or diagnosis. And so I think that Brookner had a shrewd understanding of the psychological richness of literature; it isn’t going to solve the mysteries of other people, but it might make us realise where our knowledge comes to an end, and what good questions about others might look like.

Last year I wrote about Philip Larkin’s Jill in a somewhat similar way (here). I liked the way that novel explored its central character’s mind without revealing that much about it. And having read Look At Me I picked up another Larkin novel, A Girl In Winter, because I remembered that it too featured an inscrutable librarian as its central character. Sure enough, here too were unanswered questions, an array of figures who remained significantly unreachable. After reading Brookner, I didn’t find Larkin’s style so subtly relentless, but there were some memorably bleak moments. This bit — ‘Looking at her, still hearing the unexpected sentence, she glimpsed the undertow of peoples’ relations, two-thirds of which is without face, with only begging and lonely hands’ (pp. 199-200) — well I am not even sure it counts as well-written, but it certainly made me try to count my blessings (which seemed temporarily far away).
      And then there was this bit, which comes when the central figure is confronting the reality of the only relationship in her life that might mean something:

She did not think she was at fault; it was not as if she disliked him. What abstract kindliness she could command was at his service, but it was no more than she might show to a fellow-traveller in a railway-carriage or on board a steamer. Indeed, that was the strongest bond she felt between them, that they were journeying together, with the snow, the discomfort, the food they shared, the beds that were not warm enough. In this situation she need know nothing more about him: there was a fire, that he paid to keep burning; she had hot coffee she could give him; there was so much laconic mutual help, while outside lay the plains, the absence of the moon, the complete enmity of darkness. (p. 237)

Here she has the chance to define herself in relation to others, to discover mutual ground, but instead there is just parallel travel, ‘laconic’ at best. I think Brookner and Larkin, in their different ways, would have given short shrift to the idea that by reading their novels we can all work out how to get along together. That’s how their novels seem, anyway. Of course, they may not be right.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Thinking Through Skelton (3)

This is the third in my Skelton series, which started here and then went here. The point as ever is to tease out some thoughts about this taxing and perplexing poet, and the underlying idea is that his ways of being taxing and perplexing Know Something About Your Brain.

Here’s the background bit, which I’ll put in every post in this series. John Skelton wrote in the very late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He was a renowned scholar who had various jobs, including tutor to the future Henry VIII and Rector of Diss in Norfolk. Most of his poetry is satirical. It demonstrates his learning with lots of classical and Biblical references, and lots of ingenious wordplay. However, it also involves wild personal attacks, rough language, voices coming from the streets and taverns as well as the wealthy households and institutions of the day. Some of it is written in a short, sharp metre referred to as ‘Skeltonics’. This in itself gets across the unusualness of his writing: while there are many interesting comparisons in writings of his time (and others), there’s something unique about him. You can read a lot of his work, with helpful notes, at http://www.skeltonproject.org/. Because that resource is available, I won’t do any more than essential annotation of the bits I am discussing. I’ll be quoting, though, from John Scattergood’s edition published by Liverpool University Press, which is an updated version of his classic Penguin Classic. If you ask me, Skelton is at his best in ‘Speke Parott’, ‘Collyn Clout’, and ‘Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?’. Another poem not to be missed is ‘Ware the Hauke’.

PART 3: SHAKESPEARE’S SKELTON’S BRAIN

One of the very best books that nestles under the ‘cognitive approaches to literature’ umbrella is Mary Thomas Crane’s Shakespeare’s Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory (Princeton, 2001). Looking at it again with awe and envy, I’m re-impressed by how much it contains and how much it has all been thought through. One of the things that always stuck with me is the way Crane discusses clusters of words in Shakespeare as both instances of the way that the human mind handles concepts, and instances of the way that early modern culture was organised. Her book always tries to keep these things in dialogue.

I want to say something about Skelton that follows from this. He definitely gives us lots of clusters of words. Unlike those presented by Crane, they tend to come in closer proximity, but with less conceptual or etymological connection. Often they are linked by sound and readers are left to make more of the groups that emerge. I am going to illustrate this with a couple of examples from the rather obscure ‘Dyvers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous’ (i.e. miscellaneous poems), partly because they are good examples, partly to shake myself out of my ‘Ware the Hauke’ obsession. Here’s a couple of lines:

      Hys hed was hevy, such was his hap,
      All drowsy, dremyng, dround in slepe. (i.5-6)

