John Skelton: The Critical Heritage

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

40.

ISAAC D’ISRAELI ON SKELTON’S GENIUS

1840

From Isaac D’Israeli’s essay Skelton, in his ‘Amenities of Literature’, 2nd ed. (1842), pp. 69-82. D’Israeli (1766- 1848) was a noted scholar and critic. A few of his excurses and most of his footnotes have been deleted in the present selection.

At a period when satire had not yet assumed any legitimate form, a singular genius appeared in Skelton. His satire is peculiar, but it is stamped by vigorous originality. The fertility of his conceptions in his satirical or his humorous vein is thrown out in a style created by himself. The Skeltonical short verse, contracted into five or six, and even four syllables, is wild and airy. In the quick-returning rhymes, the playfulness of the diction, and the pungency of new words, usually ludicrous, often expressive, and sometimes felicitous, there is a stirring spirit which will be best felt in an audible reading. The velocity of his verse has a carol of its own. The chimes ring in the ear, and the thoughts are flung about like coruscations. But the magic of the poet is confined to his spell; at his first step out of it he falls to the earth never to recover himself. Skelton is a great creator only when he writes what baffles imitation, for it is his fate, when touching more solemn strains, to betray no quality of a poet—inert in imagination and naked in diction. Whenever his muse plunges into the long measure of heroic verse, she is drowned in no Heliconian stream. Skelton seems himself aware of his miserable fate, and repeatedly, with great truth, if not with some modesty, complains of

Mine homely rudeness and dryness. [‘Upon the death… of Northumberland, line 13]

But when he returns to his own manner and his own rhyme, when he riots in the wantonness of his prodigal genius, irresistible and daring, the poet was not unconscious of his faculty; and truly he tells, —


Though my rime be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,

-93-

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