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date: 08 August 2020

Parrot’s Poetics: Fragmentation, Theory, and Practice in Skelton’s Writing

Abstract and Keywords

This article re-examines John Skelton’s “laureate poetics” in the light of his poetic practice. Whereas, over the past twenty years, a consensus has emerged that Skelton’s work is best understood as an attempt to reconcile a poet’s potential roles of court spokesperson and inspired vates, this article takes a step back from Skelton’s poetic theory to address one of the more challenging aspects of his writing: its frequently cryptic and fragmentary style. Through lexical analysis of some of Skelton’s lesser known works, including his Latin poetry and his translation of the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus, it argues that linguistic fragmentation is a direct reflection of Skelton’s compositional practices. Demonstrating that, for Skelton, inventio and elocutio are not distinct rhetorical techniques, but inseparable parts of a single process, it argues that his poetics do not simply negotiate inherited theories of poetry, but are materially affected by a praxis that privileges words over matter.

Keywords: John Skelton, Latin poetry, Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus, laureate poetics, vates, linguistic fragmentation, logopoeia, imitation, inspiration, Lydgate

To judge by recent criticism, in the last few years, Skelton has ceased to be the troubling case he was for so many centuries. He has been a beneficiary not only of advances in Skelton studies themselves, but also of an increasingly frequent acknowledgment that the firm boundary that used to be drawn between the “medieval” and “early modern” periods was a misleading one.1 Rather than begin with assumptions as to what constitutes a “medieval” or a “renaissance” author and demonstrate at length that Skelton fits neither category, recent work has tended instead to link his writing closely to specific historical circumstances. One recurrent focus has been on Skelton in relation to the Tudor court, with Magnyfycence and The Bowge of Court making especially frequent appearances both in purely historicist readings and in those that examine the impact of the court on Skelton’s poetics.2 The latter have demonstrated how it at once provides Skelton with a potential source of authority and, in requiring him to serve as spokesperson for the king, threatens his ability to claim a yet higher source of authority as divinely inspired vates; Robert Meyer-Lee encapsulates this position when he places Skelton in a line of fifteenth-century English poets, beginning with Lydgate, who “believing poetry to convey the most essential truths and yet being asked to use it to legitimate the blunt use of power in the highest places… developed a laureate poetics, a set of practices aimed at resolving this conundrum.”3

A Garlande of Laurell has proved particularly important to such readings of Skelton. As a symbolically autobiographical dream-vision that both models itself on and seeks to surpass Chaucer’s House of Fame, it places Skelton firmly in the emerging canon of English vernacular poetry. At the same time, by invoking large numbers of classical authors in support of “poeta Skelton’s” claim to a position at Fame’s court, it also aligns him with an older laureate tradition, in which the poet is defined by his task of service to the state; in addition, one of the Latin envoys asserts Skelton’s faith in the poet as divinely inspired prophet, or vates.4 Moreover, through its inclusion within the dream of “poeta Skelton’s” encounter with the ladies of Sheriff Hutton, who weave a “chapelet” of laurel for him prior to his formal supplication to Fame, receiving in exchange a series of commendatory lyrics, the poem posits Skelton as a private as well as a public poet. When one of the characters in A Garlande, Dame Pallas, states that “wrytyng remayneth of recorde” (l. 89), the record she refers to encompasses not only civic memorial but also intimate record; like the chaplet created for him by the ladies, Skelton’s poetry is a material symbol of a personal relationship.5 These contrasting roles are held in balance by their embodiment within the single figure of “poeta Skelton”: both private lyric and public praise and blame are imagined as elements of the poetic achievement for which he is triumphantly acclaimed within the fiction of the poem and that forms the basis for his assertions in the envoy. Skelton’s self-portrait in A Garlande thus becomes emblematic of the kind of poetic redefinition that he performed throughout his career: the fictional counterpart of his persistent attempt to contain conflicting poetic traditions within the remit of the titles poet laureate, orator regius, and vates. Given the insistence with which he revisits these titles and his constant struggle to reconcile civic and prophetic poetic modes, it is not surprising that “laureate poetics” have become something of a catch-all in Skelton criticism of the past few decades. It seems that, as the fog of periodization has cleared, they provide a window through which it is possible to see Skelton with relative clarity; although he may not quite be, in C. S. Lewis’s famous formulation, “a man we have met,” he has become an author we can read.6

Such consensus may risk oversimplification, however. At the very time when Skelton has come to be seen as a more or less affable familiar, A. S. G. Edwards has brought sharply into focus the exceptionally dubious stability of his texts, thus calling into question the very grounds on which he is known. It is twenty years since Seth Lerer made the compelling argument that Skelton’s writing is characterized by almost compulsive addition and revision, but Edwards goes further, demonstrating on textual grounds that, in many cases, we are dealing not with revised texts, but with distinct “finished” versions of a single work; indeed, he argues that so many of Skelton’s poems exist in multiple and mutually contradictory forms that “a belief in the recovery of a single, final intention may not be applicable.”7 There is thus an innate contradiction between what is implied by the poetics formulated in A Garlande and Skelton’s textual tradition: although “wrytyng remayneth of recorde,” the record may be less than self-consistent, and may—as Edwards shows—include printer error and vagaries of transmission, as well as Skelton’s own infinite deferral of the promised end.