Skelton always likes to use nine words when two would do. His allegiance to alliteration comes partly from forms of writing in his time — the Scottish tradition of ‘flyting’ (insult poetry) does a lot of it. It also seems to come from the chance to present real-time etymological adventures, where true and false word-histories are offered (implicitly) for our consideration (or bewilderment). So here I think the drowsy-dreming-dround triad gives us lots to think about. It makes us play with the origins of the words (are ‘drowsy’ and ‘drowned’ from the same roots? OED answer: probably not, but it’s all quite obscure). It also makes us shuffle the concepts around, thinking about which is these is like the other.
      Crane sees, in Shakespeare, a sort of fascinating, complex, rich structure as his plays work with and work over the connections between words, concepts, and contexts. I see, in Skelton, something similar but with obscurity instead of lucidity, hypothetical and doubtful patterns rather than intuitive and arguable ones, everything hazardously hazarded. It seems quite promising as a satirical technique: it offers us unfamiliar configurations, and challenges to the accepted intersections.

Here is a longer extract from one of these short poems. Rather than annotating it in detail (sorry, you will need to go to Scattergood for that), I will just say that here there are turns towards slang and innuendo here, a mix of registers including the lowest, and generally a test of whether words that sound similar, or which seem to fit together, end up saying anything about anything:

      Wyth bound and rebound, bounsyngly take up
      Hys jentyll curtoyl, and set nowght by small naggys!
      Spur up at the hynder gyrth, with, ‘Gup, morell, gup!’
      With, ‘Jayst ye, Jenet of Spayne, for your tayll waggys,’
      Ye cast all your corage uppon such courtly haggys!
      Have in sergeaunt ferrour, myne horse behynde is bare.’
      He rydyth well the horse, but he rydyth better the mare.

      Ware, ware, the mare wynsyth wyth her wanton hele!
      She kykyth with her kalkyns and keylyth with a clench;
      She goyth wyde behynde and hewyth never a dele:
      Ware gallyng in the widders, ware of that wrenche!
      It is perlous for a horseman to dyg in the trenche.
      Thys grevyth your husband, that ryght jentyll knyght,
      And so with youre servantys he fersly doth fyght. (ii.15-28)

Of course, in alliterative poetry there are always going to be patterns of sound across words, and these need not always have the implications I have described above. However, I think they are the result of Skelton’s use of different languages, his display of learning in these languages, the potential for etymological play, and also the way he creates insistent lists, asking us to join him in escalating everything. Even here where there is nothing all that heavy going on, there is still a life in the words, an urge to make them mean something important together even if that probably isn’t going to happen. Crane’s book shows what things look like when there is a pattern and a rationale; Skelton makes us wonder what counts as a pattern or a rationale.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Subjective Experience of Memory

Last week I went to the Royal Institution (http://www.rigb.org/), a fancy place with a great lecture theatre, in which I heard my Cambridge friend Jon Simons talk about ‘The Subjective Experience of Remembering’ (abstract here). You can find out about his lab’s work on their site, and I discussed one strand (reality monitoring) in a post last September.
      As well as drawing on (and demonstrating) experiments, Jon also turned to philosophy and literature as contributors to the conversation. Not surprisingly I very much welcomed the thought that when it comes to subjective experiences, difficult things to reach and pin down, there are diverse routes to greater understanding. One of the passages he cited came from Wordsworth’s Prelude. It was presented as an example of one of the phenomena of the subjective experience of memory, the first-person perspective, the way that we re-inhabit past events as we reconstruct them in our minds:

Oh! many a time have I, a five years’ Child,
A naked Boy, in one delightful ,
A little sever’d from his stream,
Made one long bathing of a summer’s day,
Bask’d in the sun, and plunged, and bask’d again
Alternate all a summer’s day, or cours’d
Over the sandy fields, leaping through groves
Of yellow , or when crag and hill,
The woods, and distant Skiddaw’s lofty height,
Were bronz’d with a deep radiance, stood alone
Beneath the sky, as if I had been born
On Indian Plains, and from my Mother’s hut
Had run abroad in wantonness, to sport,
A naked Savage, in the thunder shower.

I have been thinking about the contribution of the details here — to the depiction of this scene, and to the things it has to say about how remembering works. That ‘Oh!’, for example: is Wordsworth trying to share an idea about how vivid reconstructions of past events have some sort of striking entry-point — not necessarily a Proustian cue, more a kind of threshold-marker?
      I’m particularly intrigued by the ‘as if’ construction of last four lines. (Understandably, Jon quoted only as far as ‘grunsel’; fair enough, he had a lot of ground to cover.) Is this a bit of poetic elaboration, a bit of reflection, and thus not really part of the memory? Or perhaps poetry’s appetite (need) for comparisons reflects in this case memory’s appetite (need) for making connections and analogies. This is one way that people might express and acknowledge what the remembered past ‘was like’, a potentially important interplay between qualitative and comparative. It may also be a sort of scaffolding, or some extra sensory information, something supplied to fill out the details into a properly vivid reconstruction.
      This is a great, great topic, and I am looking forward to talking more to Jon about it.

