John Skelton’s “To Mistress Margaret Hussey”

AG: So how does this sound in Skelton [“To Mistress Margaret Hussey“] – “Merry Margaret/ As Midsummer flower/Gentle as a falcon..” (well, that’s (page) seventy-six, back to (page) seventy-six). This is his classic poem. This is like the warhorse that is in every anthology, “Merry Margaret..” – on page seventy-six – “To Mistress Margaret Hussey” – [Allen reads the poem in its entirety]

Merry Margaret,
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as a falcon
Or hawk of the tower:
With solace and gladness,
Much mirth and no madness,
All good and no badness;
So joyously,
So maidenly,
So womanly
Her demeaning
In every thing,
Far, far passing
That I can indite,
Or suffice to write
Of Merry Margaret
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower.
As patient and still
And as full of good will
As fair Isaphill,
Sweet pomander,
Good Cassander,
Steadfast of thought,
Well made, well wrought,
Far may be sought
Ere that ye can find
So courteous, so kind
As Merry Margaret,
This midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower.

That’s really pretty, that’s like a really nice piece of music and rhymes and rhythmics. So I guess what it is, it’s like doggerel, almost (you know doggerel?) . That is to say, doggeral is.. the bad poetr(y) (“Doggerel” is a word for bad poetry, which is the kind that you just sort of make up all on the spot, over a bottle of beer, saying, like that, and “I’m gonna get you, or bet you”, or, if it’s extended out to, like, bad poetry, like Robert Service (supposedly bad poetry), Robert Service, or Barrack-Room Ballads, where the rhymes are obvious, where it’s more or less stereotyped, or where there’s a funny kind of home-made effect – the funny home-made effect here, now this is a little bit like doggerel, when it gets to “Far, far passing/That I can indite/Or suffice to write”, I mean, just repeating himself there – “I can indite/Or suffice to write” – “indite” means “write down”, anyway. So he’s just saying “I can write or I can write” – “Or suffice to write” – ” That I can indite/Or suffice to write” – (How do you pronounce “suffice”? – ” surfice” or “suffice”? – Who knows? – Is it “surfice” or “suffice”? – Suffice.

AG So how many here have read Skelton ever before (raise your hand)?
Student: Red Skelton !!
AG: Well, I didn’t say you.. many here had read Skelton? – Tell me – one-two-three.. raise your hands higher. I can’t count them if you…
Student: I read him and forgot.
AG: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, say, out of… so under half. Under half of this class has read Skelton. But Skelton is so great that they have a whole form of poetry named after him – Skeltonics. So he’s obviously a big stepping-stone in English poetry. He must’ve invented it himself. I bet he got it out of vernacular, you know, rhyming, rhyming games, you know village rhyming games and people drunk at a tavern. I haven’t read a great deal of his work so I really don’t know much about him. Yeah?
Student: I just have a question. Line three and four, it says she’s as “gentle as a falcon” or a hawk. Are falcons and hawks gentle?
AG: Well, we’ve got a footnote – “A hawk trained to fly…”
Student: Trained hawk, then.
Anne Waldman: Also, there’s a footnote in here that says a “gentle falcon” is a young falcon, is a kind of falcon.
AG: Uh-huh. A hawk of the tower is one, you know, who’s obviously the pet hawk. Of course that’s what the whole point is – Mistress Margaret is.. pretty far-out, but with her, she’s gentle – with him, with him, she’s…
Anne Waldman (reading) : “..of excellent breed or spirit, here also an epithet defining the species falcon-gentle, the female and young of the.. goshawk”?
Student: Goshawk
AG: Goshawk.What’s a goshawk? Anybody know?
Student: It’s a kind of hawk
AG: A kind of falcon… baby falcon maybe? small falcon…

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately fifty-three-and-three quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately fifty-eight minutes in]

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