surprise some readers to learn that John Skelton, whose poems sometimes seem irreverent if not downright bawdy, was a serious courtier and a priest. Skelton attended Cambridge University, and shortly before entering service at court, Oxford University gave him the title poet laureate; the University of Louvain and Cambridge followed suit a few years later. Although the title did not carry the weight it now does, Skelton was praised early in life by the likes of William Caxton and Desiderus Erasmus. He took holy orders in 1498 and was promptly appointed tutor and chaplain to Prince Henry, son of King Henry VII. A year later The Bowge of Courte (1498) became Skelton's first published poem.
Despite his renown as a scholar, Skelton's position at court was disrupted by the death of Prince Arthur, the heir apparent. Skelton's pupil, Prince Henry, became heir apparent, and positions in the service of the young Henry were highly sought after by those hoping to maintain their influence in affairs of state.
Skelton was dismissed from tutoring the prince and appointed rector of Diss in Norfolk, a prosperous town far from court.
When Henry VII died, Skelton immediately began offering verses to his former pupil, King Henry VIII. By 1512, he had attracted the new king's attention, returned to court, and was given the title orator regius (the king's orator). Biographers tend to view this return as somewhat ironic since Skelton's poem Why Come Ye Nat to Courte (1522) criticizes those who abandon their clerical duties, as Skelton had apparently done, in favor of a court appointment.
Despite the new title, Skelton's function in court and his relation to the king is not at all clear. Several of Skelton's most famous satirical poems—Collyn Clout (1519); Speke, Parrot (1521); and Why Come Ye Nat to Courte (1522)—attack Cardinal Wolsey when the influential Wolsey was closest to the king. In a surprising reversal, Skelton later dedicated Garland of Laurel (1523) and Howe the Douty Duke of Albany (1523) to Wolsey. What conditions led to this complete change of attitude have provided scholars with an apparently endless debate about Skelton's politics, poetic aspirations, and patronage.
In addition to satirical poems, Skelton wrote several plays, only one of which survives, Magnificence (1515). Framed as a morality play, Magnificence provides a political allegory about the monarch's choice of advisors.
However, Skelton is remembered primarily as a poet. occasionally described as antiquated or merely transitional, he should be read as an early modern poet. What has come to be known as Skeltonics, poems heavily rhymed but with no set rhyme scheme and lines containing beats that range from two to five, is not an indication of Skelton's inability to write in regularized meter. Skeltonics show that the poet was an experimentalist, consciously breaking with set rhyme schemes, playing with colloquial speech, and working with various metrical patterns derived from ballads and sacred chants. Through his poetic experiments, Skelton pushed the limits of conventional poetry and created a lively form for his social and political commentary.
See also Knologe, Aquayntance, Resort, Fauour with Grace; "Philip Sparrow"; satire; "Tunning of Eli-nour Rumming, The"; Womanhood, Wanton."
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