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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.

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.

The Ongoing “Complaynt”


I am approaching the midpoint of Lydgate’s “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” and I absolutely love how it is all coming together (as Lydgate’s works often do). I knew it was going to be a long trek when I started, but having now spent as much time with the poem, I have gotten to know aspects of it that I had never culled out in casual reading, and have gained so much more appreciation for it. Per usual, this is a cursory reading, so for more in-depth discussions, read my sources, but in the meantime here is more of my work, starting from where I left off last time:

“What meneth this? What ys this wonder ure
Of purveance, yf I shal hit calle,
Of God of Love that fals hem so assure,
And trew, alas, doun of the whele be falle?
And yet, in sothe, this is the worst of alle:
That Falshed wrongfully of Trouth hath the name,
And Trouthe, agenwarde, of Falshed bereth the blame.

The knight begins simply enough with a common set of questions, echoing Mars’ inquiries in Chaucer’s “Complaint of Mars:” “What meneth this? What is this mystihed?” (line 224). He wonders about “purveance,” that is used throughout Chaucer’s Boece in reference to an omniscient God, but applies it here to the God of Love. Further, the God of Love is also paralleled to Fortune where Love appears to have a say as to who is at the top or bottom of the “Whele” – a clear reference to Fortune’s Wheel that moves according to her whims. Boethius believes Philosophy should be trusted over Fortune for the very reason of Fortune’s fickleness. Her wheel changes direction without reason, as opposed to Philosophy’s adherence to rationale when deciding a course of action. By equating Love with Fortune, Lydgate creates an image of Love as capricious or flighty, yet fully aware of man’s state, much like an omniscient God. Thus, in Lydgatean terms, Love is a powerful force.

“This blynde chaunce, this stormy aventure,
In love hath most his experience,
For who that doth with Trouth most his cure
Shal for his mede fynde most offence,
That serveth Love with al his diligence;
For who can feyne under loulyhede
Ne fayleth not to fynde grace and spede.

The first line is a direct reference Chaucerian texts. First to Criseyde when she debates the pros and cons of allowing herself to fall in love “ffor loue is yet the mooste stormy lyf, / Right of hym self, that euere was bigonne ” (Book 2, lines 778-779). It is also a reference to the Troy Book: “The trowble and aduersite / That is in Loue, and his stormy lawe” (Part II, Lines 2544-2545). The “stormy” concept is not uncommon in Chaucerian composition outside of references reserved solely for Love, as seen in the Clerk’s Tale: “O stormy peple! unsad and evere untrewe! Ay indiscreet and chaungynge as a fane!” (Part IV, lines 995-996).

In all of these passages “stormy” is used to electrifying ends to describe chaotic, and hence inconstant, conditions. Love is lawless, volatile, and fickle. This is the state in which Lydgate receives and reuses the term. “Stormy” is not simply synonymous with “tumultuous,” but rather represents something outright violent and ultimately destructive. The catalogue of lovers that is about to begin will solidify this claim.

“For I loved oon ful longe sythe agoon
With al my hert, body, and ful myght,
And to be ded my hert cannot goon
From his hest, but hold that he hath hight.
Thogh I be banysshed out of her syght
And by her mouthe damned that I shal deye,
Unto my behest yet I wil ever obeye.

This falls into the same category as a previous catalog in which those who are untrue are rewarded, while the those true are punished.

Clearly the knight is distraught over his complete loss of interaction with his lady. Even when his love was not necessarily reciprocated, he took solace in her presence that she now denies. However, it must be noted that he is to be out of her sight, but it is not specified that she must remain out of his sight, hinting at the potential for further voyeuristic encounters. It is easy to forget, but must not be forgotten that the knight’s words come to us through the narrator’s spying, and thus via one act of voyeurism, with the possibility of an act within an act where we may indirectly (thrice removed!) see the lady. The audience receives the same satisfaction from perhaps viewing the lady in this instance as they did when first seeing Criseyde from Troilus’s point of view.

