Lydgate’s Complaynt


At this point it has become quite clear I will not be using Lydgate’s “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” for my Kalamazoo paper, but nevertheless I’m enjoying going through the poem, stanza by stanza. I will be continuing forth from where I left off last time. Per usual, my sources listed at the bottom offer far more information should you be interested in reading more than the glimpse I offer here.

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,
But even like as doth a skryvener
That can no more what that he shal write
But as his maister beside dothe endyte,

Modesty was most certainly a virtue in the medieval period, and a trope many writers made use of when beginning their works. While we are indeed 200 lines into the poem, here the narrator is only just beginning to relate his story. Until recently it was the frame narrator speaking, and not the poet within the tale persona who is voyeuristically spying on the knight. Another famous example of negations of talent can be found in the General Prologue and Legend of Good Women.

Interestingly he attributes the tale to a master of various natures and considers himself no more than a mere scribe transcribing what was given. Of course, with recent scribal scholarship there is a great deal more we have learned about scribal culture and its function, making it hard to believe that they did little more than copy texts like xerox machines. More often than not they interjected themselves into the text by making corrections or emendations well out of line with what was being asked. Their motives were usually to improve the text, and even on occasion make it more aesthetically pleasing as they re-envisioned the mise en page, sometimes at the actual expense of the text. Nevertheless, here Lydgate relies on the very conventional understanding of a scrivner.

Ryght so fare I, that of no sentement
Sey ryght noght, as in conclusion,
But as I herde when I was present
This man compleyn wyth a pytouse son;
For even lych, wythout addissyon
Or disencrese, outher mor or lesse,
For to reherse anon I wol me dresse.

Compare this with this stanza from the Canterbury Tales (lines 715-746):

Now have I toold you soothly, in a clause,
Th’ estaat, th’ array, the nombre, and eek the cause
Why that assembled was this compaignye
In southwerk at this gentil hostelrye
That highte the tabard, faste by the belle.
But now is tyme to yow for to telle
How that we baren us that ilke nyght,
Whan we were in that hostelrie alyght;
And after wol I telle of our viage
And al the remenaunt of oure pilgrimage.
But first I pray yow, of youre curteisye,
That ye n’ arette it nat my vileynye,
Thogh that I pleynly speke in this mateere,
To telle yow hir wordes and hir cheere,
Ne thogh I speke hir wordes proprely.
For this ye knowen al so wel as I,
Whoso shal telle a tale after a man,
He moot reherce as ny as evere he kan
Everich a word, if it be in his charge,
Al speke he never so rudeliche and large,
Or ellis he moot telle his tale untrewe,
Or feyne thyng, or fynde wordes newe.
He may nat spare, althogh he were his brother;
He moot as wel seye o word as another.
Crist spak hymself ful brode in hooly writ,
And wel ye woot no vileynye is it.
Eek plato seith, whoso that kan hym rede,
The wordes moote be cosyn to the dede.
Also I prey yow to foryeve it me,
Al have I nat set folk in hir degree
Heere in this tale, as that they sholde stonde.
My wit is short, ye may wel understonde.

This is not to argue that the Lydgatean narrator is necessarily mimicking Chaucer’s since again, this was a common trope. However, I wanted to use one of the best known examples as evidence for the different ways in which the meek narrator can exist. He asserts his deep rooted desire to relate the events as closely as possible with little regard for his own opinions and sentiments, followed by an apology for his own shortcomings and ineptitude to do justice to the piece.

Returning to the narrator in the Complaynt

And yf that eny now be in this place
That fele in love brennyng or fervence,
Or hyndered were to his lady grace
With false tonges that with pestilence
Sle trwe men that never did offence
In worde ne dede, ne in their entent –
Yf eny such be here now present,

The narrator bids any men who have been either in love or a hindrance to love to show themselves. There is a intonation that one or both types of men will be the main topic of his forthcoming telling, and thus they would have the most to gain from hearing him.

Let hym of routhe ley to audyence
With deleful chere and sobre contenaunce
To here this man, be ful high sentence,
His mortal wo and his perturbaunce,
Compleynyng, now lying in a traunce
With loke upcast and reuful chere,
Th’effect of which was as ye shal here.

Again, these men, who have known love from one side or another, are best suited to hear the complaint of the knight as the narrator will here tell us. The lover’s complaint was another often used trope that entailed the lover bemoaning the effects of his lovesickness. He is on the brink of death and only his love’s attention could resurrect him enough to continue living. While Troilus is first to come to mind, Aurthuriana is rich with such examples of men swooning and lamenting their fate as lovers.


And thus the complaint commences.

“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.

Interestingly, the actual complaint, while describing emotion, relies purely on logic and reason through a series of complicated rhetorical exercises. It has been noted that much like Chaucer in the Parlement, Lydgate uses anaphor (look for this as one of the words in the last line of each stanza is repeated in the first line of the following stanza), and parison, but turns these concepts into a catalogue meant to emphasize the key elements of love. Over the next few stanzas certain words are indeed underlined in MS Fairfax 16, suggesting they are the keys to understanding love, and the lover.

“Whos hert ys grounde to blede on hevynesse,
The thoght resseyt of woo and of compleynt,
The brest is chest of dule and drerynesse,
The body eke so feble and so feynt.
With hote and colde my acces ys so meynt
That now I shyver for defaute of hete,
And hote as glede now sodenly I suete:

Once again lovesickness becomes an actual physical ailment where the lover experiences bouts of hot and cold, much like a fever peaking, breaking, and returning full force. Similarly like strong fevers, lovesickness was serious enough to believe it could kill a person. The direct comparisons to the knight can be found in the Troilus, but also in Lydgate’s own Temple of Glas.

“Now hote as fire, now colde as asshes dede,
Now hote for colde, now cold for hete ageyn,
Now colde as ise, now as coles rede
For hete I bren; and thus betwext tweyn
I possed am, and al forcast in peyn,
So that my hete pleynly, as I fele,
Of grevouse colde ys cause everydele.

Recall Troilus who “For hete of cold, for cold of hete I dye” (1.420), and the process of hot and cold representing the various forms of anguish that are there referred to as an “axcess,” much like the “acces” here.

“This ys the colde of ynwarde high dysdeyn,
Colde of dyspite, and colde of cruel hate;
This is the colde that evere doth besy peyn
Agens trouthe to fight and debate;
This ys the colde that wolde the fire abate
Of trwe menyng, alas, the harde while;
This ys the colde that will me begile.

The coldness felt by the lover can be interpreted in several ways. His heart may be hardening to the indifference of his loved one. He is slowly feeling the progressive cold of death. The rest of his lament will help us glean his inner most thoughts and understand the situation he faces. In the next installment we will see the causes and results of this cold he feels.


Krausser, E. “The Complaint of the Black Knight.”

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages.

MacCracken, Henry Noble, ed. The Complaint of the Black Knight. In The Minor Poems of John Lydgate.

Norton-Smith, John, ed. A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe. In John Lydgate, Poems.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.