Poets: John Skelton

Returning from our long holiday, we come back, not to the twentieth or even seventeenth century, but to the fifteenth and a poet of renown whose reputation faded quickly but who is nonetheless exceptionally important to the history of English poetry and strangely important to modern forms of poetry in English.

Tutor to King Henry the Eighth, John Skelton was in his life a poet and also a priest. His career as a priest seems marked by controversies; however none sufficient for defrocking, indicating most of the controversies were political or personal in nature. This seems very plausible as in a number of places he complains about corruption in the court and church of England; whether true of false as his accusations might be, it is apparent that this approach earned him enemies.

It should be noted in passing that his influential status as a poet is connected to his position in the court, though details of how he acquired this position are unclear. Nonetheless, in this time (and this applies today as in any time) the fame of a poet and his position among high society are, although distinct, not really different; and poets of mean background who were famous in their life were always so due to their ability to curry favor with the powerful.

It is also almost always the case (and we see this with T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound) that the shortest path to prominence is to start at least from the families or towns from which the powerful are drawn. Take this as an exercise; if you have children and visit the public library, see how many childrens’ books are mysteriously written or illustrated by people (particularly women) from New England. For those not from New England, how many are expatriates from there?

But for those of us who have been paying attention to this, the idea that a poet sits on his own skill purely to reach renown in this life is a clear myth, a myth designed to encourage members of the unacknowledged powerful (in this case, the people of many places in New England) to continue pursuing the avenues of cultural power.

To really read Skelton one needs a rudimentary grasp of Latin, as is often the case with men in that era their interest and love of Latin was at least as great as their interest in their own tongue. Skelton however did invent the style of beat poetry we call “rap”, the most notable remaining bit of this semi-doggerel, swaggering and riotous style the long poem Colin Clout.

If you are in doubt about my statement (or don’t wish to work with older spellings of English) we find this line in the poem, which gives us an idea that most modern “slang” is not the result of invention per se, but of using apt phrasing:

Or if he speaketh plain
Then he lacketh brain
He is but a fool
Let him go to school.

Later the idea of “ragged rhythm” was claimed for a certain style of piano-playing developed by Mr. Joplin, but the concept is much older:

My name is Colin Clout.
I purpose to shake out
All my cunning bag,
Like a clerkly hag ;
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.

In both cases, such inventions were not true inventions, but re-discoveries of things somewhat lost or brought into disrepute. Skelton was not well-liked in the proceeding centuries, but I have no need or cause to deal with the critiques. His style was unceasingly aggressive, while many of the poets after him tried to practice far more tact (and seemed to have less trouble, though perhaps not significantly, for this choice.)

It’s quite certain that the ragged rhythm of rap is nothing more than how English is used when one wishes to rhyme aggressively and insultingly. Only in an era when all other types of poetry are basically dead could such a form rise to the prominence it has; for Skelton it had its prominence due to his person and not due to the dignity of such a form.

The poem hunter site has a number of his poems, another one of interest is Speak, Parrot! – in which his complaint is delivered in the form of an insult, which makes it less whining or lecturing, and more a direct assault on the person being complained about. Generally, when the powerful complain it comes across as lecturing, since who do the powerful have to complain to? God? But the lecture always has behind it the power to compel, that is, to compel re-listening to the lecture (as failing grades in a class might cause) or implementation of its dictates. The weak complain about their condition and it takes the form of whining, which is complaining TO the powerful that things are so bad for them; its job, like the toddler whining, is to make things intolerable for the powerful in the degree of annoyance until the demands are met. The form of the insult however is different and interesting; instead of complaining about what someone else is doing, it is simply attacking the person doing those things by attempting to present them as ridiculous (such is the art of satire!) Some of these lines, however, are reminiscent of ones might hear today:

So little discretion, and so much reasoning ;
So much hardy dardy, and so little manliness ;
So prodigal expense, and so shameful reckoning ;
So gorgeous garments, and so much wretchedness ;
So much portly pride, with purses penniless
So much spent before, and so much unpaid behind ;—
Since Deucalion‘s flood there can no clerks find.

