John Skelton “With lullay, lullay, like a child” and “The Tunning of Elinour Rumming”

The two poems I’ve read here are quite different. The first one has a song structure, similarly to “Mannerly Margery”, with a refrain echoing throughout all the stanzas. But this is not a sweet children’s lullaby – already the second line has rather menacing undertones: “thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled”. The lover goes to sleep with his head in his mistress’ lap. She covers him with kisses but when he falls asleep, she leaves him. She crosses a rough river, not minding getting her feet wet, for an assignation with another man. The jilted lover gets no sympathy from the author, who calls him a drunkard and “drowsy pate”, who is now groaning alone. When I was reading this poem, I though about Samson and Delilah, so perhaps we could say he still got off lightly.

The excerpt from “The Tunning of Elinour Rumming” shows a completely different side of Skelton and perhaps the one that he is most famous for. It uses very short lines, without any particular rhythm or rhyme pattern. The lines are 4 to 7 syllables long and as for rhymes, Skelton, like contemporary hip-hop artists, seems to be using a rhyme until he runs out of rhyming words. This kind of helter-skelter verse came to be known as “skeltonics”.

The breathless short lines are in keeping with the theme of the poem, which is about low life. The title heroine was apparently a real life inn-keeper in Surrey. Did she overcharge Skelton and he took his revenge, one wonders? Although on the other hand, it could be argued that thanks to Skelton Elinour became immortal. At the beginning of the poem Elinour is driving away customers with no money as well as swine and even a boar (?) who have invaded her pub. Then Skelton gives his readers an insight into Elinour’s brewing methods. Her hens roost on the perches directly above the ale-pot and they defecate directly into the pot. Elinour sometimes tries to skim the dung “with her mangy fists” but sometimes she can’t be bothered and she swears that ale is better and froths more quickly with this additive. She learnt this brewing secret from a jew and her ale also has medicinal properties – it makes one look younger, as can be witnessed by her own good looks and the unfailing love of her husband. Here we are treated to a long digression about all the pet names her husband calls her until Skelton seems to remember suddenly the subject of his poem and writes “But we will turn plain where we left again”. All this is lively and irreverent in the manner Devils and Vices were irreverent in the medieval drama – or irreverent in the manner of Rabelais.

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