The Renaissance Precursor of Rap Battles and Flow

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C. Hansen, La Fête D’Aegir, 1861

“What could be dafter / Than John Skelton’s laughter?”
—Robert Graves

Sometime early in the sixteenth century, a frequently hungover, perennially in trouble, and womanizing priest named John Skelton took to the lectern at his church. He faced his angry congregation and tried to explain the bastard child born to his mistress. Despite his Cambridge education, his humanist credentials, the fact that he’d once been tutor to Prince Henry, and the immaculate poetry he’d penned, the good Christians of Diss, Norfolk, had complained to their bishop about the priest’s behavior. Skelton may have claimed that (when it came to poetry at least) he’d imparted “drink of the sugared well / Of Helicon’s waters crystalline,” but his congregation was less than impressed. The priest penned inspired lyrics like “Speke, Parrot,” “Phillip Sparrow,” and the immaculate doggerel “The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng,” of which the five-hundredth anniversary is this year. Across these works, he developed an innovative rhythm known appropriately enough as “Skeltonics.” But that sort of thing was of no sway with the bishop. Laity and clergy alike didn’t care for the literary pretensions of this self-styled “British Catullus.” Perhaps it was clear that ordination was not Skelton’s calling, for what could the parishioners expect from sacraments administered by a man who once wrote that “To live under law it is captivity: / Where dread leadeth the dance there is no joy nor pride.”

A failure of imagination on the villager’s part, for Skelton was no mere parish priest who scribbled “trifles of honest mirth.” He was, in the words of the critic Michael Schmidt, a bard in Calliope green who “stands like Janus at the threshold of the English Renaissance.” A poet of a gloaming period gesturing back to the verse of Chaucer and forward to that of Shakespeare. Skelton, nostalgically pining for Merry Old England while anticipating a coming golden age. Skelton, singing in the bawdy prosody of the alehouse and the vulgar profanity of the bedchamber. Sublime Skelton, who has long troubled literary historians, even though Schmidt argues that he was “the first modern English” poet who could be read “without recourse to a glossary.” A man included as poet laureate alongside Dryden, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Hughes, but who was also a consummate master of “flyting”—a type of improvised verse competition reminiscent of a rap battle—can be difficult to categorize. The Scottish poet Alexander Barclay described Skelton as a “rascolde poet” two centuries later and John Milton accused him of being “one of the worst of men,” while Alexander Pope simply called him “beastly Skelton.” He was a satirist of anticlericalism at the verge of the Reformation, but he was also an embodiment of its abuses. Skelton reveled in the sublime poetry of hypocrisy, but whatever his moral lapses may have been, he was either the last medieval poet or the first poet of the Renaissance, whose bawdy, alliterative, hurdy-gurdy verse, in the words of the scholar Gerald Hammond, “rivals anything the Elizabethan lyricists” achieved.

As Skelton was now known to keep a “fair wench in his house,” the bishop informed him that the woman must be “expelled through the door.” Interpreting the order with an opportunistic literalness, he did as instructed, only to let his mistress back in through the window. The bishop had long grown weary of these antics. He wrote that the priest was “guilty of certain crimes AS MOST POETS ARE.” There are no contemporary depictions of Skelton, no accurate engravings or Holbein paintings. But I like to envision the canny old poet as tall and thin and just handsome enough, a consummate performer, so confident that his palms weren’t even damp when he appeared before his flock with both mistress and bastard. Holding his illegitimate infant aloft, Skelton asked if he was not perfectly formed, perfect evidence of God’s glory? Then who were these vipers, these clucking townspeople, chastising God? The congregation was cowed. Skelton kept his job, until he got a better one: Prince Arthur died and Skelton’s former charge, Prince Henry VIII, assured of his kingship, invited the priest to court.

Skelton was conversant with both Erasmus (who wrote approvingly of him) and Luther. Skelton was less than impressed with the later: he foamed, in denunciatory anaphora and hypnotic end rhyme, “Against these frentics, / Against these lunatics, / Against these schismatics, / Against these heretics.” But even if Skelton himself was not willing to go Lutheran, his anticlerical doggerel proved useful to English reformers a generation later. In his rough, alliterative, and very Anglo-Saxon Skeltonics, Protestant propagandists saw a vehicle for delivering invective against the church. After all, Skelton knew clerical abuse well, and pointed his barbs at appropriate targets: he had once been imprisoned for slandering Cardinal Wolsey.

