David Profumo

Helter Skelter

Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems


Penguin 956pp £9.95 order from our bookshop

John Skelton: The Complete English Poems


Penguin 573pp £6.95 order from our bookshop

It is an irony Swift himself would have appreciated that the man who resolved at thirty-two ‘Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly,’ should have become best known as the author of the children’s classic, Gulliver’s Travels. But his general image as a poet, if there is one, is nowadays assembled from a handful of notorious verses that typecast him, out of context, as a ‘dirty’ writer – something the plethora of recent books on the poems has done little to replace with any alternative impression, persisting as they do in casting gloom on already obscure areas.

Professor Rogers’ massive edition must, by its sheer size alone, prove that there is more to Swift than catalogues of noisome underwear. It offers about 280 poems in modernised spelling, including a few attributions that differ from Williams’ standard edition of 1937; there is also an excellent ‘Biographical Dictionary’, plus page after page of enlightening notes at the end. What we are not given, due to present Penguin policy, is any critical Introduction, but a textual one that is an admirable mixture of scholarship and common-sense, explaining the morass of bibliographical difficulties concerning the canon. Only in the ‘Note on Rhythm and Rhyme’ does the apparatus begin to look Tubbean, with its numerical analyses, tables and lists (probably the mesmeric effect of the ‘2,000 working days’ that the editor spent on the project) which just might deter the uninitiated.

The explanatory notes are models of their type, effectively pointing up the allusion, mimicry, punning and proverbs in the poems, which are especially important for realising the complex texture of Swift’s verse. We can see how the poems are often shot through with conversational rhythms (the ‘Market-Hill’ and Horatian verses in particular), or strung with nightmarish metamorphoses (Lord Cutts is turned into a squirting reptile in ‘The Description of a Salamander’); one is impressed with the sensory comprehensiveness of the descriptions, a poetry full of objects and eloquent inventories of things, redolent of early T S Eliot. These are the famous closing Alexandrines from ‘A Description of a City Shower’ with their gurgling mimesis and the suggested literalisation of the catchphrase ‘raining cats and dogs’:

Sweeping from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,

Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.

Interplay of disorder and symmetry is a common feature, especially in Swift’s scathing verse-portraiture, such as the teeming hell-hole of rabid politicos that constitutes the ‘Legion Club’ and those other mechanics of chaos, Marlborough, Godolphin or Wood. This runs through the ‘boudoir’ poems, too, where the gallery of nymphs includes Corinna the bionic whore, crumblingly synthetic Celia, and micturating Chloe – though against this series of disturbing reductions there is set the constellation of Birthday poems to Stella that discover through their witty affection an altogether different set of attitudes in the author while, as always, studiously avoiding concinnity.

The controversy ignited by readings of such poems tends usually to direct itself before long towards a criticism of the Dean’s own personality, which is peculiarly inseparable from his writing. The verses on his own ‘death’ are particularly riddled with cul-de-sacs and conflicting signposts, booby-trapped with satirical punji-sticks, the ironic signals difficult even to detect, let alone decode. This type of enigmatic self-portraiture is a pronounced feature of many of the poems, but as a whole the canon evades definition, for Swift is a fugitive writer, constantly masquerading, impersonating, using the ventriloquism and camouflage of the expert satirist. Fascinated with cultivating the unprofessional-sounding low style, a large proportion of his verse consists of ephemeral trifling for his Irish friends, but his stylistic experiments ranged from the Cowleyan Pindaric to his favourite Hudibrastic octo-syllables, always buoyed up by that ingenuity in rhyme that Byron so admired.

Apart from Joyce and Yeats, Swift’s poetry does not seem substantially to have stimulated many subsequent poets to inspiration. His achievement in relation to his contemporaries is similarly hard to focus, and it seems instructive to read him in the context of a poetic pedigree that embraces the authors of the Poems on Affairs of State, the later Marvell, Cleveland, Jonson, or Skelton rather than to insist on any comparison with Pope, or even Prior. It is tantalising to speculate that Swift may actually have known some of Skelton’s work, since, synchronically considered, they are remarkably similar. It is true that the early eighteenth century probably marked the nadir of Skelton’s undulating reputation epitomised by Pope’s reference in 1737 to ‘beastly Skelton’ following the 1736 reprint of Marshe’s 1568 edition, but there was an earlier London reissue of the celebrated ‘Elynour Rummynge’ in 1718, and it is worth noting that Swift (though by then in Dublin wrote a trifling reply to Sheridan in 1719 which is apparently in Skeltonics, featuring a 15-rhyme ‘leash’ (‘I wish when you prated/Your letter you’d dated’). These ‘bout-rimés’ were a common feature of their quibbling ‘cramboes’ subsequently, and in 1728 we find a 226-line Skeltonic performance by the Dean to his oft-teased friend Lady Acheson that contains the lines:

Or run helter-skelter

To his arbour for shelter,

(‘My Lady’s Lamentation …’)

which looks very much like an oblique punning allusion to the borrowed verse-form, as does the later poem ‘Helter Skelter’, if it is indeed by Swift, which Rogers doubts.

