48

 

“Nederlands: John Skelton” by author unknown. Wikimedia Commons.


Introduction

by Abdihakin Jama

 

Described by George Puttenham as a “Rude, rayling, rymer,” and by Ben Jonson as “Beastly Skelton” in reference to him demonizing an alewife in the story of “The Tunning of Elenor Rimming” John Skelton was a brilliant satirist, scholar and was comfortable both in church and at court though he often scandalized both and fell out of favor due to his biting and condemnatory wit. Poems is a compilation of 12 of his works, and although the author did write more (and for most of his life), a great number of his works wouldn’t come to be published until late in his life, and even more posthumously (Poems is published in 1969).

Biography

While much is alluded to about the life of John Skelton not much is actually known, and what is known is conflicting (John Skelton, and its variants, being common names) or omitted by him throughout the breadth of his works. His birth was cited, in The Garland of Laurel, as May 2, 1463, however, we have no records of this. His schooling is also unclear, however, his knowledge demonstrates an early prestigious education often associated with Cambridge and Oxford, while his love for music shows he was familiar with the monastic choir. Skelton was awarded the only laureateship ever at Cambridge in 1493 (although some argue it may have been 1488). Following the release of Thomas Howard (the Duke of Norfolk) from the London Tower in 1488, he was appointed by Henry VII to tutor his son, Prince Henry (who would come to be Henry VIII). He would later be designated Poet Laureate by King Henry VIII, who showed him tremendous favor, so much so that he was allowed to write whatever he pleased, often bashing the church and courtly life. After being promoted to sub-deacon, deacon, and priest, and then jailed, he was eventually freed and left the royal court to become the rector of Diss (“John Skelton”). He would then pen disdainful pieces directed towards Thomas Wolsey, a cardinal and privy councilor to Henry VIII in “Against Venomous Tongues” amongst other works. Although he is most popularly known for his poems, the author was also an avid playwright. His play titled Magnificence is one about balance and measure in morality. In the end, the poet laureate died in June 1529 in Westminster at the age of 69.

 

Literary Style

“Epitaphs of Two Knaves of Diss” “Ware the Hawk” “Phillip Sparrow” all contain a form of dimeter and trimeter phrasings which would be named the “Skeltonic” verse, or “Tumbling verse” which was believed to be a variation of the Gregorian song, a musical form of plainsong (Eberhart). Skeltonic verse emphasizes feeling for spoken language, and therefore allows one to place accents anywhere, to emphasize emotion or mood wherever needed.

 

Themes

His works vary, in mood and subject, however often address themes of morality, virtue and the corruption of the church. Some are seen as obscene, while others are thoughtful and witty. Oftentimes, his tone can be read as sarcastic, such as the “Bowge of Courte” really being about the difficulties and dangers associated with life at court, where the main character Drede, is seduced and betrayed by vices, and eventually commits suicide. Another highlight in his works’ in terms of morality is “The Book of Phillip Sparrow” which showcases a girl’s literal interpretation of resurrection and eternal love in the form of her pet sparrow. Eccentricities aside, the author provides us with some of the most memorable poems from this time period as he delves us into the world of the morally gray often through the use of archetypes.

 

Historical Background

These poems by Skelton were largely written in the late 15th century ushering in the early Renaissance period. This period was a time full of exploration and conquest. With the unification of Spain, Christopher Columbus chartered to the Americas in 1492, while Spain and Portugal would divide up new world territories under the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. The most memorable historical figure in England at the time, however, as well as Skelton’s pupil, Henry VIII would come to make history. King Henry VIII was a vicious, stereotypical king, often beheading his wives for not providing him heirs, or council members, to just about anyone without even a trial, under blanket terms of ‘treason’ or ‘heresy’ (one of them being Cardinal Wolsey). He was a power-hungry ruler, amending the English Constitution to include the divine right of kings. Wanting the power of the church, and faced with the issue of divorce in Catholicism (it doesn’t exist) he dissolved the Church of England from papal authority and monasteries and set himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, for which he would ultimately be excommunicated. Although living a scandalous and mostly self-serving life, Henry VIII did provide a royal voice and an authoritative figure for church reformation among already growing Protestant dissent. Much of England did however suffer financially at his hand, nearly bankrupting the kingdom due to his extravagant spending and costly failed wars.


