Skelton's 'Speke Parott':

Language, Madness and the Role of the Court Poet




  1. Recent criticism of 'Speke Parrot' 1 has continued to focus largely on problems of topical allusion, but it has also attempted to impose a sense of order upon the poem's essentially disjointed world by seeking to identify a unifying theme and purpose as a framework within which the poem might appear more immediately cohesive. Nancy Coiner argues eloquently against such attempts to narrow Parott's referentiality by pointing out that the act of reading Skelton's poem:

    offers many pleasures, among them the pleasures of a pungent, rhythmic language... and the pleasures of watching a crafty narrator put on and cast off a multitude of costumes and roles, yet evade a final identification. But the pleasure of finding a clear interpretative centre to the poem – a pleasure central to the aesthetic experience of reading Dante's Commedia, for example, or Book I of the Faerie Queene – this pleasure Skelton denies us (Coiner 1995, 88).

  2. 'Speke Parott' therefore cannot be 'unlocked' by 'a single hermeneutic key' or 'single interpretative code' (Coiner, 88). Yet the obstinate desire to 'help' Skelton does the poet no favours, and has in fact obscured an issue of major importance: that of Skelton's self-identification as Court-poet, or Skelton Laureat. Relevant to this is the question of the identity of Parott himself. For Nathaniel Wallace, who views Parott's 'torrential verbiage, obscure digressions, and rapid transitions' (Wallace 1985, 60) as proof of his madness,

    it ... becomes evident that the satire can work as a remedy for madness in two ways. First, Parrot will shock his wayward readers, make them realize through exposure to chaotic language that they themselves are erratic. At the same time, Parrot will ward off madness. He will use his own divine madness to charm and drive out of the kingdom the insanity oppressing it. For Parrot is hardly an ordinary fowl. Scrutiny of the eighty-second psalm will show that he is a parodic representation of the Holy Ghost. In 'Speke, Parrot,' Skelton resorts to eccentric and excessive literary techniques to rid England of madness. (Wallace 1985, 61)

    Wallace considers Parott's apparent incoherence to be to a manifestation of his 'homeopathic satire', a device he employs as a protection against further infection by the 'madness' which allowed Wolsey to amass his power. But to call Parott's satire 'homeopathic' is merely to acknowledge that its function is to point to the perceived ills of the political scene which engendered it, and to encourage a reaction against those ills. In this sense, of course, all satire is 'homeopathic', just as all satire is 'excessive' in its representation of the conditions or characteristics it seeks to satirise. It is therefore more helpful to discuss Parott's technique in terms of the process of defamiliarisation it causes than to point out, as Wallace's interpretation essentially does, that 'Speke Parott' works by making good use of the relationship between form and content. Skelton himself is certainly conscious of the potential inherent in the role of Court-poet – conscious that is of the potential of language to both reveal and to conceal truths - as his persistent 'Quod Skelton Laureat' makes clear. In fact Skelton is constantly at pains to alert the reader to the positive attributes of this potential and to warn of the danger of oppression that results from any attempt to stifle it. He does so most notably and most eloquently in the first five stanzas of 'Speke Parott':

    My name ys Parott, a byrde of Paradyse,
    By Nature devysed of a wonderowus kynde,
    Deyntely dyeted with dyvers delycate spyce,
    Tyll Eufrates, that flodde, dryvethe me into Ynde,
    Where men of that contre by fortune me fynde, 5
    And send me to greate ladyes of estate;
    Then Parot moste have an almon or a date.

    A cage curyowsly carven, with sylver pynne,
    Properly paynted to be my coverture;
    A myrrour of glasse, that I may tote therin; 10
    These maydens full meryly with many a dyvers flowur
    Fresshely the dresse and make swete my bowur,
    With, 'Speke, Parott, I pray yow,' full curteslye they sey,
    'Parott ys a goodlye byrde and a pratye popagay.'

    Wythe my beke bent, and my lytell wanton iye, 15
    My feathyrs fresshe as ys the emerawde grene,
    Abowte my necke a cerculett lyke the ryche rubye,
    My lytell legges, my fete bothe fete and clene,
    I am a mynyon to wayte apon a quene;
    'My propyr Parott, my lytell pratye fole.' 20
    With ladies I lerne and goe with them to scole.

    'Heghe, ha, ha, Parott, ye can lawghe pratylye!'
    'Parott hathe not dyned of all this long day;'
    'Lyke owur pus catt Parott can mewte and crye.'
    Yn Latyn, in Ebrue, and in Caldee, 25
    In Greke tong Parott can bothe speke and sey,
    As Percius, that poete, dothe reporte of me,
    Quis expeduit psitaco suum Chyre?

