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John Skelton was an English poet (1460-1529) and was active in the Tudor courts of kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. In fact we first hear of him as a tutor to the young Prince Henry before he was heir to the English throne. He was a forceful personality and made a lasting impression on his generation and subsequently has taken his place in the canon of English poetry. There has been much debate as to whether that place is deserved, with some critics saying it is more his place in history that has warranted his fame rather than the poetry that he wrote. There is no doubt that since the time of Chaucer in the late 14th century and up to the time of the Elizabethan poets and Spenser in the late 16th century Skelton holds a unique place because of the amount of his poetry that has survived. So what about the poetry. Well first impression are that it is different, wildly uneven, vitriolic and although the later poems have a unique style of their own they did not provide any sort of blueprint that would inspire subsequent poets. In many ways the poems appear as anachronisms rather like Skelton himself. The poems certainly hark back to medieval times with the first of the longer poems "The Bowge of Court" (the mouth of the Tudor Court) being a dream allegory of a nobleman beset by the deadly sins that Skelton perceived that were rife in the court. It is written in iambic pentameters with an ababccdd rhyming scheme. The satire is evident throughout although it is of a more general nature and does concern itself with man's salvation. It does not make for easy reading today and there are many biblical and liturgical references that require detailed notes to gain a more in depth understanding of what is going on here. The next significant poem is "Phyllyp Sparowe" and suddenly the poet is writing in a wholly new and different style and one that has come to be known as Skeltonics. His lines are contracted into six, five or even four syllables, they are light and airy with rhymes that go on and on and seem sometimes to be taken to their limit. These new short lines have a pungency all of their own and give Skelton added scope for word play, they seem to be flung out onto the page, but to me they also have the feel of rhyming songs, they almost chime out to be sung in a way that Bob Dylan might sing "Its alright ma I'm only bleeding" This is an example from Skelton's Colin Clout: But now my mynde ye understande, For they must take in hande To preche, and withstande All manner of abjections; For bysshoppes havr protections They say, to do corrections But they have no affections To take sadde dyrections In such maner of cases Men say, they bere no faces To occupye suche places To sowe the sede of graces. Back to Phyllipe Sparowe which is an early example of Skeltonics and tells from the mouth of a certain Jane Scroupe her lamentations for the loss of her pet sparrow that was killed by her cat Gib. Many of her thoughts are concerned with the afterlife of the sparrow which she sees flying in heaven. The poem also contains an imagined requiem mass for Phyllipe Sparrow in which a whole host of birds take part, all of them named and some described; it is like something that could have come from Chaucer's "Parliament of Fowles". However, it would not be a Skelton poem without something else that sets it out of the normal run of things. Suddenly the goodly maid Jane from the nunnery near Norwich takes on an added persona, she becomes almost a sexual object in lines like: It had a velvet cap And wold syt upon my lap, And seke after small wormes, And sometime white bread crommes; And many times and ofte Between my breasts softe It wolde lye and rest It was proper and prest ........... And when I sayd 'Phyp Phyp' Than he would lepe and skyp And take me by the lyp Alas, it wyll me slo, That Phillyp is gone me fro! It has been suggested that Skelton was thinking of the Virgin Mary with these lines, but we will never know and it is left to our own interpretation. Skelton was a master of the political satire and three of his longer poems focused...
The Bowge of Courte
From Phyllyp Sparowe 1845
The Tunnyng ofElynour Rummyng
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