Page images
PDF

poets in the reign of Henry VIII. whose compositions will not afford us any examples of that kind which it is the particular object of this compilation to collect and preserve.

The first of these is John Skelton. He was probably born about 1461, and in 1489 was laureated at Oxford; a circumstance to which he seldom fails to allude, as to an honourable evidence of his proficiency in classical learning. This indeed is still farther proved by the eulogy of Erasmus, who has pronounced him to be “ the light “ and ornament of English scholars ;” and there can be no doubt of his having been perfectly well qualified for the employment, to which he was appointed, of superintending the studies of Henry VIII. at whose accession he was created orator royal. His ecclesiastical preferments seem to have been limited to the rectory of Diss, in Norfolk ; · and indeed he was apparently very ill suited to the

clerical, or to any other serious profession, from the strange turbulence and irregularity of his character, as well as irresistible propensity to satire; which, though sometimes enlivened by wit, was principally composed of vulgar and scurrilous invective. For his buffooneries in the pulpit, and his satirical ballads against the mendicants, he is said to have been severely censured, and perhaps suspended, by the bishop of Norwich. But Skelton was incorrigible. Whether he trusted to an imaginary ascendency over the mind of his royal pupil, or that his haughty spirit was incapable of submitting to control, he continued, by repeated scurrilities, to provoke the most powerful enemies, and particularly cardinal Wolsey, who was not to be attacked with impunity. Being closely pursued by the officers of that formidable prelate, he was forced to solicit protection in the sanctuary of Westminster, where he was received by abbot Islip, and protected till his death in 1529.

Mr. Warton seems to think that Skelton's style was not original, but imitated from the Macaronic poetry of Teofilo Folengo, a Benedictine monk of Casino, who, under the feigned name of Martinus Coccaius, introduced the fashion of intermixing the most familiar Italian words, adapted to Latin terminations, and something like regular prosody, in various Latin measures, especially hexameters. His Phantasiæ Macaronicæ were written, says Mr. Warton, about the year 1512; and the same strange mode of composition was, soon after, imitated by a civilian of Avignon ; who, under the name of Antonius de Arena, published, in 1519, a mock elegiac poem in Latin, ridiculously interlarded with French. The drollery of these works is wretchedly vulgar; and indeed (according to the original author) vulgarity is essential to the macaronic art of poetry the

word being derived from macaroni, the food of the lowest and poorest classes of the people. Skelton's words, however, are not accommodated to Latin terminations, nor his measure to Latin prosody: his language being neither more or less than homely English, abounding with cant phrases and quaint terms; and his verse consisting of a series of short lines (amongst which a Latin one is occasionally introduced), rhyming sometimes in couplets, frequently several in succession. In fact the two styles seem to have little resemblance, except in their tendency to introduce a bad taste among readers, who ought to be preserved from it by a liberal and learned education.

Skelton's poems are very carefully enumerated by Mr. Ritson in his Bibliographia. The principal of these were collected in 1568, and printed by T. Marshe under the the title of “ Pithy, pleasaunt and “ profitable workes of Maister Skelton, Poete “ Laureate” 12mo. (republished 1736.) His verses on the death of the earl of Northumberland, inserted in the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, are, as the editor of that work has justly observed, the most tolerable of his compositions ; because they are not at all tinctured with the faults of his usual and favourite style. Of this style the reader will be better able to judge, by the following extract

[ocr errors]

from “ the Image of Ypocrycye,” never printed, of which the original MS. was in the library of Mr. Le Neve, from whence it was purchased by Mr. West. An apparently accurate transcript of it, by the wellknown Thomas Martin, of Palgrave, is fortunately preserved, and is in the possession of Mr. Heber. It is, in general, a satire on the professors of religion; but the subject of the following lines is the illustrious Sir Thomas More.*

But now we have a knight
That is a man of might
All armed for to fight,
To put the truth to flight

* SIR THOMAS MORE, who is attacked in the following piece of obscure and almost unintelligible ribaldry, ought perhaps to be classed among the poets of this reign. One of his small pieces of poetry, composed in his youth, and preserved in his works (the merry Jest of the Serjeant and Frere) may possibly have suggested to the late Mr. Cowper the idea of his popular tale of John Gilpin. In general, although, like all the compositions of the age, they are too diffuse and languid, his poems possess considerable merit; and, as well as his prose works, were considered by his contemporaries as a model of pure and elegant language. This excellence principally recommended them to the notice of Dr. Johnson, who has printed many of them in the introduction to his Dictionary; and for this reason the insertion of a specimen here seems unnecessary.

By Bow-bell policy; With his poetry, And his sophistry, To mock and make a lie, With “ quod he, and quod I," And his apology Made for the prelacy; Their hugy pomp and pride To colour and to hide. He maketh no nobbes, But with his dialogues To prove our prelates gods And laymen very lobbes, Beating them with bobbes, And with their own rods. Thus he taketh pain To fable and to feign, Their mischief to maintain, And to have them reign Over hill and plain ; Yea, over heaven and hell, And where as spirits dwell, In purgatory’s holes, With hot fire and coals, To sing for silly souls, With a supplication, And a confutation,

« PreviousContinue »