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Complaint of a Prisoner Against Fortune: Introduction

Following on from the writings of three named poets, the reader might feel a bit at sea in confronting a poem about whose author we know nothing - or do we? The speaker claims to be in prison as he writes, a man whose good name has been sullied (lines 64-70). In spite of the many friends he once had (lines 71-79), he is now entirely without friends; all have abandoned him (line 85). All this sounds much like George Ashby's complaints, and they may well be literally true, but we have no way of knowing whether we can trust these "biographical details" or whether a clever poet has created an air of verisimilitude to drive home his point that Fortune is fickle.

Still, because readers always have a strong preference for works attached to authors' names, scholars have suggested a variety of names for possible authors of this work: John Lydgate, Thomas Usk, George Ashby, Sir Richard Roos, or William de la Pole, the duke of Suffolk. None of their arguments has been considered conclusive enough to be generally accepted, so the work remains anonymous. We can learn a bit about the author's mind, however, by attending carefully to the poem. The author was educated enough to know some Latin (lines 35 and 42), something about the classical gods (Saturn and Mars, line 24), and the three Fates, Antropos, Cloto, and Lachesis (lines 47-58). He knew the ideas of the Boethian tradition, and he had probably read Chaucer. This all points to a literate and fairly well educated person. He was devout, concluding his arguments with a final plea to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

This poem may be divided into several parts. The first portion of the poem (lines 1-28) initiates a dialogue between Fortune and the prisoner, the prisoner complaining against Fortune and her three sisters, the Fates (or Parcae). Fortune answers his complaints in lines 29-42. Although the speaker opens with the address to Fortune, it is not until line 29 that we realize that this is something more than a metaphorical way of speaking. The writer creates the scenario of Boethian-style dialogue, but in a way without any real dialogue taking place. Fortune does not pick up the prisoner's appeal to the ill will of Saturn or Mars (clearly a fictional solution to the speaker's problems, since they were not "real" gods); instead, she appeals immediately to God, equating misfortune with punishment for sin (an idea that never arises in Boethius' discussion with Philosophy). Having given the prisoner this bracing (almost cruel) lesson, she now leaves it to him to work out his own solution to the Boethian problem. In the second portion (lines 43-118), the prisoner abandons his complaint, turns away from Fortune and the Fates, and accepts his unjust punishment as an affliction from God, which he must suffer in order to pay for his sins and buy himself a shortened stay in Purgatory. The poet ends with a prayer to God and the Church to aid all who are unjustly punished and who repent of their sins (lines 119-40).

Despite first creating and then abandoning the dialogue, this anonymous poet comes the closest of all those represented in this volume to presenting the proper Boethian attitude toward Fortune, as taught by Lady Philosophy: "Farewele, Fortune, and do right as thee list [whatever you please]!" (line 43), he says, commending his soul to the protection of "God and Seynt Marie" (line 61). Admittedly, he follows this with a complaint about his loss of good name and friends, and his despair at being left entirely alone except for the echo of his own voice is heart-wrenching. He even indulges is a short vindictive fantasy (lines 92-99), but his rehearsal of his woes brings him back to his main point: "Fy on this world; it is but fantasie!" (line 99), which leads him into the same solution as that adopted by George Ashby: it is best to "suffre al adversité" (line 107), putting faith and fate in the hands of God.


Though not a great poem, this is certainly a good one. The poet had a better sense of meter than many of his fellow poets and makes good use of the couplet that closes each stanza of rhyme royal. (It is worth comparing these conclusions to his stanzas to the couplets that close English sonnets in the following century.) There are interesting comparisons of theme and expression to be made between this complaint and Chaucer's ending to his Troilus and Criseyde, a work the poet surely knew.

Manuscript Context

The "Complaint of a Prisoner against Fortune" (IMEV 860) survives in a number of manuscripts derived from John Shirley, a London scribe of the middle of the fifteenth century who is responsible for preserving unique copies of minor works of Chaucer and his contemporaries and followers. Two of these manuscripts were written by the so-called Hammond Scribe who worked in London in the reign of Edward IV (1461-83) and had access to John Shirley's manuscripts after Shirley's death: British Library MSS Additional 34360 (fols. 19r-21v) and Harley 2251 (fols. 271r-273r); and the third is derived from another manuscript by Shirley: British Library MS Harley 7333 (fols. 30va-31ra). This poem was previously attributed to Chaucer as an extension to his short "Complaint to his Purse" (IMEV 3787) because it so appears in both of the manuscripts copied by the Hammond Scribe; that is, the "Complaint of a Prisoner against Fortune" follows the end of "Complaint to his Purse" without a break, heading, or any indication of separation except "Amen" added to the end of the last line of the earlier poem.

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Select Bibliography

Previous Editions

Furnivall, Frederick James. Originals and Analogues of Some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Chaucer Society, second ser. 7, 10, 15, 20, 22. London: Trübner, 1872-87. Appendix, i-vi. [Edition (pp. 550-51) based on the copy in British Library MS Harley 2251.]

Hammond, Eleanor Prescott. "Lament of a Prisoner Against Fortune." Anglia 32 (1909), 481-90. [Edition based on the copy in British Library MS Harley 7333.]

Critical Studies

Connolly, Margaret. John Shirley: Book Production and the Noble Household in Fifteenth-Century England. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998. Pp. 173-75.

Green, Richard Firth. "The Authorship of the Lament of a Prisoner against Fortune." Mediaevalia 2 (1976), 101-09.

Hammond, Eleanor Prescott. "Two British Museum Manuscripts (Harley 2251 and Adds. 34360): A Contribution to the Bibliography of John Lydgate." Anglia 28 (1905), 1-28.

---. "A Scribe of Chaucer." Modern Philology 27 (1929), 26-33.

Mooney, Linne R. "John Shirley's Heirs." In Yearbook of English Studies, Special Number 33 (2003): Medieval and Early Modern Literary Miscellanies, ed. Phillipa Hardman. Pp. 182-98. [See especially pp. 190-94.]