Thinking Through Skelton (1)

I’ve been fretting about this one. I suppose it’s because this decision to write some blog posts about Skelton involved me reading the whole of his poetry, and that took a while, and gave me a lot to think about. Also, I have been trying to fathom Skelton ever since I first read him. He has some excellent critics: recently I’ve been reading Jane Griffiths, and Greg Walker, and John Scattergood. They do such a good job. And yet… there’s something about his voice and style that keep pushing at my thinking and shaping my responses, and it makes me think (i) that there must be ways that cognitive science can offer insights into what Skelton’s poems are doing, and (ii) Skelton must have known some things about our brains. So here goes.

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 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’.


Recently I posted about the idea of ‘predictive processing’ and the ‘free energy principle’. The point was that many cognitive scientists now believe that our brains constantly model what they expect to happen next (visual information, movement, behaviour of others) and then modify these predictions when they receive real data. This process is always aiming at the elimination of surprise. In the posts on this (here and here) I wrote about some ideas about what happens when this goes wrong.
      One thing that caught my eye was the question of ‘noise’. That is, we pick up lots of signals from our environments. Some of these require us to adapt our predictions (if, say, the friend we’re talking to doesn’t laugh at a joke), but some don’t (if, say, a car goes by while we’re talking to the friend). The latter category as just ‘noise’. Some kinds of psychosis, for example, could usefully be seen as resulting from problems in this process. One of the more interesting to me is the failure to see noise as noise: background signals don’t get ignored, predictions and response go awry because that car passing by can’t be tuned out.
      How would this work in poetry? Well, the prediction bit isn’t hard to bring across. Genre, verse form, familiar story structures, the rhythms of syntax, and so on, are some of the many ways in which we generate expectations that get modified as we go on. Noise is harder to define. There are few genuinely irrelevant things, but we could imagine adjectives or bits of direct speech or incidental objects that make little or no impact on what we think might happen next. There are interesting subtleties in fiction: if someone coughs in real life we’re often going to see that as noise, but if someone coughs in a soap opera we should probably never see that as noise: we should be expecting tuberculosis, imminently. Alongside this, the experience of surprise is often positively pleasurable, something we seek out, so the conditions of literature must be different from those wherein the generalisation about surprise-avoidance is valid.
      What about Skelton? Well, I think that in Skelton’s poetry his copious style produces a lot of noise. So often he puts three (or six, or fourteen) words where two (or one) would do. It would be typical of him to line up words that are mostly synonyms, or have etymological links, but to include one that isn’t such a synonym, or has a less clear etymological link. Where does the noise start, and the data finish? I think seeing Skelton in the light of ‘predictive processing’ helps highlight the way that he disorients us in relation to this boundary. He puts us on edge, maybe even replicates something of what it is like to predict the world around you when the mental mechanisms are awry. And thereby, Skelton tunes acutely in to how the judgements of his readers can be unsettled and awakened.

Time to illustrate this with a few examples. This is a bit of ‘Ware the Hauke’, an extraordinary poem that is prompted by, and often focuses on, Skelton’s anger that a fellow clergyman has had the temerity to let his pet hawk hunt in the poet’s own church. The poem is a tour de force, in the sense that it goes on quite a tour, and unleashes quite a lot of force. Its sense of direction and proportion are frequently in question, and it’s a good example of the phenomenon described above: at what point in the list below do the names become something like noise, things that don’t change our predictions about where the poem is going? We know he is listing lots of tyrants, showing off, and that none of these tyrants ever did anything so terrible as letting a hawk hunt in Skelton’s church. (In these extracts I may comment on a word or a line or two: just run your mouse, or device-equivalent, over any highlighted bits.)

      Of no tyrand I rede,
      That so far dyd excede;
      Neyther yet Dyoclesyan,
      Nor yet Domysyan;
      Nor yet croked Cacus,
      Nor yet dronken Bacus;
      Nother Olybryus,
      Nor Dyonysyus;
      Nother Phalary,
      Rehersyd in Valery,
      Nor Sardanapall,
      Unhappyest of all;
      Nor Nero the worst,
      Nor Clawdyus the curst;
      Nor yet Egeas,
      Nor yet Syr ;
      Nother ,
      Nor cruel Jesabell;
      Nor yet Tarquinius,
      Whom Tytus Lyvyus
      In wrytynge doth enroll;
      I have red them poll by poll;
      The story of Arystobell,
      And of Constantynopell,
      Whiche cytie myscreantys wan,
      And slew many a Chrysten man;
      Yet the Sowden, not the Turke,
      Wrought never suche a worke,
      For to let their hawkys fly
      In the church of Saynt Sophy;
      With moch matter more,
      That I kepe in store. (190-221)

Next, is a passage from ‘Why Come Ye Nat To Courte?’. As part of his attack on Wolsey, Skelton represents the troubled and fretful streets of London, and especially the hunger for news of corruption and calamity. In one great section, the cry ‘what newes?’ leads to various things, some of which must matter more than others: the designation of noise again becomes an issue.

