The lively and erratic work of John Skelton acted as a "bridge
" between medieval
solemnity and Tudor
sprightliness. Skelton was born about 1460
, was applauded and attacked during his time, was forgotten shortly after, and had to wait four hundred years
to be rediscovered. His life was a series of contradictions. He had an impudent brain and a loose tongue
. Yet he received the official laurel from Louvain, Cambridge, and Oxford, and the universities created him "poet laureate
." He was outspoken to the point of lese majesté
, yet he was tutor to Prince Henry
, and became court poet when the Prince ascended the throne as Henry VIII
. He was admitted to holy orders in 1498
, and occupied a parsonage in Norfolk. He attacked the powerful Cardinal Wolsey
and as a result was forced to take sanctuary in Westminster Abbey
, where he died in 1529
The same contradictions continued to pursue Skelton after his death. Erasmus referred to "Skelton, the only light and glory of English letters." William Lily, from his high eminence as author of a short Latin syntax, dismissed Skelton as "neither learned, nor a poet," and Pope extended the condemnation by speaking of "beastly" Skelton. In The Court of Henry VIII Mrs. Thomson claimed that "the instruction bestowed upon Prince Henry by his tutor Skelton was calculated to render him a scholar and a churchman." But Agnes Strickland, in her Lives of the Queens of England, contemptuously concluded, "How probable is it that the corruption imparted by this ribald and ill-living wretch laid the foundation for his royal pupil's grossest crimes!"
Whether or not Skelton influenced the monarch, the poet and his royal pupil had more than ribaldry in common. There were a mutual power of language, a gusty humor, and an intensity of serious feeling beneath the boisterousness. But as Richard Hughes, the twentieth-century poet and novelist, pointed out, "The learned admired him for his learning, and the people admired him as one of the most amusing writers of any century: Skelton, knowing himself to be not only a scholar and a jocular but a poet, looked to Posterity for nice appreciation...and Posterity has played the jade with him: never quote giving him his congé, she has kept him dangling...For four centuries he has lain in his grave, food for the grammarians."
It is not hard to find reasons for this neglect. Skelton wrote at a time when the pronunciation of English was changing. As a consequence, the scanning of his lines was misunderstood and his rhythms became unintelligble. He also suffered, as his modem "disciple" Robert Graves maintained, "an undeserved reputation as an obscene writer." Yet Skelton is not always impudent and helter skelter, a sort of Anglicized Villon. In the midst of rudeness, rapidly accumulating epithets, and uneven but breathlessly recurring rhymes, he is often unashamedly tender. Such poems as The book of Philip Sparrow and his tributes to Margery Wentworth and Margaret Hussey were popular with readers of all classes. His rough warmth, as well as his love of practical jokes, endeared him to the populace.