    Dowche Frenshe of Paris Parot can lerne,
    Pronownsyng my purpose after my properte, 30
    With, 'Parlez byen, Parott, ow parles ryen.'
    With Dowche, with Spaynyshe, my tong can agree;
    In Englysshe to God Parott can supple:
    'Cryste save Kyng Herry the viiith, owur royall kyng,
    The red rose in honour to flowrysshe and sprynge!' 35

    Wallace's identification of Parott as 'a parodic representation of the Holy Ghost' is based upon his reading of Psalm eighty-two, in particular of the lines:

    Deus quis similis erit tibi
    ne taceas neque conpescaris Deus
    quoniam ecce inimici tui sonaverunt
    et qui oderunt te extulerunt caput
    super populum tuum malignaverunt consilium
    et cogitaverunt adversus sanctos tuos.

    (2-4) (Liber Psalmorum, 191)

    God, who shall be similar to you?
    May you not be silent nor may you be restrained, God,
    Since, behold, your enemies have raised a sound
    And have lifted up their heads over your people,
    Have given evil counsel, and
    Have plotted against your holy ones.

    Wallace rightly identifies the phrase 'ne taceas...Deus', 'be not silent...God', as particularly significant to Skelton's poem. According to Wallace, if these lines constitute the psalmist's plea for God to speak out, and if Skelton's Galathea 2 is making the same request of Parott, Parott is then analagous to God:

    To be more precise, whatever the web of allusion surrounding the bird embraces, it encloses the idea that Parrot might well be the Holy Ghost, proclaiming God's word... In any event, the bird's wisdom, divine origin, knowledge of many languages, and the imperishable strength of his utterance are all consistent with the notion that he is the Holy Ghost (Wallace 1985, 76).

    In fact, all of the attributes listed by Wallace are consistent with a very different reading of Parott, and are closely connected with Skelton's own perception of the role of Court-poet and with his self-construction as Skelton Laureat.

  3. Parott introduces himself as an exotic 'byrde of Paradyse / By Nature devysed of a wonderowus kynde' (ll.1-2), a description which at once draws attention to the central conflict of his character: on the one hand he is by Nature 'of a wonderowus kynde' while on the other that nature has itself been 'devysed', and this conflict is further complicated by the fact that it is Nature, here personified or deified by capitalisation, who has performed the 'devysing'. The initial problem of Parott's nature, or identity, then, is that it is a dual one, reflecting the Renaissance preoccupation with the balance between art and nature. If Parott is read as a representation not of the Holy Ghost but of the Court-poet, or at least of the poet commentating on court matters, his 'madness' takes on another important function – that of manifesting Parott's, or Skelton's, frustration at the absurdity and impotence of a position based upon language where the force of that language is so restrained by court censorship, and by considerations of personal safety, that the poet can do no more than 'Lyke owur pus catt... metwe and crye' (l.24). Language, the essence (or Nature) of the poet, becomes redundant, whether Parott speaks classically 'Yn Latyn, in Ebrue and in Caldee, / [or] In Greke...' (ll.25-26), in 'Dowche Frenshe of Paris...' (l.29), in 'Dowche' or in 'Spaynyshe' (l.32).

  4. Certainly Parott's lineage is classical-literary rather than biblical: Scattergood (1988, 453) points out the similarities – colour, loquacity and devotion – between Skelton's bird and Corinna's pet Psittacus in Ovid's Amores (; at the same time his wisdom recalls that of Psyttacus, son of Deucalion and Pyrrha, whom the gods transformed into a parrot at his own request. 3 But Skelton has suffered before from attempts to enlist his support for ideologies and personal agendas: Robert Graves, for example, decided that Skelton:

    ...wrote the teasing, inconsequential, passionate 'Speake Parot!' – its rolling stanzas liberally sprinkled with polyglot pseudo-learning... Yet it is cut wholly from native cloth, in native fashion, and makes perfect sense to the informed reader – none of which things can be said of twentieth-century Anglo-American modernism (Graves 1955, 296).

    Graves, of course, was determined to see Skelton in accordance with his own cultural politics, as a representative of a native British tradition of poetry and a true 'Muse-poet' as opposed to an 'Apollonian' such as Chaucer, who, so Graves, implemented an 'artificial French tradition' (Graves 1955, 295). Graves's concern was with the relationship between poet and reader/patron, a relationship he perceived as essentially detrimental to the creative process, and which he discussed in several of his own poems. It is therefore all the more remarkable that he should have failed to discuss 'Speke Parott' within the same context and to have missed in Skelton's poem the opportunity to demonstrate not only its author's distaste for 'Apollonian', i.e. reader- or patron-defined verse, but also his acute awareness of all those constraints on the creative process which Graves sought to identify in the poetry of Virgil, his 'Apollonian' poet par excellence. (Graves 1955, 301ff.) Subjection to the limitations of the Court renders the creative force captive and essentially voiceless since the poet must adopt a language not his own: the 'Nature' of the poet, and therefore of poetry, is ultimately subverted and becomes meaningless as the role of the poet, no longer free to range 'within the zodiac of his own wit', is conflated with that of the reader/critic through the process of self-editing which the conventions of Court-poetry entail. The poet thus becomes a mere vehicle for these conventions, and is reconstructed as public performer who must respond tamely and correctly to the 'Speke, Parott, I pray you' of line 13 in return for his keep. The freedom from immediate financial care which a position at Court offers – Parott must, after all, have 'an almon or a date' – involves the captivity of 'A cage curyowsly carven' (l.8); the serious critical response of fellow-poets is exchanged for 'Parott ys a goodlye byrde and a pratye popagay' (l.14) and 'Heghe, ha, ha, Parott, ye can lawghe pratylye!' (l.22); and finally the poet is rendered literally speechless – ceases, that is, to exist at all – as language is lost altogether: what sounds like 'Cryste save Kyng Herry the viiith, owur royall kyng' (l.34) is in fact an animal's 'mewte and crye' (l.24). Parott is indeed a parodic representation, but of the Court-poet rather than of the Holy Ghost.

