Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. A Day Late and a Doggerel Short: Rap and Henry VIII’s Tutor

 

I have spoken before of the fact that some “modern” developments in poetry are nothing new. For instance, rap battles are just an example of a much older practice known as “flyting” or “the dozens” or by any number of other names. Well, brothers and sisters, I am here to tell you that nothing about rap is new. As is said in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

There is a relatively recent movie called Quartet about an elderly group of opera singers. One of the elderly gentlemen teaches a class about opera to kids. To get the kids interested and excited in opera, he first does research on what kids these days are listening to. In his lesson, he compares opera to rap and tells the youngsters that in rap, you bust a cap in a dude and shake out some rhymes, but in opera, you stick a knife in his back and sing an aria about it.

(Part of the rap bit is at about 1:34 in the trailer)

He goes out of his way to present his own generation’s art in a way that people a couple of generations younger can appreciate.

Denigrating the previous generation’s art forms is nothing new. We have certainly seen it in painting and the other visual arts since the invention of photography in the mid-Nineteenth Century. We can trace it even further back in the visual arts, although it was generally more subtle than the more modern swings. The same can be said of the literary arts, especially poetry. Poetry has been going through generational mood swings for more than five hundred years.

A Brief History of Time English Poetry

Poetry is integral to language. There are no languages without poetry. The poetry tends to fit the language. They grow together, and it shows. In the traditional styles of poetry that grew up with the Germanic languages, rhyme was sparse and unimportant. Rhythm was the thing. The languages had a beat to them, and the poetry was accentual. Alliteration was also important, partially to highlight the beat. But English stopped being a strictly Germanic language when great-grandpa Willie moved in with his posse from Normandy.

Now, Middle French, Norman French, and related languages had a very different prosody. They had descended from Latin and had a tradition of quantitative verse and rhyme. As they had gotten further and further from Classical Latin, one aspect changed. They no longer had a true quantitative language. In Classical Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and other such languages closer to the root tongue of Proto-Indo-European, there were literally long and short syllables. A long vowel was held about twice as long a short vowel. But this was lost by Middle French. Nor was it an accentual language with hard and soft syllables, like the Germanic languages, including Anglo-Saxon. The Germanic languages were like the staccato of a machine gun. Ack-ack-ack-ack! The Classical languages were like Morse Code with long and short pulses. But the new Romance languages were more like a firehose. All those syllables just stacked up together and coming out in a continuous flow. This brought about what was known as syllabic measure. They no longer counted long and short because they were all short, just how many were there?

Thus when Grandpa Willie sailed over the Channel, he brought his Norman French rhymed and syllabic prosody to meet the native Anglo-Saxon alliterative accentual prosody. Fast forward about four hundred years to give Middle English enough time to develop from Norman men-at-arms attempting to get dates with Saxon barmaids, and the two languages had melded into something new. A new language needs new prosody. Sure, it had inherited both traditions, but Middle English was neither of its parents.

Along Came Jones Geoff

While there had been some natural accommodations springing up to deal with the poetry of this new language, one man, one intelligent man, one intelligent man with far too much time on his hands decided to codify and formalize poetry in this new language he was speaking. He combined the accentual and syllabic and he created a new metrical form: accentual-syllabic. One would count both the accented and unaccented syllables. One would form them into patterns just as the Classical poets had done with their long and short syllables. There was a new way of measuring, but we could once more have prosody calling out dactylic hexameter and amphibrachic tetrameter and similar technical terms that all the cool kids were learning in their Latin and Greek educations. This Doctor Frankenstein of English Prosody was named Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400).

But there was a problem with formalism. It was easy to become too formal. It was hard to make the poetry sound natural. Many writers composed stilted and unnatural poetry with inversions syntactical, er, I mean, syntactical inversions, just so they could get the right accentual-syllabic pattern and rhymes as required in Chaucer’s Frankenstein Prosody.

The kids of the day noticed. They rolled their eyes and said, “That’s not poetry, it’s just doggerel, low-quality verse.”

So, what did they do? They found a champion to push back and lead them with their torches and pitchforks against Chaucer’s stilted monster. Who was this hero?