Works Cited

Eberhart, Lawrence. “Poetry Forms: Skeltonic Verse.” Poets’ Collective, 10 Dec. 2013. poetscollective.org/poetryforms/skeltonic-verse/ Accessed 01 May 2020.

“John Skelton.” Wikipedia. 25 Apr. 2020. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Skelton. Accessed 01 May 2020.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. What does Skelton hope to achieve by providing scenarios that are morally ambiguous, or characters who are opportunistic such as Elenor Tunning?
  2. Do you think Skelton believed in heaven and hell, or just in a general sense of failure and success? Why?
  3. Why does jane feel left out in public in “The book of Phillip Sparrow”?
  4. Why does Drede commit suicide in “The Bowge of Courte”?
  5. Is Elenor Tunning evil in your opinion, why?

Further Resources

  • A video clip of Skelton’s “Speke Parrott” in the original Middle English (that went viral in 2014)
  • An essay from the Paris Review on John Skelton entitled “The Renaissance Precursor of Rap Battles and Flow”
  • An article analyzing Skelton’s “Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale” published in the Guardian


Reading: John Skelton’s Poems (Selections)

 

Ballad of the Tunning of Elinour Rumming

Tell you I will,

If that ye will
A-while be still,
Of a comely Jill
That dwelt on a hill:
She is somewhat sage
And well worn in age:
For her visage
It would assuage
A man’s courage.
Droopy and drowsy,
Scurvy and lowsy,
Her face all bowsy,
Comely crinkled,
Wondrously wrinkled
Like a roast pig’s ear,
Bristled with hair.
Her nose some deal hookéd,
And camously-crookéd,
Never stopping,
But ever dropping;
Her skin loose and slack,
Grained like a sack;
With a crooked back.
Jawed like a jetty;
A man would have pity
To see how she is gumméd,
Fingered and thumbéd,
Gently jointed,
Greased and anointed
Up to the knuckles;
Like as they were with buckles
Together made fast.
Her youth is far past!

 

And yet she will jet
Like a jollivet,
In her furréd flocket,
And gray russet rocket,
With simper and cocket.
Her hood of Lincoln green
It has been hers, I ween,
More than forty year;
And so doth it appear,
For the green bare threadés
Look like sere weedés,
Withered like hay,
The wool worn away.
And yet, I dare say
She thinketh herself gay
Upon the holiday
When she doth her array
And girdeth on her geets
Stitched and pranked with pleats;
Her kirtle, Bristol-red,
With clothes upon her head
That weigh a sow of lead,
Writhen in wondrous wise
After the Saracen’s guise,
With a whim-wham
Knit with a trim-tram
Upon her brain-pan;
Like an Egyptian
Cappéd about,
When she goeth out.

 

And this comely dame,
I understand, her name
Is Elinor Rumming,
At home in her wonning;
And as men say
She dwelt in Surrey
In a certain stead
Beside Leatherhead.
She is a tonnish gib,
The devil and she be sib.
But to make up my tale
She breweth nappy ale,
And maketh thereof pot-sale
To travellers, to tinkers,
To sweaters, to swinkers,
And all good ale-drinkers,
That will nothing spare
But drink till they stare
And bring themselves bare,
With ‘Now away the mare!
And let us slay care’.
As wise as an hare!
Come who so will
To Elinor on the hill
With ‘Fill the cup, fill!’
And sit there by still,
Early and late.
Thither cometh Kate,
Cisly, and Sare,
With their legs bare,
They run in all haste,
Unbraced and unlaced;
With their heelés daggéd,
Their kirtles all jaggéd,
Their smocks all to-raggéd,
With titters and tatters,
Bring dishes and platters,
With all their might running
To Elinor Rumming
To have of her tunning.

 

She lendeth them on the same,
And thus beginneth the game.
Some wenches come unlaced
Some housewives come unbraced
Some be flybitten,
Some skewed as a kitten;
Some have no hair-lace,
Their locks about their face
Such a rude sort
To Elinor resort
From tide to tide,
Abide, abide!
And to you shall be told
How her ale is sold
To Maud and to Mold.
Some have no money
That thither comé
For their ale to pay.
That is a shrewd array!
Elinor sweared, ‘Nay,
Ye shall not bear away
Mine ale for nought,
By him that me bought! ‘
With ‘Hey, dog, hey!
Have these hogs away! ‘
With ‘Get me a staffé
The swine eat my draffé!
Strike the hogs with a club,
They have drunk up my swilling-tub!’

