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 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’.


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]

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