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Lydgate’s Lover, Continued


Yes, I’m still here plowing along at Lydgate’s  “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” and here is where I left off last time. Let’s resume getting to know the mystery knight…

Wherof astonied, my fote I gan withdrawe,
Gretly wondring what hit myght be
That he so lay and had no felowe,
Ne that I coude no wyght with him se,
Wherof I had routhe and eke pité;
I gan anon, so softly as I coude,
Amonge the busshes me prively to shroude;

We return to the image of the poet as voyeur who divulges his findings to the general populace. The narrator is perplexed by the knight’s state of being, and by the fact that he appears to be travelling alone. Those familiar with romance will immediately assume some form of quest, personal or otherwise. However, here no more is said except that the narrator will use his concealment to the advantage of his story. Interestingly, according to the OED, this is the first recorded version of the verb “shroude” in this sense, and Lydgate goes to use it in similarly innovative ways in later works, such as the first instance of “shroud” as a means of taking shelter in Life of Our Lady.

If that I myght in eny wise espye
What was the cause of his dedely woo,
Or why that he so pitously gan crie
On hys fortune and on his eure also,
With al my myght I leyde an ere to
Every worde to marke what he sayed
Out of his swogh among as he abreyde.

This is a pretty straightforward stanza in which the narrator situates himself as the curious party in hopes of deciphering the ailment of the injured knight who has recently swooned. Further, as he awaits the knight’s recovery he professes to make note of what he observes, intoning his role as recorder, with an implication towards his impartiality. In short, he is interested in the knight, but uninterested enough to simply observe and record.

But first, yf I shal make mensyon
Of hys persone and pleynly him discrive,
He was in sothe, without excepcion,
To speke of manhod, oon the best on lyve –
Ther may no man agein trouthe stryve –
For of hys tyme, and of his age also,
He proved was ther men shuld have ado.

Yet, before delving into the knight’s reasons for his injury and woeful demeanor, the narrator pauses to detail his person and countenance, which both appear well above average – even rendering him perhaps the best specimen of man to have ever lived. However, it must be noted that at this point these determinations prove to be premature, and either reliant upon hindsight where the narrator infuses the poem with characteristics learned later, or the narrator is making impartial value judgments that would necessarily negate his earlier stance towards objective observation from his shrouded spot. Regardless of which perspective the reader wishes to support, the narrator’s reputation becomes murky.

For oon the best ther of brede and lengthe,
So wel ymade by good proporsion
Yf he had be in his delyver strengthe;
But thoght and sekenesse wer occasion
That he thus lay in lamentacion,
Gruffe on the grounde in place desolate,
Sole by himself, awaped and amate.

The knight, here described as a highly attractive man is marred by his lovesickness. This is a recurring theme throughout such poetry as can be recalled from the knight in the Duchess and, perhaps more notably, Troilus. And further borrowing from Chaucer, with a hint towards the wondrous, Lydgate echoes the monk from the Prioresses’s Tale who “gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde” (line 1865). Then the last line will be used in proximity in the House of Glas where “that they with derknes were waped and amate” (line 401). Considering the kinds of love that will be at the forefront of both poems, their shared words can often be used to draw further parallels.

And for me semeth that hit ys syttyng
His wordes al to put in remembraunce,
To me that herde al his compleynyng
And al the grounde of his woful chaunce,
Yf therwithal I may yow do plesaunce,
I wol to yow, so as I can, anone
Lych as he seyde reherse everychone.

The narrator continues to affirm his decision to spy on the knight, stating that he believes it to be the most fitting option, and thus will attempt to record every word spoken as faithfully as possible.

But who shal helpe me now to compleyn?
Or who shal now my stile guy or lede?
O Nyobe! Let now thi teres reyn
Into my penne and eke helpe in this nede,
Thou woful mirre that felist my hert blede
Of pitouse wo, and my honde eke quake,
When that I write for this mannys sake.

It has been suggested the first two lines of this stanza are derived from the Monk’s Tale, lines 3853-3854, but the  most interesting aspects are the rhetorical strategies employed. Lydgate begins with invocatio, imploring a being larger than himself for guidance and inspiration. However, as his invocation is underway he also makes use of aporia in which he feigns ignorance as to whom he will address his invocation, before proceeding with it and directing his apostrophe to Nyobe.