 

Then thither came drunken Alice,
And she was full of talés,
Of tidings in Walés,
And of Saint James in Galés,
And of the Portingalés,
With ‘Lo, Gossip, I wis,
Thus and thus it is:
There hath been great war
Between Temple Bar
And the Cross in Cheap,
And there came an heap
Of mill-stones in a rout ‘.
She speaketh thus in her snout,
Snivelling in her nose
As though she had the pose.

 

‘Lo, here is an old tippet,
An ye will give me a sippet
Of your stale ale,
God send you good sale! ‘
‘This ale’, said she, ‘is noppy;
Let us suppé and soppy
And not spill a droppy,
For, so may I hoppy,
It cooleth well my croppy ,
Then began she to weep
And forthwith fell asleep.
(‘With Hey! and with Ho!
Sit we down a-row,
And drink till we blow.’)
Now in cometh another rabble:
And there began a fabble,
A clattering and babble
They hold the highway,
They care not what men say,
Some, loth to be espied,
Start in at the back-side
Over the hedge and pale,
And all for the good ale.

 

(With Hey! and with Ho!
Sit we down a-row,
And drink till we blow.)

 

Their thirst was so great
They asked never for meat,
But drink, still drink,
And ‘Let the cat wink,
Let us wash our gummés
From the dry crummés!’
Some brought a wimble,
Some brought a thimble,
Some brought this and that
Some brought I wot ne’er what.
And all this shift they make
For the good ale sake.
‘With Hey! and with Ho!
Sit we down a-row,
And drink till we blow,
And pipe “Tirly Tirlow!”,

*       *       *

But my fingers itch,
I have written too much
Of this mad mumming
Of Elinor Rumming!
Thus endeth the geste
Of this worthy feast.
Tell you I will,
If that ye will
A-while be still,
Of a comely Jill
That dwelt on a hill:
She is somewhat sage
And well worn in age:
For her visage
It would assuage
A man’s courage.
Droopy and drowsy,
Scurvy and lowsy,
Her face all bowsy,
Comely crinkled,
Wondrously wrinkled
Like a roast pig’s ear,
Bristled with hair.
Her nose some deal hookéd,
And camously-crookéd,
Never stopping,
But ever dropping;
Her skin loose and slack,
Grained like a sack;
With a crooked back.
Jawed like a jetty;
A man would have pity
To see how she is gumméd,
Fingered and thumbéd,
Gently jointed,
Greased and anointed
Up to the knuckles;
Like as they were with buckles
Together made fast.
Her youth is far past!

 

And yet she will jet
Like a jollivet,
In her furréd flocket,
And gray russet rocket,
With simper and cocket.
Her hood of Lincoln green
It has been hers, I ween,
More than forty year;
And so doth it appear,
For the green bare threadés
Look like sere weedés,
Withered like hay,
The wool worn away.
And yet, I dare say
She thinketh herself gay
Upon the holiday
When she doth her array
And girdeth on her geets
Stitched and pranked with pleats;
Her kirtle, Bristol-red,
With clothes upon her head
That weigh a sow of lead,
Writhen in wondrous wise
After the Saracen’s guise,
With a whim-wham
Knit with a trim-tram
Upon her brain-pan;
Like an Egyptian
Cappéd about,
When she goeth out.

 

And this comely dame,
I understand, her name
Is Elinor Rumming,
At home in her wonning;
And as men say
She dwelt in Surrey
In a certain stead
Beside Leatherhead.
She is a tonnish gib,
The devil and she be sib.
But to make up my tale
She breweth nappy ale,
And maketh thereof pot-sale
To travellers, to tinkers,
To sweaters, to swinkers,
And all good ale-drinkers,
That will nothing spare
But drink till they stare
And bring themselves bare,
With ‘Now away the mare!
And let us slay care’.
As wise as an hare!
Come who so will
To Elinor on the hill
With ‘Fill the cup, fill!’
And sit there by still,
Early and late.
Thither cometh Kate,
Cisly, and Sare,
With their legs bare,
They run in all haste,
Unbraced and unlaced;
With their heelés daggéd,
Their kirtles all jaggéd,
Their smocks all to-raggéd,
With titters and tatters,
Bring dishes and platters,
With all their might running
To Elinor Rumming
To have of her tunning.

 

She lendeth them on the same,
And thus beginneth the game.
Some wenches come unlaced
Some housewives come unbraced
Some be flybitten,
Some skewed as a kitten;
Some have no hair-lace,
Their locks about their face
Such a rude sort
To Elinor resort
From tide to tide,
Abide, abide!
And to you shall be told
How her ale is sold
To Maud and to Mold.
Some have no money
That thither comé
For their ale to pay.
That is a shrewd array!
Elinor sweared, ‘Nay,
Ye shall not bear away
Mine ale for nought,
By him that me bought! ‘
With ‘Hey, dog, hey!
Have these hogs away! ‘
With ‘Get me a staffé
The swine eat my draffé!
Strike the hogs with a club,
They have drunk up my swilling-tub!’

 

Then thither came drunken Alice,
And she was full of talés,
Of tidings in Walés,
And of Saint James in Galés,
And of the Portingalés,
With ‘Lo, Gossip, I wis,
Thus and thus it is:
There hath been great war
Between Temple Bar
And the Cross in Cheap,
And there came an heap
Of mill-stones in a rout ‘.
She speaketh thus in her snout,
Snivelling in her nose
As though she had the pose.

 

‘Lo, here is an old tippet,
An ye will give me a sippet
Of your stale ale,
God send you good sale! ‘
‘This ale’, said she, ‘is noppy;
Let us suppé and soppy
And not spill a droppy,
For, so may I hoppy,
It cooleth well my croppy ,
Then began she to weep
And forthwith fell asleep.
(‘With Hey! and with Ho!
Sit we down a-row,
And drink till we blow.’)
Now in cometh another rabble:
And there began a fabble,
A clattering and babble
They hold the highway,
They care not what men say,
Some, loth to be espied,
Start in at the back-side
Over the hedge and pale,
And all for the good ale.

 

(With Hey! and with Ho!
Sit we down a-row,
And drink till we blow.)

 

Their thirst was so great
They asked never for meat,
But drink, still drink,
And ‘Let the cat wink,
Let us wash our gummés
From the dry crummés!’
Some brought a wimble,
Some brought a thimble,
Some brought this and that
Some brought I wot ne’er what.
And all this shift they make
For the good ale sake.
‘With Hey! and with Ho!
Sit we down a-row,
And drink till we blow,
And pipe “Tirly Tirlow!”,

*       *       *

But my fingers itch,
I have written too much
Of this mad mumming
Of Elinor Rumming!
Thus endeth the geste
Of this worthy feast.

To Mistress Isabell Pennell

By Saint Mary, my lady,
Your mammy and daddy
Brought forth a goodly baby,
My maiden Isabel,
Reflaring rosabel,
The fragrant camamel,
The ruddy rosary,
The sovereign rosemary,
The pretty strawberry,
The columbine, the nepte,
The ieloffer well set,
The proper violet
Envied your colour
Is like the daisy flower
After the April shower,
Star of the morrow grey,
The blossom on the spray,
The freshest flower of May,
Maidenly demure,
Of womanhood the lure.
Wherefore I make you sure
It were an heavenly health,
It were an endless wealth,
A life for God himself
To hear this nightingale
Among the birdes small
Warbling in the vale —
Dug, dug,
Jug, jug,
Good year and good luck,
With chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk.
Rate this poem:

To Mistress Margaret Hussey

Merry Margaret
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower:
With solace and gladness,
Much mirth and no madness,
All good and no badness;
So joyously,
So maidenly,
So womanly
Her demeaning
In every thing,
Far, far passing
That I can indite,
Or suffice to write
Of Merry Margaret
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower.
As patient and still
And as full of good will
As fair Isaphill,
Coliander,
Sweet pomander,
Good Cassander;
Steadfast of thought,
Well made, well wrought,
Far may be sought,
Ere that ye can find
So courteous, so kind
As merry Margaret,
This midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower.