In 1517, the same year Luther affixed his own anticlerical “poem” to a church door in Germany, Skelton penned his underrated masterpiece “The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng,” written in profane imitation of the Catholic liturgy. It is anthologized alongside lyrics like “Philip Sparrow,” with its erotic evocations of loss, or “Speke, Parrot,” which charmingly begins with, “My name is Parrot, a bird of paradise.” By contrast, Schmidt writes that “Elynour Rummyng … is certainly not charming.” It is Skelton at his bawdy, wanton, disgusting, chauvinistic best. (Or is it worst?) The poem is an account of the titular bar wench, supposedly based on an actual tavern owner, who “dwelt in Surrey, / In a certain stead / Beside Leatherhead.” Elynour’s surname is a pun on alcohol itself (notice the first syllable), and “tunning” is an archaism for bottling. She is described as “Droopy and drowsy, / Scurvy and lousy; / Her face all boozy, / Comely crinkled, / Wondrously wrinkled, / Like a roast pig’s ear.” Skelton describes how the ale woman sometimes “blends / The dung of her hens / And the ale together … The ale shall be thicker.” Despite his misogynistic description of drunk housewives, who “come unbraced, / With their naked paps / That flips and flaps … Like tawny saffron bags … All scurvy with scabs,” Elynour remains a character with admirable agency.

It is also a striking poem about “liquid oblivion,” as Hammond describes it. While careful not to project modern concern onto the distant past, Skelton’s poem conjures the desperation of the junky. Customers are willing to pawn their possessions for a dram of Elynour’s swill. An egalitarian affliction, for it effects “travelers, to tinkers, / To sweaters, to sinkers, / And all good ale drinkers.” Trained in scholastic philosophy, he was adept in allegorizing, but like Chaucer he was capable of endowing his creations with a rich interiority. “Elynour Rummyng,” for all of its intentional ugliness, is a description of those who have lost everything. He simply writes: “Her lips are so dry / Without drink she must die.” It’s vulgar verse of rough but exquisite beauty.

That’s his genius, taking the wool of common speech and spinning a resplendent banner of poetry from it. The poet Henry Wotton complained that Skelton deployed “the most familiar phraseology of the common people.” On the verge of Renaissance, Skelton’s idiom would have to wait for its appreciators. One of those more recent fans, W. H. Auden, explained that Skelton exhibits “the natural ease of speech rhythm.” As the bard of the barroom and the poet of the pub, Skelton has more in common with de Quincey than Wordsworth, or Bukowski than Frost. The Elizabethan rhetorician George Puttenham, in imitation of his Anglo-Saxon alliteration, disparaged him as merely a “rude, railing, rhymer.”

Yet both Auden and Robert Graves drew inspiration from Skeltonics, the sing-song, alliterative trimeter that thrums like an electric undercurrent beneath the staid Latinisms of canonical poetry. The scholar Ruth Kaplan explains that for Skelton, “rhyme, rather than meaning, seems to drive the poems forward,” which he acknowledged himself: “For though my ryme be ragged, / Tattered and jagged, / Rudely rayne-beaten, / Rusty and mothe-eaten, / Yf ye take well therewith, / It hath in it some pyth.” Kaplan explains that the logic of Skeltonics are such that the poem will continue “as long as the resources of the language hold out,” according to the indomitable wisdom of what rappers call “flow.” (Forgive my anachronism, it’s a pose normally deployed to convince undergraduates to enjoy antique poetry (and it often fails). Yet there is a thread connecting Skelton to all who hear poetry in speech, overheard at the bar or on the subway or the street. His voice is all the more powerful for it; it’s the artful artistry of appearing without art. Skelton awaits his audience—yet his voice is all around us.

Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books and an expert on Renaissance literature. His first collection, America and Other Fictions, will be released by Zero Books in 2018.

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