  5. In this reading, the fact that Parott is 'a byrde of Paradyse' does not indicate his divinity; rather this belongs to a series of descriptions which combine to create an overall exotic effect: the Court-poet inhabits a rarefied environment and employs a language whose sphere of reference is removed from the everyday. It is evident that Skelton was aware of the conflicts of this position: on the one hand, as a poet, renowned scholar, and upholder of the new learning he could feel comfortable in the role of Skelton laureat; it also enabled him to encourage publicly the enrichment of the English language and its poetry by means of classical example, since

    Our naturall tong is rude
    And hard to be enneude
    With pullysshed termes lusty;
    Our language is so rusty,
    So cankered and so full
    Of frowardes, and so dull,
    That if I wolde apply
    To wryte ornatly,
    I wot not where to fynd
    Termes to serve my mynde.
    'Phyllyp Sparowe', ll.774-83

    and in the same way allowed him to have Jane Scrope regret her lack of the poetic versatility:

    Of Ovyd or Virgyll,
    Or of Plutharke,
    Or Frauncys Petrarke,
    Alcheus or Sapho,
    Or such other poetes mo
    As Linus and Homerus,
    Euphorion and Theocritus,
    Anacreon and Arion,
    Sophocles and Philemon,
    Pyndarus and Symonides,
    Philistion and Phorocides
    'Phyllyp Sparowe', ll.756-66

    Parott's humanist learning is reflected in his knowledge of foreign languages – the ability to learn them is a gift from his 'mastres, Dame Phylology' (l.43); but Parott also stresses that part of her gift is his ability to 'speke aptlye' (l.45), so that his relation to language is not only academic but also practical: the implication is that the best or correct use of his gift is to 'speke'. For Wallace, intent on reading Parott as the mouthpiece of an apocalyptic avenging angel, this passionate concern for language must again be explained within the context of the eighty-second psalm:

    God is asked not to be silent and not to restrain himself, because his enemies have raised a sound ('sonaverunt'). He is asked to respond in the manner in which he has been affronted, to combat like with like. A basis for Parrot's homeopathic attack is established. And since part of the evil confronting the object of solicitation (God or Parrot) is sound, it is only appropriate that Parrot should put forth a sound to combat the verbose, babbling enemies of the church and of Henry's kingdom (Wallace 1985, 77).

    The problem with this reading lies in its too literal interpretation of the psalmist's sonaverunt. God can hardly be assailed by the use of mere 'sound'; and even if the arguments of the church's enemies are dismissed as sophistry and therefore 'meaningless', they remain arguments and need arguments, i.e. text, to counter them. Wallace prefers to see Parott's utterances as reflecting Gideon and his army, who 'created an awful din as they blew their trumpets, broke pottery and shouted resoundingly' (Wallace 1985, 77). By the same token they also reflect a response to the psalmist's prayer that God be not silent 'and, by implication, that he create a din' (Wallace 1985, 77). But this is to ignore the psalms' power of metaphor; and a reader insistent upon finding nonsense in Parott's speech will certainly do so.

  6. The question of Parott's 'madness' is a useful one, however, and is connected to the 'By Nature devysed' of line 2. Parott as Court-poet is 'unnatural': his apparent acceptance of the situation which demands he inhabit 'A cage curyowsly carven', beautiful and secure perhaps, but locked, even if 'with sylver pynne' (l.8); the implied vanity and self-fascination of his 'myrrour of glasse, that [he] may tote therin (l.10); and the fact that he is surrounded by 'greate ladyes of estate' (l.6), 'maydens' who 'dresse and make swete [his] bowur' (ll.11-12) and 'ladyes' with whom he must 'lerne and goe ... to scole' (l.21) – in the aggressively masculine world of Henry's Court, such a 'mynyon to wayte apon a quene' (l.19) is likely to be regarded as effete and of no importance by the political power-brokers, and as an exotic curiosity by the women whose company he shares. The opening stanzas introduce a Parott who is at once aware of the corruption at Court – in particular Wolsey's – but who has chosen self-protection, manifested by the perceived weakness of his implied feminisation – over direct physical, or 'masculine' action. Parott himself later explains that:

    The myrrour that I tote in, quasi diaphonum,
    Vel quasi speculum, in enigmate,
    Elencticum, or ells enthimematicum
    For logicions to loke on, somewhat sophistice;
    Support Parrot, I pray you, with your suffrage ornate,
    Of confuse tantum avoydynge the chekmate.