i.e. a stream
i.e. a side-channel of a stream used to turn a water-mill
i.e. a plant not unlike a daisy
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Thinking Through Skelton (2)

In the first post in this exciting series, here, I wrote about Skelton’s poetry in relation to the cognitive science of Predictive Processing. I argued that Skelton plays with the distinction between stimuli that should change our predictions about the world, and stimuli that are just background noise. In this post, a different tack, although this idea of ‘noise’ remains relevant, in mutated form.

Here’s the background bit, which I’ll put in every post in this series. John Skelton wrote in the very late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He was a renowned scholar who had various jobs, including tutor to the future Henry VIII and Rector of Diss in Norfolk. Most of his poetry is satirical. It demonstrates his learning with lots of classical and Biblical references, and lots of ingenious wordplay. However, it also involves wild personal attacks, rough language, voices coming from the streets and taverns as well as the wealthy households and institutions of the day. Some of it is written in a short, sharp metre referred to as ‘Skeltonics’. This in itself gets across the unusualness of his writing: while there are many interesting comparisons in writings of his time (and others), there’s something unique about him. You can read a lot of his work, with helpful notes, at http://www.skeltonproject.org/. Because that resource is available, I won’t do any more than essential annotation of the bits I am discussing. I’ll be quoting, though, from John Scattergood’s edition published by Liverpool University Press, which is an updated version of his classic Penguin Classic. If you ask me, Skelton is at his best in ‘Speke Parott’, ‘Collyn Clout’, and ‘Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?’. Another poem not to be missed is ‘Ware the Hauke’.

PART 2: PUTTING THE WORDS BACK INTO YOUR MOUTH

A while ago (nearly three years ago!), I revelled in a particular theme: word aversion, the evidence that some words (‘moist’ was a key test case) provoke widespread negative responses. Happy times here, then here, and last of all here: Milton, Shakespeare, Whitman, puns, comedy clips, the lot. The science pointed towards semantic reasons for this. I thought about adding something to the mix by talking about the way that certain combinations of phonemes might make us think about words as things that are made with our mouths. That is, they seem like things that are formed by the body, lingering in a wet and sticky way, rather than things that are just passing through.
      Now, Skelton is an interesting case. There are words that might count as aversive, words that are lavishly redolent of all the disgust they try to convey. There also words that are positively delicious, rich parcels of etymological extravagance. Most pertinently for what I am getting at here, Skelton’s tricks with rhyme, multiple languages, and concatenating sequences, result in plenty of moments where we get to experience words as phonemes-in-formation, and as things that keep forcing lips and tongues and teeth and palates into specific shapes.
      So here’s a little extract from ‘Ware the Hauke’, which is a vigorous complaint about the behaviour of a priest, who let his pet hawk hunt in Skelton’s church. At this point in that extraordinary poem, Skelton is (partly) setting out some details:

      On Saynt Johan decollacyon
      He hawked on thys facyon,
      Tempore vesperarum,
      Sed non secundum Sarum
      But lyke a March harum
      His braynes were so parum. (100-105)

So, the event took place on the feast of the beheading of St John the Baptist (August 29th, ). He says it was at the time of the Vespers service, but not ‘secundum Sarum’, i.e. not according to the Sarum (Salisbury) code of practice, widely in use in the English church. I take this to be ironic punctiliousness. Then he says that the offending priest was mad, like a March hare, but ‘hare’ becomes ‘harum’ to keep the rhyme going. ‘Harum is actually a Latin word — a pronoun — but that doesn’t seem to add much except in that the Latinity partly continues. And then he insults the priest for having a tiny brain (‘parum’ is usually an adverb in Latin, but it might be an alternative form of the adjective ‘parvum’).
      I think the narrative purpose gets swept up in the repetition of ‘-um’. The meanings of the words and the linguistic play are important, but it also matters that each word finds its way of stopping on the reader’s lips. There are things to be said about the visual effect too, I think, and the extent to which all reading does or does not engage with sound, but it still seems alright to say that the physical formation of the ‘-um- sound is part of what is going on here. I might call Skelton’s poems ‘visceral’, and by that I would mean that they seem to involve the physical body, not only the guts, in the energy they create. But perhaps it would be interesting to get back to those studies of aversive language, and to think more about how they may be labial, dental, glottal, alveolar, and so on.

as Wikipedia tells me
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk