Some Penguin Classics front such a great story that you feel irresistibly compelled to open with it: a rector of stern and upright countenance mounts the lectern of the old church of Diss in Norfolk, his broad, rough face blackened with barely suppressed rage. He has lately come from a dressing-down given to him by his old friend the Bishop of Norwich on a very particular subject, and he strongly suspects he knows where the bishop got his information – from the rector’s own tattle-tale parishioners. He grips the lectern and glowers at those parishioners now and gets right down to business:
You have complained of me to the bishop, that I do keep a fair wench in my house. I do tell you, if you had any fair wives, it were somewhat to help me at need. I am a man, as you be. You have foul wives, and I have a fair wench – of the which I have begotten a fair boy, as I do think, and as you all shall see.
Then he raises his voice and calls out: “Thou wife, that hast my child – be not afraid! Bring me hither my child to me!” Whereupon the lady in question brings the awestruck naked infant to his father, who proceeds to wave the child at his appalled congregants, still ranting:
How say you, neighbours all? Is not this child as fair as is the best of yours? It is not like a pig, or a calf, nor like a foul nor no monstrous beast. If I had brought forth this child without arms or legs, or that it were deformed, I wouldn’t have blamed you for complaining of me to the bishop. But to complain without cause! I say as I’ve said before, Vos estis: you be, and have been, and will and shall be knaves, to complain of me without a reasonable cause!
The vigor, the inappropriateness, the weird cluelessness, the hilarity – these things belong so thoroughly to the early Tudor poet John Skelton that even if the anecdote isn’t true (it’s posthumous, alas), it couldn’t speak more accurately of the man. Skelton was born around 1460, educated at Oxford and Cambridge, created a poet laureate at Oxford, Louvain, and Cambridge, and around 1498 became a distant advisor to Henry VII and tutor to his son (and the future king) Prince Henry. He got his rectorship at Diss in 1502 as an almost explicitly worldly preferment, for although he took Holy Orders he was very much a creature of the Court, a public intellectual, friend and rival to other literary-political figures like Thomas More (and friend also, in a contentious and not unwary way, with the greatest humanist of the age, Erasmus, who blurbed him as the “incomparable light and ornament of English letters” mainly because he wanted to stay in good graces with the job-dispensing Court; he couldn’t have despised Skelton’s learning, although his coarseness would have rankled the refined Dutchman) – and at times a very public enemy to the supremely powerful Cardinal Wolsey, who’s the butt of some of Skelton’s most scathing verse satires.
Such a man – vain, active, utterly worldly – must have been bewildered indeed by his parishioners’ complaint about his keeping a “musket” in his private chambers and getting children on her. “See?” we hear him bellowing, red-faced, “It’s not deformed! What the Hell is wrong with you people?”
Those verse satires – but not, alas, the hilarious anecdote – are on full display in our present Penguin Classic, the Complete English Poems edited by Trinity’s John Scattergood in 1983. Professor Scattergood is too circumspect for dangling bastards – he largely dispenses even with the more secular dissipations of a General Introduction, preferring to present his scrupulously annotated versions of the poems as quick as possible.
Here we get all the fairly typical stuff Skelton wrote as a young man, but we also get the increasingly smart, free, and remarkable works that came bubbling out of him the more he wrote (and of course we get his famous “Skeltonics” – not, as it sounds, the name of a 1960s rock group but rather the term, coined in his lifetime, for the strange, utterly distinct verse form he used, so close to today’s rap music that it’s briefly disconcerting:
Nowe let me se about
In all this rowte
Yf I can fynde out
So semely a snowte
Among this prese-
Even a hole mese-
I rede we sease.
As Skelton grew more confident, his poems grow more delightful and scathing, finally crowned with such masterpieces as Phyllyp Sparowe, or the wonderful mock-pastoral Colin Clout, and the anti-Wolsey broadside Speke Parott, with its snide warnings against birds who preen in borrowed plumage:
For that pereles Prince that Parrot did create,
He made you of nothing by His majesty.
Point well this problem that Parrot doth prate
And remembre among, now Parrot and ye
Shall lepe from this life, as mery as we be.
Pomp, pride, honour, riches and worldly lust,
Parrot saith plainly, shall tourn all to dust.
Wolsey, contrary to popular legend, knew how to take a pasting as well the next butcher’s cur, and Skelton was very nearly impossible not to like (if he wasn’t your rector, that is); the two ended up becoming friends, and it’s doubtful if either one of them ever learned Parrot’s wise lessons about the wheel of fortune.
Fortune hasn’t been generally kind to Skelton, despite Erasmus’ encomium, despite the shouted praise of his day’s best book critics, despite the esteem of E.M. Forster (who honored Skelton in a famous lecture but considered him weird), despite even the great James Russell Lowell, who surveyed vast pastures of English poetry from Chaucer onwards and found almost nothing prior to Spenser that merited anything but contempt. Writing in the 1870s, he made one exception:
One genuine English poet illustrated the early years of the sixteenth century, – John Skelton. He had vivacity, fancy, humor, and originality. Gleams of the truest poetical sensibility alternate in him with an almost brutal coarseness. He was Rabelaisian before Rabelais. But there is a freedom and hilarity in much of his writing that gives it a singular attraction. A breath of cheerfulness runs along the slender stream of his verse, under which it seems to ripple and crinkle, catching and casting back the sunshine like a stream blown on by clear western winds.
All very true, and even so respectable a soul as Professor Scattergood must have felt the breath of that cheerfulness, to prompt this definitive Penguin edition. If readers happen upon it (perhaps at the outside carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop), they’ll feel it too. Skelton never fails, when even his much more august literary descendants, Spenser and Sidney, sometimes do.