Moreover, this practical consideration is not the only one to affect our understanding of Skelton. There is much in his work that—despite his own best efforts—cannot be subsumed under any of his titles. Skelton’s writing is characterized not only by tensions between court poet and prophet, but also—as Douglas Gray has recently argued—by a dichotomy between his stance of learned and prophetic doctus poeta, on the one hand, and railing and scoffing buffoon, on the other. Associating the latter with the most notorious of Skelton’s many personae, the loquacious Parrot, Gray argues that its obsessive chattering renders it “less… concerned with fame and eternal verities, and much more with flux, particularity and play.”8 He thus draws to our attention that aspect of Skelton’s work that challenged and frequently defeated critics from the later sixteenth century onward and that recent criticism has tended to suppress. For many readers, Skelton’s frequent recourse to cryptic, piecemeal expression, as well as the other kind of fragmentation that characterizes his writing—the short, irregular, and emphatically end-rhymed lines of the Skeltonic—call into question his entitlement to claim any kind of authority, regardless of its source. Even within Skelton’s own lifetime, William Lily famously asserted “Skelton, thou art, let all men know it, / Neither learned, nor a poet”; in the past century, Stanley Fish’s influential study made the case that the way in which poems such as Speke Parrot simply stop making sense witnesses a fundamental refusal of responsibility on Skelton’s part: a failure to live up to the satirist’s moral duty to reform the society he lives in.9 Although in recent criticism the tendency has been to read the verbal anarchy of Skelton’s poems in quite the opposite way, as an exceptionally accurate satirical mirror of a society that defies rational representation, an element of uneasiness remains.10 This is clearly apparent from the work of a number of critics, in addition to Gray, who have recently drawn attention to “profoundly felt” tensions and contradictions in Skelton’s poetry. In several cases, they seek to attribute Skelton’s “uncourtly” satire to the presence within his work of a previously overlooked tradition of clerical writing with marked Reformist tendencies; for these critics, Langland is the ancestor whose name Skelton dares not speak.11 Building on such arguments, Mishtooni Bose has made a more radical case, positing that the pressures on Skelton’s writing from mutually contradictory poetic traditions are irreconcilable not only to critics, but also to Skelton himself. This, she suggests, results in a comprehensive breakdown: in work whose “stylistic ruptures and gratuitous fragmentation of bodies of knowledge” results in a “polyvocality… constitutive of a restless, dissonant orthodoxy constantly testing its latitudes and even risking its own collapse.”12

The current state of Skelton studies, then, gives us a Skelton whose work has come down to us in a kind of textual collage, who is caught between courtly and popular poetic traditions and who struggles to find a coherent form for his own writing as a result. Arguably, it also contains some significant blanks; as a number of critics have noted, Skelton’s Latin poems, his lyrics, and his work as translator of the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus have attracted relatively little attention, whilst interest in his poetics has also resulted in neglect of his praxis.13 This article explores one possible way of redressing the balance. Focusing on Skelton’s use of set phrase, repetition, and allusion in some of his less frequently studied works, it argues that these not only provide important evidence of the processes by which his poems came into being, but also suggest a new way of thinking about the linguistic fragmentation that characterizes his poetry. Specifically, it suggests that, despite threatening a collapse of coherence, such fragmentation is a principle of composition: a means of thinking and writing that has a place alongside inherited theories of poetry as an influence on Skelton’s poetics. Whereas Bose argues that Skelton lacks the courage to examine the implications of his practice, “never quite… acknowledging outright that poetry is not obliged to do any moral or theological work at all, but can legitimately be a place in which mimesis prevails over moralizing,” I shall suggest that, for Skelton, form and content are not so readily distinguishable. In his work, the classical separation of rhetorical “inventio” (or selection of material) from “elocutio” (or choice of words) does not apply; his subject matter is constituted rather than clothed by his thinking through and about words, which also informs his thinking about what a poet is and does.

Fragmentation, Allusion, and Logopoeia in Skelton’s Lyric and Latin Poetry

In thinking about Skelton’s linguistic fragmentation, there are two main temptations: to view it as a satirical technique and to attribute it to the influence of the Skeltonic verse form, connecting its short lines with the breakdown of sentences into their constituent parts. The former view renders form subordinate to subject; the latter posits sense as subordinate to sound. Yet Skelton’s fragmentary utterance is not confined to particular modes or verse forms. Rather, it results from his tendency to locate meaning in individual words or phrases rather than in sentence or stanza—and this characterizes many, apparently discrete, areas of his writing. In both his Skeltonic and his non-Skeltonic poetry, two principles of composition are involved: not only that which Ezra Pound called “melopoeia”—a manner of composition in which “the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property which directs the bearing of trend of that meaning”—but also that which he termed “logopoeia”: “‘the dance’ of the intellect among ‘words’… [which] employs words not only for their direct meaning, but… takes count in a special way of habits of usage, of the context we expect to find with the word, its usual concomitants, of its known acceptances, and of ironical play.”14 It is the latter that primarily underpins Skelton’s habit of fragmentation and that connects his theory with his praxis.

The short poem “Agaynst a Comely Coystrowne”—an attack on a kitchen boy with artistic pretensions—is a case in point. Written in rhyme royal stanzas of 3-stress lines, with the stresses variably placed, it both demonstrates that fragmentation is not necessarily dependent on verse form and illustrates the method that underlies Skelton’s seeming madness.15 The poem witnesses a gradual breakdown of coherence. Its first five lines consist of a perfectly grammatical and logical sentence; the end of each line falls together with the end of a clause, and end-rhyme serves primarily as a form of punctuation to articulate the sense:

  • Of all nacyons under the hevyn,
  • These frantyke foolys I hate most of all;
  • For though they stumble in the synnys seven,
  • In pevyshnes yet they snapper and fall,
  • Which men the viii dedly syn call.

(ll. 1–5)

In the concluding couplet of this stanza, however, Skelton’s tautologous pair of insults for the kitchen-boy interrupts the smooth running of the grammatical sentence:

  • This pevysh proud, thys prendergest,
  • When he is well, yet can he not rest.

