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Works of John Skelton - Introduction

The Works of John Skelton


John Skelton (1460?-1529) is a poet whose works have hovered on the edge of the canon, never being forgotten or lacking advocates, but never making it into the schools. Robert Graves thought him better than Milton. Stanley Fish, now the Grand Old Man of American Literary Criticism (and proud to be the model for David Lodge's Morris Zapp) published a book-length study of Skelton in 1965, and more recently, Helen Cooper, professor of English at Cambridge, called him "one of the great figures of English poetry."

In his early days, he was very highly regarded as a scholar and received the laurel crown from both Oxford and Cambridge universities. He was ordained a priest, and appointed by King Henry VII as tutor to his son Henry who became Henry VIII. He was appointed rector of the village of Diss in Norfolk, but spent little time there, being mostly a courtier to King Henry. His irregular life, including having a wife when this was strictly forbidden, involved him in constant conflict with his bishop, and was also the source of many amusing but probably apocryphal stories. He was also very quarrelsome, and his attacks on Cardinal Wolsey resulted in jail time, and eventually forced him to seek sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, where he stayed, unable to leave, for the last few years of his life.

Though he could be lyrical, as in Philip Sparrow and The Garland of Laurel, there can be no doubt that his principal talent was for satire and vituperation. His victims ranged from safe targets like the Scots and the women customers of a pub in Leatherhead, Surrey, to the highest in the land, especially Cardinal Wolsey.

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The Skelton Project An edition of the poems in original spelling, with notes and Latin translations. We would like to acknowledge their generosity in allowing us to use their translations. These are identified by (SP) in the notes.

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Robert Graves' Poem "John Skelton" "Old John, you do me good!"
Helen Cooper on Skelton. from the London Review of Books

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