My Darling, My Daisy

1529MartinLutherHolbein's Henry VIIIJohn_Skelton

November 2017 marks the five hundredth anniversary of the event that kicked off the Reformation (I know, it seems like just yesterday), Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. England’s Reformation didn’t get started until a decade and a half later, but nevertheless, I’d like to mark the anniversary by looking at a poem that very tangentially touches on the Reformation in England.

The English Reformation began by fits and starts – Henry VIII, no fan of Luther, broke from the Catholic Church to enable his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, but he always maintained he was an orthodox Catholic, and spent much of the rest of his reign alternately resisting and rowing back, then sometimes allowing the protestant reforms of some of his councillors. What made the reversal of his policy most difficult was the great dissolution of the abbeys, masterminded by Thomas Cromwell, which had transferred the property and the wealth of the religious houses to the crown, who sold  them on to laymen to ease the financial crises of his reign. Having laid hands on such wealth, even the most Catholic of nobles quailed at the thought of a full restoration. The Reformation in England began in an atmosphere of court intrigue and officially sanctioned plunder, not with the sincere theological angst of Luther, Zwingli or Calvin. Thomas Cromwell may have been a sincere protestant, but his actions were inspired as much by greed, spite and ambition as by religious scruples. And the king, while he could convince himself he was acting in accord with his religious conscience, was in truth guided by material and bodily concerns. The course of the English Reformation would be moulded by the wayward character of the Tudor king.

This is what makes John Skelton, surprisingly, a significant figure in the English Reformation. Himself of course, he was no kind of protestant, but an orthodox Catholic priest. He is the first in a long line of English (or Anglo-Irish) ministers who dabbled in secular matters and wrote very good poetry – John Donne, Robert Herrick and Jonathan Swift come to mind also – and whose poetry contained as much, or sometimes a lot more, of the profane than the sacred. Skelton’s poetry was profane in both senses of the word: first, it concerned worldly matters, like the intrigues of court in his Wolsey-baiting ‘Why come ye not to court?’, or the wildlife in his long poem ‘Philip Sparrow’. (As a part-time birdwatcher, I should really get around to covering the latter poem one day, with it containing a veritable litany of English birds, many of them getting their first mention in English letters.) His poetry was also profane in its manners and often quite coarse, as with the poem that I have chosen for this post.

In fact, Skelton was one of the first great poets of the 16th century, or one of the last of the 15th. His very coarseness stopped him, for a very long time, from being considered quite respectable. The influential sixteenth century critic George Puttenham dismissed him as a ‘rude rhymer’ catering to common tastes, and this judgement seemed to stick.  Not a single poem of his is included in that repository of (mostly very good) Victorian taste, Palgrave’s Treasury, and he wasn’t really appreciated as an important poet until the twentieth century. But even his greatest admirer could not deny a certain crudeness and cynicism in the poet’s outlook.

Back when Henry VIII was plain old Prince Henry, second in line to the English throne, John Skelton, whose wit and learning had brought him great renown, was chosen as his tutor. In his biography of the king, England’s Nero, John Matusiak writes of the peculiar life of the young prince among yay-saying sycophants and courtiers, and the deleterious effect on his character and his understanding of others. As his tutor, Skelton was one of the few people (aside from the distant father, Henry VII) who could and did speak his mind to the king. Unfortunately, reports Matusiak, that mind was not the positive influence it could have been; although prodigiously learned and fond of preaching humanist virtue, Skelton was petty and vindictive in his personal life, with a liking for scurrilous rumour, and especially fond of showing up well to do women as whores. As for his poetry, Matusiak tells us, ‘Even the prettiest of his lyrics, My Darling My Daisy, which would have been sung at court before Henry, is a tale of betrayal by a girl with two lovers.’

Well, let us look at the offending poem:

 

With lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

‘My darling dear, my daisy flower

Let me,’ quod he, ‘lie in your lap.’