(ll. 6–7)

The strong alliteration in the sixth line distinguishes it from the preceding ones whose alliteration was a relatively local effect linking only adjective and noun pairs; at the same time, its strong medial caesura allows the two individual phrases to mirror one another across its division. Both techniques halt the progression of sense, and the reader is led to focus instead on the sound of the words: melopoeia dominates grammar. This anticipates the way in which, in the second and third stanzas, grammatical sentence still more strikingly gives way to shorter, relatively unconnected phrases:

  • A swete suger lofe and sowre bayardys bun
  • Be sumdele lyke in forme and shap,
  • The one for a duke, the other for dun,
  • A maunchet for morel thereon to snap.         [wheaten loaf; horse]
  • Hys hart is to hy to have any hap;
  • But for in his gamut carp that he can,
  • Lo, Jak wold be a jentyl man!
  • Wyth, “Hey, troly-loly-lo, whip here, Jak,”
  • Alumbek sodyldum syllorym ben!

(ll. 8–16)

Here, there is no longer a clear hypertactic relationship between clauses. Instead, from the third line onward, each line (with the possible exception of the sixth) forms an insult complete in itself, whose relationship to the others is secondary to its self-contained expression of contempt. The argument of the first four lines depends on metaphor; it posits that, of two types of loaf that visually resemble one another, only one is genuinely of high quality and that, by analogy, the finely dressed kitchen boy is a fraud. This point is made impressionistically, however. The line “A maunchet for morell thereon to snap” ostensibly qualifies the bread “for dun,” but because each line is complete in itself and the rhyme-word “snap” looks forward to the following line, there is an aural suspension of the grammatical and logical sense; momentarily, the “maunchet” seems to refer to the kitchen-boy himself. This paves the way for the complete collapse of grammar at the beginning of the third stanza, where the courtier’s reported speech consists of two unrelated refrain lines, the second of them in untranslatable cod-Latin; here, syntax and logic are entirely lost, and (although the rhyme royal form is maintained) the stanza becomes a container of fragments rather than an articulation of a complete “sentence.” Yet even as this suggests that grammatical and logical breakdown is at least in part a satirical technique and that it depends largely on aural effects, on closer examination, Skelton’s emphasis on line and phrase proves to be a form of logopoeia as much as of melopoeia—and one that says as much about his very verbal imagination as it does about his satirizing of the outside world.16

How, then, does such logopoeia manifest itself? The majority of the phrases into which the second and third stanzas disintegrate are not of Skelton’s own making, but are common parlance. Thus, the lines “hys hart is to hy to have any hap” and “the one for a duke, the other for dun” both play on proverbial phrases, while “Jak wold be a jentyl man” is wholly proverbial.17 As “found objects” with a previous existence outside Skelton’s poem, they are freighted with unnatural emphasis: their familiarity draws attention to them in their own right, independent of the work they perform in the sentence or line. For those readers who recognize them, they are likely to function rhetorically, implying that Skelton’s invective is based on consensus and is thus the more credible; a proverb, after all, reflects that lowest of common denominators, common sense. Yet the phrases’ unnatural emphasis may be shown to work on the poet as well as for him, as the heightened quality of the preexisting phrase and the readiness with which it springs to mind inform Skelton’s composition process and thereby the subject matter of the poem. At first sight, this appears to contradict the assertion that Skelton makes in A Replycacion, where he writes of composition as governed by a “heat and spede” that he attributes to divine inspiration, but which may also be read as a self-generating activity of the mind.18 Skelton’s theory of inspiration suggests that composition depends on a form of free association, while to claim that it relies on preexisting phrases implies that those associations are predetermined. Yet because both kinds of association privilege words over matter, they are not in fact incompatible. Rather, Skelton’s habits of repetition, quotation, and allusion—of which his frequent use of proverbial phrases is just one manifestation—demonstrate that the “heat and spede” of which he speaks do not occur in a vacuum but depend in part on the mind’s own existing word hoard. The dance of the intellect within its confines is a dance nonetheless.

This point is clearly illustrated by Skelton’s use of allusion in his Latin poetry. Even a cursory glance at Carlson’s edition of the Latin poems shows that the majority are riddled with allusions to the Bible, Virgil, and Ovid, as well as to a handful of other classical authors and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. A minority of these allusions are authorizing ones: invocations of a predecessor text that lend credence to Skelton’s writing either by providing it with a recognizable source or by serving as the original which is surpassed by Skelton’s imitation. Thus, in one of the Latin envoys to A Garlande, the opening lines “Fraxinus in silvis, altis in montibus orni, / Populus in fluviis, abies…” [“Ash in the forest, rowans high in the mountains, poplar at the riverbank, fir…”] clearly recall Virgil’s “Fraxinus in silvis pulcherrima, pinus in hortis, populus in fluviis, abies in montibus altis” [“Fairest is the ash in the woodlands, the pine in the gardens, the poplar by rivers, the fir on mountaintops”] (Eclogue VII: 65–66), and, by doing so, draw attention to the large claims Skelton makes for the laurel precisely because these differ from the claims made in Virgil’s poem.19 In the Eclogue, the winner of the singing competition, Corydon, claims that the hazel is superior to the laurel: “Populus Alcidae gratissima, vitis Iaccho, / formosae myrtus Veneri, sua laurea Phoebo: / Phyllis amat corylos; illos dum Phyllis amabit, / nec myrtus vincet corylos nec laurea Phoebi” [“Dearest is the poplar to Alcides, the vine to Bacchus, the myrtle to lovely Venus, and his own laurel to Phoebus. Phyllis loves hazels, and while Phyllis loves them, neither myrtle nor laurel of Phoebus shall outvie the hazels.”] (VII: 61–64). Skelton, however, explicitly reclaims that honor for the laurel, dismissing the hazel (among others) by name:

  • Et vos, o corili fragiles, humilesque mirice,
  • Et vos, o cedri redolentes, vos quoque mirti:
  • Arboris omne genus, viridi concedite lauro.
  • [“You too, o frail hazels and lowly tamarisks; you too, o redolent cedars, as well as you, myrtles: each kind of tree, yield pride of place to the evergreen laurel.”]

