There are obvious difficulties in any attempt to present John Skelton’s critical heritage. As Patricia Thomson has reminded us in the case of another sixteenth-century poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt, there were virtually no ‘masters of criticism’ before the Restoration. ( 1) It is not until the publication of the second volume of Warton’s ‘History of English Literature’ in 1778—nearly 250 years after Skelton’s death—that we find the first extended evaluation of the poet. Before that, the materials for an understanding of the changing critical appreciation of Skelton are highly fragmentary. One has, in the main, to rely on passing allusions, brief comments, and such inferences as can be adduced from the evidence of Skelton’s influence on the literature of his own and subsequent generations.
It is the fragmentary nature of much of Skelton’s critical heritage that poses the greatest problem. Indeed, much of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century material I have been able to assemble can only be termed criticism by the most elastic use of the term. Dispassionate, or even considered, judgments of his work are (at best) very rare. The chief problem is that Skelton’s reputation, both during his own lifetime and subsequently, has been inextricably bound up with controversy, personal, political and aesthetic. Comparatively little of the early comment on his work is free from this identification of Skelton with partisan causes of various kinds.
But in some ways it is this very tendency to attract controversy that makes Skelton’s reputation such a rewarding subject for study. By focusing on this particular figure it is possible to follow, in a revealing way, fluctuations in literary taste from the sixteenth century through to our own age. When one attempts to trace the vicissitudes of his critical status, Skelton emerges as a valuable representative figure, reflecting changing