Lydgate, Compleynte of a Lovers Lyfe

I am reading this immediately after Book of the Duchess, so I guess it’s inevitable that there will be some crossover between the two. The most immediate difference from that poem, although they begin almost identically, is that the narrator of this poem isn’t in a dream. He is also suffering from a “sekenes” that “sat ay so nygh myn hert” (18). In order to relieve it, he goes to a forest where he can hear songbirds, thinking that it will help him. As with Chaucer, we then get a forest scene, in this case one where the light is breaking through the fog as it lifts.

We then get an inventory of various trees and plants, interspersed with gods and other mythical figures that they either are associated with or represent, starting with:

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.

Nature here seems to be described both tenderly and with delight, which suggests that it actually is having an effect on the speaker, if not necessarily curing him. We also have seasonal imagery, in that the blossoms now are imagined as future fruits to be shaken down in autumn, but winter is absent; we only have plenitude.

A few lines later, the narrator drinks from a well that is so wholesome it is supposed to be able to soothe angry hearts and comfort the weary; part of his “smerte” is healed, but not all of it. When he comes across the knight, the speaker works to describe his paleness and his black and white armor, and uses the same word to describe his condition as he does for himself (“sekenesse”). Then we get this lament from the narrator:

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.

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.

But, he says, he knows nothing of such things. Instead, he will be like a scrivener, copying the work of his master. This whole scene is reminiscent of the “15 Sorrows of Mary”; he sees someone suffering and feels compelled to write it down and witness it, through compassionate piety. But he is not skilled enough to resolve to problem of sorrow, or to write about it originally. While his emotional outburst here seems to be on behalf of the knight’s woe, it also seems to hint at his own inability to express his sickness; writing another’s sorrow is therapeutic for that person, but also potentially for the writer.

This also seems to be a nod to the story’s origin. From what I can read about this poem, it seems to be assumed that it’s just a reworking of Chaucer’s story. Lydgate gets compared to Thomas Hoccleve a lot, who himself is tied to Chaucer in more or less every critical appraisal of his work, and both of them worked for Duke Humphrey of Gloucester.

It’s unclear why the writer writing about woe needs to know about it, beyond the extent that anyone writing about anything needs to write about it. He needs to know the cause, which is medical terminology, but he also needs to “know felyngly”, that is, know sympathetically. It would seem like the narrator here does know about woe sympathetically, given his introduction. However, he goes on to say that he has no experience, which is why he needs a guide. All of this begs the question of what knowing felyngly really means, and why the narrator is bereft of it. If you have melancholy but don’t know its cause, would this imply that you can’t actually know it? (This would further imply that knowledge is a combination of experience and medical knowledge, even self-knowledge, so that anyone who wants to claim experience has to know themselves in several registers.) This could also be a case for the idea that Lydgate’s narrator is experiencing head melancholy, as we covered with the Book of the Duchess, rather than lovesickness (though I disagree with this interpretation, as I’ll get to in a minute).

Then we get to the knight’s story, which as a result of expertise the narrator has refused to amend and has written exactly as he heard it. It is in its own section, titled “Compleynt”. I actually don’t have very much to say about this, beyond that fact that it’s interesting that the complaint is bracketed off on its own. I am wondering whether this is a genre convention at this time, or if this comes from somewhere else. Unlike Chaucer’s black knight, this one has been refused by his lady, rather than separated from her by death. Lydgate writes down his lament, asking for the reader’s patience if anything in it is wrong: “But for to sey the same, / Lyke as this man his compleynt did expresse, / I axe mercie and forgevenesse” (ll.607-9). He then ends by addressing his lovesick readers directly, as he did right before the start of the complaint: he says that he hopes by the morning, each of them will hold a lady in their arms, and, perhaps more importantly, that each of them will be able to “in al honesté, / Withoute more, ye may togedre speke / Whatso yow list at good liberté, / That eche may to other her hert breke (open)” (ll.659-62). While this never turns into a manual, and no cures are given, Lydgate takes care to express how painful lovesickness is, and his earnest hope that it is resolved.

The narrator implores his readers to self-expression, but he is never able to express himself. He doesn’t lay claim to expertise about sorrow, and we don’t get a sense that his own is resolved. In fact, if we are to understand the envoy de quarye at the end as coming from the same narrator as the poem, it would seem that his sekeness is, in fact, lovesickness. This makes sense in the context of his sympathy for the knight, and also for the many readers he imagines who are suffering from the same problem. However, it doesn’t clarify why the narrator fees unprepared to give his own thoughts about lovesickness, and especially why he claims he has no experience with it.

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