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 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’.


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]

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