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A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe or The Complaint of the Black Knight: Introduction


1 In The Medieval Poet as Voyeur, A. C. Spearing provides a detailed study of the trope of secret watching in medieval literature. He discusses Complaynte in Chapter 11, pp. 218-30.

2 See Spearing (1993), p. 220.

3 Julia Boffey and John J. Thompson discuss the relationships of many of the following manuscripts, pp. 280-83.

4 As The Maying and Disport of Chaucere. See the introduction to the facsimile volume, Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards (1997), p. 1. The Introduction to The Boke of Cupide, above, provides a more detailed discussion of the contents of these four manuscripts (pp. 26 ff.).

5 Edwards (1996), p. 56. Edwards explains that manuscripts like Digby 181 derived from Cambridge University Library MS Gg.IV.27, "the first attempt to create an anthology of Chaucer's works" (p. 56).

6 Edwards (1996), p. 56.

7 Edwards (1996), p. 56.

8 See Edwards' introduction to the facsimile volume (1985), p. xvii.

9 Edwards (1985), p. xvii.

10 Boffey and Thompson discuss Shirley's manuscript collections, pp. 284-87.

11 Connolly, p. 28.

12 Connolly, p. 37.

13 Connolly, p. 28.

14 The poems by Lydgate are: "St. Anne," "Departure of Thomas Chaucer," "My Lady Dere," "Beware of Doublenesse," "A Lover's New Year's Gift," and "The Servant of Cupid Forsaken"; Connolly lists the contents of the manuscript in Table 1, pp. 30-31.

15 Connolly, p. 28.

16 Connolly, p. 40.

17 In the Asloan MS and the Chepman and Myllar print under a variation of the title in Arch. Selden. B. 24. For a description of Bannatyne, see William Dunbar, The Poems of William Dunbar, ed. Priscilla Bawcutt, 1.6-7; for Asloan, see 1.5-6; for the Chepman and Myllar print, see 1.4-5. For Bannatyne's contents, see the introduction to the facsimile volume by Denton Fox and William A. Ringler, pp. xviii-xl. For the contents of Asloan, see W. A. Craigie, ed., The Asloan Manuscript: A Miscellany in Prose and Verse, Written by John Asloan in the Reign of James the Fifth, Scottish Text Society first ser. 14, 16 (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1923-25). It is now possible to view images of the Chepman and Myllar print online at , part of the National Library of Scotland's digital library (includes transcriptions of each page and a table of contents).

18 Strohm, p. 657.

19 See the introduction to "Before the Reformation," in Wallace, 1999, pp. 637-39, at p. 637; italics in original.

20 For the above details, see Pearsall (1997), pp. 12-17.

21 Pearsall (1997), p. 17.

22 Pearsall (1997), pp. 18-19.

23 For the above details, see Pearsall (1997), pp. 18-27.

24 Pearsall (1997), p. 27.

25 For the above details, see Pearsall (1997), pp. 28-40. In 1439 he was finally granted an annuity for his royal service (p. 36). For further details of Lydgate's life, see Pearsall (1970, 1997). For more on the fifteenth-century, see V. J. Scattergood, Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century (London: Blandford Press, 1971).

26 See also Eleanor Prescott Hammond's discussion of the manuscripts (1908, pp. 413-15, especially p. 414). Shirley's is the only attribution to Lydgate; other manuscripts provide no information as to author, with the exception of Arch. Selden. B. 24, which attributes the poem to Chaucer (see the facsimile volume, intro. Boffey and Edwards, 1997, fol. 129v). Shirley's "rubrics in his Lydgate manuscripts are an important source of information (and misinformation) for the dates and occasions of Lydgate's poems," according to Pearsall, who adds that "his attributions are nearly all well supported by other external evidence and/or by strong internal evidence of style, syntax, and metre," but recommends evaluating Shirley's information on a case by case basis (1997, pp. 17-18). See Boffey and Edwards (1998), for further discussion of Shirley's collections. Without going into detail, Alain Renoir and C. David Benson remark that "[a]lthough the authorship has been questioned, this poem is generally assumed to be Lydgate's" (p. 1823).

27 Pearsall (1970), pp. 84 and 97.

28 Schirmer, p. 31; Ebin, p. 22; Norton-Smith (1966), p. 161.

29 Pearsall (1997), p. 14.

30 Pearsall (1997), p. 31.

31 Duffell, p. 227. The comments he cites from Hammond are in English Verse between Chaucer and Surrey (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1927), p. 152.

32 Pearsall (1970), pp. 3-4 (Ritson qtd. on p. 3).

33 Pearsall (1970), for example, still describes Lydgate as "prolific, prolix and dull" despite his own attempts to account for these qualities (see pp. 4-14). See also Pearsall (1990), p. 39.

34 Duffell, p. 247.

35 Renoir and Benson, p. 1809.

36 As Pearsall puts it, "No one who wrote so much can be anything but a hack, we may think, and protect ourselves from what looks like an unrewarding task by simply dismissing the man and his work as unworthy of our attention" (1970, p. 4). Pearsall goes on to point out the problems with this view, arguing that we should not conflate our expectations for poetry with those of the Middle Ages (p. 4). For Lydgate "poetry is a public art, its existence conditioned and determined by outer needs and pressures, not by inner ones"; thus, looking at Lydgate's poetry as an example of the development of "poetic personality," for example, would be irrelevant (p. 5).

37 Pearsall (1990), p. 39.

38 Paul Strohm explains that "throughout his poetry, Lydgate does what he can to see that obstinate circumstances and putative enemies voluntarily adjust themselves to the requirements of the Lancastrian solution" (p. 656). He argues, "Jettisoning the stance of the loyalist critic, Hoccleve and Lydgate address Henry V and Henry VI in the voice of the wholehearted ally determined in no respect to offend" (p. 657), going on to add, "If the characteristic Ricardian pattern was to chide the monarch even while assenting in the end to things he wants done, the characteristic Lancastrian pattern moves in the opposite direction: an extreme surface deference to the monarch's aims and an attempt to accommodate all aspects of his programme eventuates in a text that straddles crisis after crisis of argumentative consistency" (p. 659). See also Lee Patterson, "Making Identities in Fifteenth-Century England: Henry V and John Lydgate," New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History (Princeton: Prince-ton University Press, 1993), pp. 69-107.