“I take recorde of Palamides,
The trwe man, the noble worthy knyght,
That ever loved, and of hys peyne no relese;
Notwithstondyng his manhode and his myght,
Love unto him did ful grete unright,
For ay the bette he did in chevalrye,
The more he was hindred by envye;

The knight begins another catalogue of figures with whom the audience would be familiar, and who would best illustrate his point. These are the men who truly loved but were denied any reward for their love, and the men who loved falsely but were allowed to enjoy their lovers’s reciprocation. Palamides was the saracen Arthurian knight who loved Isolde but was unable to obtain her love in return. Instead, she gave it via trickery and deceit to Tristan (which is not a statement meant to villainize him, but rather remark upon the nature and origin of their relationship).

“And ay the bette he dyd in every place
Throgh his knyghthode and besy peyn,
The ferther was he fro his ladys grace,
For to her mercie myght he never ateyn,
And to his deth he coude hyt not refreyn
For no daunger, but ay obey and serve
As he best coude, pleynly til he sterve.

Palamides not only faithfully loved Isolde, but was overall chivalrous and an excellent knight. His unrealized love is a combination of Fate, Love, and Fortune acting cruelly towards him, along with basic human elements such as Envy, that repays his prowess and acumen with hardship and pain. In other words, he suffered for being true – to his love, and to himself.

“What was the fyne also of Ercules,
For al his conquest and his worthynesse,
That was of strengthe alone pereles?
For, lyke as bokes of him list expresse,
He set pilers thro his high prouesse
Away at Cades for to signifie
That no man myght hym passe in chevalrie;

Hercules, who has been depicted in numerous composition from every time period since antiquity, is known for his love of Deianira, who nevertheless doubted his love due to rumors she had heard about his newfound love for Iole. In an attempt to regain his love she inadvertently caused his death (her culpability fluctuates with each version read, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides, to Boccacio’s  Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, to Gower’s Confessio, and Chaucer’s “Monk’s Tale” and Parliament). Whether or not she intentionally provided him with a poisoned cloak as retribution for what she perceived as lack of loyalty to her, or whether she unknowingly provided it believing it would restore him to her, does not change the fact that he died despite having lived with honesty and truth, as “no man myght hym passe in chevelrie.”

As for the “pilers,” they are a reference to the pillars Hercules built to symbolize one of his twelve labors, namely taking the cattle from the giant, Geryon.

“The whiche pilers ben ferre by-yonde Ynde
Beset of golde for a remembraunce.
And, for al that, was he sete behynde
With hem that Love list febly avaunce;
For him set laste upon a daunce
Agens whom helpe may no strife –
For al his trouth, he lost his lyfe.

It is important to remember the reason for Hercules’ labors – he murdered his first wife and children. Granted, it was due to a madness instilled by Hera, he was nevertheless greatly grieved by his deeds and sought out atonement, leading to Apollo’s advice that he should subject himself to the king and serve him in his nearly impossible labors. He faithfully completed each one as penitence for his actions.

His second attempt at love, with Deianira, is here referenced through love’s “daunce,” an idiom often used to allude to love’s failure. These lines have been translated before endowing Hercules with agency as he initiates his movement towards love, but such a translation remains unconvincing. If love is as fickle as the poem makes it out to be, and chance and fortune are at the forefront of human activity, then it becomes very unbelievable that any man, even Hercules, would be in full control over his decision to love, without even taking into the account the even more meager amount of control he holds over his love choice.

For other examples of word usage, the “daunce” appears in Chaucer’s Troilus: “Now, thonked be God, he may goon in the daunce / of hem that Love list febly for to avaunce” (lines 517-518), and “Pandarus . . . wel koude ech a deel / Th’ olde daunce, and every point therinne” ( Book III, lines 694-695). Then, it was used to describe the Wife of Bath, who  “Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce, / For she koude of that art the olde daunce” (GP 475-476). The idiomatic expression is certainly not restricted to these examples and abounds throughout medieval literature, but the general gist remains the same.

From here the catalogue of lovers continues as Lydgate revisits Pheobus and Daphne from earlier in the poem, and in my my next post, I will, too.


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.