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Chapter XXXV. HOW A POET COMFORTED A GIRL

PERHAPS the best Morality of which we know the author's name is Magnificence, by John Skelton. But, especially after Everyman, it is dull reading for little people, and it is not in order to speak of this play that I write about Skelton.

John Skelton lived in the stormy times of Henry VIII, and he is called sometimes our first poet-laureate. But he was not poet- laureate as we now understand it, he was not the King's poet. The title only meant that he had taken a degree in grammar and Latin verse, and had been given a laurel wreath by the university which gave the degree. It was in this way that Skelton was made laureate, first by Oxford, then by Louvain in Belgium, and thirdly by Cambridge, so that in his day he was considered a learned man and a great poet. He was a friend of Caxton and helped him with one of his books. "I pray, maister Skelton, late created poet-laureate in the university of Oxenford," says Caxton, "to oversee and correct this said book."

John Skelton, like so many other literary men of those days, was a priest. He studied, perhaps, both at Oxford and at Cambridge, and became tutor to Prince, afterwards King, Henry VIII. We do not know if he had an easy time with his royal pupil or not, but in one of his poems he tells us that "The honour of England I learned to spell" and "acquainted him with the Muses nine."

The days of Henry VIII were troublous times for thinking people. The King was a tyrant, and the people of England were finding it harder than ever to bow to a tyrant while the world was awakening to new thought, and new desires for freedom, both in religion and in life.

The Reformation had begun. The teaching of Piers Ploughman, the preaching of Wyclif, had long since almost been forgotten, but it had never altogether died out. The evils in the Church and in high places were as bad as ever, and Skelton, himself a priest, preached against them. He attacked other, even though he himself sinned against the laws of priesthood. For he was married, and in those days marriage was forbidden to clergymen, and his life was not so fair as it might have been.

At first Wolsey, the great Cardinal and friend of Henry VIII, was Skelton's friend too. But Skelton's tongue was mocking and bitter. "He was a sharp satirist, but with more railing and scoffery than became a poet-laureate,"* said one. The Cardinal became an enemy, and the railing tongue was turned against him. In a poem called Colin Cloute Skelton pointed out the evils of his day and at the same time pointed the finger of scorn at Wolsey. Colin Cloute, like Piers Ploughman, was meant to mean the simple good Englishman.

*George Puttenham.

    "Thus I Colin Cloute, 
    As I go about,

    And wandering as I walk, 
    There the people talk. 
    Men say, for silver and gold 
    Mitres are bought and sold."

And again:—

    "Laymen say indeed, 
    How they (the priests) take no heed 
    Their silly sheep to feed, 
    But pluck away and pull 
    The fleeces of their wool."

But he adds:—

    "Of no good bishop speak I, 
    Nor good priest I decry, 
    Good friar, nor good chanon,* 
    Good nun, nor good canon, 
    Good monk, nor good clerk, 
    Nor yet no good work: 
    But my recounting is 
    Of them that do amiss."

    *Same as canon.

Yet, although Skelton said he would not decry any good man or any good work, his spirit was a mocking one. He was fond of harsh jests and rude laughter, and no person or thing was too high or too holy to escape his sharp wit. "He was doubtless a pleasant conceited fellow, and of a very sharp wit," says a writer about sixty years later, "exceeding bold, and would nip to the very quick when he once set hold."*

*William Webbe.

And being bold as bitter, and having set hold with hatred upon Wolsey, he in another poem called Why come ye not to Court? and in still another called Speake, Parrot, wrote directly against the Cardinal. Yet although Skelton railed against the Cardinal and against the evils in the Church, he was no Protestant. He believed in the Church of Rome, and would have been sorry to think that he had helped the "heretics."

Wolsey was still powerful, and he made up his mind to silence his enemy, so Skelton found himself more than once in prison, and at last to escape the Cardinal's anger he was forced to take sanctuary in Westminster. There he remained until he died a few months before his great enemy fell from power.

As many of Skelton's poems were thus about quarrels over religion and politics, much of the interest in them has died. Yet, as he himself says,

    "For although my rhyme is ragged, 
    Tattered and jagged, 
    Rudely rain-beaten, 
    Rust and moth eaten, 
    If ye take well therewith, 
    It hath in it some pith."

And it is well to remember the name of Colin Cloute at least, because a later and much greater poet borrowed that name for one of his own poems, as you shall hear.

But the poem which keeps most interest for us is one which perhaps at the time it was written was thought least important. It is called The Book of Philip Sparrow. And this poem shows us that Skelton was not always bitter and biting. For it is neither bitter nor coarse, but is a dainty and tender lament written for a schoolgirl whose sparrow had been killed by a cat. It is written in the same short lines as Colin Cloute and others of Skelton's poems—"Breathless rhymes"* they have been called. These short lines remind us somewhat of the old Anglo-Saxon short half-lines, except that they rime. They are called after their author "Skeltonical."

*Bishop Hall.