 

Philip Sparrow

Pla ce bo,
Who is there, who?
Di le xi,
Dame Margery;
Fa, re, my, my,
Wherfore and why, why?
For the sowle of Philip Sparowe,
That was late slayn at Carowe,
Among the Nones Blake,
For that swete soules sake,
And for all sparowes soules,
Set in our bederolles,
Pater noster qui,
With an Ave Mari, 
And with the corner of a Crede,
The more shalbe your mede.
Whan I remembre agayn
How mi Philyp was slayn,
Never halfe the payne
Was betwene you twayne,
Pyramus and Thesbe,
As than befell to me:
I wept and I wayled,
The tearys downe hayled;
But nothinge it avayled
To call Phylyp agayne,
Whom Gyb our cat hath slayne.
Gib, I saye, our cat,
Worrowyd her on that
Which I loved best:
It can not be exprest
My sorowfull hevynesse,
But all without redresse;
For within that stounde,
Halfe slumbrynge, in a swounde
I fell downe to the grounde.
Unneth I kest myne eyes
Towarde the cloudy skyes:
But whan I dyd beholde
My sparow dead and colde,
No creatuer but that wolde
Have rewed upon me,
To behold and se
What hevynesse dyd me pange;
Wherewith my handes I wrange,
That my senaws cracked,
As though I had ben racked,
So payned and so strayned,
That no lyfe wellnye remayned.
I syghed and I sobbed,
For that I was robbed
Of my sparowes lyfe.
O mayden, wydow, and wyfe,
Of what estate ye be,
Of hye or lowe degre,
Great sorowe than ye myght se,
And lerne to wepe at me!
Such paynes dyd me frete,
That myne hert dyd bete,
My vysage pale and dead,
Wanne, and blewe as lead;
The panges of hatefull death
Wellnye had stopped my breath.
Heu, heu, me,
That I am wo for the!
Ad Dominum, cum tribularer, clamavi: 
Of God nothynge els crave I
But Phyllypes soule to kepe
From the marees deepe
Of Acherontes well,
That is a flode of hell;
And from the great Pluto,
The prynce of endles wo;
And from foule Alecto,
With vysage blacke and blo;
And from Medusa, that mare,
That lyke a fende doth stare;
And from Megeras edders,
For rufflynge of Phillips fethers,
And from her fyry sparklynges,
For burnynge of his wynges;
And from the smokes sowre
Of Proserpinas bowre;
And from the dennes darke,
Wher Cerberus doth barke,
Whom Theseus dyd afraye,
Whom Hercules dyd outraye,
As famous poetes say;
From that hell-hounde,
That lyeth in cheynes bounde,
With gastly hedes thre,
To Jupyter pray we
That Phyllyp preserved may be!
Amen, say ye with me!
Do mi nus, 
Helpe nowe, swete Jesus!
Levavi oculos meos in montes: 
Wolde God I had Zenophontes,
Or Socrates the wyse
To shew me their devyse,
Moderatly to take
This sorrow that I make
For Phylyp Sparowes sake!
So fervently I shake,
I fele my body quake;
So urgently I am brought
Into carefull thought.
Like Andromach, Hectors wyfe,
Was wery of her lyfe,
Whan she had lost her joye,
Noble Hector of Troye;
In lyke maner also
Encreaseth my dedly wo,
For my sparowe is go.
It was so prety a fole,
It wold syt on a stole,
And lerned after my scole
For to kepe his cut,
With, “Phyllyp, kepe your cut!”
It had a velvet cap,
And wold syt upon my lap,
And seke after small wormes,
And somtyme white bred crommes;
And many tymes and ofte
Betwene my brestes softe
It wolde lye and rest;
It was propre and prest.
Somtyme he wolde gaspe
Whan he sawe a waspe;
A fly or a gnat,
He wolde flye at that;
And prytely he wold pant
Whan he saw an ant;
Lord, how he wolde pry
After the butterfly!
Lorde, how he wolde hop
After the gressop!
And whan I sayd, “Phyp! Phyp!”
Than he wold lepe and skyp,
And take me by the lyp.
Alas, it wyll me slo,
That Phillyp is gone me fro!

Source Texts:

Skelton, John. “The Book of Phillip Sparrow,” “The Tunning of Elinour Rumming,” and “To Mistress Margaret Hussey.” Poets.org, 2020, is licensed under no known copyright.

PDM

— “To Mistress Isabell Pennell.” The Poetical Works of Skelton, Vol. 1. Thomas Rodd, 1843, is licensed under no known copyright.

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