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 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’.


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]

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