The modern, reading the fourth line might think he is complaining about the rich defrauding the poor, but the next lines disabuse us of this: it is all people who both have fancy garments, prodigal expenses and portly pride (they’re fat, ladies and gentlemen!) yet so much wretchedness, pennilessness and arrears are what lie behind these appearances. There are other stanzas to deal with other problems such as “So many moral matters, and so little used”, or “So much forecasting, and so far an after deal” (i.e. forecasting in arrears) and so on. He who forgets history is doomed to repeat it!

This poem’s addressee is of course not the public (though the public can be an audience) but some person, perhaps the cardinal who he had made enemies with and who had him imprisoned twice.

Lastly I want to address, through one of Skelton’s poems, the concept of poetic translations. There is a certain disagreement about the degree to which poetry can be translated; often, for example, we find in the history of English poetry that English poets who translated Latin poems are upbraided by Latin scholars for doing so “incorrectly”. As to what this is to mean, I don’t know enough Latin to be entirely certain of the critique; but it is also possible that these men, not being themselves poets, expect the poet to somehow both do a word-for-word and perfect translation of meanings, while maintaining the work as a poem? Perhaps they think the magic line-breaks will elevate the concepts into poesy? How little things change!

The following poem is untitled so as the tradition states it is titled for its first line. It is the same poem written (not translated, written) in both Latin and English. Now, you must be wondering, if the poem is written in both Latin and English, is it a Latin or English poem? Let us not be silly; meaning is prior to language, and not all languages are as fit as others to express the same ideas. Here it is:

Cuncta licet cecidisse putas discrimina rerum,
Et prius incerta nunc tibi certa manent,
Consiliis usure meis tamen aspice caute,
Subdola non fallat te dea fraude sua:
Saepe solet placido mortales fallere vultu,
Et cute sub placida tabida saepe dolent;
Ut quando secura putas et cuncta serena,
Anguis sub viridi gramine saepe latet.
Though ye suppose all jeopardies are past,
And all is done that ye looked for before,
Ware yet, I rede you, of Fortunes double cast,
For one false point she is wont to keep in store,
And under the fell oft festered is the sore:
That when ye think all danger for to pass,
Ware of the lizard lieth lurking in the grass.

(Rede is the old term for “council, reason, story, word” which can be used as a noun or a verb. “What is your rede” and “I rede you” are both valid constructions. Ware can be treated as a contraction of “beware”, although “beware” is actually a contraction of “be + ware (wary)”)

To demonstrate the oddity (and that this poem is not identical between the two languages, even though its meaning is the same) I have roughly literally translated the Latin, without regards to rhythm or rhyme, but maintaining lines and word orders as much as possible:

“all may permit that you deem to cease discerning things
and before uncertain to you, you may certain remain,
O you about to use my councils, yet observe carefully
That by her deceit the sneaky goddess would not trick you
Often she tricks mortals with a placid face
And from under melting skin they often lament
Just when untroubled you deem and everything calm
The snake under the green grass often hides.”

Notable is this sentence “Consiliis usure meis tamen aspice caute” which as a Latin beginner gave me a huge headache. “usure” means roughly “about to use”, but what is it doing in that form sitting there in the sentence? After digging a bit, I discovered that Latin speakers will use a verb’s participle form to modify the subject, which in the case of the future participle for “to use” gives you “you who are about to use”. When I directly translate the sentence, it is a bit of a beast for just six words in Latin! But then see what Skelton does with it instead:

“Ware yet, I rede you.”

He has rendered the dense six words of Latin in FIVE in English. Had this been someone else’s poem in another era, he probably would have been upbraided for the improper translation of that line. But instead, he uses the chance to name the wretched goddess Fortune for us English-speakers, giving both poems, though essentially the same meaning, a different character and quite different specifics in some cases, despite the same length and similar structure.

I do not think you can actually translate a poem; that is, while you can translate the sentence “I ran”, it does not follow that the complexities introduced by poetic diction can be translated. It is even perhaps the case that, and this poem might show, you would not WANT a perfect translation even if you could get one. Rather, you’d want that poem written in your language, which is what Skelton has done.

Reading Skelton is a challenge for most modern readers, who expect poems to immediately “relate” to them, and for them knowledge of what he wrote is perhaps inaccessible. Some idioms are doubtful to translate (and altering them might ruin rhythm or rhyme) but the majority of it is merely the more natural phonetic spelynge of our language before later standardization.

As for his Latin colophons and addresses, you’ll have to use a Latin-English dictionary, friend. It’s well worth the trouble.

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One Comment

  1. I thank you.


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