What chiefly makes The Book of Philip Sparrow interesting is that it is the original of our nursery rime Who Killed Cock Robin? It is written in the form of a dirge, and many people were shocked at that, for they said that it was but another form of mockery that this jesting priest had chosen with which to divert himself. But I think that little Jane Scoupe at school in the nunnery at Carowe would dry her eyes and smile when she read it. She must have been pleased that the famous poet, who had been the King's tutor and friend and who had been both the friend and enemy of the great Cardinal, should trouble to write such a long poem all about her sparrow.

Here are a few quotations from it:—

    "Pla ce bo,* 
    Who is there who? 
    Di le sci, 
    Dame Margery; 
    Fa re my my, 
    Wherefore and why why? 
    For the soul of Philip Sparrow 
    That was late slain at Carowe 
    Among the nuns black, 
    For that sweet soul's sake, 
    And for all sparrows' souls, 
    Set in our bead rolls, 
    Pater Noster qui, 
    With an Ave Mari, 
    And with the corner of a creed, 
    The more shall be your need.

    *Placebo is the first word of the first chant in the service for the dead. Skelton has here made it into three 
    words. The chant is called the Placebo from the first word. 
    . . . . 
    I wept and I wailed, 
    The tears down hailed, 
    But nothing it availed 
    To call Philip again, 
    That Gib our cat hath slain. 
        Gib, I say, our cat 
    Worried her on that 
    Which I loved best. 
    It cannot be expressed 
    My sorrowful heaviness 
    And all without redress. 
    . . . . 
    It had a velvet cap, 
    And would sit upon my lap, 
    And seek after small worms, 
    And sometimes white bread-crumbs. 
    . . . . 
    Sometimes he would gasp 
    When he saw a wasp, 
    A fly or a gnat 
    He would fly at that; 
    And prettily he would pant 
    When he saw an ant; 
    Lord, how he would fly 
    After the butterfly. 
    And when I said Phip, Phip 
    Then he would leap and skip, 
    And take me by the lip. 
    Alas it will me slo,* 
    That Philip is gone me fro.

    *Slay. 
    . . . . 
    For it would come and go, 
    And fly so to and fro; 
    And on me it would leap 
    When I was asleep, 
    And his feathers shake, 
    Wherewith he would make 
    Me often for to wake. 
    . . . . 
    That vengeance I ask and cry, 
    By way of exclamation, 
    On all the whole nation 
    Of cats wild and tame. 
    God send them sorrow and shame! 
    That cat especially 
    That slew so cruelly 
    My little pretty sparrow 
    That I brought up at Carowe. 
        O cat of churlish kind, 
    The fiend was in thy mind, 
    When thou my bird untwined.* 
    I would thou hadst been blind. 
    The leopards savage, 
    The lions in their rage, 
    Might catch thee in their paws 
    And gnaw thee in their jaws.

    *Tore to pieces. 
    . . . . 
    These villainous false cats, 
    Were made for mice and rats, 
    And not for birdies small. 
    . . . . 
    Alas, mine heart is slayeth 
    My Philip's doleful death, 
    When I remember it, 
    How prettily it would sit, 
    Many times and oft, 
    Upon my finger aloft. 
    . . . . 
    To weep with me, look that ye come, 
    All manner of birds of your kind; 
    So none be left behind, 
    To mourning look that ye fall 
    With dolorous songs funeral, 
    Some to sing, and some to say, 
    Some to weep, and some to pray, 
    Every bird in his lay. 
    The goldfinch and the wagtail; 
    The gangling jay to rail, 
    The flecked pie to chatter 
    Of the dolorous matter; 
    The robin redbreast, 
    He shall be the priest, 
    The requiem mass to sing, 
    Softly warbling, 
    With help of the red sparrow, 
    And the chattering swallow, 
    This hearse for to hallow; 
    The lark with his lung too, 
    The chaffinch and the martinet also; 
    . . . . 
    The lusty chanting nightingale, 
    The popinjay to tell her tale, 
    That peepeth oft in the glass, 
    Shall read the Gospel at mass; 
    The mavis with her whistle 
    Shall read there the Epistle, 
    But with a large and a long 
    To keep just plain song. 
    . . . . 
    The peacock so proud, 
    Because his voice is loud, 
    And hath a glorious tail 
    He shall sing the grayle;*

    The owl that is so foul 
    Must help us to howl.

    *Gradual = the part of the mass between Epistle and Gospel. 
    . . . . 
        At the Placebo 
    We may not forgo 
    The chanting of the daw 
    The stork also, 
    That maketh her nest 
    In chimnies to rest. 
    . . . . 
    The ostrich that will eat 
    A horseshoe so great, 
    In the stead of meat, 
    Such fervent heat 
    His stomach doth gnaw. 
    He cannot well fly 
    Nor sing tunably. 
    . . . . 
    The best that we can 
    To make him our bellman, 
    And let him ring the bells, 
    He can do nothing else. 
        Chanticlere our cock 
    Must tell what is of the clock 
    By the astrology 
    That he hath naturally 
    Conceived and caught, 
    And was never taught. 
    . . . . 
        To Jupiter I call 
    Of heaven imperial 
    That Philip may fly 
    Above the starry sky 
    To greet the pretty wren 
    That is our Lady's hen, 
    Amen, amen, amen.