Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Every Reader's Skelton

Who can resist the anecdote told of John Skelton’s presentation of his new-born son to his congregation at Diss in the waning days of Roman Catholicism’s hegemony in Britain? Understanding that some parishioners had complained about him to the Bishop of Norwich that “he kept a fair wench” who had just borne a child, he told his wife to bring the baby forward. Displaying it naked, he asked, “How say you, neighbors all? Is not this child as fair as is the best of yours? It hath nose, eyes, hands, feet, as well as any of yours: it is not like a pig, nor a calf nor like no fowl nor no monstrous beast. If I had brought forth this child without arms or legs, or that it were deformed, being a monstrous thing, I would never have blamed you to have complained to the bishop of me; but, to complain without a cause, I say, as I said before in my anthem, vos estis, you be, and have been, and will and shall be knaves, to complain of me without a cause reasonable.”

Whether it is true or not, this story expresses the poet’s qualities of wit, his broad humanity, and his sense of the dramatic. Skelton was a scholar; a number of his Latin poems are extant. He was made “laureate” through his rhetorical degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge and he tutored Prince Henry (later Henry VIII). “Regius orator” and poet-laureate to the court, he knew his Greek and Latin and was adept at the fashionably elaborate ornamentation that later came to be called Euphuism. His translation of Diodorus Siculus is called by its editors “the most extravagant specimen of aureation in our language.”

Yet he is remembered less for his for his classicism and his artifice than for poems notably vulgar in theme, unconventional in form, and colloquial in diction, with short lines and rhymes tumbling over each other in a way that seems akin to some of today’s performance poetry. The sound of a Skelton poem is unmistakable. Here are the opening lines of “The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng,” a portrait of the slattern who runs a public house. Skelton opens with paean to her ugliness, an inversion of the courtly blazon of the beloved.

TELL you I chyll,
If that ye wyll
A whyle be styll,
Of a comely gyll
That dwelt on a hyll :
But she is not gryll,
For she is somwhat sage
And well worne in age ;
For her vysage
It would aswage
A mannes courage.
Her lothely lere
Is nothynge clere,
But vgly of chere,
Droupy and drowsy,
Scuruy and lowsy ;
Her face all bowsy, . . .

There is a good deal more. Her patrons are of a piece with the good landlady in their inattention to grooming.

Some wenches come vnlased,
Some huswyues come vnbrased,
Wyth theyr naked pappes,
That flyppes and flappes ;
It wygges and it wagges,
Lyke tawny saffron bagges ;
A sorte of foule drabbes
All scuruy with scabbes :
Some be flybytten,
Some skewed as a kytten ;
Some wyth a sho clout
Bynde theyr heddes about ;
Some haue no herelace,
Theyr lockes about theyr face,
Theyr tresses vntrust,
All full of vnlust ;
Some loke strawry,
Some cawry mawry ;
Full vntydy tegges.

In another of Skelton’s poems one witnesses a micro-drama on a stage of twenty-eight lines. “Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale” looks a clever male female dialogue like Johnny Cash and June Carter’s Jackson” or Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” until one pays attention to its dark scenario. In this reworking of the pastourelle it is a cleric rather than a knight who importunes the country girl who prudently tries to send him on his way. In the chorus lines one hears the lady indignantly prodding her horses onward, but the last verse makes it clear that he has had his way and afterwards expresses only contempt for her.

Ay, beshrew you! by my fay,
These wanton clerks be nice alway!
Avaunt, avaunt, my popinjay!
What, will ye do nothing but play?
Tilly, vally, straw, let be I say!
Gup, Christian Clout, gup, Jack of the Vale!
With Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale.

By God, ye be a pretty pode,
And I love you an whole cart-load.
Straw, James Foder, ye play the fode,
I am no hackney for your rod:
Go watch a bull, your back is broad!
Gup, Christian Clout, gup, Jack of the Vale!
With Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale.

Ywis ye deal uncourteously;
What, would ye frumple me? now fy!
What, and ye shall be my pigesnye?
By Christ, ye shall not, no hardely:
I will not be japèd bodily!
Gup, Christian Clout, gup, Jack of the Vale!
With Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale.

Walk forth your way, ye cost me nought;
Now have I found that I have sought:
The best cheap flesh that I ever bought.
Yet, for his love that all hath wrought,
Wed me, or else I die for thought.
Gup, Christian Clout, your breath is stale!
Go, Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale!
Gup, Christian Clout, gup, Jack of the Vale!
With Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale.

Such vigorous vernacular serves well not only for the genre portrait of Elynour, “woundersly wrynkled,/ Lyke a rost pygges eare.” In “Mannerly Margery” the lady’s words sound like transcriptions of cries from the street: “Ay, beshrew you,” “Gup,” “now fy.” It is as real and immediate as can be, though written in imitation of centuries of literary models.

Skelton was capable of other tones: the awe-struck tremendum of “woefully Arrayed” or the richly fanciful yet fiercely satirical allegory of “The Bowge of Court.” While others were as capable of solemnity, classicizing periods and high artificiality, Skelton distinguishes himself with a jumping, squirming, sneering, joking, speedy popular rhetoric that insists on being read out loud. He was not always highly regarded. To Pope, for instance, he was “beastly,” a writers with work “consisting almost wholly of Ribaldry, Obscenity, and Billingsgate Language.” Yet today’s readers are likely to receive more kindly the style for which In Colin Clout he offers a sort of defense.

For though my rhyme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rain beaten,
Rusty and moth eaten,
If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith.

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