    But of that supposicyon that callyd is arte,
    Confuse distrybutyve, as Parrot hath devysed,
    Let every man after his merit take his parte;
    For in this processe, Parrot nothing hath surmysed,
    No matter pretendyd, nor nothying enterprysed,
    But that metaphora, alegoria withall,
    Shall be his protectyon, his pavys and his wall. 4

    He must therefore choose semiotics over semantics (or 'feminine' language over 'masculine') language, and so speaks cryptically in 'metaphora' and 'alegoria', which 'Shall be his protectyon, his pavys and his wall'. In this way, poetic language becomes conventionalised and as much a servant of the Tudor state as those who occupy positions at Court.

  7. The instability of Parott's language reflects both that of Skelton's political position and that of his career at Henry's Court: he produced, at different times, pro-Tudor propaganda and anti-government satire, both bawdy and devotional verse, and his poems, according to David Carlson, 'are often characterized by a like instability internal to them, of voice, point of view, or sense'. Carlson goes on to point out that:

    ... the most nearly constant factor to shape Skelton's mutable work was his association with the nascent Tudor court, increasingly the most important source of material sustenance for ambitious men of letters. Skelton was by turns in and out of favour. Nevertheless... at the end of his career, his last poems were again court poems, written at the behest of officials of the Tudor state and furthering its policies (Carlson 1991, 1).

    Nor do contemporary commentators agree on Skelton: if for Erasmus he was 'unum Britannicarum litterarum lumen ac decus,' 'aeterna vates... dignissime lauro' ('the singular light and glory of British letters,' 'an immortal bard... most worthy of the laurel') (Allen, I. 1906-58, G11), William Lily found that Doctrinae tibi dum parare famam/ Et doctus fieri studes poeta,/ Doctrinam nec habes, nec es poeta. ('Albeit that you try to get yourself a name for learning and to appear a learned poet, you are neither learned nor a poet.') (Dyce, I:xxxviii) What begins to emerge from this is the portrait of a far less coherent or unified character than one governed by the singleness of purpose suggested by Skelton Laureat, or indeed by those critics who seek to impose religious or more broadly cultural agendas upon his writings. Such approaches lead inevitably to the 'discovery' of particular developments in specific works, so that Wallace feels able to identify in 'Speke Parott', for example, a 'movement from obscurity to clarity' which is to be ascribed to the fact that:

    Parrot, as befits a deity, declines to grant immediately and fully the entreaties addressed to him. Rather, he responds at first in a way that is not entirely clear to those whose prayer he has granted. Therefore, Parrot's convoluted declarations of the first few hundred lines of the satire in fact are sufficient answer to whatever prayers might have been addressed to him, although few would know it (Wallace 1985, 77-78).

    Apart from the suspicion that such an oracular deity be more recognisably Homeric than Christian, a more balanced approach to 'Speke Parott' involves reading the poem as the product of an early English humanist anxious to display sufficient classical knowledge to ensure recognition as such. As Alistair Fox points out, though Skelton 'seems the exemplary English humanist':

    ... his major works, however, tell another story.... If his own vernacular writings are taken into account, Skelton's distance from genuine humanism is quite explicit....His classical knowledge did not impinge significantly upon his views or practice (Fox 1986, 12ff.).

    Skelton employs precisely the same tactics in Speculum principis and his Latin funerary verse by making heavy use of references to classical history, 'the more numerous, the more recondite, the better', (Carlson 1991, 11) and it is possible that his free use of biblical reference is attributable to the same desire to construct a self in the humanist mould rather than to his particular devotion. (It needs also to be remembered that Skelton's period as parish priest at Diss was apparently due to banishment, and not his response to a sense of vocation.) 5

  8. This is not to deny 'Speke Parott' either a moral or a political purpose: the poem is self-evidently a satirical attack on Wolsey's excesses and on the inadequacies of the Court which nurtured them. But it is also the product of a close concern with ideas of text and textuality – the product that is of a nation self-consciously engaged in the process of becoming its cultural self, and basing that process on ideas and formulae inherited by means of the translated word: what might be called an 'English literary tradition' is largely synonymous with the history of translation into English, without which it is difficult to see how there could be any English poetry at all. The devices which Skelton, or Parott, make use of – obscure classical and biblical reference, linguistic formulations which defamiliarise – reflect the state of flux in which both Henrican England and the aesthetics of its Court found themselves during Skelton's lifetime. To ignore this situation by imposing an invented regularity and unity upon the texts it produced is an over-simplification which ultimately can only result in a more profound confusion.

