Lydgate’s “Loveres Lyfe”


Before Kzoo I wanted to finish off another segment of Lydgate’s “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” in keeping with my goal of successfully completing it by the end of summer. Last time I left off in the middle of the lover’s catalogue of faithful lovers who were undeservingly punished, and now I will continue with Phebus and Piramus.

“Phebus also, for al his persaunt lyght,
When that he went her in erthe lowe
Unto the hert with Venus sight
Ywounded was thro Cupides bowe;
And yet his lady list him not to knowe,
Thogh for her love his hert did blede;
She let him go and toke of him non hede.

The reference is to the story of Phebus and Daphne. For those unfamiliar with the story, Phebus mocked Cupid for his use of a bow and arrows, causing Cupid to demonstrate the power of his tools. Phebus, shot with a golden arrow, uncontrollably falls in love with Daphne, a nymph, who was pierced by a lead arrow designed to induce hatred. A chase ensues, and as Apollo is about to catch Daphne she calls for her father (sometimes Jupiter or Zeus, depending on the version) who then helps her by converting her into a tree to escape Phebus’s grasp. While this saves her from his pursuit, she unfortunately will remain in this form for eternity.

This reference within the catalogue of true lovers is a little problematic considering the origin of the love, and its manifestation. There is nothing to insinuate Phebus’s love would have occurred or proliferated without Cupid’s intervention, nor were his intentions terribly virtuous. Further, it is impossible to know Daphne’s prerogatives aside from those induced by the lead arrow. Perhaps of her own accord she would not have spurned Phebus, and consequently would not have been encased within a tree trunk for the rest of her life. All conjectures aside, this is a very shady depiction of true love.

“What shal I say of yong Piramus?
Of trwe Tristram for al his high renoune?
Of Achilles or of Antonyas?
Of Arcite or of him, Palamoune?
What was the ende of her passion
But after sorowe, dethe, and then her grave?
Lo, her the guerdon that lovers have!

Piramus is mentioned in earlier Chaucerian works: in the Legend of Good Women (line 724), and he appears on the wall of Venus’s temple in Parlement. All of these sources ultimately draw their inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Par IV) that tells the story of Piramus and Thisbe.

In the original, Piramis and Thisbe were neighbors, and fell in love. However, their families would not allow them to wed due to a familial feud, relegating the lovers to communicate through a hole in an adjoining wall. They make plans to meet late one evening, and Thisbe arrives first. She spots a lion wandering around, bloodied from its recent kill. Frightened, she runs away, allowing her cloak to fall on the ground. The bloodied lion ravages the coat, tearing it to shreds. When Piramus arrives and sees the rent garment he immediately recognizes it is Thisbe’s, and believes she has been slaughtered by the beast. In an act of passion he slays himself with his own sword. Thisbe returns and finds his body. She mourns, and uses the same sword to kill herself. Neither lover is spurned, per se, but they both suffer unjustly.

In the second line of the stanza, Tristram is a reference to Tristan and Isolde who also found suffering in love. Tristan was commissioned by King Marc to go overseas and fetch Isolde so she may become Marc’s wife. En route, both Tristan and Isolde ingest the love potion that had been intended for Marc and Isolde on their wedding night. Unfortunately the two fall in love. Isolde marries Marc, and continues her affair with Tristan. Neither are ever fully happy with the arrangement. Once again love is obtained through alternate means, leaving room for conjectures as to who each person would actually love had they been given the option. Here, too, resides the question of fate and free will. Did the potion negate their free will, or was it fate for them to fall in love, and the potion was only an agent of a larger scheme? Did the potion have its desired effect, or did they fall in love of their own volition only believing the potion had worked? Essentially there are several alternatives to consider, but regardless of the path chosen, the end was unfortunate.

Achilles, who was previously mentioned in medieval literature by Chaucer in Duchess (lines 1067-1071), while also appearing on the wall in Venus’s temple in Parlement.  and by Gower in Confessio (Part IV, lines 1693-1701 and Part VIII, lines 2571-2577), was in love with Polyxena who betrayed him. Visit the Getty for more information and a lovely depiction of Polyxena’s sacrifice by Pittoni.

In the same line, the reference to Antonyas and Cleopatra is well known, and was mentioned by Chaucer in the Legend of Good Women (lines 575-705) and Gower in the Confessio (Part VIII, lines 2571-2577). For more information on the couple, here is a nice segment from NPR.

Arcite and Palomoune in the next line is a direct reference to the Knight’s Tale (that was itself adapted from Boccaccio) in which the two nobles are imprisoned together and manage to fall in love with the same woman, Emelye, who they spot in the garden outside their cell window. While Emelye scorns both of them throughout, and does not wish to marry either suitors, Arcite dies and Palomoune gets to marry her. Thus, unlike the other lovers, Palomoune actually succeeds in fulfilling his wish for love.

The last lines of this stanza directly echo Troilus:

Lo here, of payens corsed olde rites,
Lo here, what alle hire goddes may auaille;
Lo here, thise wrecched worldes appetites;
Lo here, the fyn and guerdoun for trauaille
Of Ioue, Appollo, of Mars, of swich rascaille;
Lo here, the forme of olde clerkis speche
In poetrie, if ȝe hire bokes seche (Book V, lines 1849-1854).

False and true love (specifically the love of Christ) are juxtaposed. It is the last stanza of Troilus, and while it serves as a warning against false love, it also reminds us of our inherent faults that prevent us from ascending to absolute truth, or absolutely pure love.

“But false Jasoun with his doublenesse,
That was untrwe at Colkos to Medé;
And Tereus, rote of unkyndenesse;
And with these two eke the fals Ené.
Lo, thus the fals ay in oon degré
Had in love her lust and al her wille,
And save falshed ther was non other skille.

The catalogue continues on, but here reaches a turning point. Until now the list was concerned with men who had been unjustly denied love despite their loyalty and unfaltering devotion to those they loved. They were unacknowledged by their lovers, and punished by the gods, losing everything, even their lives at times. However, the list of lovers now shifts to focus on the men who wronged women in history, providing a perfect mini companion to the Legend of Good Women.

Medé, or Medea is best remembered for having killed her own children, but it is often forgotten that her despair at Jason’s unfaithfulness drove her there (which is not to justify her actions, but to shed light on a different part of the story). Lydgate’s approach in this stanza is very direct – blame is bluntly distributed.

Tereus evokes another image of a woman murdering her own child, that of hiswife Procne who in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Part VI, lines 424-674) served their son, Itys, for dinner. Yet here Procne is not mentioned, as her crime was also the result of fury. Tereus raped Procne’s sister, Philomela, and then cut out her tongue to prevent her from relating the incident to anyone. Philomela weaved the tale of assault and had it sent to Procne who then exacted revenge against Tereus. Much like Jason, he brought his sorrow upon himself. Chaucer and Gower make mention of the tale in the Legend of Good Women (line 2288) and Confessio (Part V, line 5551 and Part VIII, lines 2583-2586), respectively.

The next line references Ené, or Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid, who abandoned Dido at Carthage in order to go off and found Rome. Dido committed suicide, cursing Aeneas and his descendants. Chaucer and Gower also make mention of this in Legend (line 924), Fame (line 240) and Confessio (Part IV, line 77 and Part VIII, lines 2552-2553).

Through repetition of similar examples the catalogue allows for a clear illustration of an author’s point, and once we reach the end of this extremely rich compilation of names, Lydgate’s larger theme will emerge. Next time we will continue with Arcite, and look to the ways his woes are defined in the Lydgatean universe.


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

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.

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