39 Pearsall (1970), p. 84.

40 Pearsall (1970), p. 85.

41 Pearsall (1970), pp. 86, 95.

42 Pearsall (1970) explicitly argues that "Chaucer, in fact, as this study will make plain more than once, is not a very representative medieval poet" (p. 6).

43 Ebin, p. 21.

44 Pearsall (1970) points out at great length the differences between medieval and modern aesthetic expectations with a view to explaining Lydgate's medieval popularity (pp. 8-11).

45 Ebin, p. 21.

46 Pearsall (1970), p. 84.

47 Pearsall (1997), p. 9.

48 Ebin, preface.

49 Pearsall (1990), p. 39.

50 Pearsall (1990), p. 39.

51 Pearsall (1990), p. 39.

52 Pearsall (1992), p. 9. Pearsall acknowledges the seeming contradiction in his "offer to write on Lydgate as an innovator," adding: "it is a view of his poetic achievement apparently quite contrary to the views I myself have put forward in the past" (p. 5).

53 Pearsall (1992), p. 21.

54 Bianco initially presents this argument in "A Black Monk in the Rose Garden: Lydgate and the Dit Amoureux Tradition" and extends it in "New Perspectives on Lydgate's Courtly Verse."

55 Bianco (1999), pp. 64-65.

56 At line 847 (fol. 29v) and line 972 (fol. 31v), respectively. These marginal notations are discussed in J. Schick's edition of The Temple of Glas, p. xx; and in Bianco (1999), p. 65 (both put the second phrase at line 970).

57 Bianco (1999), p. 65.

58 See Norton-Smith (1966), pp. 160-61; and Krausser, pp. 216-23.

59 Norton-Smith (1966), p. 160.

60 Norton-Smith (1966), pp. 160-61.

61 Norton-Smith (1979) gives a description of the manuscript in his introduction to the facsimile volume.

62 See the introduction to the facsimile volume, Fox and Ringler, p. xxxviii, no. 371. The version is different enough to be listed separately in IMEV (3911.5)

John Lydgate's Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe (also called The Complaint of the Black Knight) begins, like many medieval love-narratives, by introducing a narrator whose own story is not the main subject of the poem but who is spurred by unhappiness or dissatisfaction to tell another's melancholy tale. The cause of the narrator's discontent is likely to be unclear, perhaps little more than the stirring of some anxiety. Usually the anxiety will have to do with love, which attracts the narrator to some particular event, the recounting of which then forms the core of the poem. The frame of the narrative may overtly serve to establish some occasion for the poem's composition, but its conventional status in medieval poetry also signals to readers a richly layered garden of love-delights, with two intertwined lovelorn voices, a palimpsest of lovers who mourn one atop the other: narrator and lover. Readers of The Romance of the Rose or Chaucer's Book of the Duchess would expect the ideal garden setting in Lydgate's poem to yield a narrator whose dreaming provides an escape, both for himself and for those readers who follow him into the landscape. Lydgate is not slow to satisfy these desires in some measure, but the dream vision conventions invoked here lead to slightly different pleasures than the ones readers might anticipate from such a "Chaucerian" poet.

A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe begins conventionally in spring (May), "when Flora, the fressh lusty quene" (line 1), has covered the ground with burgeoning plants, and Lucifer, the morning star, has chased away the night to bid lovers stir from sleep. During this time, Nature invites lovers to rise and make merry, and Hope also beckons them out to take the air. Accordingly, the narrator sighs himself awake and, despite feeling heartsick, goes into the woods to hear the birds sing. He walks by a river and comes upon a small park enclosed by a wall. Going inside, he hears the birds singing loudly, especially the nightingale, who sings "[r]yght as her hert for love wolde brest" (line 49).

In the park, the ground is covered with Nature's tapestries, canopied by green boughs to protect the flowers from the hot sun, and the air is mild. This is the setting of love visions and dreams, decked out in the sumptuous array of the locus amoenus - here the narrator and reader will expect the easing of hearts and minds. Accordingly, under the trees (some of them named for ill-fated lovers) is a well that, unlike the wells of Narcissus, Pegasus, or Diana, has the virtue of soothing lovers or any in distress. The narrator drinks from the well and feels refreshed. Wandering further in the park, he comes upon an arbor where he sees a pale man dressed in black and white lying amidst the flowers with fresh wounds, shaking from fever. Hiding in the bushes, the narrator listens to the knight's complaint and promises to do his best to write it down, even though he is not much of a writer and has no personal experience to help him along. It is in this voyeuristic position that the rest of the poem unfolds, with reader atop narrator in a new arrangement, both hiding from and spying on the lover.1

The knight's fever poises him between cold and heat, and he suffers because Envy and Male-Bouche (Slander), among others, have conspired to overthrow Truth and put Falsehood in his place. Truth, the knight says, was falsely accused and condemned out of hand by Cruelty, who urged Disdain to execute the sentence right away, and the knight does not understand how God, who is Lord of Truth, can stand to witness this. The knight realizes that "[t]his blynde chaunce, this stormy aventure" (line 309), is what most lovers experience in matters of love. He himself has been in love for so long that he cannot give up to save his life, even though he knows that "evere sithe that the worlde began" (line 323) stories have related how "the trwe man" was hindered while "the falshede [deceitful] / Ifurthered was" (lines 325-27); Love never cares about protecting the true and lets "the fals goth frely at her large" (lines 329). He notes the stories of lovers who have suffered, as well as those who were false. As these stories show, lovers never get anything for their troubles, no matter what bold feats they accomplish, because ultimately the beloved lacks mercy and pity, and instead "hath joy to laughen at my peyn" (line 448).

The knight then complains against unseeing Cupid, who is willful and unstable, shooting blindly and making "the seke for to crie and calle / Unto his foo for to ben his leche [doctor]" (472-73). This is the situation in which he finds himself. The knight wishes he had never been born, especially since Nature made the lady so attractive and so resistant to his appeals that Compassion and Pity are exiled from her court, while "Dispite now haldeth forth her reyn / Thro hasty beleve of tales that men feyn" (lines 510-11). The knight concludes that if his lady does not have mercy on him, he will die, but adds that he is willing to die whenever she wishes, if that is her desire. He tells God, "yf I dye, in my testament / My hert I send and my spirit also, / Whatsoever she list with hem to do" (lines 558-60).