Lydgate relies on the image of Nyobe weeping to forge a connection between her and the lamenting knight. In the original story, Nyobe boasts to Leto about her fourteen children. Leto, having only given birth to two, Apollo and Artemis, commissions them to destroy Nyobe’s chilren. Apollo, with his bow and arrows, slays all seven of Nyobe’s sons, and Artemis uses her bow and arrows to slay all seven of her daughters. Nyobe escapes Leto’s wrath, but turns to stone. Despite being petrified, she never ceases her weeping, and that precise image of a weeping woman is here given to us by Lydgate.

While Nyobe’s love was not a romantic one like we shall find with the knight, both of these figures were nevertheless greatly consumed by the loss of loved ones, so it seems appropriate that Lydgate would chose Nyobe as his muse.

The last two lines of the stanza parallel similar lines in Troilus:  “For which myn herte right now gynneth blede, / And now my penne, allas, with which I write, / Quaketh for drede of that I moste endite” (lines 4.12-14). The same sentiment can be found in different words earlier in the story, in Book II, as Criseyde writes her first letter to Troilus, shaking and panicking all the while, protesting to Pandarus that she “never dide thing with more peyne / Than writen this to which ye me constreyne” (lines 2.1231-1232). It appears the act of writing emotional matters (one’s own or another’s) is physically painful, and in a sense enacts the initial pain that prompted the act of writing.

For unto wo acordeth compleynyng,
And delful chere unto hevynesse;
To sorow also, sighing and wepyng
And pitouse morenyng unto drerynesse;
And who that shal write of distresse
In partye nedeth to know felyngly
Cause and rote of al such malady.

The narrator continues in the same vein, preferring to display the emotions he describes as vividly if he felt them himself. In fact, to best convey to the audience the reality of the situation, he will suffer the emotions himself. His ultimate goal is to present to us the condition of his characters as true in nature as possible.

With this, in my next segment of the poem we will see if Lydgate is up to the task, and how he sets out to achieve it.


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.

Spearing, A. C. The Medieval Poet as Voyeur.


Loveres Lyfe, Continued

I am still working on Lydgate’s “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” and will resume from where I left off. Here I am only posting preliminary notes, and observations that I find useful, but if you are interested in the poem, visit my sources for far more in depth discussions. In the meantime, enjoy!

But this welle that I her reherse
So holsom was that hyt wolde aswage
Bollyn hertis, and the venym perse
Of pensifhede with al the cruel rage,
And evermore refresh the visage
Of hem that were in eny werynesse
Of gret labour or fallen in distresse.

After Lydgate references the multiple bodies of water that are unlike this well, he proceeds to explain its wholesome and restorative nature as it ameliorates anger, rage, wariness, and general distress.

And I that had throgh Daunger and Disdeyn
So drye a thrust, thoght I wolde assay
To tast a draght of this welle, or tweyn,
My bitter langour yf hyt myght alay;
And on the banke anon doune I lay,
And with myn hede into the welle araght,
And of the watir dranke I a good draght.

The narrator wishes to partake in the qualities of the water, and drink a drop or two to assuage his own maladies. Daunger signals the reference to the Romaunt, further carried out across the stanza until the last lines that clearly indicate a verbal parallel between the Romaunt and this work, essentially reminding the audience of the lover who is about to enter into the foreground of the poem.

Wherof me thoght I was refresshed wel
Of the brynnyng that sate so nyghe my hert
That verely anon I gan to fele
An huge part relesed of my smert;
And therwithalle anon up I stert
And thoght I wolde walke and se more
Forth in the parke and in the holtys hore.

The narrator is indeed relieved from the burdens within his heart, and he decides to continue walking to see what else this land holds. Interestingly, he describes the place in terms of a “holtys hore” that in numerous works such as the Roman, the Romaunt, Sir Orfeo, and Launfel, (among others) are words used to describe wild, desolate places. “Holtys,” the woods, take on a dreary description of unpleasantness, tainting the earlier image of a paradisal garden intoning love and whimsy. By the end of the stanza the restorative well which serves to sooth the soul seems almost out of place.

And thorgh a launde as I yede apace
I gan about fast to beholde,
I fonde anon a delytable place
That was beset with trees yong and olde
(Whos names her for me shal not be tolde),
Amyde of which stode an erber grene
That benched was with clourys nyw and clene.

