English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century

By Maurice Evans | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV

JOHN SKELTON

JOHN SKELTON was not the only early Tudor poet, but he was the greatest. He deserves a chapter, both for his own intrinsic merits, and because he is so typical of the ear stages of the English Renaissance, when the poetry of the XVth century was outgrown but the new classical models had not yet made their impact. He was born about 1460, a year before Dunbar, and by 1490 was acknowledged as a scholar, "late created poet laureate". The Laureateship in the XVIth century was a degree in rhetoric awarded to a master of language and oratory, and with this qualification Skelton was accepted at the court of Henry Vllth as one of the little band of scholars and orators with which a Renaissance monarch was expected to surround himself. He was the tutor to the young Prince Henry for a time, and tells us proudly that "The honour of England I learned to spell" (Against Garnesche), but by 1504 he had left the Court and taken the rich living of Diss in Norfolk. By 1512 he was back again at Westminster as Orator Royal, celebrating English victories in verse and, for the next ten years, launching his great satires against Wolsey with whom, however, he seems to have made his peace in later years. He died in 1529, shortly before the Cardinal fell from power.

To the XVIth century Skelton was known as a satirist and, even more, as a jester and buffoon. He was one of those characters to whom all the floating legends of his generation seemed to attach themselves, and the Merry Tales of Skelton with its accounts of insanitary jokes at the expense of friars and innkeepers was one of the most popular books of the century. Most of the tales are probably apocryphal, although the famous story of how Skelton outfaced his scandalized congregation by holding up his new-born child in the pulpit and challenging anyone there to produce a better, has the ring of truth. Skelton certainly anticipated the Reformation in respect of the marriage

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