Poem of the week: To Mistress Margaret Hussey by John Skelton

<span>Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy</span>
Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy

To Mistress Margaret Hussey

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,
Coriander,
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.

John Skelton (c.1495-1529) became a tutor to the future King Henry VIII and, after taking holy orders, he was the rector of Diss, Norfolk, until his death. He stands among the most engaging and original of the Early Modern poets.

The collection of dialogues and lyrics where the tribute to Margaret Hussey first appeared was described by its author as “a right delectable treatise upon a goodly Garland or Chaplet of Laurel, devised by Master Skelton, Poet Laureate”. The Garland of Laurel, as it’s more succinctly known, is a “dream vision” (see the Poetry Foundation’s excellent essay) in which, writing in his mid-30s, Skelton is aided by various allegorical figures such as Occupation and Fame, in a midlife reassessment. “Poeta Skelton” gives a sufficiently good account of himself to be awarded an impressive laurel-wreath, worked in silver, gold and pearls by the Countess of Surrey and her court ladies. The Garland concludes with a poem dedicated to each of the ladies in order of rank.

Skelton’s frequent practice of dimeter and trimeter lines assembled in stretches of monorhyme bequeathed us with the term Skeltonics. Although he was far more metrically versatile than the designation suggests, and The Garland of Laurel itself displays his mastery of various metre and verse structures, the “Skeltonic” style brightly captures the mood of the poet in his triumph and the spirit of “Merry Margaret” herself. She is often characterised through simile: the midsummer flower, the series of fragrant herbs in the last stanza. The most interesting comparison, at first sight, is with the falcon and the “hawk of the tower”. Is Skelton suggesting she might be a predator, or at least someone who can deliver a sharp verbal rebuke from a lofty height? It’s probably unlikely: the Garland wasn’t an appropriate occasion for Skelton the satirist to mock at courtly behaviour. The birds of prey owned by the nobility conformed to civilised rules, after all, and, at least in their relations with their owners, were docile. Margaret Hussey is clearly not a threat, not a woman of extremes. Perhaps, though, there’s a suggestion that she has been tamed?

Despite her readiness for mirth, Hussey is “As patient and still / And as full of good will / As fair Isaphill”, a probable reference to Hypsipyle, a heroic and long-suffering mythical Queen of Lemnos. In the pleasantly scented bunching of “Corander, / Sweet pomander / Good Cassander” that follows, “Good Cassander” combines the virtues of the Trojan priestess with those of the cinnamon-like spice, Cassia. The title “Mistress” denotes that Hussey was a married woman, although, according to the poem, she was also “maidenly”. Such an abundant list of virtues seems to stretch the bounds of likelihood, yet Skelton’s genial buoyancy somehow keeps all the discordant possibilities in play. We suspend our disbelief, and take his word for it that Margaret Hussey fully deserved her eulogy.