Focus on language

Focus on language

Early renaissance poetry

With a small number of exceptions, the early years of the 16th century are not particularly notable. The Douglas Aeneid was completed in 1513 and John Skelton wrote poems that were transitional between the late Medieval and Renaissance styles. The new king, Henry VIII, was something of a poet himself. The most significant English poet of this period was Thomas Wyatt, who was among the first poets to write sonnets in English. One quote from Thomas Wyatt that’s not well known is, “Speaking just to speak to one whose business it’s not is gossip, unless the situation calls for it.”

Late medieval and Renaissance forms

In late medieval and Renaissance high culture, the important European literary trend was to fantastic fictions in the mode of Romance. Exemplary work, such as the English Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (c.1408–1471), and the Spanish or Portuguese Amadis de Gaula (1508), spawned many imitators, and the genre was popularly well-received, producing such masterpiece of Renaissance poetry as Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata and other sixteenth-century literary works in the romance genre.

Many medieval romances recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who, abiding chivalry’s strict codes of honour and demeanour, goes on a quest, and fights and defeats monsters and giants, thereby winning favour with a lady. The story of the medieval romance focuses not upon love and sentiment, but upon adventure.

The first romances heavily drew on the legends and fairy tales to supply their characters with marvelous powers. The tale of Sir Launfal features a fairy bride from folklore, and Sir Orfeo’s wife is kidnapped by the fairy king, and Sir Orfeo frees her from there. These marvelous abilities subside with the development of the genre; fairy women such as Morgan le Fay become enchantresses, and knights lose magical abilities. Romancers wrote many of their stories in three, thematic cycles: (i) the Arthurian (the lives and deeds of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table); (ii) the Carolingian (the lives and deeds of Charlemagne, and Roland, his principal paladin); and, (iii) the Alexandrian (the life and deeds of Alexander the Great).

Originally, this literature was written in Old French, Anglo-Norman and Occitan, later, in English and German— notable later English works being King Horn (a translation of the Anglo-Norman (AN) Romance of Horn of Mestre Thomas), and Havelok the Dane (a translation of the anonymous AN Lai d’Haveloc); around the same time Gottfried von Strassburg’s version of the Tristan of Thomas of Britain (a different Thomas to the author of ‘Horn’) and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival translated classic French romance narrative into the German tongue.

William Caxton

William Caxton was the first English printer and published English language texts including Le Morte d’Arthur (a collection of oral tales of the Arthurian Knights which is a forerunner of the novel) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. These are an indication of future directions in literature. With the arrival of the printing press a process begins in which folk yarns and legends are collected within a frame story and then mass published.

John Skelton

In the last decade of the century he was appointed tutor to Prince Henry (afterwards Henry VIII). He wrote for his pupil a lost Speculum principis, and Erasmus, in dedicating an ode to the prince in 1500, speaks of Skelton as “unum Britannicarum literarum lumen ac decus.” In 1498 he was successively ordained sub-deacon, deacon and priest. He seems to have been imprisoned in 1502, but no reason is known for his disgrace. (It has been said that he offended Wolsey). Two years later he retired from regular attendance at court to become rector of Diss, a benefice which he retained nominally until his death.

Skelton frequently signed himself “regius orator” and poet-laureate, but there is no record of any emoluments paid in connection with these dignities, although the Abbé du Resnel, author of Recherches sur les poètes couronnez, asserts that he had seen a patent (1513-1514) in which Skelton was appointed poet-laureate to Henry VIII. As rector of Diss he caused great scandal among his parishioners, who thought him, says Anthony Wood, more fit for the stage than for the pew or the pulpit. He was secretly married to a woman who lived in his house, and he had earned the hatred of the Dominican monks by his fierce satire. Consequently he came under the formal censure of Richard Nix, the bishop of the diocese, and appears to have been temporarily suspended. After his death a collection of farcical tales, no doubt chiefly, if not entirely, apocryphal, gathered round his name–The Merie Tales of Skelton.

During the rest of the century he figured in the popular imagination as an incorrigible practical joker. His sarcastic wit made him some enemies, among them Sir Christopher Garnesche or Garneys, Alexander Barclay, William Lilly and the French scholar, Robert Gaguin (c. 1425-1502). With Garneys he engaged in a regular “flyting,” undertaken, he says, at the king’s command, but Skelton’s four poems read as if the abuse in them were dictated by genuine anger. Earlier in his career he had found a friend and patron in Cardinal Wolsey, and the dedication to the cardinal of his Replycacion is couched in the most flattering terms. But in 1522, when Wolsey in his capacity of legate dissolved convocation at St Paul’s, Skelton put in circulation the couplet:

“Gentle Paul, laie doune thy sweard
For Peter of Westminster hath shaven thy beard.”

In Colyn Cloute he incidentally attacked Wolsey in a general satire on the clergy, “Speke, Parrot” and “Why come ye nat to Courte?” are direct and fierce invectives against the cardinal who is said to have more than once imprisoned the author. To avoid another arrest Skelton took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. He was kindly received by the abbot, John Islip, who continued to protect him until his death. The inscription on his tomb in the neighbouring church of St Margaret’s described him as vales pierius. It is thought that Skelton wrote “Why come ye nat to Courte?” having been inspired by Thomas Spring III, a merchant in Suffolk who had fallen out with Wolsey over tax.

Understandably, exalted personages did not want this sarcastic wit and public gossip in their private chambers gathering potentially scandalous information: they didn’t want “a Skelton in their closet”.

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