Along Came Jones John

John Skelton (c. 1463-1529) was a man of letters, famous poet, and tutor to King Henry VIII when he was merely Prince Henry. He was also the first famous English-language rapper¹. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the evidence:

To Mistress Margaret Hussey

MERRY Margaret
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as 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,
Coliander,
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.

The first thing we see is that John Skelton was not constrained to one line length and pattern. His lines in this poem vary from four to six syllables. The rhythmic pattern varies as well. He does seem to have a four-line chorus or burden that he carries forward from the beginning to the middle and end.

Then we look at the rhymes. The burden is a quatrain with the second and fourth lines rhymed. But between these instances, we find a pattern of eleven lines adjacently rhymed as 3, 3, 3, 2. It is a pattern, but not necessarily as complex as one might expect in a Sicilian sonnet, for instance.

Thirdly, the lines are short. An average poetic line in our Western European languages might be eight to twelve syllables. The standard Italian line was the endecasillabo (eleven syllables). The standard French line was the Alexandrine (twelve syllables). What would later become the English Heroic line is iambic pentameter, which is ten syllables long. Much of English music was based on the fourteener, a fourteen-syllable line with a cæsura that produced the effect or an eight-syllable line followed by a six-syllable line and developed into what became known as common measure and the hymnal stanza, depending on rhymes at only the end of the two fourteeners or also at the cæsuras. Thus, Skelton’s lines, four to six syllables, are quite a bit shorter than normal.

Short lines with adjacent rhymes give poetry a different feel from longer lines and separated rhymes. It is almost as if the words tumble out, and thus one name for Skelton’s style was Tumbling Verse. Another name was Skeltonics. But feel it as you recite it out loud. It’s rap. It’s as simple as that. There ain’t no denyin’, Johnny’ll leave you cryin’ as he lays down his rhymes like a tree full of limes.

Shall we look at part of another poem by MC Skelton?

The Tunning Of Elenor Rumming (Excerpt)

Tell you I chyll,
If that ye wyll
A whyle be styll,
Of a comely gyll
That dwelt on a hyll:
But she is not gryll,
For she is somwhat sage
And well worne in age;
For her vysage
It would aswage
A mannes courage.

Her lothely lere
Is nothynge clere,
But ugly of chere,
Droupy and drowsy,
Scurvy and lowsy;
Her face all bowsy,
Comely crynkled,
Woundersly wrynkled,
Lyke a rost pygges eare,
Brystled wyth here.

Her lewde lyppes twayne,
They slaver, men sayne,
Lyke a ropy rayne,
A gummy glayre:
She is ugly fayre;
Her nose somdele hoked,
And camously croked,
Never stoppynge,
But ever droppynge;
Her skynne lose and slacke,
Grained lyke a sacke;
With a croked backe.

Her eyen gowndy
Are full unsowndy,
For they are blered;
And she gray hered;
Jawed lyke a jetty;
A man would have pytty
To se how she is gumbed,
Fyngered and thumbed,
Gently joynted,
Gresed and annoynted
Up to the knockles;
The bones of her huckels
Lyke as they were with buckels
Togyther made fast:
Her youth is farre past:
Foted lyke a plane,
Legged lyke a crane;
And yet she wyll jet,
Lyke a jollyvet,
In her furred flocket,
And gray russet rocket,
With symper the cocket.
Her huke of Lyncole grene,
It had ben hers, I wene,
More then fourty yere;
And so doth it apere,
For the grene bare thredes
Loke lyke sere wedes,
Wyddered lyke hay,
The woll worne away;
And yet I dare saye
She thynketh herselfe gaye
Upon the holy daye,
Whan she doth her aray,
And gyrdeth in her gytes
Stytched and pranked with pletes;
Her kyrtel Brystow red,
With clothes upon her hed
That wey a sowe of led,
Wrythen in wonder wyse,
After the Sarasyns gyse
With a whym wham,
Knyt with a trym tram,
Upon her brayne pan,
Lyke an Egyptian,
Capped about:
When she goeth out
Herselfe for to shewe,
She dryveth downe the dewe
Wyth a payre of heles
As brode as two wheles;
She hobles as a gose
With her blanket hose
Over the falowe;
Her shone smered wyth talowe,
Gresed upon dyrt
That baudeth her skyrt.

