Tag Archives: poem

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.

A History Lesson in Six Lines

Very little is known about Romanian medieval literature. This is not a geographical statement, but a cultural one that focuses on language. While literature was most definitely produced within the confines of what would be considered Romania and therefore Romanian medieval literature does exist, literature of any kind was not written in the Romanian language until centuries after the medieval period.

A brief history should explain the different processions of the territory.

The earliest records of the Romanians indicate they initially inhabited the land of Dacia, modern day Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldova (the latter of which has been problematic until its recent independence). Around the mid third century the land was taken over by the Romans (which consequently brought Christianity to the people). Latin and Dacian mixed, and the dominant source of language, Latin, influenced the majority of the new language that eventually came to be known as Romanian. Interestingly, almost nothing is known of the Dacian language and its existence can be deciphered mainly by working backwards from early Romanian into Latin and noting the differences. In the mid sixth century Slavs invaded Romania, followed by several more invasions over the next six hundred years. Yet despite the disparate nationalities that were traipsing through the land, Romanians managed to maintain an almost impenetrable national identity and language, evident from historic accounts and linguistic studies which concur that while Romanian was influenced by its various invasions, the language only marginally acquired borrowed language, and to this day remains predominantly Latin based.

Nevertheless, the spoken language didn’t survive in extant manuscripts which mainly reflected the dominating nationalities, progressing from liturgical texts written in Latin, to psalters in Slavic, to general texts in Greek (while Romania was under Ottoman rule), until the early sixteenth century when Romanian as we know it finally became part of the textual tradition.

I rarely if ever encounter early texts written in Romanian, but today I was lucky and quite accidentally came upon a short poem written in 1644 by Udriste Nasturel, a scholar and poet. He was greatly concerned with the state of Romanian nationality in the face of so much diplomatic fluctuation where the country changed hands between neighboring nations on a consistent basis without ever holding autonomy.

His brief poem, “Stihuri in stema domniei Tarii Romanesti, neam casei basarabeasca” (Verses on the heraldry of the reign of the Romanian Country, nation of the House Basarab) already carries certain connotations in its title. Despite having been written in the mid seventeenth century, it recalls the rule of House Basarab that had solidified the Wallachia territory in the early fourteenth century, and successfully liberated the land from the Hungarians. Notably, while Nasturel is writing his work, the Romanian nation is juggling power back from the Ottoman Empire with various degrees of success. In other words, the title of his poem reminds his readers of their national descent from House Basarab, drawing on the houses’s success at fending off a vast enemy as a source of inspiration for a call to action against the Ottomans.


(The battle at Posada where the Hungarian forces were defeated by Basarab’s army – Chronicon Hungariae Pictum).

Secondly, “stema” has a double meaning of “heraldry” which I chose to use here, but also “tradition.” These are obviously intertwined even in our modern understanding as heraldry is steeped in tradition, but I think the latter word broadens the meaning outside of simply those who would use heraldry and becomes a nationally inclusive term. Tradition extends to an entire population of people who can identify with the symbols of their nation, as we will shortly see in the poem, whereas heraldry is far more confining to specific groups, namely families, and those in support of those families.

Here is the short poem with my own translation:

Ceastă ţeară corbu-ş poartă întru pecetea ei,
fericit acum se-au dat adaos peceţii.
Scut la pieptul corbului cu un semn ca acela,
om den jeţiu şezându-ş toiag laudă acela.
Mare neam băsărăbesc cu aceasta semnează,
că marea acelor isprăvi a toţ(i) să-i vază.
This country the raven carries in its seal,
Happy now to have been added as another symbol.
Shield at the breast of the raven with a sign that he,
A man gripping his throne, praises it.
Large Basarab nation with this signs,
So their great feats all will see.


The poem has a very direct aabbcc rhyme scheme which serves to divide the narrative as each couplet depicts a brief episode of the story. Tellingly, Nasturel uses a Fourteener for his lines, a metrical line of 14 syllables which was commonly used between the Middle Ages through the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for narrative poetry. Despite the brevity of his words, he is noting his larger intention.

This is a very image oriented poem that derives meaning from envisioning a connection to the past, not unlike the ways in which the title draws a connection between the contemporary audience and its ancestors.

“This” at the start of the poem does not refer to the Romanian nation, but another, namely the Hungarians, which would be understood by the image of the raven that sits in the middle of their national coat of arms. In the first two lines one possessing entity is subsumed by another, and by the end of the second line the raven is carried not by its original country, but added as a symbol – won over – by another nation. The seal of Hungary becomes a trophy for a victor in the battle, here referring directly to House Basarab.

The image of the raven is again brought to the forefront, depicted on the shields of men in battle, with its heraldic meaning directly related to the king. However, this king that praises the raven and its significance is here shown practically at the edge of his seat, gripping his throne as he is about to lose it.

The last two lines solidify the victory of the Basarab nation over the Hungarians. By overtaking the raven the Basarab nation “signs” its fate, and parades their victory in terms of the enemy’s flag for all to witness.

Further, the last two lines also draw another parallel between past and potential future victories. At the time Nasturel is writing this, the ruler of Wallachia, Matei Brancoveanu, who would soon help the Romanian people in pivotal fights against invaders, had recently declared his descent from House Basarab and consequently rechristened himself Matei Basarab.

And finally, by naming Basarab within the poem he also pays tribute to a man who just a decade earlier made it possible for men like Nasturel to practice their arts with greater efficiency. Starting with his reign in 1632 Matei Basarab was a great patron of the arts and scholarship. With invariable influence from his wife, Elena, who just happened to be Nasturel’s sister, Basarab became the founder of schools and a university, and was responsible for bringing the printing press into Wallachia. He was perhaps the most literate and literature oriented ruler the territory had at that point had, and culture flourished under his rule.

Thus in his brief poem Nasturel manages to navigate several narratives and tie together episodes from the past and present. What a neat little trick!


Ghyka, Matila. A Documented Chronology of Romanian History.

Giurescu, Constantin C. The Making of the Romanian People and Language.

Johanna Granville. “Dej-a-Vu: Early Roots of Romania’s Independence.”

Teodor, Dan. Istoria Romaniei de la inceputuri pana in secolul al VIII-lea. 

Theodorescu, Razvan. “Civilizatia romanilor intre medieval modern.”