  9. Ironically, one of the effects of that confusion would be to deny Skelton the ability to react through language to his social/political environment. Parott as poet defies such restriction, precisely because of the inclusiveness (or uncertainty of direction) of his attacks. The verses which satirise Wolsey are also essentially a subversion of the role of the poet-courtier, aware of the need to use his gift of language but wavering between the opposing demands of 'Tycez-vous, Parrott, tenes-vous coye' (l.56) and his own 'Let Parrot, I pray you, have lyberte to prate' (l.141); and for this poet to express his own apparent dysfunction through poetry is one of the central ironies of 'Speke Parott'. Apart from the obvious references to Wolsey, it is language – its power and its limitations – which forms the main focus of the first part of the poem, up to Galathea's first request that Parott speak, at line 233. The reader is forced to consider the role of language by the unique quality of Parott's use of it and by his or her own efforts to decipher the poem's allusions and references. From line 141 especially, the poem is centered on a discussion of correct linguistic usage, whether within the context of philosophical debate or the teaching of Latin. 6 We know from lines 43-45 that it was Dame Phylology who gave Parott the gift of language and 'apt' speech: we learn further at line 209 that it was Melponeme, the Muse of tragedy, who 'burneshed his beke'; and lines 200-203 on 'metaphora' and 'alegoria' make perfectly clear that Parott's every action – and word – has been informed by an acute understanding of the role, and power, of language in the environment he inhabits.

  10. Such an understanding of language becomes a necessity when that environment is focused on maintaining the delicate balance of power necessary to keep monarch and barony in functioning equilibrium: the spoken and written word become vehicles for initiating actions which, at Court, are themselves likely to be interpreted as expressions of power (or the attempt to gain or usurp it), and the skilful use of language becomes as much a source of power as social rank, wealth or the control of armed forces. 'metaphora' and 'alegoria' are therefore important weapons of defence – not for the Holy Ghost, who ultimately can have no need of defence against earthly forces, but for the Courtier who intends to expose the corruption of his peers. They are of course also weapons of aggression, and help to constitute an invective which Parott directs not only at Wolsey, but at the whole idea of the self-serving 'popagay' Courtier who is his 'owne dere hart, and... dere derling' (l.208).


  11. To discuss Parott within the context of madness demands an historical approach. Firstly, what kind of madness, real or feigned, does Parott's language demonstrate? According to Wallace, during the course of the poem:

    Skelton sketches the outlines of two kinds of madness: the frenzied behaviour of Wolsey and those influenced or infected by him on the one hand, and Parrot's ecstatic storms of invective on the other. (Wallace 1985, 61)

    This is of course the popular, twentieth-century use of the word 'madness'. But the idea of madness, or, more properly, the separate ideas of folly and insanity, are too central to Renaissance philosophy to be discussed in so off-hand and ahistorical a manner. Again, the connection between Parott and these ideas is language – in one sense, the fact that Parott speaks in poetry connects them still more closely, since, as pointed out by Grassi and Lorch, though we may by logical, systematic reflection define folly:

    we cannot illuminate it... that is, we cannot orient our vision and our thought so that we can actually see and comprehend the existence of folly. To do this our thought must begin from rhetorical and poetical senses of the word, not from logical concepts (Grassi and Lorch 1986, 10).


    [Folly] is fundamental [to humanist thought] because to see human affairs as folly is to have an ontological insight into what is possible in any situation; that is, to see all as folly is to realize that things are never what they seem. What appears to be solid reality, the real nature of things, is not so; through folly it is seen to be just as much its opposite. But his opposite interpretation of events cannot be reached by a logical deduction. It can be reached only by an act of ingenium, an act in which one sees the ironic dimension of a situation, where things can just as well be true in a sense opposite to what they are (Grassi and Lorch 1986, 11).

    'Things are never what they seem' becomes increasingly relevant as the Tudor state and Court establish themselves more and more firmly; and in Skelton's poem the idea of ambiguity or duplicity is reflected in the polysemy of Parott's 'metaphora' and 'alegoria'. To set it in its proper historical environment, Parott's alleged madness must be considered together with the idea of moria (mw__a, from mw___: originally 'dull' or 'stupid'). Moria corresponds to the German idea of Wahn ('illusion', 'folly'), which is in turn related to Wonne ('delight') and Wunsch ('wish', 'desire'). (Kluge, 833) Wahn:

    is the expression of power of a claim under which man lives, and it is in this sense that the Greeks speak of 'divine mania.' Sophocles, full of awareness of such a condition, writes: 'All forebodings may take place when the god sends such a storm' (Grassi and Lorch 1986, 41).

    The obliqueness of Parott's utterances, their oracular quality, correspond to this classical idea of 'divine mania': poetry becomes the vehicle for inspired, Sibylline revelation, which Wallace translates into a Christian context. The problem here is that by mw__a, 'man falls under a ruling power which confuses his mind and induces him to 'crazy' or 'insane' actions', (Grassi and Lorch, 42) which, arguably, describes Wolsey's behaviour, but to hold that Parott's words are the result of a confused mind is to deny their essential truth. Again, in the Greek version of the Old Testament:

    mw___ is used to designate the person who... does not come either to the intelligence of God or to any other reasonable knowledge. He is a person who does not see with his own seeing eyes and does not hear with his own hearing ears (Jeremiah 5:21).

