Even when all the Latin lines are removed from his poetry, reading John Skelton can still be extremely difficult. Often, Skelton is capable of making even his native language sound foreign. Without a glossary or dictionary at hand, a poem like Speke Parott is almost impossible for a modern reader to read, let alone understand. Thankfully, the Skelton Project provides glossed editions for Skelton’s poems, which will make a reading of Skelton that bit easier. The following overview introduces Skelton’s use of different languages and the strange phrases that appear in his poetry.
John Skelton was a true polyglot. In his early years, he translated works by Cicero and Diodorus Siculus into English (Carlson 11). Not only could he read and translate Latin, he wrote pieces entirely in the ancient language. One such example is the Speculum Principis, a guidebook for young Henry VIII. Most of the Latin in Skelton’s poetry is concentrated in the endings of his poems, the envoy. Upon the Dolorus Dethe, Ware the Hawke, Phyllyp Sparowe, Elynour Rummynge, Collyn Clout, Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?, Garlande of Laurell, and A Replycacion all end with a few lines of Latin, which are connected to the English parts but are even more directly pointed at the people whom he attacks (Carlson 6). Although Skelton’s major poems Phyllyp Sparowe and Collyn Clout are famous for their macaronic verse, Skelton’s shorter epitaphs are interesting exercises in bilingual poetry. Epitaphe for instance, is a Latin poem with just a little English ornamentation (Carlson 4-5).
Yet writing in Latin was not merely Skelton’s way of flaunting his skills; he had no need to, seeing as he was already known for his excellence in the English language. During his early career, he worked as a reviser for William Caxton. The printer was apparently very impressed with Skelton’s command of language: according to Renchler, Skelton’s work as a reviser “hints at Skelton’s early awareness of the value of cultivating English as a language suitable for poetic composition” (13). Skelton chose to write poems with classical metres in his the vernacular, as they were more accessible to the public than his Latin poetry, Skelton became a printer’s favourite. After all, the effect of a poem like Speke Parott depends fully on its play on language. Despite the apparent gibberish and complicated structure, an experienced reader would still be able to extract the Anti-Wolseyan gist from the English poem.