John Skelton: The Critical Heritage

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30.

THOMAS WARTON ON SKELTON

1778

From Thomas Warton, ‘The History of English Poetry’ (1778), II, pp. 336-63. Warton (1728-90) was a poet and critic. In reprinting his essay his original footnotes have been deleted as have various excurses.

Most of the poems of John Skelton were written in the reign of king Henry the eighth. But as he was laureated at Oxford about the year 1489, I consider him as belonging to the fifteenth century.

Skelton, having studied in both our universities, was promoted to the rectory of Diss in Norfolk. But for his buffooneries in the pulpit, and his satirical ballads against the mendicants, he was severely censured, and perhaps suspended by Nykke his diocesan, a rigid bishop of Norwich, from exercising the duties of the sacerdotal function. Wood says, he was also punished by the bishop for ‘having been guilty of certain crimes, AS MOST POETS are.’ But these persecutions only served to quicken his ludicrous disposition, and to exasperate the acrimony of his satire. As his sermons could be no longer a vehicle for his abuse, he vented his ridicule in rhyming libels. At length, daring to attack the dignity of cardinal Wolsey, he was closely pursued by the officers of that powerful minister; and, taking shelter in the sanctuary of Westminster abbey, was kindly entertained and protected by abbot Islip, to the day of his death. He died, and was buried in the neighbouring church of saint Margaret, in the year 1529.

Skelton was patronised by Henry Algernon Percy, the fifth earl of Northumberland, who deserves particular notice here; as he loved literature at a time when many of the nobility of England could hardly read or write their names, and was the general patron of such genius as his age produced. He encouraged Skelton, almost the only professed poet of the reign of Henry the seventh, to write an elegy on the death of his father, which is yet extant…. But Skelton hardly deserved such a patronage.

It is in vain to apologise for the coarseness, obscenity, and scurrility of Skelton, by saying that his poetry is tinctured with the manners of his age. Skelton

-78-

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