John Skelton should be one of the great figures of English poetry. He is widely regarded as the most significant poet in the 130 years between the death of Chaucer and the flourishing of Thomas Wyatt; but it has to be said that the competition for the top ranking south of the Scottish border is not very fierce, and until the 1930s such a judgment would have struck most people as bizarre. His poetry had come to be little regarded within fifty years of his death, and his primary reputation by the end of the 16th century was for buffoonery: he was turned into a jest-book figure, and in Anthony Munday's Robin Hood play within a play, The Downfall and Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon, a 'real-life' Skelton takes the role of Friar Tuck. His recovery came on the back of the rise of Modernism, with its opening of readers' minds to new kinds of non-traditional poetry, and it was confirmed with the appearance of Philip Henderson's modern-spelling edition in 1931. This put him within reach of the general reader, and the general reader, eager for a change from the post-Romantic pieties of the Golden Treasury and newly trained to rejoice in the toughnesses of Donne and the fragmentations of Eliot, responded with interest, warmth and general incomprehension.
LRB 14 December 2006 | PDF Download