How a Poet Comforted a Girl
ERHAPS 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
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 others, 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.
"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."
"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."
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."
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,
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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 tuneably.
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.