(ll. 11–13)

Making this claim by means of Virgilian allusion renders it the proof of its own assertion. In an instance of what Thomas Greene describes as “heuristic imitation,” those imitations that “come to us advertising their derivation from the subtexts they carry with them, but… proceed to distance themselves from the subtexts and force us to recognize the poetic distance traversed,” it is as if the laurel-garlanded “poeta Skelton” wrote himself into the singing competition that Virgil describes and granted himself the last word.20

Such consummate intertextuality is the exception, however—and it is no coincidence that it occurs in that poem of Skelton’s most explicitly concerned with the poet’s authority. Elsewhere, echoes and allusions significantly fail to invoke their original context; what matters is less what they quote than the fact that they are recognizably quotations. Rhetorically, such “eclectic or exploitative” imitation, which (in Greene’s definition) “treats all traditions as stockpiles to be drawn on ostensibly at random” simply does not work.21 For example, in the Latin lyric from Dyvers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous—a moral verse that warns a nameless addressee against believing himself secure from the wiles of Fortune—“discrimina rerum” in the first line echoes the Aeneid, Lucan’s Pharsalia, and the Thebaid; the fifth line—“Sepe solet placido mortales fallere vultu”—may obliquely allude to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy; the eighth and last—“Anguis sub viridi gramine sepe latet”—melds a line from Virgil’s third Eclogue with one from his second Georgic.22 Such an overload of allusion in a very short poem makes it wholly improbable that any sustained comparison can be intended—the more so, since the various contexts in which the phrases were originally used are extremely diverse. Thus, the phrase echoed in Skelton’s first line occurs in the Aeneid in Aeneas’s encouragement of his comrades after their shipwreck, as he suggests that this misfortune is no worse than others they have suffered; in the Pharsalia, it is spoken by one of Caesar’s soldiers in an assertion of his willingness to obey; in the Thebaid, it occurs in Pluto’s response to the unauthorized descent of the prophet Amphiaraus into the underworld. In comparably contrasting uses, Skelton’s eighth line draws both on a description of various types of soil in the second Georgic and a phrase used by Damoetas in his singing contest with Menalcas in the third Eclogue:

  • Qui legitis flores et humi nascentia fraga,
  • frigidus, o pueri, fugite hinc, latet anguis in herba.
  • [“You lads who cull flowers and strawberries that grow so low, begone from here; a chill snake lurks in the grass.”]

(III. 92–93)

Of these sources, it is the Aeneid and the Eclogue that come closest to informing the context in which Skelton uses the inherited phrases; he suggests that, like Aeneas, the unnamed addressee of the lyric may imagine that “the crises of your affairs have now passed”—but that, in fact, like Damoetas’s carefree lads, he is threatened by unseen dangers. Yet because the former phrase recalls not only the Aeneid, but the Thebaid and the Pharsalia, too, and—especially—because the phrase used by Damoetas is fused with an entirely irrelevant one from another source, it seems that the mere fact of allusion is of greater importance than anything that these lines add by way of context. So, too, in Skelton’s lament for Norwich after its destruction by fire, the phrases “labitur in cineres” [“collapses to ashes”], taken from the Metamorphoses, and “utere sorte tua” [“take your chance”], taken from the Aeneid, do not seem intended to suggest specific parallels between cities, but rather to exist for their own sake; the phrase from the Aeneid occurs in Turnus’s address to Achilles, who is about to kill him, whereas that from the Metamorphoses refers to Phoebus’s snatching of his unborn son from his mother’s funeral pyre.23 Rather than prompting comparison between Skelton’s use of the phrase and the way it appears in the original, they signify purely by their presence. Like the proverbial phrases in Skelton’s English lyrics, such eclectic allusion suggests that preexisting orts, scraps, and fragments are the tools he thinks with: rather than a rhetorical trope aimed at the classically educated reader, they are the building blocks that provide the spur to the invention of matter—the ability “with penne and ynke [to] procede.”

Logopoiea, Praxis, and Theory in A Replycacion and the Bibliotheca Historica

Such a manner of proceeding is not without its dangers, of course, especially when it extends to self-citation. In its most extreme form, Skelton’s repetition of individual words, phrases, and collocations in a number of different poems looks like carelessness; in Howe the Douty Duke of Albany, for example, it appears as the worst possible kind of automatic writing.24 Although in this particular instance repetition is attributable to the fact that the poem was a commission produced at speed, even when there is no question of Skelton taking deliberate shortcuts, his compositional practices may result in self-contradiction. An extreme example occurs in his description in A Replycacion (1528) of the condemned heretics Thomas Arthur and Thomas Bilney as “enbolned with the flyblowen blast of the moche vayne glorious pipplyng wynde.” Here, “flyblowen” is a form of heuristic allusion, dependent on an association of familiar (but supposedly distinct) words and phrases that recalls a line in Skelton’s earlier Agaynst the Scottes. If “pipplyng wynde” is also read heuristically, however, it directly contradicts what is implied by the former term; it makes sense only as an eclectic collocation—yet it appears that, in the process of composition, Skelton does not distinguish between the two.