Tears rain from the narrator's eyes upon witnessing such suffering. Soon the knight gets up and goes into a nearby dwelling, where he is wont to spend each May complaining of his keen pains. Evening is falling, and the narrator quickly takes up his pen, "[t]he woful pleynt of this man to write, / Worde be worde as he dyd endyte" (lines 599-600). He says that if anything is wrong, blame his lack of ability as a poet. As the narrator is writing, he seems to see Venus rising in the distance and prays to her on behalf of the lovesick knight: "O lady Venus, so feire upon to se, / Let not this man for his trouthe dey" (lines 619-20). He appeals to her for the sake of the love she had for Mars and Adonis to uphold the truth and ease the sorrowful, especially "[t]he trew man that in the erber lay" (line 637), and to encourage the knight's "lady him to grace take, / Her hert of stele to mercy so enclyne" (lines 640-41).

When the evening star has set, the narrator goes to bed himself and prays for those who are faithful to be eased. Too sleepy to stay awake, he then bids true (faithful) lovers farewell, hoping they will defeat Jealousy and be reconciled to their ladies. The narrator asks in his envoy: "Princes [Princess], pleseth hit your benignité / This litil dité to have in mynde" (666-67) in hopes that she will have pity and mercy on the narrator, her "trew man" (line 669). Finally he sends his little book "unto my lyves quene / And my verry hertis sovereigne" (lines 674-75) but is himself left behind, not knowing to whom to complain, since "Mercie, Routhe, Grace, and eke Pité / Exiled be" (lines 679-80).

Unlike The Boke of Cupide, whose focus seems to be on the type of language appropriate to poetry, A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe questions the virtue of poetic effort more generally. The setting within the restorative powers of spring and the shift from night to day that takes place in the first stanzas, though entirely conventional, produce at first an encouraging outlook towards love and its capacity to transfigure lovers. The narrator's allusions to stories of metamorphosis in his description of the garden he encounters on his walk extend this transformative theme in a way that at once holds out hope that transformation is possible and reveals the concern that such changes may not be desirable. The narrator's role as watcher and recorder of the knight's sorrows would seem to provide a complete and unmodified version of someone else's personal experience, and his appeal to those present who have suffered from love to heed the knight's story offers the possibility that listening to the knight (or reading the poetic account the narrator provides) may prove therapeutic. But within the garden lie stories that throw doubt on both the narrator's position and the coercive force of love, even as the narrator's own behavior casts suspicion on his role in the narrative. And in the knight's tale bleak stories of lovers lurk to remind devotees of love what their own fate might be. Ultimately, the poem's preoccupation with deadly tales of metamorphosis and thwarted love suggests anxiety about the transformational power of poetry - regarding both its capacity to transform and the nature of that alteration.

The narrator's description of the garden and the well in its center gives us our first hint of the theme of transformation. In the midst of restorative trees, such as pine, myrrh, cedar, ash, and oak (lines 65-73), all of which have medicinal and protective properties, the narrator explains that he "sawe ther Daphene, closed under rynde, / Grene laurer" (lines 64-65), and "[t]he philbert eke, that lowe dothe enclyne / Her bowes grene to the erthe doune / Unto her knyght icalled Demophoune" (lines 68-70). The narrator here not only identifies the trees (laurel and filbert/hazelnut tree) but also explicitly mentions the unfortunate love stories that lie behind their names: Daphne was chased by Apollo until Zeus turned her into a laurel tree to save her; Phyllis hanged herself for love of Demophon when he never returned to her and was afterwards pitied by the gods, who changed her into a nut tree. Both these stories point to the destructive nature of love. In Daphne's case, metamorphosis "saves" her from love, but in so doing changes her very nature, in effect ending her human life. For Phyllis, presumably the transformation is intended as a recompense for the rejection by Demophon, who had previously promised her love, but it is clear that life as a tree is no compensation - either for lost love or for life. In both these tales metamorphosis enables the wronged woman to live on in a shape alien to her own, suggesting that love has the capacity to transform but at the cost of one's identity - perhaps this is a transformation that should be feared instead of desired.

At the well the narrator is refreshed, but at the same time, the stories of Narcissus and Acteon to which he alludes anticipate the narrator's own position as secret watcher and suggest the dreadful possibilities of what can happen to such witnesses. The reference to the tale of Narcissus as presented here draws a renewed picture of the destructive force of love. Although the well is "[n]at lyche the welle wher as Narcisus / Islayn was thro vengeaunce of Cupide" (lines 87-88), the very mention of the story serves as a reminder of it. The presentation of Narcissus' fate as the result of the "vengeaunce of Cupide" emphasizes the fact that Narcissus' pride, which caused him to refuse all other potential suitors, doomed him to fall in love with a reflection of himself. As watcher of that likeness, he is condemned to death, for he cannot bear to leave his own image and so wastes away on the brink of the pool (after which he becomes a flower). Further, the story of Narcissus is bound up in that of Echo, who observed him from afar, fell in love, and then faded away until only her voice was left after Narcissus rebuffed her. The fates of these two suggest that no matter which side of love's equation one is on, rejected suitor or cold beloved, death will result, and in each case it is looking that has led to that end. The narrator's reference to the story of Acteon also leaves no doubt about the dire consequences of spying. As the narrator explains, when Acteon accidentally stumbled on Diana, goddess of the hunt and chastity, bathing in a pool in the forest, Diana turned him into a stag, and his own hounds chased him down and tore him to pieces. If that is the fate of one who looks unintentionally, what will the narrator's fate be, or that of his readers, who are deliberate voyeurs with him? Though the narrator hastens to tell us that this well was not like the ill-fated ones he mentions, both stories highlight the fact that secret watching can lead to death, with transformations that turn out either not to be redemptive (as with Echo and Narcissus), or to be downright destructive (as in the case of Acteon).