    However, the New Testament offers a radically opposed reading of mw__a, when Paul argues in I Corinthians that what the Athenian philosophers consider stupidity – the Christian faith – is in fact 'true, original knowledge', which he sets up against worldly wisdom. 7

  12. In Erasmus' Praise of Folly, the meaning of mw__a changes again, and the ambiguous psychology of his reading is particularly interesting in the context of Parott's alleged madness. For Erasmus, mw__a is:

    the deeper root of the unveiling of all beings and, by its undeducibility and nonrationality, an abysmal folly which has nothing to do with a subjective insanity. Through its powers the world appears... It is a power which 'extends so widely' and cannot be circumscribed 'within the narrow limits of a definition' because 'it enjoys the combined worship of all kinds of creatures' (Erasmus 1979, 13).

    The idea of mw__a embraces both the negative characteristics of an 'abysmal folly' and the positive quality of that divinity 'in whose claim all beings are revealed'. (Grassi and Lorch 1986, 43) Renaissance comprehension of the notion of folly therefore comprises two opposing theories: the negative classical, i.e. non-Christian, interpretation of the word, which reappears in the Greek Old Testament; and the positive New Testament reading which implies a divinely inspired wisdom likely to be interpreted as insanity or stupidity in the eyes of the (non-Christian) world. These ideas are conflated in Erasmus to produce a power which 'cannot be circumscribed within the narrow limits of a definition'. Since Parott's verses are an expression of the worldly 'truth' of the court's corrupt nature rather than a manifestation of Parott's subjective insanity, the first of these readings does not obtain. Wallace appears to attribute Parott's use of language to a folly, or 'madness', which approximates that of the New Testament reading; he then goes further to equate Parott with the Holy Ghost. But this identification is in serious conflict with his initial claim that 'Skelton's Parrot is mad', (Wallace 1985, 60) for an historical approach to the poem must recognise that the thought structures of Skelton's rigidly christianised society would not have accommodated a serious attempt at a portrayal of the Holy Ghost as 'mad' or mw___. The most convincing argument against Parott's madness comes from Erasmus, however: firstly, though part of Parott's function may be to expose the 'abysmal folly' of Wolsey's, or Henry's, actions, Parott's verses offer only a reflection of those actions – that is to say, they are not a manifestation of Parott's own 'abysmal folly'. At the same time, if, as Erasmus claims, folly cannot be contained within 'the narrow limits' of a definition, the implication is that it cannot exist within language: language may reflect but not contain it since it lies beyond the power of language to do so. In other words, language may be 'mad' in the sense of its being disordered and chaotic, but is not in itself signified madness.

  13. The other powerful argument against Parott's madness is of course his own expression of his intention to use metaphor and allegory as protective devices. Once this intention has been made clear, it becomes unnecessary to see Parott's language as a reflection of his 'madness', or its initial obscurity as anything other than a manifestation of precisely those poetic devices. Skelton reminds us of this later in the poem with the two stanzas of Lenvoy royall (ll.357-70):

    Go, propyr Parotte, my popagay,
    That lordes and ladies thys pamflett may behold,
    With notable clerkes; supply to them, I pray,
    Your rudeness to pardon and also that they wolde
    Vouchesafe to defend yow agayne the brawlyng scolde
    Callyd Detraxion, encankryd with envye,
    Whose tong ys attayntyd with slaundrys obliqui.

    For trowthe in parabyll ye wantonlye pronounce,
    Langagys divers; yet undyr that dothe reste
    Maters more precious than the ryche jacounce,
    Diamounde, or rubye, or balas of the beste,
    Or eyndye sapher with oryente perlys dreste:
    Wherfor your remorders ar madde or else starke blynde,
    Yow to remorde erste or they know your mynde.

    Parott is aware that there will be those who 'sey they cannot my parables expresse' (l.386) or who will respond to his language by interpreting it (as indeed does Wallace) as a 'rayle att ryott recheles' (l.387); but he also knows from Lenvoy royall that the essence and point of his verses is that there is 'trowthe in parabyll' even if it be 'wantonlye' pronounced (l.364), and that the power of his 'Langagys divers' (l.365) lies in their ability to express, through the devices of metaphora and alegoria, matter more valuable than the 'ryche jacounce,/Diamounde, or rubye,' or any of the other tokens of worldly power and wealth on display at court.

  14. It is possible to view Skelton's Parott as inhabiting language in the same way as Skelton inhabits the role of court-poet. The circumstances surrounding Skelton's production of the poem 'Calliope' offer a good example of his awareness of the ways in which this role can be simultaneously encoded and decoded:

    Why were ye Calliope, embrawdred with letters of golde? Skelton Laureate, Orator Regius, maketh this aunswere etc.

    As ye may se,
    Regent is she,
    Of poetes al,
    Whiche gave to me 5
    The high degre
    Laureat to be
    Of fame royall;

    Whose name enrolde
    With silke and golde 10
    I dare be bolde
    Thus for to were.
    Of her I holde
    And her housholde;
    Though I waxe olde 15
    And somedele sere,

    Yet is she fayne,
    Voyde of disdayn,
    Me to retayne,
    Her serviture. 20
    With her certayne
    I wyll remayne
    As my soverayne
    Moost of pleasure.