Throughout A Replycacion, Skelton contrasts the students’ heretical preaching with the poet’s own divine inspiration, and his use of “flyblowen” comes close to encapsulating his argument in miniature. The word’s literal sense is “full of fly-blows; tainted, putrid, impure,” but in A Replycacion it assumes the specific connotation “heretical.”25 When, only a few lines after his first attack on Arthur and Bilney, Skelton asserts that “the blind eat many a fly,” he uses a proverb that he had previously used in Magnyfycence, where—as R. S. Kinsman has argued—Fansy and Crafty Conveyaunce’s boast that they “have made Magnyfycence to ete a flye” (l. 503) depends for its effect on the association of flies with the devil Beelzebub, lord of discord and, specifically, Lord of the Flies.26 “To eat a fly” is thus to be associated with the powers of darkness. In Agaynst the Scottes, one of Skelton’s two triumphalist poems on the English victory at the Battle of Flodden, his dismissive assertion that the Scottish King James’s opinion is “not worth a fly” (l. 104) exploits precisely this association of flies and damnation. At first sight, Skelton seems to be saying simply that James’s opinion is worthless. Yet, in the context of his wider argument, in which he builds on the idea that social hierarchies reflect God’s plan for the world to claim that, in rebelling against his “soverayne lorde” Henry, James was rebelling against God, even such a brief reference to a fly conveys the taint of heresy.27 A comparable logopoiea occurs in A Replycacion. Here, too, “flyblowen” picks up the heretical connotations of the proverb and, by punning on the literal sense of flyblown (“full of fly-blows”) and the nonce sense “blown full of flies” in the sense “blown full of heresy,” implicitly contrasts the students’ false inspiration with the true inspiration of the vates, which Skelton defends shortly afterward in the bold assertion that it is by “divyne inspyracion” that poets “are kyndled… With hete of the Holy Gost” (ll. 381–383). In each poem, we find an identical thought process; taken together, the two reveal how Skelton’s logopoeia establishes a personal version of what Greene has termed a “mundus significans,” that is:

A signifying universe, which is to say a rhetorical and symbolic vocabulary, a storehouse of signyifying capacities potentially available to each member of a given culture.28

Yet, juxtaposed with such connotative and heuristic wordplay is the “pipplyng wynde,” whose presence in A Replycacion appears to be the result of eclectic automatic writing that calls into question the distinction between the poet and the heretics and thus counteracts the work done by “flyblowen.” The phrase goes back to one of Skelton’s earliest surviving works, the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus, in which it gradually becomes associated with negative forms of inspiration. In its first few occurrences there, “pippling” takes its literal sense: “of the wind: blowing gently, making a soft whistling sound.”29 Used to translate a variety of phrases in Skelton’s source, its recurrence appears to reflect a lack of flexibility on the part of an apprentice writer who, rather than seeking for new solutions to a problem of translation, repeatedly reverts to a phrase he coined earlier.30 Later in the text, however, the collocation occurs several times in passages where Skelton is implicitly developing a theory of poetry. The first of these is the passage where he describes a coast where the air is of extreme sweetness. This, he explains, has its origin in the air that stems from the various “gummes and electuaries” which in that country are not artificially distilled “in vesseils, as morters, and such other,” but:

Out of the open contrey and from the trees even as they growe, by no manere of tunsions [incisions] enforced, but as it were of an hevenly empressive [pressure]. They that fele therof the senture [fragrance] of so high excellence, they ne can ymagyne what to call it aptly, ne none so covenable [suitable] a name in theire supposell vnto it can be appropried [assigned], as to call it ambrosia aftre the accustumable writyng of famous poetes… Ambrosia as by olde poemes it is diffyned, emporteth by theire signyfication the lusty licoure that goddes enmoisture theym-self with-all, orels it is taken for theire vsuall fode and godly repaste, so as by iust enterpretation, it may be said of euery thyng in it that comprehendeth an hevenly swetenes.31

The ambrosia that is described here is, as Skelton specifies, a literal, physical “gum.” Yet the terms in which he describes it seem to render it less literal than metaphorical. The vocabulary used in this passage—as throughout the Bibliotheca—clearly recalls the self-consciously elaborate “aureate” language used by a number of fifteenth-century poets, most notably Lydgate, as a means of describing the way in which poets act upon their material. Lydgate (1371–1449), a monk at Bury St. Edmunds, was one of the first and most prominent English writers deliberately to forge a vernacular poetics, which are expressed most explicitly in the prologues in his Fall of Princes but which also appear throughout his writing in the personal lexis he uses to talk about poetry.32 Among the terms Lydgate uses repeatedly are “baume aureate” and “aureate licour,” which—as Lois Ebin argues—is a “quintessential liquid transmitted directly from God and the muses to the poet [which] enables him to write in a manner worthy of his subject.”33 Lydgate’s terms thus imply that aureate language is the direct result of inspiration; when, in Skelton’s description, a comparable conflation occurs, with ambrosia taking the place of Lydgate’s nonspecific “baume,” the adoption of such Lydgatian language signals Skelton’s alignment with his poetics, too. Although Skelton’s subject is geographical rather than poetic, and it is the sweet-scented gum, not poetry, that comes forth with a “senture of… high excellence” by means of a “heuenly empressive,” his echoing of Lydgate’s terms suggests that this passage is as much about poetic composition as it is about the coast of Africa. So, too, does the way in which, in the naming of the gum, life follows art. Speaking of it (almost oxymoronically) as an inspiring smell that writers lack the inspiration to name unless they refer back to “old poemes,” Skelton implies that only literature can supply a term sufficiently resonant to do justice to the real phenomenon. By the last sentence of the passage, the “euery thing” that “comprehendeth an hevenly swetenes” has come to encompass not only the “gumme,” but also aureate writing as well.