The narrator continues walking and finds a pleasant place containing trees that will  remain unnamed, in complete contrast to the earlier encounters with trees that bore names referencing a series of ill matched pairs such as Apollo and Daphne, or Dido and Aeneas. At the end of the stanza he comes upon a mound of “benched” land, meaning a plot perfect for sitting, that was newly covered in grass. “Clourys” has been glossed as “colouryd” before, but covered makes the most sense. Here he shall sit as the rest of the poem unfolds.

This erber was ful of floures ynde,
Into the whiche, as I beholde gan,
Betwex an hulfere and a wodebynde,
As I was war, I sawe ther lay a man
In blake and white colour, pale and wan,
And wonder dedely also of his hiwe,
Of hurtes grene and fresh woundes nyw.

The narrator beholds the “floures ynde,” or blue flowers reminiscent of the ones in the Romaunt (line 67), before spying a man in black and white. This man is positioned between the hulfere, or holly, and wodebynde, honeysuckle. While the hulfere is inconstant across manuscripts, rendering a meaning more difficult, the honeysuckle has often been associated with lovers. It appears in the Knight’s Tale as Arcite makes a garland from hawthorn and honeysuckle. Troilus and Criseyde are entwined like honeysuckle in an embrace. Marie de France devotes an entire lai to honeysuckle in which she narrates a brief encounter between Tristan and Iseult. In every instance those represented in connection to the plant suffer heartache, death, or are somehow ill matched to their pair. As the man is spotted near the plant, it immediately signals troubles of love even before he is properly introduced via his own lament.

Here the poet remains hidden from view, eavesdropping, and stepping into the infamous role of poet as voyeur in which the private matters of the heart are translated into forms for public consumption by virtue of being witnessed and written down. Thus, as the narrator will begin relating what he sees and hears, the audience is implicated in the act of voyeurism.

Notably the man spied through the bushes is dressed in black and white in another Lydgatean nod towards Chaucer, specifically to the knight in Duchess. Lydgate will use this reference again in the Temple of Glas in which the lady’s outfit of black and white bears moral implications. The significance of color is made overtly clear in My Lady Dere: “And summe in token of clennesse, / Weren whyte. / But I, allas, in blak appere, / And alwey shal, in sorowe and dred” (lines 99-102). If for Lydgate white is purity, and Chaucer sees the Black Knight riddled with anguish, here the lover in the forest can be viewed as a pure and loyal lover, suffering from lovesickness, which, as discussed in an earlier installment of the poem, is a serious malady. To further drive the point, he is physically injured, and the pain from his heart mingles with the pain from his fresh wounds, producing an image of a hopelessly ill man, peaking our interest as we progress into the rest of the narrative.


(Chaucer’s Complaint of the Black Knight, MS Digby 181 f. 39r, for a better visual, visit the Bodelian digitized version).

And overmore destreyned with sekenesse
Besyde, as thus he was ful grevosly,
For upon him he had a hote accesse
That day be day him shoke ful petously,
So that, for constreynyng of hys malady
And hertly wo, thus lyinge al alone,
Hyt was a deth for to her him grone.

It must be noted at this point that the narrator does not actually know why the man is suffering. The audience can guess considering the numerous tropes surrounding the man which all point towards a lover’s anguish, but it has not been overtly stated. However, if we are to infer he is lovesick, it is unclear whether his physical wounds are a results of his mental state, leading to the kind of convalescence displayed in earnest by others like Troilus (as opposed to his feigned sickness), or if the man’s wounds were derived elsewhere. Nevertheless, he is a terrible sight. Here we shall leave him, and in the next installment we will find out more about our mystery man.


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.

Spearing, A. C. The Medieval Poet as Voyeur.

A Complaynt, Continued

Lydgate Siege of Troy

(Siege of Troy – Here Lydgate presents the work to Henry V. Oxford, MS Digby 232, f. 1a r)

In continuing with my look into Lydgate’s “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” I will be resuming where I left off in my previous post. Per usual, each stanza will be accompanied by some of my brief thoughts, and at the bottom you will find my sources that delve much deeper into each topic.

And in I went to her the briddes songe,
Which on the braunches, bothe in pleyn and vale,
So loude songe that al the wode ronge,
Lyke as hyt sholde shever in pesis smale.
And, as me thoght, that the nyghtyngale
Wyth so grete myght her voys gan out wrest,
Ryght as her hert for love wolde brest.

