Book review: The Phoenix and the Parrot: Skelton and the Language of Satire

Oxford professor Douglas Gray delivers a fun primer on John Skelton, a 16th century English poet who may have invented an early form of rap lyric

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Dec 12, 2013 - Page 11

Of the Antipodean literary figures who moved to, and made their names in, the UK in the 1950s and 1960s — writers such as Clive James, Germaine Greer and the poet Peter Porter — none is more notable than the New Zealand-born Medievalist and philologist Douglas Gray. He rose to the top of his profession at Oxford, being appointed J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English in 1980. (It’s worthy of note that Tolkien himself was the UK’s greatest Germanic philologist — a specialist in the ancient languages of Northern Europe — of his day.)

Gray’s major work is his magisterial Later Medieval English Literature (2008). This book revolutionized the accepted view of the 15th century, previously held to be a virtual literary desert. Gray showed it to be rich indeed, if you knew where to look.

Now Gray has come up with a smaller volume on the late 15th century and early 16th century English poet John Skelton. It’s crammed with interest, and Gray’s enthusiasm for his subject vies with his exceptional knowledge of the literary context on just about every page.

So who was John Skelton, and why should we be interested in him? He was an ordained priest and tutor to the teenager who was later to become Henry VIII. But more importantly he was one of the most vituperative, scurrilous, comic and multi-faceted poets imaginable, with liveliness his defining characteristic.

His best-known metrical form has been named after him. “Skeltonics” were defined in the 19th century as a “headlong voluble breathless doggerel … rattling and crashing on through quick recurring rhymes.” In essence, they are very short lines with a repeating rhyme, like this:

Droopy and drowsy,

Scurvy and lousy,

Her face all bowsy … (probably meaning “rough”)

Wait a minute, I hear you say. Haven’t I heard something like that before? Of course you have. This is the meter and rhyme-scheme of innumerable rap poets — a connection not, as far as I can see, mentioned in this book. It’s perhaps unlikely that the early rappers got the manner from Skelton, though you never know. Be that as it may, this is today the most high-profile verse style practiced in the English-speaking world, and it was invented by Skelton.

“Not exactly English,” older skeptics might grumble. Well, John Skelton’s writing was “not exactly English” either, as Professor Gray is quick to remark. Not only did he love nothing more than to jumble phrases from different languages — English, Latin, French and Scots, for example — but he was also very enthusiastic about mixing in general, juxtaposing serious and comic, low-life language and high-society rhetoric, invented words (there are a large number in the Oxford English Dictionary for which Skelton is cited as the first recorded user) and traditional proverbs, often introduced with mischievous intent.

Skelton’s reputation suffered badly in the centuries after his death in 1529. His determinedly erratic, offbeat manner didn’t suit the aspirations to eloquence that characterized the Elizabethans, the metrically regular classicism of the 18th century, or the desire to penetrate the secrets of the heart of the Romantics. But the 20th century saw a long-delayed revival. His contempt for the rich and powerful (he endlessly satirized Cardinal Wolsey), and his adoption of techniques for subverting the reader’s expectations, and even making them feel uncomfortable, boosted his popularity with many a modern verse practitioner. Even the relatively conventional Robert Graves wrote a poem in 1917 in his praise. It imitated “Skeltonics” and ended “Old John, you do me good.”

Skelton is often remembered as England’s first “poet laureate.” This, however, is deceptive. The title wasn’t given, as now, to a single celebrated figure, but to any prominent practitioner. Petrarch was so honored in Italy, and more than one poet was awarded the title in Skelton’s era.

It’s interesting to note that Skelton was writing over 100 years after Chaucer, but that Chaucer feels much more our contemporary. The reason for this, apart from Chaucer’s confident supremacy in every genre he touched, lies in the older poet’s characteristic irony, smoothness of style, genial persona and close social observation — a combination that will attract readers in any age. But Skelton is anything but smooth, let alone genial, and doesn’t remain in one mode long enough for a term like “irony” to apply. He therefore feels quirky (which he is) and hard to pin down. He attracts with one side of his talent and alienates with another, like a bipolar magnet.

Yet, like Chaucer, and also like Shakespeare, Skelton was versed in both learned and popular traditions. He also loved mixing the two, as Shakespeare was to do after him. All this is more than adequately explained by Douglas Gray. There’s probably no one alive with a comparable expertise to Gray’s in this literary period, and he can only be described as modest when he calls himself a Skelton addict rather than a Skelton expert.

The great critic John Bayley, also an Oxford English professor, once told me that Douglas Gray would never countenance the intrusion of politics into literary scholarship. By this he clearly meant “literary theory,” and there’s certainly not a trace of that in this book.

The Phoenix and the Parrot (the title refers to Skelton’s high and low styles) serves several purposes. If you’re a beginner who wants an introduction to Skelton, this is it. But if you’re an advanced student who wants some detailed insights into Skelton’s major poems, this is also the book for you.

The Phoenix and the Parrot is published by the University of Otago’s Department of English. The university, located in Dunedin in the far south of New Zealand, has recently become something of a center for Skelton studies, and the book can be ordered directly from the publisher.