Owing to its appearance in this context, “pipplyng” acquires a close association with inspiration. It is the pippling wind that is responsible for conveying the sweetness of the air, as mariners who approach the coast find that:

The dulcour and aire delicious vppon theym so swetely embretheth as and they were supprisid with hevenly consolation. For in the season of vere, celestiall dewes embathed hath the rotes there of euery herbe and gresse. The sowght piplyng wyndes that ouerblowe the contrey, by theire lusty blast convey the swete savours of theire trees vnto that coostes of the see that next be adiacent vnto the said contrey.34

Yet, although this suggests that the pippling wind inspires, when Skelton goes on to claim that “It is as it were a maner of a dyvyne enspiration to tell how the redolent aire of that contrey farre excedeth beyonde that any man can repoort,” he says something rather different: namely, that it is the writer’s business of telling about the “pippling wind” that requires—“as it were”—divine assistance.35 Etymologically, this is odd: since inspiration derives from inspirare, to blow into, we might expect that the wind would either be the source or an image of inspiration, but instead it is made the object of inspired description. The adjective “pippling” thus denotes a phenomenon that contains infinite potential and yet is ineffective.

Such ambiguous connotations become still more pronounced in a subsequent passage, where the pippling wind is associated with false rather than true inspiration. Here Skelton describes how:

Vppon the see side where Sirces is,… there appereth above in the aire formes and shappes of dyuers bestes; and summe of theym be moble, and summe be fixed and rest still in oon place… [so that] men ensue aftre for to take theym and towche them, and then they see how they be colde.36

The implication is that although this is a known natural phenomenon (it is primarily “estraungiers” to the country who are astonished by it), it is also uncanny—and this is confirmed by the terms Skelton uses to describe people’s reaction to it. It is:

A wondrefull enderked conclusion of credence, so as it semeth moche like vnto a fable, dyuers naturall philosophers endevoired theym-self by studious diligence to know the causative, or if it myght be standyng with trouthe.37

The comparison to fable suggests that these forms are deceptive ones; as a human poetic creation commonly associated with deception, fiction and fable are by definition not “standyng with trouthe.” And it is the “pippling” wind that is largely responsible for these deceptive appearances:

In the aire, then, thus condensed and obtusively enthikked, as ye may see many tymes in the somer season how in the clowdes there be factions like bestes dyuersly, summe in oon fourme and summe in an-othere, the aire mynstryng vnto theym that shap, whom soft piplyng wyndes at dyuers seasons drive forthe with theire blastes, and make theym to move and… by empulsion vnto the erthe to approche. And aftre thise philosophiers opynyon, they [sc. the clouds] fall vppon summe fashoned beste, whatsoeuer he be, by aduenture, and so take the same fourme of that they cleve vnto, wherof they move more in oon part than in an-othere; for by motion of the bestes as they goo forthe, the aire that is afore by empulsion moveth the ymaige that gothe forthe, so that it semeth as though it were fleyng. In like wise the idole that ensueth, by motive of the aire aftre the progresse drawen of the beste that gothe tofore it, fareth as it were pursuyng aftre the beste that renneth away tofore.38

Skelton is not exaggerating when he says that this passage “requyreth an exquysite deliberation for the apprehensive of the conclusion.”39 Rather than stating simply that the wind tends to give clouds the forms of animals, he puts forward the theory that the clouds, driven by the wind, adhere to actual animals and become three-dimensional physical reflections of them, so strongly connected that they move as the animals move. Yet although each “ymaige” or “idole” falls together with the real animal it shadows, it also has an existence independent of that reality and is independently apparent to the senses. This remarkably elaborate theory clearly recalls the way in which the fantasy of faculty psychology was held to operate, at once mediating between external reality and the reason and creating images that bear no resemblance to anything in the outside world.40 Like the images created by the fantasy, the cloud animals are both intimately linked to reality and essentially unreal or deceptive.

Skelton’s description of these animals thus echoes the anxieties about the legitimacy of poetic creation that appear elsewhere in the Bibliotheca, where he explicitly links poetry with fantasy and deception by writing of “feyned fables of fantasticall poems,” and querying whether certain stories are “rather… feyned fantasyes and fables than… verite and trouth.”41 Indeed, by referring to fables “illumyned rather with ornacye of pullished termes than with the clere veritie of parfight sentence,” he even raises the possibility that Lydgatian aureate language—which is so pronounced a feature of his own translation—is of limited truth value and should be regarded with skepticism.42 Thus, on the one hand, Skelton’s own aureation in the Bibliotheca places him in an authoritative vernacular tradition, associating him with Lydgate’s laureate poetics and his claim to harness the poet’s god-given powers in service of the state. On the other hand, however, those same “pullished termes” are said to obfuscate the truths they are intended to convey—and this calls into question the privileging of words over matter on which Skelton’s own composition process depends. Just as in his later work Magnyfycence, Skelton will explore the connection between creation out of nothing and deception through the figure of Fansy, whose association with the wind in his soliloquy links him with poetic afflatus and thus with false inspiration, Skelton’s final use of “pippling” in the Bibliotheca suggests that, here, too, he is at least verging on an association of the creative, generative, and unreliable imaging faculty of the fantasy with the afflatus that possesses the poet.43 He thus presents the poet as kin to Marsyas, the human piper who dared challenge the god Apollo to a musical contest and who, Skelton says, “occupied his mowthe by enflative blastyng and blowyng in his pipe.”44 Lacking inspiration and thus speaking to no avail, Marsyas perfectly represents the kind of poet whom Bose identifies as “bouche inutile, his paradoxical situation and singular self-image arising from the tension between his empowering vocation and his prophetic compulsions.”45

