John Skelton (c.1463-1529) is in many ways a poet of contradictions. He was esteemed by his contemporaries for his eloquence and aureate style, but in the judgement of less sympathetic readers his scurrility, his use of the demotic and his irregular verse forms violated canons of literary decorum and good taste. A religious conservative and a trenchant opponent of evangelical reform, his pugnacious onslaughts against Cardinal Wolsey were interpreted by subsequent generations of poets and controversialists as a more generalised attack on the corruption of the Catholic clergy, and he came to be seen as a proto-Protestant and his work as a model of anti-Catholic satire. He was a polyglot humanist who took his place among the international community of scholars, but his polemics, particularly those directed against the French and the Scots, can be ruthless in their deployment of the most xenophobic and chauvinistic of nationalistic stereotypes.
Skelton has therefore proved a problematic figure for critics. Not only does his diverse body of work, which encompasses a vast array of genres, styles and subject matter, resist easy categorisation but his persona as a public poet, combatively assertive yet at the same time deferential – even obsequious – to the wishes of those in authority, does not fit comfortably with modern notions either of poetry, or of the place of the poet in public life.
John Scattergood’s meticulously detailed exploration of Skelton’s writing career directs its attention squarely at the poems themselves. Although he provides a great deal of contextual material, his commentary and analysis do not seek to impose a particular interpretation, but as far as possible allow the work to speak for itself. The breadth of Skelton’s writing – the sheer range of his interests and the diversity of genres in which he wrote – is well served by his literary biographer. Scattergood writes about the different stages of Skelton’s career, from his arrival at the court of Henry VII in the late 1480s all the way through to his response to the emerging Lutheran “heresy” 40 years later, with equal insight and authority.
Skelton is often seen as a forbiddingly “difficult” and opaque poet, and his writing is rooted in the public life and personal rivalries of the early Tudor court, all of which require careful exposition for a modern reader. But at times his obscurity is a conscious poetic strategy, creating a mode in which to assert dangerous political opinions while simultaneously concealing those opinions beneath a veil of allegory and metaphor. Scattergood offers a rigorous analysis of Skelton’s literary experimentation and innovation, and carefully charts the ways in which his writing develops in response to changing political circumstance.
The nature of Skelton’s poetry – the fact that it not only engages with but also sees itself as an intervention in public affairs – means that it creates relatively little space for the subjective exploration of selfhood. His poetic persona can seem rather flat as a result, and the fractious and quarrelsome quality of much of his verse suggests, in Scattergood’s words, that “tact and insight into the feelings of others were never [his] strong points”. Yet despite the insensitive figure that often emerges from the poetry, Scattergood is unfailingly judicious, understanding and sympathetic in his treatment of his subject, and his excellent analysis highlights Skelton’s importance to both the literary and political history of the period.
John Skelton: The Career of an Early Tudor Poet
By John Scattergood
Four Courts Press, 356pp, £50.00
Published 11 July 2014