Birdsong operates as an integral part of locus amoenus, drawing the reader into the enchanted world, while also drawing the parallel of birdsong in the Romaunt, Parlement of Fowls, and the General Prologue. These works all rely in part upon the connection between nature and humanity, and the constant contrast that sets the two apart in order to better understand the latter. Humanity may appreciate birdsong that is often associated with love, and the boundlessness of nature, but birdsong does not harbor the well calculated rhythm of music. Irrational creatures, birds, may not produce rational composition. In probing this analogy further, love, too, is understood as irrational, and its lure becomes dangerous.

The soyle was pleyn, smothe, and wonder softe,
Al oversprad wyth tapites that Nature
Had made herselfe, celured eke alofte
With bowys grene, the flores for to cure,
That in her beauté they may longe endure
Fro al assaute of Phebus fervent fere,
Which in his spere so hote shone and clere.

Once again the parallels to other paradisal gardens abound, as the poem clearly crosses the threshold into the land of love and dream visions. However, interestingly, here Nature is simultaneously chaotic as her boughs overflow and overtake the ground and flowers, while also utilitarian in using these seemingly unwieldy appendages to protect flowers from the destructive powers of Phebus, the sun.

The eyre atempre and the smothe wynde
Of Zepherus amonge the blosmes whyte
So holsomme was and so norysshing be kynde
That smale buddes and rounde blomes lyte
In maner gan of her brethe delyte
To gif us hope that their frute shal take,
Agens autumpne redy for to shake.

Every aspect of this world will be examined, including the climate. Similar lines will be echoed in The Siege of Thebes: “Zephyrus with his blowing softe / The wedere made lusty, smoth, and feir, / And right attempre was the hoolsom eir” (lines 1054-1056).  Further, in Parlement, “Th’air of that place so attempre was / That nevere was grevaunce of hot ne cold” (lines 204-205).  In short, temperature, climate, and Zephyrus, the west wind, are all commonly used throughout medieval texts to elicit the concept of an idyllic milieu, or at the very least to set the tone for one.

As the sun pierces the foliage, and the wind gently blows, the temperate temperature is perfect for an onslaught of blooming flowers being heralded in by spring, such as de Meun’s Zephyrus who, together with his wife Flora, create the flowers used to celebrate lovers (Roman lines 8381-8392). This brings to the forefront Zephyrus’s inclinations, and continues to position Lydgate’s poem within the realm of lovers. Love buds like the flowers engendered by Zephyrus’s breath, relying on the notion of the west wind as a general emblem for renewal and reanimation. Recall in Sir Gawain and the Greek Knight, Zephyrus is directly juxtaposed with the coming of winter (lines 517-525).

I sawe ther Daphene, closed under rynde,
Grene laurer, and the holsomme pyne,
The myrre also, that wepeth ever of kynde,
The cedres high, upryght as a lyne,
The philbert eke, that lowe dothe enclyne
Her bowes grene to the erthe doune
Unto her knyght icalled Demophoune.

The classification of trees appropriately commences with a reference to Daphne. For those unfamiliar with the story, Apollo mocked Eros for his use of a bow and arrows, causing Eros to demonstrate the power of his tools. Apollo, 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 Zeus, depending on the version) who then helps her by converting her into a tree to escape Apollo’s grasp. Specifically, a laurel. Thus in Lydgate’s poem she leads the procession of trees, each with their own meaning derived from previous legends and texts.

Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum offers some very interesting descriptions for each of the trees featured here, along with their potential uses.

The last lines of this stanza reference another pair of ill fated lovers, casting a negative light upon the subject, while foreshadowing the knight the narrator will soon encounter. Here the filbert tree is a reference to Phyllis who was abandoned by Demophon, the son of Theseus and Phedra. On his way home from Troy, he was shipwrecked and Phyllis repaired his ships and entertained him. He married her, but then had to leave, promising to return, which he never did. Phyllis impatiently awaited his return, and when she could wait no more, she hangs herself on a tree. The gods pitied her and metamorphosed her into a tree. Interestingly in classic sources, namely Ovid, she transforms into an almond tree. And even though the story is mentioned several times by Chaucer in the Legend of Good Women, Duchess, Fame, and through the Man of Law, the only earlier instance of her being transformed into a filbert tree is derived from Gower’s Confessio, which also carries the closest narrative parallel to the Complaynt. Lydgate will later use these references in the Temple of Glass.

Ther saw I eke the fressh hawthorne
In white motele that so soote doth smelle;
Asshe, firre, and oke with mony a yonge acorne,
And mony a tre mo then I can telle.
And me beforne I sawe a litel welle
That had his course, as I gan beholde,
Under an hille with quyke stremes colde.