Once one gets to the “baudeth” one knows one is in the rap genre and getting down and dirty. So, we’ll just leave the rest of the poem out, shall we? Besides, it is enough to again give the feel of his verse. Definitely the first English Court Rapper.

Along Came Jones Henry

Of course, the next generation to come along considered Skelton’s verse to be a bunch of untutored doggerel, since that’s what the next generation always does. Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard (c. 1516-1547) went back to more formal verse. They translated Petrarchan sonnets and brought the sonnet form to the English language. Howard was the younger man, but was in some ways more innovative. He recognized a difference between English and the romance languages where the sonnet was born. English is relatively rhyme poor. That isn’t to say that one can’t rhyme in English, but it is easier to rhyme and keep rhyming in Italian or Sicilian. The Petrarchan sonnet’s fourteen lines had either four or five different rhymes, as such: abbaabba cdecde or abbaabba cdcdcd. Look at this:

Lieti fiori e felici, e ben nate erbe,
Che Madonna, pensando, premer sole;
Piaggia ch’ascolti sue dolci parole,
E del bel piede alcun vestigio serbe;
Schietti arboscelli, e verdi frondi acerbe;
Amorosette e pallide viole;
Ombrose selve, ove percote il Sole,
Che vi fa co’ suoi raggi alte e superbe;
O soave contrada, o puro fiume,
Che bagni ’l suo bel viso e gli occhi chiari,
E prendi qualità dal vivo lume;
Quanto v’invidio gli atti onesti e cari!
Non fia in voi scoglio omai che per costume
D’arder con la mia fiamma non impari.

Erbe, serbe, acerbe, superbe? Chiari, cari, impari? It’s easy in Italian. Not so easy in English. Thus Henry Howard came up with a new rhyme scheme and way of looking at the sonnet form for English writers. He presented it as three quatrains and a couplet: abab cdcd efef gg. One of the things he did was made the rhyme in separated lines, rather than the primarily adjacent lines seen in the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet. Secondly, he made it so there would be fewer of each rhyme. Instead of three or four of each rhyme in a set, there would only be two in a set.

Howard also worked in iambic pentameter, both for the sonnet and for blank verse. Blank verse is unrhymed, but metered verse. We most often associate the term with unrhymed iambic pentameter due to Howard and at a few removes, a fellow named Shakespeare. In other words, Howard identified the weakness of the prosody of Chaucer’s time. While he went back to a more formal prosody than Skelton, he recognized English as rhyme-poor and adjusted his poetic forms accordingly.

Howard was married to Frances de Vere, whose brother was John de Vere, the Sixteenth Earl of Oxford. His son, Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, rumored to be a poet and playwright, was a courtier to Queen Elizabeth I. According to the official histories, he was a sometime patron of an actor and playwright named William Shakespeare, although according to some conspiracy theories, de Vere was the author of Shakespeare’s works. Either way, his uncle by marriage was the guy who formulated what would become known as the Shakespearean sonnet, the Elizabethan sonnet, or simply the English sonnet, as well as championing the blank verse found often in the works of Shakespeare.

Henry Howard, by the way, known by courtesy under his father’s subsidiary title of Earl of Surrey, was the last person executed on the orders of Henry VIII.

And after that, English poetry died and ended the story.

Wait, no, that’s not true. After that, succeeding generations contended and struggled between extremes of formalism and looseness in their verse, and that continues right up to this day with the rappers who have revived the Tumbling Verse of John Skelton from five hundred years ago.


1. I say the first famous one, since there may have been others before him who just didn’t have the swagger and cachet to bring it off at court. What was happening on fifteenth-century street corners as far as the people’s music and poetry is not well documented. Who cared about those people? Everyone who mattered was at court, don’t you know. Sort of like being part of the Acela Corridor today. Flyover country? Who cares what happens there? It doesn’t matter until it gets to where CNN can notice it.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    From rap to opera? I prefer opera, but not by much.

    • #1
    • July 12, 2020, at 8:43 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Percival (View Comment):

    From rap to opera? I prefer opera, but not by much.

    Eh, I saw the film cause the wife wanted to. What can I say?

    • #2
    • July 12, 2020, at 8:49 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Operas are better when nobody is singing. Siegfried’s Funeral March is excellent.