Bringing up these stories thus serves as a warning about the narrator's own behavior when he encounters the grieving knight. Furthermore, the narrator's remark that the well that refreshes him is not "lyche the pitte [spring] of the Pegacé / Under Parnaso, wher poetys slept" (lines 92-93) casts doubt on his own ability as a poet even before he tells us that he has none. Pegasus' well, the fountain Hippocrene, is the source of poetic inspiration, but its placement between the well of Narcissus and that of Diana links death with poetic achievement in a way that suggests lovers may have to suffer in order to produce poetry. The description of the ideal garden thus not only indicates that this narrator is no poet, but also highlights the problems inherent in his voyeurism. It is not perhaps enough to watch suffering - one must experience it. The culmination of the stories alluded to in the prelude to the knight's complaint suggests that spying on love will not teach one anything about it, but simultaneously cautions that the experience of love leads at best to transformation, at worst to death. These dire predictions about love then play out in the body of the poem, as the narrator attempts to offer the poem as a soothing draft to his audience.

The narrator's voyeuristic placement in the bushes for the whole of the poem means that, unlike the nobleman-lover in Guillaume de Machaut's Dit de la fonteinne amoureuse, the knight here has no say over the status of his words, the efficacy of his complaint, or even whether or not (or how) his voice is reproduced. In Fonteinne amoureuse the narrator similarly overhears a lament from a hidden vantage point but afterwards goes outside to find the man whose words he wrote down. This lover then asks the narrator to record his complaint, only to find it has already been done, at which point the lover has the opportunity to read and approve his complaint. In Machaut's poem, this process brings narrator and lover together, a companionship cemented by their sharing a dream at the end of the poem. Similarly, Chaucer's Book of the Duchess offers its narrator a chance to interact with the suffering knight due to its dream setting, where concerns of rank do not hold sway.2 These encounters serve in part to legitimate the narrator's account of the suffering he witnesses, but in Complaynte there are no opportunities for the narrator to interact with the knight; there is no dream, either as frame or otherwise, that enables the narrator to bridge the gap between himself and the otherwise unreachable lover. This departure from what readers have come to expect may seem like a small detail - evidence perhaps of an anemic relationship to its precursor, Chaucer's Book of the Duchess - but it is in fact a crucial change, for the potential healing that narrators in the earlier poems offer the sufferers they witness depends on the interaction between the two. The question Lydgate's poem seems to pose is whether writing can substitute for that interaction once the narrator discards his active role.

In Lydgate's hands, the conventional setting, reminiscent of poems such as The Romance of the Rose, Machaut's Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne, and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, now takes on a new, unconventional life as the knight makes his complaint and the narrator settles in passively to hear it. This complaint is one over which the knight no longer has control; it has left his own mouth to come out of another's. The lament as the narrator tells it must ultimately fail to represent what the knight really said, since it is no longer his own dream the narrator recounts, over which he might have some authority, but the distress of a "real" lover who does not know he is being recorded, whose record is made by one who admits - even dwells on - his inadequacy for such a task. The narrator lacks the personal experience of love that would enable him to empathize with the lover he watches. Though he admits that "who that shal write of distresse / In partye nedeth to know felyngly / Cause and rote of al such malady" (lines 187-89), he then acknowledges his own lack of such qualifications:
But I, alas, that am of wytte but dulle
And have no knowyng of suche mater
For to discryve and wryte at the fulle
The wofull compleynt which that ye shul here.
(lines 190-93)

Without a guide to "interpret" the events of the poem for the narrator, his ineptitude becomes more than simply an expected rhetorical flourish: it now constitutes a source of anxiety for both narrator and readers. Readers must now depend on this inadequate rendition of the knight's grief, as if the narrator were the guide who has the key to open the poem's meaning. And the narrator's claims that he will write out the complaint exactly, "wythout addissyon / Or disencrese, outher mor or lesse" (lines 201-02), do not adequately reassure us on this point.

Thus the narrator is the only one left who can lead readers through the poem's examination of personal consciousness, but we fear he may not be adequate to the task. The narrator is himself in need of therapeutic treatment for his "bitter langour" (line 109) and "the brynnyng that sate so nyghe [his] hert" (line 114) - treatment that he receives at the "holsom" well that is able to ease and refresh all those "fallen in distresse" (lines 100, 105). Now that he is healed of his own distress, the task of refreshing his readers would seem to fall to him, since his voyeuristic handling of the situation makes him the sole authority of the narrative (though he claims to be but a "skryvener" writing "as his maister beside dothe endyte" - lines 194, 196). But the narrator's inadequacy for comforting anyone in distress, whether lover within the poem or readers outside it, becomes clear from his reaction to the discovery of a man prostrate on the ground, and so "destreyned [tormented] with sekenesse" that "Hyt was a deth for to her him grone" (lines 134, 140). Though he notices that the knight "had no felowe" and says he "coude no wyght with him se" (lines 143-44), the narrator's response is not to approach the poor knight to offer him comfort or even bring him water from the "holsom" well, despite his claims he "had routhe and eke pité" for the unhappy knight (line 145). Instead, he says, "I gan anon, so softly as I coude, / Amonge the busshes me prively to shroude" (lines 146-47). Will the narrator thus retreat from his readers too? In fact, he does, sitting back as the knight relates the whole complaint and not offering much in the way of a gloss on it.

But perhaps this lack of help from the narrator has the potential to be therapeutic itself by forcing readers to look into their own hearts even as they watch another's situation through the narrator's eyes. If Chaucer's narrator in The Book of the Duchess can perform a restorative role in his seemingly stumbling questions, which lead the suffering knight there into a "talking cure," this narrator's incompetence could conceivably lead to a similar cure for readers, if not for the knight of the tale. Seeing another's pain detailed, readers might find the tale as "holsom" as the well was to the narrator. And at first, it seems that the knight's complaint will help with such a task. The knight's physical state, described by the narrator, bears testament to his turmoil. At the beginning of his complaint, the knight then draws connections between his body and the interior emotions that inhabit it:
The thoght oppressed with inward sighes sore,
The peynful lyve, the body langwysshing,
The woful gost, the hert rent and tore,
The petouse chere, pale in compleynyng,
The dedely face lyke asshes in shynyng,
The salt teres that fro myn yen falle,
Parcel declare grounde of my peynes alle.
(lines 218-24)
inner (mental); painful
existence; suffering
spirit; torn

deathly; pale like ashes (i.e., lifeless)
To some degree proclaim [the] foundation

This connection between body and "inward sighes sore" elides the differences between mental and physical suffering, and sets up a metonymic relationship between both the physical and metaphysical aspects of the lover and his internal state of being, so that "the body langwysshing," "hert rent and tore," "petouse chere," "dedely face," and "salt teres" all become represen-tative of his sickness as easily as his "thoght," "inward sighes," "peynful lyve," or "woful gost."