    Maulgre touz malheureux.

    Skelton's appearance at court dressed in a cloak embroidered with the name of the muse Calliope wonderfully illustrates his understanding of the notion of 'inhabiting' his official role. In the same way as a book, an intrinsically beautiful object, could according to the renaissance aesthetics of internal (male) and external (female) beauties be further beautified by an ornate binding, so the Poet Skelton, the 'text within,' recreates himself as a complete (i.e. a wholly beautiful or perfected) work of art by 'binding' himself in text – a text moreover which itself has an immediate association with the actual production of text. 8

  15. Parott functions by means of the polysemy of his language; just as mw__a cannot be contained within 'the narrow limits of a definition,' attempting to identify the genesis of that language in 'madness' – or indeed in any one particular idea – can, ultimately, only result in the undermining of its power.


This essay is, as its title implies, concerned with particular aspects of a particular poem. For a broader discussion of Henry VIII's court and the progress of Humanism in England, readers are directed to David Starkey, ed., 1991. Henry VIII: A European Court in England, London: Collins & Brown; and for an excellent discussion of the role of dramatic literature at Henry's court, see Greg Walker, 1991. Plays of Persuasion Drama and Politics at the Court of Henry VIII Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 3 of this book offers a reading of Skelton's Magnyfycence.

  1. The text used here is that of John Scattergood, ed. 1983. John Skelton: The Complete English Poems New Haven & London: Yale University Press (hereafter: Scattergood). All subsequent citations of Skelton's poems are from this edition.


  2. Nancy Coiner 1995, 92 points out that 'Any Renaissance schoolboy would have immediately recalled the two Galatheas in the Metamorphoses, Pygmalion's beloved statue [at X. 243ff.] and Polyphemos's beloved sea-nymph [at XIII. 738ff.].' Skelton may however have been thinking of another Galatea not mentioned by Coiner (nor indeed by Ovid). She was a Cretan girl and the daughter of Eurytius. Her husband Lamprus desired a son, and demanded that, should Galatea give birth to a daughter, this child should be exposed. When Galatea did in fact give birth to a girl, she could not bring herself to kill the child and disguised it as a boy, giving it the name Leucippus and in this way hiding the truth from her husband. The girl grew so beautiful however that the deception could no longer be maintained, and Galatea begged of Leto that her child's sex should be changed. Leto granted Galatea's prayer, and the beautiful young girl became a boy. This myth is related to similar ones surrounding the boy Iphis, a name connected to both sexes. If Skelton was thinking of this Galatea, she may be seen as representing both deception and truth. (The name Galatea is derived from g_la, 'as white as milk', which by a not impossible stretch of the imagination may be associated with purity or the unwritten page.


  3. Boccaccio, De Genealogia Deorum IV xlix; quoted by Scattergood 1988, 453. The importance of this reference is that Parott himself mentions 'Dewcalyons flodde' (l.455ff.). Jupiter sent the deluge to wipe out the wickedness of men, in particular of Lycaon, with whom Skelton identifies Wolsey. See Ovid, Metamorphoses I. 177ff.


  4. Scattergood 459 notes that 'the mirror, 'almost transparent', into which Parrot looks is the 'glass' through which man sees 'darkly' (I Cor. xiii 12). The phrase in enigmate means literally 'in a riddle', and lines 190-203 are a defence of the deliberately puzzling indirectness of Parott's way of speaking.' Scattergood also discusses Parott's use of 'Elencticum, or ells enthimematicum': 'An elenchus is a syllogistic refutation; an enthymeme is an argument based on probable premisses as distinct from a demonstration.' The point of Parott's use of these devices is that the logician would react 'quibblingly' ('sophistice') to them, whereas the rhetorician, according to Scattergood, would be more likely to value them, 'particularly the anthymeme which Aristotle said was one of the most persuasive of figures'. My premise is that Parott, as poet, is closer to the rhetorician than to the logician. On the subject of Renaissance mirrors, however, see also Debora Shuger:

    Instead of skull or soul, other generic mirrors reflect the mutability of earthly glory. In the final scene of Skelton's Magnificence, Sad Circumspection thus explains: 'A mirror encircled is this interlude,/this life inconstant for to be hold and see:/Suddenly advanced, and suddenly subdued,/Suddenly riches and suddenly poverty.' The subtitle of the massively influential Mirror for Magistrates makes the same point; the text is a glass 'Wherein may be seen by example of other, with howe grevous plages vices are punished: and how frayle and vnstable worldly prosperitie is founde, euen of those, whom Fortune seemeth most highly to fauour.' The mirror reflects what is likely to happen to a given class of persons...[and is therefore] 'realistic' only in the Thomist sense. A second oddity characteristic of Renaissance mirrors is implicit in the first: as they do not reflect the face of the person who looks into them, so they ignore the viewer's subject position - his or her 'subjectivity'. This is, if one tries to follow Hamlet's advice and 'hold, as 'twere, a mirror up to nature'... either you cannot see the reflected images all, or you end up staring at your own face. (Shuger 1999, 27)


  5. See Carlson 1991, 3 and note 10: 'The claim of Fox [1989, 26-7] that Skelton left court willingly rests in part on misapprehension of the documentary evidence. The accounts for the 1503 funeral of Elizabeth of York (London, P.R.O., LC2/1, esp. Fol.73r), which Fox cites secondhand, do not in fact mention Skelton.'