The foliage imagery continues into this stanza, and extends from trees to hawthorn, a sturdy and steadfast plant. Trevisa also has much to say about the plants mentioned here as he describes their properties and uses (see above).

The narrator than wanders towards a stream that flows from a well under a hill, much like the well that flows from a hill in the Romaunt. The water is cold and inviting, luring the narrator to drink.

The gravel golde, the water pure as glas,
The bankys rounde the welle environyng,
And softe as velvet the yonge gras
That therupon lustely gan spryng.
The sute of trees about compassyng
Her shadowe cast, closyng the wel rounde
And al th’erbes grouyng on the grounde.

The gravel in the Roman is “plus clere qu’argenz fins” (line 1527), and in the Romaunt it “shoon / Down in the botme as silver fyn” (line 1557). The rest of the lines in this stanza closely follow both of these works, echoing their words in the description of the well.

The “sute of trees,” referring to a set or series is the first recorded instance of the word used in this sense (OED). In the Romaunt the trees are planted in rows. In the Roman it is only the pine trees that cast a shadow. However, despite the similarities, unlike other wells (the well of Narcissus, Diana, or Pegasus), here the well has restorative properties, as we shall shortly see, and only resembles others in appearance.

The water was so holsom and so vertuous
Throgh myghte of erbes grouynge beside –
Nat lyche the welle wher as Narcisus
Islayn was thro vengeaunce of Cupide,
Wher so covertely he did hide
The greyn of deth upon ech brynk
That deth mot folowe, who that evere drynk;

The wholesome water has the power to sooth lamenting lovers, which Lydgate carefully makes evident when repeatedly telling the audience this well is “nat lyche,” “ne lyche” and “nor lyche” any of the others that are associated with spurned lovers, in the same vein as the earlier trees. The story of Narcissus also echoes a reference to Echo, who fell in love with Narcissus and was shunned, left wasting away until only her voice remained to repeat what she had heard. Narcissus is punished for his ill use of Echo and is cursed to fall in love with himself. As soon as he gazes upon his own reflection in the water he is mesmerized, living out the rest of his days staring at himself, and later turned into a flower. This transformation for Lydgate is a source of death – a useless infatuation that engenders nothing. Thus even as he follows in the tradition of the Roman, Chaucer who makes mention of Narcissus in the Knight’s Tale and and Franklin’s Tale, Gower in Confessio, and even Ovid who initially proposed the metamorphosis, Lydgate does not allow Narcissus to become a positive reference for love. Narcissus’s self love was grounded in a physicality that is generally not embraced in the Lydgatean world.

Ne lyche the pitte of the Pegacé
Under Parnaso, wher poetys slept;
Nor lyke the welle of pure chastité,
Whiche as Dyane with her nymphes kept
When she naked into the water lept,
That slowe Atteon with his houndes felle
Oonly for he cam so nygh the welle.

The reference begins with Ovid’s story of Pegasus, who stomped his hoofs into the earth, creating wells and springs, including Hippocrene that was sacred to the muses (said to have been located on the Heliconian peak of Parnassus). The importance here is the use for the well, to serve as an inspiration for the muses, which makes it unlike the well in the “Complaynt.” This well refreshes the drinker without proffering any other uses, least of all inspiration.

There is reason to believe the reference is solely placed here due to Lydgate’s affinity for these lines in classical literature, and a manuscript containing them in Persius’s Prologue to the Satires was found in the library of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. Lydgate also uses this passage within Princes and Troy.

The second part of the stanza relies on the story of Diana and Actaeon, another ill matched pair that leads to metamorphosis. Diana was bathing in a well as Acteon was out hunting. He gazed upon her, and consequently incurred her wrath. As punishment for his trespass she turned him into a stag, and he later was torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds. Here Lydgate is relying on Hyginus’s account in which the fountain Diana was originally bathing in, that initially commenced the series of events, was associated with chastity. This well is also unlike the Lydgatean well. Even as Lydgate might wish to distance himself from the erotic or physical nature of love, his distancing is more of a lack of mention as opposed to a true denial. Thus chastity would be out of place in this instance, and an altogether too strong opposition for love.

As he describes the locus amoenus, and he sets forth all that the well within is not, he has yet to define what it is, and why the audience should care. This is precisely what he sets out to do in the following stanza, and in my next installment of the poem, we will visit the well itself, and what it brings.


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.