The knight's appeal to both his inner turmoil and the outward signs of it as evidence of his pain suggests the importance of personal experience, and extends the hope that the connection between suffering and complaint could in turn be transferred to the reader. But after moaning briefly, in a few token stanzas, about his fever and chills, he turns his appeal away from personal experience into the ethereal atmosphere of allegory, which takes place as a kind of courtroom drama in which the usual allegorical figures appear to sharpen their swords, file their arrows, and conspire maliciously "agens al ryght and lawe" to slay Truth (lines 258-59). Further attacks manage to damn Truth, with no recourse to his attorney, so that "Falsnes now his place occupieth" (line 266). The knight's appeal to the allegorical figures of The Romance of the Rose sets the stage for both his complaints against the injustice of the god of love and Fortune, and his turn to stories of love - all of which end violently - as proof of his own suffering. The source of his anguish is the arrows of blind Cupid, and the authority for his pain, he seems to suggest, is his similarity to those other lovers, such as Hercules, Pyramis, or Tristram, who suffered and died so spectacularly: "Lo, her the fyne [conclusion] of lovers servise!" (line 400). The knight's rehearsal of these tragic stories of love warns against getting involved in love at the same time as they expose his own false position as a lover, despite his attempts to align himself with Truth, because the fact that he is not himself dead or transformed undercuts the very comparisons the knight attempts to draw. Instead of emphasizing his own experience, the knight seeks to justify his distress on the basis of a connection to dead/ transformed lovers that ultimately fails.

Finally, the knight's revelation that he spends every May complaining of his pains also lessens the importance of his grief and implies that talking about lovesickness does not "cure" it. His familiarity with the stories of other lovers points out that simply learning about such fellow sufferers does no good to relieve his pain either. The knight's recurring complaint in fact indicates that he is not really suffering at all, for those who truly love do not talk endlessly - as the knight's own rehearsal of stories makes clear; talking is instead a prelude to death and/or transformation. True lovers either kill themselves, waste away to death, or are killed or otherwise radically transformed by outside forces because of their love. The layering of the story, while seeming to provide the unadulterated account of a "real" lover, in fact shows the inadequacy of a "real" lover who cannot experience his own suffering except through allegory and old stories of former lovers' suffering. A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe finally suggests that neither talking about nor listening to tales of love-agony can provide the therapy readers desire. For one thing, the poem seems to imply, those who are still around to complain must not really be in pain (otherwise they would be dead or transformed); for another, whoever is well enough to pay attention to another's suffering instead of ending his/her own must not really need the transformative power of poetry. In any event, listening to such an inadequate lament will not ease distress - and if it does, the transformation may prove deadly.

The reference to secret watching in the narrator's prayer to Venus at the end of the poem, once the knight's complaint is finished, offers a final model for the narrator's role, and it is one that proves destructive for the lovers being watched. Vulcan, the narrator reminds us, captured his wife Venus in bed with Mars with an invisible net and invited the rest of the gods to witness their disgrace:
For that joy thou haddest when thou ley
With Mars thi knyght, whom Vulcanus founde
And with a cheyne unvisible yow bounde

"Togedre both tweyne in the same while,
That al the court above celestial
At youre shame gan laughe and smyle.
(lines 621-26)
For [the sake of]; lay


[So] that

This image puts the narrator-as-spy in less danger himself, but suggests his role may be a nefarious one, detrimental to lovers. If this is the transformation the narrator has experienced - from Narcissus and Acteon to Vulcan - we can assume that he has progressed from innocent watching to the type of jealous surveillance that brings to mind Genius' warning to Amans in Gower's Confessio Amantis that those who "ben noght able as of hemselve / To gete love, and for Envie / Upon alle othre thei aspie" (ed. Peck, 2.98-100). Thus, the narrator as failed lover proves to be the worst kind of guide, offering models of destruction for lovers that suggest no redemption is possible through poetry.

Lydgate presents his dire exposition on the dangers of poetry to lovers within a frame that is, despite its modifications, recognizably Chaucerian, and it is no surprise that A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe shares many of the same manuscript contexts as John Clanvowe's Boke of Cupide. Complaynte appears, like Clanvowe's poem, in the closely related group comprised of Oxford, Bodleian Library MSS Fairfax 16, Tanner 346, and Bodley 638,3 as well as in the Scottish compilation Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Arch. Selden. B. 24, where it is attributed to Chaucer.4 In addition to these, there are copies in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 181; Cambridge, Magdalene College MS Pepys 2006; one of John Shirley's manuscripts (London, British Library MS Additional 16165); the Bannatyne manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS 1.1.6); and the Asloan manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS 16500).

The contents of Fairfax 16, Tanner 346, and Bodley 638 lean heavily towards Chaucer's dream visions, complaints, and shorter poems (as well as works by Lydgate, Hoccleve, and Clanvowe), while Digby 181 includes Troilus and Criseyde and The Parliament of Fowls, and Hoccleve's Letter of Cupid.5 A. S. G. Edwards sees two strains of Chaucer compilation operating in the selection of Chaucer's poetry for these collections, one represented by Fairfax 16, Tanner 346, and Bodley 638, which display "a primary interest in Chaucer's dream visions and lyrics" and those, like Digby 181, that include Troilus and Criseyde, "occasionally in conjunction with other shorter works by or associated with Chaucer."6 Arch. Selden. B. 24 combines these two "strands of earlier fifteenth-century manuscript compilation" by including Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, plus a selection of dream visions and shorter poems, such as The Legend of Good Women, The Complaint of Mars, The Complaint of Venus, and Truth.7