    Rap is incapable of being improved, unless you can turn the volume down further.

    • #3
    • July 12, 2020, at 9:08 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Percival (View Comment):

    Operas are better when nobody is singing. Siegfried’s Funeral March is excellent.

    Rap is incapable of being improved, unless you can turn the volume down further.

    • #4
    • July 12, 2020, at 9:10 PM PDT
    • Like
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Not all opera is bad. That is, automatically bad.

    • #5
    • July 12, 2020, at 9:17 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  6. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Lay down your own beat or share a bit of verse you like or dislike as part of our July Group Writing theme: “The Doggerel Days of Summer.”

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #6
    • July 12, 2020, at 9:19 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Percival (View Comment):

    Not all opera is bad. That is, automatically bad.

    • #7
    • July 12, 2020, at 9:25 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. KentForrester Moderator

    Arahant, I gave you a Like for your sheer chutzpah of posting a brief history of British prosody. You’re really a teacher at heart. That’s why you’re so helpful. 

     

    • #8
    • July 12, 2020, at 9:51 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Arahant, I gave you a Like for your sheer chutzpah of posting a brief history of British prosody. You’re really a teacher at heart. That’s why you’re so helpful.

    Shhh! Don’t go telling my secrets.

    • #9
    • July 12, 2020, at 10:07 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    Percival (View Comment):

    From rap to opera? I prefer opera, but not by much.

    When two of my friends came to visit me in England, I insisted that we go to an opera at the Royal Opera House as an essential stopping point for any cultured tourist. To their surprise (especially the one I dragged to Giulio Cesare at the Boston Baroque junior year), they really enjoyed Boris Godunov, mostly for the comic relief monks. (Don’t feel too bad for them, I took them via the Overground to Beigel Bake after, so they were richly compensated). 

    • #10
    • July 13, 2020, at 11:16 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    I’m not a big rap fan, but I do actually have some rap battles on my warm-up playlist for runs and training. Come to think of it, I probably have more opera there, especially for when I take long runs (5 or more miles).

    Bibi vs. Gantz 

    Keynes vs. Hayek

    ERB: Che vs. Guy Fawkes & Churchill vs. Roosevelt (There is swearing in these)

    Leaders of WWI (Swearing)

    Marxs vs. Mises

    Hamilton vs. Satoshi (Currency) 

    • #11
    • July 13, 2020, at 11:26 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Here’s an interesting one by Skelton:

    Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale

    • #12
    • July 13, 2020, at 1:04 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Here’s an interesting one by Skelton:

    Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale

    Indeed. It is much more formal than the Skeltonics, though.

    • #13
    • July 13, 2020, at 1:58 PM PDT
    • Like
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    Che vs. Guy Fawkes

    That is great. I hadn’t known about this one.

    “Is it the Fifth of November? Because I’m on fire!”

    • #14
    • July 13, 2020, at 2:06 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    Che vs. Guy Fawkes

    That is great. I hadn’t known about this one.

    “Is it the Fifth of November? Because I’m on fire!”

    I really enjoy how much thought goes into the lyrics for their videos, and that was I think the best one yet. I also appreciate that they put them on a level playing field, and didn’t give Che all or most of the good lines. Guy Fawkes Day as a Catholic living in England is always interesting, especially because my birthday is the day before (so it falls on Election Day every few years too). The Hebrew one is fun too; Israeli election songs, and political music in general, is great. Following along is a good way for me to work on my speed and accuracy of speech, and learn colloquialisms, or at least that’s my excuse.

    • #15
    • July 13, 2020, at 3:01 PM PDT
    • 1 like
    • This comment has been edited.
  16. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    Did you enjoy Quartet? I made my dad see it with me when it first came out (he fell asleep), but I enjoyed it. This post actually made me rewatch it on Netflix (via VPN), and I still think it’s a solid film, although I’m a sucker for movies about elderly friends and ex-lovers.

    • #16
    • July 13, 2020, at 4:33 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  17. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get past Skelton being a Tudor tutor. Beside, I can’t stand either rap or opera, so you lost me early on this one.

