More of Lydgate’s Lover


I left off “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe” last time in the midst of Lydgate’s lengthy catalogue of wronged lovers, from where I will continue here with Arcite.

“Of Thebes eke the fals Arcite,
And Demophon eke for his slouthe,
They had her lust and al that myght delyte
For al her falshede and grete untrouthe.
Thus ever Love, alas, and that is routhe,
His fals legys furthereth what he may
And sleeth the trwe ungoodly day be day.

Arcite is a direct reference to Chaucer’s Arcite from Anelida, in which Arcite seduces Anelida despite not loving her, only to then leave her for another women, hence his moniker here of “fals Arcite.”

Demophon is best known for his relationship with Phyllis, whom he is said to have betrayed the day after their wedding. Phyllis was turned into an almond tree and she is featured earlier in the poem during the procession of trees (lines 68-70) along with Daphne who leads the way. With this, the catalogue begins to turn into a diatribe against love.

“For trwe Adon was slayn with the bore
Amyde the forest in the grene shade,
For Venus love he felt al the sore.
But Vulcanus with her no mercy made;
The foule cherle had many nyghtis glade,
Wher Mars, her worthi knyght, her trewe man,
To fynde mercy, comfort noon he can.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells the story of Venus and Adonis that is referenced in the first line of the stanza, but the allusion is buried within multiple layers for both Venus and Adonis. For those unfamiliar with Adonis’s ancestry, he was begot through incest between his mother, Myrrha, and her father who unknowingly was beguiled into bed with her. Myrrha betrayed her filial duties and forsook her father’s paternal love in order to fulfill her lust for him. She was turned into a tree (but unlike Daphne or Phyllis, this was her punishment, not a means of saving her). Her son, Adonis, grew up to be the most attractive man in the world. Venus fell in love with him and enjoyed spending time with him during his favorite activity, hunting, all the while warning him not to chase after animals that are too dangerous. Needless to say he did not heed her warning, and went after a boar that ended up killing him. Venus turned his blood into the flower Anemone. Further, even while Venus was dallying with Adonis, her affair with Mars at the expense of Vulcan is mentioned, underscoring Love’s negative consequence. True love is not rewarded.

“Also the yonge, fressh Ipomones,
So lusty fre as of his corage,
That for to serve with al his hert ches
Athalans, so feire of her visage.
But Love, alas, quyte him so his wage
With cruel daunger pleynly at the last,
That with the dethe guerdonlesse he past.

Here we get a reference to Atlanta and Hippomenes, whose story is told by Venus to Adonis in the Metamorphoses right before Adonis’s death. Atlanta wanted to know who she should marry, and decided to consult the oracle who told her not to marry at all as it would be her downfall. Since her question was not answered (at least not the way she wanted) she decided to hosting a race in which she would marry any man who could outrun her (while killing all those who didn’t win).

As she is preparing to race, Hippomenes sees her and falls in love. He immediately challenges her to a race in hopes of winning her hand in marriage. She is flustered by his request since she actually likes him and would not wish to see him die, but nevertheless she acquiesces to race him. Hippomenes realizes the severity of his situation and prays to Venus for help. Since this story is originally related by Venus to Adonis, she recalls how she happened to have been carrying three golden apples, and so she hands them to him. During the race Hippomenes and Atlanta remain relatively close because Atlanta is torn between her desire for him, and her desire to win. In other words, she is allowing him to maintain the lead, but then decides against doing so and takes off, leaving him behind. Hippomenes throws the first apple, sending Atlanta off course chasing the shinny trinket, which allows him to gain a lead. He maintains it the best he can, but she catches up and moves ahead of him once more. He uses the second apple. They are both closing in on the end, and it appears she will undoubtedly win when he sends her off course one last time in chase of the third apple while he crosses the finish line. They marry, and remain perfectly happy and in love with each other. However, they forget to thank Venus for her assistance, which angers her. One day, as they pass by a temple of Cybele (mother of the gods), Venus engenders within Hippomenes an uncontrollable desire for Atlanta, who he then takes into the back room of Cybele’s shrine. Needless to say, Cybele becomes irate with the two of them and turns them into lions that she then harnesses to her chariot. The oracle was probably right, and Atlanta should not have gotten married.

The part of the story Lydgate fixates upon is the “cruel daunger” that arises from love such as Hippomenes’s decision to enter a race that could potentially lead to his death (without even mentioning the men who died in the endeavor before him). Love leads to further reckless behavior as Hippomenes takes Atlanta into the back room of the temple. The oracle cautions against marriage, and Lydgate’s catalogue escalates the warning to encompass all love unions.

“Lo, her the fyne of lovers servise!
Lo, how that Love can his servantis quyte!
Lo, how he can his feythful men dispise
To sle the trwe men and fals to respite!
Lo, how he doth the suerde of sorowe byte
In hertis suche as must his lust obey
To save the fals and do the trwe dey!

The first part of this stanza recalls Troilus in two separate instances of Book V. First, as a means of demonstrating another instance where false love is rewarded and championed:

Swich fyn hath, lo, this Troilus for love!
Swich fyn hath al his grete worthynesse!
Swich fyn that his estat real above!
Swich fyn his lust, swich fyn hath his noblesse!
Swych fyn hath false worldes brotelnesse! (Book V, lines 1828-1832).

Then, as discussed in an earlier note (concerning  line 371 of Lydgate’s poem) where Lo is mentioned:

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 the 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.

The second half of the stanza recalls Chaucer’s Anelida: “Thogh that the swerd of sorwe byte / My woful herte” (lines 270-271). While this is a common phrase in Middle English, it is generally reserved for religious texts in connection to Mary’s lament over Christ’s death. Lydgate follows Chaucer’s secular usage of the terminology, placing it in connection with love.

“For feythe nor othe, worde ne assuraunce,
Trwe menyng, awayte, or besynesse,
Stil port, ne feythful attendaunce,
Manhode, ne myght in armes, worthinesse,
Pursute of wurschip, nor high prouesse,
In straunge londe rydinge ne travayle –
Ful lyte or noght in love dothe avayle.

“Peril of dethe, nother in se ne londe,
Hungre ne thrust, sorowe ne sekenesse,
Ne grete emprises for to take on honde,
Shedyng of blode, ne manful hardynesse,
Nor ofte woundynge at sawtes by distresse,
Nor jupartyng of lyfe, nor dethe also –
Al ys for noghte, Love taketh non hede therto.

These two stanzas follow suit with the complaint against Love’s uncaring nature, who will slay all followers regardless of circumstance. The tirade against love will continue onward from here, and next time we will see more of the narrator’s laments.


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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