Pepys 2006 represents another Chaucerian anthology, comprised of "two originally quite distinct manuscripts."8 The first of these is the pertinent one: it begins with A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe, followed by Lydgate's Temple of Glass, Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, An ABC, The House of Fame, The Complaint of Mars, The Complaint of Venus, Fortune, and The Parliament of Fowls. Like Fairfax 16, Tanner 346, and Bodley 638, the focus here is on dream visions, complaints, and lyrics, though Edwards points out in his introduction to the facsimile volume that the two manuscripts that make up Pepys 2006 both "suggest the broadening of the audience for Chaucer's works, since they seem clearly aimed at an audience very different from the courtly, sophisticated ones generally postulated for such Chaucer anthologies as Fairfax 16 or Tanner 346, one content with less elaborate and hence less expensive manuscripts."9

The Shirley manuscript, BL Add. 16165, probably the earliest, has a less cohesive organiza-tion than these Chaucerian anthologies.10 Margaret Connolly explains that, despite the long prologue describing the contents that begins the collection, which "encourages us to receive it as an ordered and coherent entity[,] . . . the volume's vacillations between prose and verse, and its mixture of philosophy, instruction, and court poetry, seem to make little sense."11 The compilation has relatively little by Chaucer - it begins with Boece (Chaucer's translation of Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae) and includes two selections from Anelida and Arcite somewhat later (separated from one another). John Trevisa's translation of The Gospel of Nicodemus follows Boece, after which comes Edward of York's treatise on hunting, Master of Game. After these prose works, A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe, here attributed to Lydgate,12 is followed by another prose text, the Latin Regula Sacerdotalis, "a tract concerned with the duties and obligations of priests,"13 then Lydgate's Temple of Glass, and a number of short lyrics and ballads, some anonymous, including a cluster of short poems by Lydgate near the end.14 Connolly argues that the manuscript was compiled in at least three separate sections, which explains its eclectic contents.15 The most coherent of these sections seems to have been the final one, which contains what Connolly calls "mostly an anthology of Lydgate's poetry," six of the eight Lydgate items.16

The final two manuscripts, Bannatyne and Asloan, are both sixteenth-century Scottish collections. Bannatyne is best known for containing large numbers of William Dunbar's works. The copy of Complaynte in Bannatyne is a Scottish version in 21 rhyme royal stanzas, while the Asloan text was copied from the Chepman and Myllar print. Unlike Arch. Selden. B. 24, these manuscripts do not illustrate an extensive interest in Chaucer, but rather in verse composed by Scots writers, such as William Dunbar and Robert Henryson, though in both cases, the poem is attributed to Chaucer, as it is in the Chepman and Myllar print.17

In his relationship to the king and court, Lydgate differs from Chaucer, Gower, and other Ricardian poets who were willing to criticize, "even though the advice they proffer usually turns out to be ultimately complicit with the prince's program."18 David Wallace points out that Lydgate "emerges as the only poet in this period, c. 1399-1547, to enjoy meaningful, official recognition as an English poet at court."19 Derek Pearsall's recent Bio-Bibliography gives the details of Lydgate's life and his relationship to the court. John Lydgate was a Benedictine monk at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, not far from where he was born in about 1371 in the town of Lydgate, from which he took his name. He probably became a novice at age 15, professing as a full monk at 16. He later became a sub-deacon, then deacon, then priest over the course of eight years from 1389-97, before attending Oxford in the early years of the fifteenth century, though he does not seem to have taken a degree. Beginning as early as his years at Oxford, Lydgate came, as a poet, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later King Henry V.20 Pearsall suggests that
Henry had his attention drawn to Lydgate's facility as a versifier, recognised his promise as a future Lancastrian propagandist, and perhaps saw too the possibilities for a kind of high-style religious poetry in English that would embody his own austerely orthodox piety, fulfil his desire to promote the English language as an engine of nationhood, and preempt the claims of the Lollards on the vernacular as a language of religion.21
The first big commission was Troy Book, a translation of the lengthy Historia destructionis Troiae of Guido della Collona, which fit as "part of Henry's policy of encouraging the use of English, in the writing of official documents as well as in the writing of poetry, as a way of consolidating national unity and identity."22 Henry also appears to have continued his patronage after he became king, commissioning A Defence of Holy Church, The Life of Our Lady, and other poems. Lydgate continued to serve Henry until Henry's death in 1422, after which he became prior of Hatfield Broad Oak from 1423-30. There he wrote poetry supporting Henry VI but was also commissioned to write a variety of works for a diverse group of patrons. He seems to have spent time in Paris in 1426, receiving commissions from the earls of Warwick and Salisbury,23 after which he returned to England to begin a very prolific three years, which Pearsall describes as "the apogee of his public career as a poet."24 Pearsall associates many of the London poems with this period, also stating that Lydgate fulfilled many commissions at this time, both royal and for lesser aristocratic patrons. Lydgate returned to Bury in late 1433 (at the time of a royal visit, after which he seems to have stayed on), where he remained until his death in c. 1449, continuing a fairly steady stream of poetic output through the 1430s (including The Fall of Princes), slowing to only a few poems in the 1440s.25

A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe is presumed to be Lydgate's on the basis of the heading in the Shirley manuscript (BL Add. 16165).26 Pearsall considers it one of the three poems "which are amongst Lydgate's most significant achievement" and adds that the poem "is one of Lydgate's best."27 Some scholars have advanced an early date, possibly from the Oxford years, for Complaynte. For example, Walter F. Schirmer dates it at 1400-02, Lois A. Ebin calls it "one of his earliest poems," and John Norton-Smith argues in his notes to the poem that it should be considered an early work (from 1398 to 1412) because "it clearly belongs to a period of Lydgate's development characterized by close Chaucerian imitation and use of the persona of an actual lover," adding that later "the persona of the poet in Lydgate's work becomes less conventional, more autobiographical, and more religiously assertive," attributing this to Lydgate's experience in writing Troy Book.28 But Pearsall cautions against assuming that the Complaynte and other "undated love-poems" were composed in this early period, claiming that "[s]uch poems would have been appropriate for Lydgate to write only when he had secured a measure of freedom from monastic restraint, in the 1420s."29 Pearsall suggests in particular the three-year period of close affiliation with the court (1427-29) as the most likely time for writing of these poems.30