  6. Skelton was essentially a traditionalist in the so-called Grammarians' War of 1519-21, i.e. he held that Latin should be taught by rule, as set out in Whittinton's Vulgaria (1519) rather than by the stylistic imitation of classical authors, the doctrine of Horman's Vulgaria, published in the same year as Whittinton's. Lines 169-82 make specific reference to this debate.


  7. 'Sapientia enim huius mundi, stultitia est apud Deum.' (I Cor. 3:19) Also: 'Verbum enim crucis pereuntibus quidem stultitia est... Si quis videtur inter vos sapiens esse..., stultus fiat ut sit sapiens... Nos stulti propter Christum.' (I Cor. 1:18; 3:18: 4:10) See Grassi and Lorch 41-5 for a more complete discussion of the changing interpetations of mw__a. As for the significance of the word stultus, see the Latin title of Erasmus' Praise of Folly, Stultitiae laus; and in the New Testament, where Paul uses mw__a, Jerome uses stultitia.


  8. Skelton's use of Calliope in fact reflects medieval sign-theory. Eco discusses how for instance the followers of Priscian 'spoke of names [nouns] as signifying a substance [Calliope as Muse or 'person'] together with a [poetic] quality, where the latter was undoubtedly the universal nature of the thing, but the former was the individual thing.' See Eco 1989, 56 and De Rijk 1982 (cited by Eco). Priscian (fl.500) was the author of the 18 vol. Institutiones Grammaticae. The work was popular with scholars and teachers of Latin.


Works Cited

Allen, P. S., Allen, H. M. and Garrod, W. H., eds. 1906-58. Opus Epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami. 12 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Anon. c.1969. Biblia Sacra iuxta Latinam Vulgatem Versionem: Liber Psalmorum. Stuttgart: Wuerttembergische Bibelanstalt.

Carlson, David R., ed. 1991. 'The Latin Writings of John Skelton.' Studies in Philology 88: 4.

Coiner, Nancy. 1995. 'Galathea and the Interplay of Voices in Skelton's Speke,Parott.' In Subjects on the World's Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by Allen, David G. and White, Robert A. London: Associated University Presses.

De Rijk, Lambert M. 1982. 'The Origins of the Theory of Property of Terms.' In The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy. From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism, 1100 - 1600, edited by Kretzmann, N., Kenny, A., Pinborg, J. and Stump, E. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 161-173.

Dyce, Alexander, ed. 1843. The Poetical Works of John Skelton. 2 vols. London: T. Rodd.

Eco, Umberto. 1989. 'Denotation.' In On the Medieval Theory of Signs, edited by Eco, Umberto and Marmo, Constantino. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 43-73.

Erasmus. 1979. Praise of Folly; Trans. Clarence H. Miller. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fox, Alastair. 1986. 'Fact and Fallacies: Interpreting English Humanism.' In Reassessing the Henrican Age: Humanism, Politics and Reform 1500 - 1550, edited by Fox, Alastair and Guy, John. Oxford: Blackwell, 1-33.

Fox, Alastair. 1989. Politics and Literature in the Reigns of Henry VII & Henry VIII. Oxford: Blackwell.

Grassi, Ernesto and Lorch, Maristella. 1986. Folly and Insanity in Renaissance Literature. New York: Binghampton Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.

Graves, Robert. 1955. On Poetry: Collected Talks and Essays. New York: Doubleday.

Grimal, Pierre. 1951. Dictionnaire de la Mythologie Grecque et Romaine. Paris: Presses Universitaire de France.

Kluge, Friedrich, ed. 1963. Etymologisches Wφrterbuch der deutschen Sprache. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Miller, Clarence H., ed. 1979. Opera Omnia Desideri Erasmi Roterodami vol. 4. Amsterdam.

Ovid. 1994. Ovid,Metamorphoses. 2 vols; Trans. Frank Justus Miller. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.

Scattergood, John. 1988. John Skelton: The Complete English Poems. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Shuger, Debora. 1999. 'The "I" of the Beholder: Renaissance Mirrors and the Reflexive Mind.' In Renaissance Culture and the Everyday, edited by Fumerton, Patricia and Hunt, Simon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 21-41.

Wallace, Nathaniel Owen. 1985. 'The Responsibilities of Madness: John Skelton, "Speke Parrot", and Homeopathic Satire.' Studies in Philology 82: 1, 60-80.

[Back to Contents] [Back to top of page]
Contents © Copyright Simon Brittan 1999.
Layout © Copyright Renaissance Forum 1999. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 4, Number 1, 1999.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 13 December 1999.