‘Lie still,’ quod she, ‘my paramour,

Lie still hardely, and take a nap.’                            (hardely = soundly)

His head was heavy, such was his hap,

All drowsy dreaming, drowned in sleep,

That of his love he took no keep,

With hey lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

With ‘Ba, ba, ba’ and bas, bas, bas’                                    (singing and kissing noises)

She cherished him both cheek and chin,

That he wist never where he was:                          (wist = knew)

He had forgotten all deadly sin.

He wanted with her love to win:

He trusted her payment and lost all his prey;      (prey = loot, booty)

She left him sleeping and stale away.                    (stale away = stole away)

With hey lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

The rivers rough, the waters wan,

She spared not to wet her feet;

She waded over, she found a man

That halsed her heartily and kissed her sweet.     (halsed – hugged)

Thus after her cold she caught a heat.

‘My lefe,’ she said, ‘routeth in his bed;                  (routeth – snores)

Ywis he hath an heavy head,

With hey lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

What dreamiest thou, drunkard, drowsy pate?

Thy lust and liking is from thee gone;

Thou blinkard blowbowl, thou wakest too late,   (blowbowl –drunkard)

Behold thou liest, luggard, alone!

Well may thou sigh, well may thou groan,

To deal with her so cowardly:                            

Ywis, pole hatchet, she bleared thine eye.

(bleared thine eye – deceived you) (pole hatchet – pole axe wielding soldier)

*This version and most language notes from The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, Ed Emyrys Jones, OUP, Oxford, 1991

Puttenham might have called Skelton a rude rhymer, but actually he is a damn good rhymer – not one of the rhymes in the poem sounds stretched. He has a good line in alliteration too; indeed, occasionally he uses the full alliterative line of the old English tradition that survived into Middle English, best known in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – i.e. three alliterative stressed syllables, and one not alliterative. As well as having a jaunty rhythm, the poem is very vivid – Skelton is a great story-teller. The images of the poem somehow stick in the head: the sleepy man with his head in the unfaithful woman’s lap as she coos him to sleep, and then her wetting her feet as she crosses a stream to meet her other lover – I’m sure a Freudian could explain that. Most of all, the poem is funny, even if it is not a particularly edifying kind of humour…

However he may have failed at moulding Henry’s character, I have a suspicion Skelton was a greatly entertaining teacher. If we imagine that other famous pupil of a famous teacher, Alexander of Macedon staring out at the wide world outside his window, as Aristotle explained the finer points of the ancients, we imagine Henry listening with glee as someone actually breaks protocol and gives him an insight into the rotten soul of man… and, in the case of this poem, the faithless heart of woman.

We frown on this sort of thing these days and call it misogyny. And yes, Skelton in his personal life did seem to have more than the usual measure of late medieval scorn towards and contempt for women. But in this poem, he is talking about one particular woman, not womankind in general; one can take the poem as a warning to men to watch their women carefully, but the real driving force of the poem is not moral education, but shock and titillation. But I guess you could also say that it is his persistent focus on the failings of the weaker sex that betrays Skelton’s misogyny, and it is this, Matusiak thinks, that may have unduly influenced the King’s view of women:

Later, as a lovelorn youth, the prince would read romantic literature full of gallant indulgence to erring damsels and this too would leave a lasting influence. But when his ardour cooled, it was Skelton’s voice, perhaps more than any other’s, that would echo in his thoughts. (p25)

Those familiar with Henry’s torrid love life will think of Anne Boleyn, and how easily Henry believed the scurrilous rumours of her infidelity that were most likely the invention of her erstwhile ally Thomas Cromwell. And yet years later he would marry Katherine Howard, who, historians think, really does seem to have committed adultery as freely and shamelessly Skelton’s woman. Any good Catholic would tell you that none of that would have happened if Henry had stuck faithfully by his first, lawfully wedded wife. But there’s a little dark irony in the fact that Henry’s attitude to women, and thus his actions towards the church, may well have been influenced by a faithful, if suspicious, Catholic clergyman.

* Quotation from Henry VIII: The Life and Rule of England’s Nero, John Matusiak, The History Press, Gloucester, 2013

Pictures show Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Martin Luther, Holbein’s terrifying Henry VIII, and an unattributed sketch of John Skelton. All from Wikipedia.

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