    • #17
    • July 13, 2020, at 4:37 PM PDT
    • Like
    • This comment has been edited.
  18. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Did you enjoy Quartet? I made my dad see it with me when it first came out (he fell asleep), but I enjoyed it. This post actually made me rewatch it on Netflix (via VPN), and I still think it’s a solid film, although I’m a sucker for movies about elderly friends and ex-lovers.

    For some reason, I liked the Billy Connolly character best. 😜

    • #18
    • July 13, 2020, at 4:47 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):
    I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get past Skelton being a Tudor tutor.

    Well, I suppose, if you’re going to wander off into other places over something, that could do it. Of course “Tudor” had only been a surname for a few generations. Had they just kept to the old forms, Henry VIII would have been Henry ap Henry.

    • #19
    • July 13, 2020, at 4:49 PM PDT
    • Like
  20. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Did you enjoy Quartet? I made my dad see it with me when it first came out (he fell asleep), but I enjoyed it. This post actually made me rewatch it on Netflix (via VPN), and I still think it’s a solid film, although I’m a sucker for movies about elderly friends and ex-lovers.

    For some reason, I liked the Billy Connolly character best. 😜

    Ah, I’m half-way through now. He reminds me painfully of a Northern Irish Oxford alum I went canvasing with last year, all suavity and innuendo. Maybe my very English high school French teacher was right about the natural charm of Celts, Billy certainly pulls it off. 

    • #20
    • July 13, 2020, at 4:52 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    Maybe my very English high school French teacher was right about the natural charm of Celts, Billy certainly pulls it off.

    I’m an Anglo-Saxon, with all the suavity of a war-hammer to the head.

    • #21
    • July 13, 2020, at 4:56 PM PDT
    • Like
  22. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Did you enjoy Quartet? I made my dad see it with me when it first came out (he fell asleep), but I enjoyed it. This post actually made me rewatch it on Netflix (via VPN), and I still think it’s a solid film, although I’m a sucker for movies about elderly friends and ex-lovers.

    For some reason, I liked the Billy Connolly character best. 😜

    Ah, I’m half-way through now. He reminds me painfully of a Northern Irish Oxford alum I went canvasing with last year, all suavity and innuendo. Maybe my very English high school French teacher was right about the natural charm of Celts, Billy certainly pulls it off.

    Billy’s character reminds me so much of Owen from Vicar of Dibley, though Owen didn’t have the stroke as an excuse for lack of a filter. To be fair, I’m quite fond of Maggie Smith’s Jean as well; wouldn’t mind turning out like her as an old lady, though perhaps with a touch less vanity.

    • #22
    • July 13, 2020, at 4:57 PM PDT
    • 1 like
    • This comment has been edited.
  23. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Quartet is about vocalists? Hard pass.

    Now a string quartet. Those are funny.

    What is the definition of a string quartet?

    A good violinist, a not-so-good violinist, someone who wishes he was a violinist, and someone who damns all violinists get together and whine about composers.

    • #23
    • July 13, 2020, at 5:05 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    Percival (View Comment):

    Quartet is about vocalists? Hard pass.

    Now a string quartet. Those are funny.

    What is the definition of a string quartet?

    A good violinist, a not-so-good violinist, someone who wishes he was a violinist, and someone who damns all violinists get together and whine about composers.

    There’s actually quite a good movie about a string quartet with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christoper Walker, called A Late Quartet. I love the joke, and identify with it, as a harpist. I stick mostly with Baroque and modified jazz piano music, because the vast majority of modern composers just use the harp to do little glissades or play a few chords, whereas in the 18th and 19th century we had whole, clever compositions made around us. Heathens. 

    • #24
    • July 13, 2020, at 5:14 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  25. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I wanted to see A Late Quartet, but never made it to the theater.

    • #25
    • July 13, 2020, at 5:35 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  26. Samuel Block Support

    If we’re short on entries this month, we could revisit our rap battle from way back when. All you gotta do is dis me, ‘hant! 

    • #26
    • July 19, 2020, at 8:35 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  27. Arahant Member
    Arahant

    Samuel Block (View Comment):

    If we’re short on entries this month, we could revisit our rap battle from way back when. All you gotta do is dis me, ‘hant!

    I’ll check with Clifford and see how the schedule is doing.

    • #27
    • July 19, 2020, at 10:17 PM PDT
    • 1 like