Be that as it may, these poets have several points of non-textual coincidence: both were satirically formidable, religiously orthodox, Scots-hating clerics who, disappointed by ‘exile’ from the influential metropolis, became irreverent scourges of government vices, and who, though separated by two hundred of the most formative years of English letters, produced poems enlivened by the same vernacular energy, proverbial strength and extempore vigour that seemed in each to increase rather than dwindle with age.

The cover of Professor Scattergood’s authoritative edition of these twenty-seven poems by the early Tudor Orator Regius is nicely decorated with a painting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold: it is an apt image, for this event in June 1520 was possibly the last mediaeval gesture of English monarchy, thus heralding (in so far as any one ceremony can) the beginning of ‘modem’ history, while Skelton himself (Henry VIII’s former tutor) is recognisably a key figure in the transition from mediaeval to modern poetry. Though his earlier verses are exercises in embalming the exhausted Chaucerian manner of Lydgate, he subsequently evolved a style that was hew synthesis of previous, disparate modes such as the forms of Goliardic verse, which led in maturity to the shaping of palitid verse satires like ‘Collyn Clout’ that were – in spirit, at least – years ahead of their time.

The typical ‘Skeltonic’ line is uneven, paratactic, trotting, demotic and tending toward sententiae; poems such as ‘Elynour Rummynge’ and ‘Speke Parott’ seem loosely constructed and of arbitrary length, improvisations that last as long as the poet has breath or inclination; rhetorically entertaining: the poems gradually build up a drama of styles that modulates: their own twisting motion, investing them with a verbal adroitness that can amount to a crackling humour. Elynour (modelled on a real person) runs a kind of under-the-counter brewery, a pub-sty which the yokels visit in a spirit of rancid enthusiasm:

Than Margery Mylkeducke

Her kyrtell she dyd uptucke

An ynche above her kne,

Her legges that ye might se;

But they were sturdy and stubbed,

Myghty pestels and clubbed,

As fayre and as whyte

As the fote ofa kyte.

‘Ne tropo sanno, ne tropo mato’, prescribes the canny ‘popagay’ who is the subject of ‘Speke Parott’, for he knows that survival at court – even for a pet bird – depends on an early ability to be diplomatic in articulating opinions: the less explicit a courtier can be, the better. Realising that the truth can be dangerous if spoken unequivocally, the Parrot becomes the archetype of the devious courtier, macaronically scrambling his speeches with a jumble of polyglot references in the interests of self-preservation, until Galatea, his temptress, lures him out of his obscurities and he commits himself for the first time to an outspoken, anaphoral lamentatio that denounces the life of the Court – one that is terminated in an ominously abrupt squawk: ‘Dixit, quod Pawot. ‘

Like Swift, Skelton is often compared in spirit to Rabelais, whom he pre-dates, and there is much of the latter’s imaginative extravagance in evidence when the poetry is considered as a whole. But Skelton enjoyed a decline in reputation from the Renaissance until, curiously, the nineteenth century which suddenly seemed to respond to his special vigour, as did the poets who effectively promoted him more recently, Graves and Auden. By late Elizabethan times, Skelton had become stereotyped into a peculiar kind of coarse buffoon (one thinks of the similarity in Swift’s reputation, with the ‘Jack and the Dean’ legends) and he was imagined as a jester rather than as a figure of any serious literary standing. Another reason for this was the persistently misconceived etymology of the word ‘sarire’, which was for too long thought to stem fkom the mythological beast the ‘satyr’, thus confining the animus of ‘satire’ to a low viciousness or snarling vituperatio, whereas the true Latin derivation of the term (satura, meaning a ‘mishmash’ or ‘salad’) is altogether more descriptive

Skclton’s ‘flytyng’ poems against Garnesche – being the verbal equivalents of the duel – might perhaps conform to the false definition, but his later, anti-Wolsey pieces are identifiably in the more artistic tradition of the latter. By writing deliberately in an un-beautiful, impolite way, and by his inescapable pre-Neoclassical ignorance of decorum, Skelton was unlikely to endear his stylistic procedure to many of the so-called ‘Augustan’ poets; but his work, however rough in technique for the most part, really represents the dawn of committed satire in verse in modern English, Chaucer, for all his brilliance, notwithstanding. Once read with any care, there is something about the poetry of John Skelton that is unforgettable. Perhaps it is that unmistakable sense of a lively personality behind the verses that makes him, however obscure at times, a poet who is always exciting to read. Robert Graves expressed it in this way, in 1919:

Helter-skelter John

Rhymes serenely on,

As English poets should

Old John, you do me good!

This last phrase – as pretty a compliment as any writer could wish for – offers an interesting touchstone by which to prove some of our more famous writers.

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