This hinterland greatly complicates Skelton’s use of the word “pippling” in A Replycacion. If it is read heuristically, its connotations of deceit—specifically poetic deceit—call into question the separation between poet and heretics on which the argument of A Replycacion depends. If, on the other hand, it is read as eclectic—as an almost automatic repetition of a familiar phrase—it is as if the poet, like his Parrot, speaks without necessarily being fully aware what he speaks. Within the Bibliotheca, the repetition of the phrase is central to Skelton’s working out of the tensions within his poetic theory, especially those around the idea of divine inspiration; it also shows how Skelton’s aureation and fragmentation reflect identical habits of thought. It thus demonstrates both the importance of logopoeia (whether eclectic or heuristic) to Skelton’s formulation of his laureate poetics and the inseparability of his theory from his practice. Yet the problems of sense caused by Skelton’s habitual logopoeia mean that, in principle, it is possible to argue that those poetics depend on the very thing that undermines them. As Bose says:

Whenever Skelton gives in to his compulsion to revisit the edge of the precipice, the moment at which human systems of knowledge are annihilated orally, whether by cacophony or bird-talk, he comes nearer to committing the acts of epistemological terrorism imagined by Chaucer in House of Fame and Parliament of Fowls… [He] registered what is really at stake in Chaucer’s dream poems: a cultural and epistemological free-fall from which there might be scant possibility of recovery, unless the world of the poem is granted validity—however fragile, however contingent—independent of the institutions that it reduces to rubble.46

This kind of independence, however, is precisely what is granted by Skelton’s creation of a “rhetorical and symbolic vocabulary” through repetition and allusion so consistent that they propose language itself as an institution with an almost physical reality.47 Thus, although the analogy between Skelton’s works and Chaucer’s House of Fame and Parliament of Fowls is an enticing one, it is not altogether apt. In Chaucer, cacophony and fragmentation reflect his narrators’ fear of being unable to find a single and immutable authoritative source for their own writing, whereas Skelton circumvents that difficulty by locating his sources within the language itself.48 Composition by means of logopoeia—the dance of the intellect among familiar phrases—removes the fear that an utterance may not refer to anything outside itself by making it refer explicitly to a previous utterance. It thus grants language in its totality a reality as great as (if not greater than) external reality: just as Aristotle asserted in his discussion of the fantasy that the mind never thinks without a mental image, Skelton never thinks without a concrete term.49 The medium rather than the message makes the poet—and the origins of Skelton’s poetics are found less in what he says than in the fragmentary utterance that has called their validity into question.


(1) For an overview of recent Skelton criticism, see Kathleen Tonry, “John Skelton and the New Fifteenth Century,” Literature Compass 5 (2008), 721–739; for a discussion of the (unhelpfulness of) periodization, cf. also Dan Breen, “Laureation and Identity: Rewriting Literary History in John Skelton’s Garland of Laurel,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 40 (2010), 347–351.

(2) Recent articles that address either or both of these subjects include Thomas Betteridge, “The Tudor Court: Dust and Desire,” in Tudor Court Culture, ed. Thomas Betteridge and Anna Riehl (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 2010), 59–74; W. Scott Blanchard, “Skelton’s Critique of Wealth and the Autonomy of the Early Modern Intellectual,” in John Skelton and Early Modern Culture: Papers Honoring Robert S. Kinsman, ed. David R. Carlson (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2008), 45–62; F. W. Brownlow, “Eschatological Form in Skelton’s Poetry,” in Renaissance Historicisms: Essays in Honor of Arthur F. Kinney, ed. James M. Dutcher and Anne Lake Prescott (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008), 18–35; Antony J. Hasler, “Cultural Intersections: Skelton, Barclay, Hawes, André,” in Skelton and Early Modern Culture, 63–84; Arthur F. Kinney, “A Poetics of Romance,” Sidney Journal 26 (2008), 1–16; Robert Meyer-Lee, “Conception Is a Blessing: Marian Devotion, Heresy and the Literary in Skelton’s A Replycacion,” in Form and Reform: Reading Across the Fifteenth Century (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), 133–158; James Simpson, “Killing Authors: Skelton’s Dreadful Bowge of Courte,” in Form and Reform, 180–196; and Greg Walker, “John Skelton and the Royal Court,” in Skelton and Early Modern Culture, 3–18.

(3) Robert Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 15.

(4) For the contrasting traditions of the poet as vates and the poet as servant of the state, see Vincent Gillespie, “Justification by Faith: Skelton’s Replycacion,” in The Long Fifteenth Century: Essays for Douglas Gray, ed. Helen Cooper and Sally Mapstone (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 273–312; and his “Justification by Good Works: Skelton’s The Garland of Laurel,” Reading Medieval Studies 7 (1981), 19–31. Cf. also Breen, “Laureation and Identity”; Jane Griffiths, John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Defining the Liberty to Speak (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 18–37; Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power, 205–219.

(5) All quotations from Skelton’s English poems will be taken from John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, ed. John Scattergood (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983). For the ladies and the lyrics in Skelton’s Garlande, see further Julia Boffey, ‘“Withdrawe Your Hande’: The Lyrics of ‘A Garland of Laurel’ from Manuscript to Print,” Trivium 31 (1999), 73–85; and Maura Tarnoff, “Sewing Authorship in John Skelton’s Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell,” ELH 75 (2008), 415–438.

(6) C. S. Lewis, in Skelton: The Critical Heritage, ed. A. S. G. Edwards (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 216.

(7) A. S. G. Edwards, “Deconstructing Skelton: The Texts of the English Poems,” Leeds Studies in English 36 (2005), 346.

(8) Douglas Gray, The Phoenix and the Parrot: Skelton and the Language of Satire (Dunedin: University of Otago, 2012), 4.

(9) William Lily, in Critical Heritage, 48; Stanley E. Fish, John Skelton’s Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 135–176.

(10) See, for example, Greg Walker, “‘Ordered Confusion’?: The Crisis of Authority in Skelton’s Speke Parrot,” Spenser Studies 10 (1989), 213–228.