Scholarship on Lydgate, like that on much fifteenth-century poetry, has typically reflected a strong admiration of Chaucer, of whom Lydgate and many of his contemporaries were said to be imitators. The notion that Lydgate's value should be measured primarily by his resem-blance to Chaucer, embedded as it was in the idea of Lydgate as imitator rather than innovator, condemned his writing as second class in the view of critics who not only privileged originality and inventiveness but had also already decided that Lydgate lacked such qualities. Martin J. Duffell sums up the situation in a recent article:
Most modern critics and editors of John Lydgate's work feel it necessary to address the problem of his reputation as a versifier: why did his contemporaries rate him so highly when twentieth-century writers regard him, at best, as idiosyncratic and, at worst, as incompetent? Thus, for example, [George] Saintsbury dismissed him as "a doggerel poet with an insensitive ear" and [Eleanor Prescott] Hammond demonstrated that Lydgate's roughness was due, not to ignorant copyists, but to an ignorant poet; "The study of Lydgate's mentality," she concluded, "may not be worth the student's candle." In the last sixty years a number of writers . . . have made important contributions to our understanding of Lydgate's metrics, but have not succeeded in making us admire his versification. Yet he was the most prolific and admired versifier in England during his own lifetime and for a century after his death.31
Pearsall made a similar assessment in 1970 about the nineteenth century, saying that Joseph Ritson's condemnation of Lydgate in his 1802 Bibliographia poetica as "this voluminous, prosaick and driveling monk" has "put paid to the possibility of any cool and discriminating consideration of Lydgate's work," adding that "in modern times strings of literary historians have vied with each other to heap ridicule upon his head."32 Yet Pearsall's own insistence on emphasizing and accounting for the charges leveled against Lydgate still directs the focus away from the appeal of Lydgate's verse for contemporary audiences.33 And Duffell's comments that "Lydgate's verse design was different from Chaucer's and was more conservative," which he says "is perhaps not surprising, since Chaucer's was so revolutionary" are no more inclined to endear him to twentieth- and twenty-first-century ears than Hammond's comment about the waste of a student's candle.34

Lydgate's prolific production of an estimated 145,000 lines of poetry35 suggests one reason for him to be maligned, the assumption being that a writer who could produce so much must not be producing much of quality.36 As Pearsall puts it, "[i]n more recent times he has been more or less universally contemned and become the butt of every jibe, especially for his prolixity and the great bulk of his writing. He now appears like a great whale helplessly beached on the shore of reputation."37 Indeed, according to critical complaints, Lydgate's was a poetic of excess, for not only was he too prolific, but he was also too prolix, too dull, too ornate, too superficial, and too politically conventional, always ready to write (too) glowing verse in support of his patrons and king.38

In addition to these charges might be added that he was too dependent on Chaucer - along with a kind of critical insistence on keeping him there. Pearsall, for example, though acknowl-edging correspondences "with the French love-vision poems of Machaut, Deschamps, and Froissart," concludes that "the parallels are general to an infinitely familiar tradition, and it is rarely necessary to go beyond Chaucer for Lydgate's specific borrowings."39 Similarly, for classical models "Chaucer, as always, provides the focus of the tradition for Lydgate."40 But these views of Lydgate's singular reliance on Chaucer backfire when it becomes clear that his poetry does not provide the same pleasures as Chaucer's verse, with the consequence that Lydgate inevitably suffers by comparison to his precursor in the modern critical eye. When Pearsall, one of Lydgate's staunchest longtime defenders, says that Complaynte privileges "the profusion of surface ornament at the expense of inner significance," or that it is "fundamentally . . . an easy poem, almost a template of a poem,"41 he is still reacting to it in terms of a Chau-cerian aesthetic, despite his acknowledgment of the problematic nature of such reactions.42

Ebin sees the surface ornamentation as deliberate, remarking that Lydgate "moves the complaint genre away from narrativity and realism toward artifact," while his amplification of "a single moment or moments in time" attempts "to create an intricate surface of words and sounds."43 The emphasis on "artifact" and "surface" suggests an ossified poetic that does not cater to modern tastes, not only because it does not tell a realistic story, but also because of its interest in formal design.44 Ebin goes on to emphasize this impression by arguing that Lydgate uses "formal and stylistic devices" to "transform emotion into design."45 This ultimately suggests that we must move beyond the understanding of Lydgate that has informed much of twentieth-century scholarship on his poetry in order to understand what made Lydgate's poem compelling enough to be "widely imitated in the fifteenth century."46

If Lydgate's poetry is not to suffer, in other words, we must think beyond his relationship to Chaucer, despite the fact that he was considered "in his own life-time . . . the principal inheritor of the Chaucerian poetic tradition."47 It should be possible to acknowledge the different pleasures offered by Chaucer's verse and by the Chaucerian poetry that both followed and modified or added to it. But critical preference for Chaucer has made it difficult to under-stand what medieval audiences may have appreciated about Lydgate, despite the fact that he was perceived "by his contemporaries [to be] an equal and, in some cases, a superior poet to Chaucer."48 Pearsall is no doubt right to point out that this "difference of opinion, so stark and inexplicable, is a challenge," and, in Pearsall's view, critical explanations have put forth either "extremely derogatory estimates of the good sense of Lydgate's fifteenth-century admirers, or else unlikely suggestions as to the merit of his verses."49 He suggests that
In taking up the challenge, again, one would not want to become embroiled in further debate about whether Lydgate's poetry is any good. There is no need for a debate: it is not very good. It is often dull, especially in long stretches, and it usually comes in long stretches. It is hard work to read, and the most skilful reader, however optimistic he is about Lydgate's versification, will stumble every few lines.50
The explanation Pearsall offers for the stark differences between medieval and modern recep-tion of Lydgate's work is that "it is all Chaucer's fault."51 In one sense this is true, but in another sense, it is also the fault of scholars' persistence in discussing the merits of Lydgate's poetry in aesthetic terms - i.e., it is either "good" or "bad." It may be more useful to think instead of the pleasures he may have offered his audiences.