      What newes? What news?
      Small newes that true is
      That be worth .ii. kues.
      But at the naked stewes
      I understande how that
      The Sygne of the Cardynall Hat,
      That inne, is now shyt up,
      With, ‘Gup, hore, gup! Now gup,
      Gup, Guilliam Travillian!
      With, ‘Jast you, I say, Jullian!
      Wyll ye bere no coles!
      A mayny of marefoles
      That occupy theyr holys;
      Full of pocky molys.
      What here ye of Lancashyre?
      They were nat payde their hyre.
      They are fel as any fyre!
      What here ye of Chesshyre?
      They have layde all in the myre.
      They grugyd and sayde
      Theyr wages were nat payde.
      Of the Scottysshe hoost.
      For all theyr crack and bost,
      Wylde fyre and thonder;
      For all this worldly wonder,
      A hundred myle asunder
      They were, whan they were next.
      This is a trew text!
      What here ye of the Scottes?
      They make us all sottes,
      Poppynge folysshe dawes.
      They make us to pyll strawes;
      They play their olde pranckes
      After Huntley Bankes.
      At the streme of Banockesburne
      They dyd us a shrewde turne,
      Whan Edwarde of Karnarvan
      Lost all his father wan. (233-71)

What I’ve tried to do here, then, is present Skelton’s particular style in relation to some ideas in the Predictive Processing field. If the goal is to limit Free Energy, to limit surprise and keep predicting smoothly, then Skelton makes that hard. He causes a kind of psychological edginess (not discomfort, necessarily; this is all pretty enjoyable) because we’re not sure when the significant bits start and end. He knows this, of course: these are experiments, undisciplined and control-free experiments, with no ethical clearance whatsoever, into how readers respond. In future posts I’ll say a bit more about why all of this might work as a satirical technique.

Scattergood’s note: ‘… the tyrannous giant heathen king of Alexandria who defied Charlemagne…’. Do we see some particular significance here, or is Skelton flashing names?
Scattergood’s note: ‘Why Zerubbabel appears here is not clear. He was entrusted by Cyrus with the rebuilding of the temple… Skelton may have in mind Haggai i 4-6, where Zerubbabel is criticized for not getting on with the work’. Again, do we see some particular significance here, and what are the rewards for knowing, or searching one’s memory, or looking up, who this is?
Skelton unsettles our sense of what’s noise and what’s not.
Scattergood wonders whether Skelton was remembering that some soldiers from Lancashire and Cheshire had reportedly fled the battle of Flodden some years earlier. Perhaps this is the sort of detail that people would have understood at the time, but which just cannot be recovered now. However, perhaps the ‘some sayde’ points somewhere else. Perhaps this is a meeting of the unconstrained invective of Skelton with the multi-faceted and undiscriminating voices of rumour. They meet in a kind of noise, where it’s hard to say what matters and what does not.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

One thought on “Thinking Through Skelton (1)

  1. Sean Geddes

    The cry ‘What news?’ and the following ‘Small news that true is’ reminded me of how ‘noise’ is often used to cover the more chaotic forms of social speech: rumour, gossip, report. When Chaucer (dreaming) and his garrulous eagle guide approach the House of Fame, the eagle asks:

    ‘Maistow not heren that I do?’
    ‘What?’ quod I. ‘The grete soun,’
    Quod he, ‘that rumbleth up and doun
    In Fames Hous, full of tydynges,
    Bothe of feir speche and chidynges,
    And of fals and soth compouned. (1024-9)

    This ‘grete soun’ is a few lines later spoken of as ‘noyse’, which, while it doesn’t quite have the sense of ‘rumour’ as Shakespeare’s verb does in 2 Henry IV – ‘My office is | To noise abroad that Harry Monmouth fell | Under the wrath of noble Hotspur’s sword’ – it does get at a phenomenon where the designation of what is pertinent in something that is ‘of fals and soth compouned’ is the issue. My very small point, then, is that a rumour-like news is an apt figure for this concept of noise. In the case of Skelton, it does seem like a technique of satire: set the energies of rumour going, even if they only indirectly concern your target, and suddenly your target has a certain gravitational pull on the imagination. He becomes an indispensable point of reference through which you try to make sense of all the noise.


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