(11) See, for example, David R. Carlson, “Protestant Skelton: The Satires of 1519–1523 and the Piers Plowman Tradition,” in Skelton and Early Modern Culture, 215–238; and Theodore L. Steinberg, “Poetry and Prophecy: A Skelton Key,” in Prophet Margins: The Medieval Vatic Impulse and Social Stability, ed. E. L. Risden and Karen Moranski (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 149–165; cf. also Kat Lecky, “‘Come Who So Wyll’: Inclusive Poetics in Skelton’s Elynour Rummyng,” Exemplaria 25 (2013), 59–78. Lecky is not concerned with Skelton’s putative Langlandian inheritance but is very much concerned with his social radicalism.

(12) Mishtooni Bose, “Useless Mouths: Reformist Poetics in Audelay and Skelton,” in Form and Reform, 178.

(14) Ezra Pound, quoted in Andrew Welsh, The Roots of Lyric: Primitive Poetry and Modern Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 15.

(15) Although Agaynst a Comely Coystrowne was published in 1527, its lyrics probably date from the 1490s; they are among the many Skelton texts that support Edwards’s argument.

(16) For the possibility that “Agaynst a Comely Coystrowne” is a topical satire, see Complete English Poems, 391.

(17) See B. J. Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings Mainly Before 1500 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1968); and Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950). Skelton’s juxtaposition of “duke” and “dun” alters the proverbial “like a duke, like a duck” (Whiting D431; Tilley D636) by substituting “dun” for “duck” (possibly with an echo of the equally proverbial “dun is in the mire”: see Whiting D434; Tilley D643); “hys hart is to hy to have any hap” plays on “a high heart may dread a fall” (Whiting H279) and “set hard heart against hard hap” (Tilley H326). For gentleman Jack, see Whiting J9 and Tilley J3.

(19) All quotations and translations from Skelton’s Latin poems will be taken from David R. Carlson, “The Latin Writings of John Skelton,” Studies in Philology 88: 4, Texts and Studies (1991), 1–125; all quotations and translations of Virgil are from Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid 1-6, tr. H. R. Fairclough, rev. G. P. Goold (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). For a detailed reading of classical allusion in A Garlande, see Breen, “Laureation and Identity”; Brownlow, “Eschatological Form.”

(20) Thomas M. Greene, The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 40.

(22) In the first line, the quotation is from Virgil (Aeneid, I.204), Lucan (Pharsalia, V.557), and Statius (Thebaid, VIII.37); the eighth line fuses Virgil’s Eclogues III.93 with his Georgics II.219.

(23) Metamorphoses II.628; Aeneid XII.932.

(25) For the literal sense, see OED, s.v. “fly-blown, a.,” sense 1.

(26) R. S. Kinsman, “Skelton’s Magnyfycence: The Strategy of the ‘Olde Sayde Sawe,’” Studies in Philology 63 (1966), 111.

(29) OED, s.v. “pippling, adj. and n.”

(30) John Skelton, The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus, ed. F. M. Salter and H. L. R. Edwards, 2 vols., EETS o.s. 233 and 239, 1:42; 1:241; 1:242; 1:250. Cf. Diodori Siculi historiarum priscarum a Poggio in Latinum traducti (Bonn: B. Azogvidus, 1472): “notis uentis agitanti” f. 7v; “spirans aura” f. 41, “uentorumque aura” f. 41, “uenti” f. 42v. There is no pagination or foliation; the folio numbers given follow those in Bodleian Library copy Auct. K.3.24b.

(31) Bibliotheca, 1:277; cf. Poggio, f. 47.

(32) See further Lois Ebin, Illuminator, Makar, Vates: Visions of Poetry in the Fifteenth Century (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 19–48; and cf. Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power, 49–87.

(33) Ebin, Illuminator, Makar, Vates, 26; for discussion of Skelton, see 163–192. For Skelton’s language in the Bibliotheca, see Griffiths, Skelton and Poetic Authority, 38–55.

(34) Bibliotheca, 1:276; cf. Poggio, f. 47.

(35) Bibliotheca, 1:276; cf. Poggio, f. 47.

(36) Bibliotheca, 1:284; cf. Poggio, f. 48.

(37) Bibliotheca, 1:284–285; cf. Poggio, f. 48.

(38) Bibliotheca, 1:285; cf. Poggio, ff. 48-48v.

(39) Bibliotheca, 1:285; there is no exact equivalent of this phrase in Poggio.

(40) For the fantasy, see Murray Wright Bundy, The Theory of the Imagination in Classical and Medieval Thought, University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 12: 2–3 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1927), 146–224; E. Ruth Harvey, The Inward Wits: Psychological Theory in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Warburg Institute Surveys 6 (London: Warburg Institute, 1975), esp. 17 and 35.

(41) Bibliotheca 1:189–190; 1:199; there is no exact equivalent of the first phrase in Poggio; for the last, cf. Poggio, f. 34v.

(42) Bibliotheca, 1:319; there is no exact equivalent of the phrase in Poggio.

(44) Bibliotheca, 1:303; cf. Poggio, f. 50v.

(47) For an analogous argument with reference to Skelton’s macaronic writing, see Jane Griffiths, “‘Divers of Language’: The ‘Macaronic’ Glossing of Skelton’s Speke Parrot,” in Multilingualism in Medieval Britain c.1066–1520, ed. Judith A. Jefferson and Ad Putter (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), 218–221.

(48) See Piero Boitani, Chaucer and the Imaginary World of Fame (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1984); Jesse M. Gellrich, The Idea of the Book in the Middle Ages: Language Theory, Mythology, and Fiction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 167–201.

(49) Aristotle, De Anima, 3.7.