John Skelton: The Critical Heritage

By Anthony S. G.Edwards | Go to book overview

41.

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING IN PRAISE OF SKELTON

1842

From The Book of the Poets, in the ‘Athenaeum’, 11 June 1842, p. 521, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61), the poetess.

Skelton ‘floats double, swan and shadow,’ as poet laureate of the University of Oxford, and ‘royal orator’ of Henry VII. He presents a strange specimen of a court-poet, and if, as Erasmus says, ‘Britannicarum literarum lumen’ at the same time, —the light is a pitchy torchlight, wild and rough. Yet we do not despise Skelton: despise him? it were easier to hate. The man is very strong; he triumphs, foams, is rabid, in the sense of strength; he mesmerizes our souls with the sense of strength—it is easy to despise a wild beast in a forest, as John Skelton, poet laureate. He is as like a wild beast, as a poet laureate can be. In his wonderful dominion over language, he tears it, as with teeth and paws, ravenously, savagely: devastating rather than creating, dominant rather for liberty than for dignity. It is the very sans-culottism of eloquence; the oratory of a Silenus drunk with anger only. Mark him as the satyr of poets! fear him as the Juvenal of satyrs! and watch him with his rugged, rapid, picturesque savageness, his ‘breathless rhymes,’ to use the fit phrase of the satirist Hall, ( 1) or—


His rhymes all ragged,
Tattered, and jagged, [‘Colin Clout’, lines 53-4]

to use his own, climbing the high trees of Delphi, and pelting from thence his victim underneath, whether priest or cardinal, with rough-rinded apples! And then ask, could he write otherwise than so? The answer is this opening to his poem of the ‘Bouge of Court,’ and the impression inevitable, of the serious sense of beauty and harmony to which it gives evidence

[Quotes lines 1-6.];

but our last word of Skelton must be, that we do not doubt his influence for good upon our language. He was a writer singularly fitted for beating out the knots of the

-99-

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