In a more recent article, Pearsall points to at least two possibilities for audience enjoyment when he shows that Lydgate was an innovator in his persistent use of "new and rare words,"52 and in his activity in "responding to . . . commissions and also to requests of all kinds for occasional poems, especially those that were needed to accompany some kind of visual display."53 This perhaps offers some explanation for the tendency towards surface ornamentation noted by both Pearsall and Ebin. Recently Sue Bianco has suggested that a fresh look at Lydgate's relationship to Chaucer should be instigated. She argues that Complaynte, instead of existing merely as an imitation of Chaucerian verse, may have been influenced by French poetry more than has been previously acknowledged, suggesting that we should not look so narrowly upon the field of influence. Ultimately Bianco argues that a particular occasion most likely existed for the composition of English love-complaints, since these poems were modeled on French poems that were generically heavily invested in occasion, and suggests that Lydgate's Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe may have had a topical genesis itself.54

New approaches to Lydgate scholarship need not focus on recovering the source of a poem's inspiration, and Bianco's discussion of the occasional nature of this type of verse in fact points to one of the pleasures Lydgate's verse might have offered its contemporaries - that of figuring out who the characters might represent and the situation for which a poem might have been composed. Bianco points, for example, to the way in which the portrait of the lady in Lydgate's Temple of Glass "mutates" from copy to copy; the colors she wears and the mottos associated with her differ in some manuscripts, suggesting that she was adopted for different patrons and/or occasions.55 Some of the marginalia in the copy of The Temple of Glass from Bodley 638 suggest that medieval readers may have been attempting to figure out such associations: "hic vsque nescio quis" ("up to this point I do not know who [this might be]"), and "who in all godly pity maye be."56 Bianco interprets these marginal comments to mean that "the writer of these remarks may have been trying in vain to work out the lady's identity," adding that "Charles d'Orléans, Lydgate's contemporary, used anagrams . . . to conceal the personalities behind his characters; the fourteenth-century 'game' of deciphering identity from symbolic representation was alive and well in the first half of the fifteenth century."57 Such attempts to decipher clues in The Temple of Glass point more generally to the inherent interest occasional poetry could engender for its audiences. It would seem that Lydgate's style thus works well with the type of verse that made up so much of his poetic output: as a poet of presentation and commissioned works, Lydgate knew how to produce a properly ornamental setting for a proper occasion.

Note on the text

A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe appears in the nine manuscripts discussed above and listed in detail below. The poem was also popular among early printers, forming part of the repertoire of Walter Chepman and Androw Myllar and Wynkyn de Worde, as well as making its way into editions of Chaucer by William Thynne, John Stow, and Thomas Speght. John Norton-Smith and E. Krausser each offer discussions of the manuscripts and their relationships,58 which can be classified into two rough groups. The Shirley manuscript is the earliest (c. 1420) and "is a unique (probably earlier) version of the poem," but is missing the prayer to Venus; Arch. Selden. B. 24, a manuscript from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, is also missing some lines though it descends from another early copy. These two are more closely related than the remaining manuscripts and share a number of bad readings. 59 Fairfax 16, Bodley 638, Tanner 346, Digby 181, and Pepys 2006 form another group that can again be subdivided, with Fairfax 16 and the acephalous Bodley 638 sharing a closer relationship than the others, while Pepys 2006 is probably the worst of these, "marred by excessive mechanical mistakes and omissions."60 Fairfax 16 and Tanner 346 would both make good choices, and here I follow previous editors in preferring the Fairfax 16 manuscript for its slightly earlier date.61 Emendations and some alternate readings from selected manuscripts are recorded in the textual notes, according to the principles laid out in the General Introduction. I have taken the horizontal stroke above a word such as rec_forte (line 8) to be an abbreviation of a nasal consonant (n/m) and have expanded accordingly. Other strokes and flourishes are disregarded as otiose.

Indexed in

IMEV 1507.


London, British Library MS Additional 16165 (Shirley MS), fols. 190v-200v (c. 1420s). [Missing the narrator's prayer to Venus, lines 610-51.]

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Fairfax 16 (SC 3896), fols. 20v-30r (1430-50). [Base text for this edition.]

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Tanner 346 (SC 10173), fols. 48v-59r (mid- to late fifteenth century).

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 181 (SC 1782), fols. 31r-39r (second half of fifteenth century).

Cambridge, Magdalene College MS Pepys 2006, pp. 1-17 (second half of fifteenth century).

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 638 (SC 2078), fols. 1r-4v (late fifteenth century). [Missing lines 1-467 because the manuscript is defective at beginning.]

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Arch. Selden. B. 24 (SC 3354), fols. 120v-129v (late fifteenth or early sixteenth century). [Missing lines 113-26.]

Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS 16500 (Asloan MS), fols. 243r-246v, 293r-300v (early sixteenth century). [Copied from the Chepman and Myllar print.]

Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS 1.1.6 (Bannatyne MS), fols. 281r-283v (1568). [Scottish version in 21 rhyme royal stanzas (lines 302-434, 456-69), attributed to Chaucer, and possibly copied "from the edition of c. 1545-50,"62 STC 5071-74.]

Early printed editions

Chepman, Walter, and Androw Myllar, eds. and printers. The Maying or Disport of Chaucer. Edinburgh, 1508. [STC 17014.3 (formerly 5099). Originally printed as a booklet together with When by Divine Deliberation, but later bound together with other Chepman and Myllar prints.]

Wynkyn de Worde, ed. and printer. The Cplaynte of a Louers Lyfe. London, ?1531. [STC 17014.7].

Thynne, William, ed. The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newly Printed: With Dyuers Workes Whiche Were Neuer in Print Before. London: T. Godfray, 1532. [STC 5068. Rpt. 1542, STC 5069; ?1550, STC 5071.]

Stow, John, ed. The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer: Newly Printed, With Diuers Addicions, Whiche were Neuer in Printe Before: With the Siege and Destruccion of the Worthy Citee of Thebes, Compiled by Jhon Lidgate. London: J. Wight, 1561. [STC 5075. Based on Thynne.]

Speght, Thomas, ed. The Workes of our Antient and Lerned English Poet, Geffrey Chavcer, newly Printed. London: G. Bishop, 1598. [STC 5077. Rpt. 1602, STC 5080; 1687. Based on Thynne.]

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