Background on Speke Parrott

Connected Background




Introduction and Background to

There are three versions of Speke Parott: the first is found in the manuscript London, British Library Harley 2252, ff. 134-134v, another in a print version called Certayne Bokes, presumably printed in 1545 (STC 22598), and the final in 1568’s Workes (STC 22608). Scattergood dates the poem around 1521, based on historical records. There are several time gaps between the start and finishing of the poem and its subsequent additions, which led to different datings of the poem; Berdan suggests that Speke Parott “is not one poem, but several”(144).

With the poem Speke Parott, Skelton puzzles the reader with “a veil of obscure allusions and Latin phrases”, lest his allegorised satire of Cardinal Wolsey should become too obvious (140). Not only is the satire directed at Wolsey, Skelton voices his strong opinion against the so-called New Learning, humanists who converse in many different languages, without displaying true knowledge. Like parrots, they repeat each other, and baste in the glory of the court, feasting on delicacies and enjoying female attention.

Simon Brittan provides a summary of extant scholarship until 1999, in which he mentions the foremost interpretations of Speke Parott. He refers to Nancy Coiner, who in 1995 discussed the lack of ‘interpretive key’ to identify the core meaning of Skelton’s poem (Coiner 88). Furthermore, Brittan addresses the argument of Nathaniel Wallace, who in 1985 analysed the poem for its treatment of madness, suggesting Skelton wrote his ‘homeopathic satire’ to cleanse England of insanity (Wallace 60). This reading is questioned by Brittan: “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” (Brittan). He continues to show that the confusing language in the poem is key to the central ironies of Speke Parott, insofar as it allows the “poet to express his own apparent dysfunction through poetry” (Brittan). The self-awareness of language use is especially present from lines 144 until 223, where the discussion of linguistics and Latin show Skelton’s preoccupation with language use (Brittan). In reading the conflicted language, suggesting the poet does not have the freedom of speech he would have, the reader must read between the lines and subsequently consider the choices Skelton was faced with as a court poet.

Another widely discussed aspect of the poem is its biblical allusions, notably Skelton’s use of Psalm 83 as a source for his allegory. In 1952, F.W. Brownlow analysed the similarities between the biblical, mythological and real political references in the poem, concluding that Speke Parott is a “prophetic reading of contemporary history according to an old, sufficiently commonplace, and thoroughly Christian scheme of interpretation” (Brownlow 136). Even though Brownlow explains most biblical allusions for the benefit of making the poem comprehensible to a modern reader, he admits the “the real unknown in Speke, Parrot, the stranger whom the poet never comprehended, is the shadowy Melchisedech-Henry”, an allusion to the biblical figure conflated with Henry VIII and Jupiter (139).