The Complaint unto Virtue
I praye that for my wrake ful glad thou art
O Vertu, as I wol love and be loved,
But swich battailes have overcom myn hert
So that faire rewme is to wrechednesse moved,
And will me mordre sholde trouthe be nat proved,
Thogh swich wil thy sergeantes have nought of
For thy name thou woldst nat be fallen to leof.
Looke in me and every lovere spye,
Who peyneth alwey from Cupides arwe
To seke that fynest sort of pleye,
That can releeve a loveres depest sorwe.
I knowe nat slepe as I arryve ere the morwe,
Awook by loves cruell wrekynge
With wordes to win my ladye alweye spekynge.
That lovelyest ladye is my oon deere,
Whos voys is as a cokkowes songe,
And hir eyen bringen everichoon to cheere
In sooth, did Beute clepe hir in that tonge
As Venus Fayrest, borne free of wronge.
Were that she wolde graunte to be myn wyf,
I coulde be revelyng throgh al my lyf.
Yet what myght do I to at righte all sette?
I may to her speke my caas quik and preste,
The bullokes songe wol be festyng mete
That coues wille al ete and sette at reste
Havyng hadde everydel in loves sweete feste.
Swich may no mayden restrayne,
Ever to fruyt cometh a Stirbach lordes peyne.
To my ladye I come in ful curtesye
And offre my defense in declaracioun,
Spekyng swich loue-wordes of genterye:
O loved deere, lette Virtu thy confessioun,
That thou wol with me joyne as a constellacioun
Of lovyng sterres ful of Amor and Vertue,
To forme a love greter than ony coulde shewe.
She listeth and offreth no grauntynge but this:
My lord, thogh thy caas of love is wel-made,
And spekest kindely of me, myn answere No is,
As myn herte is an otheres, as it alweye been hadde
To a knyght verray worthy, for which I am gladde,
As he is fro that goode lande Windmasteres Hille
Where I keepe my depest love there stille.
Caste away am I to that most chereles fate,
For I have ben yforsaken by my ladye dere,
Thogh myn herte she wil not me late
Nor pleying in bedde nor ony swich chere.
For what most I this shameful bordoun bere?
I shal nat knowe, Virtu, why thy wolde yif a lemman
To the leste hill-side barones man.
A ladye more apt to love must I seke
Who ofreth grace with greter entente.
Here in Stirbakke I may find many, and eke,
With my love Virtue shal nat hem hente,
As in myn arms noon wolde repente
And folwe Love, that unkynde knyght,
And Virtu alswo to a grace ful of ryght.
I pray that you are happy to see me in such misery
O Virtue, as I only wish to love and to be loved
But the battles of love have overcome my heart
And that kingdom of my heart is moved to agony
And will be the death of me, should truth of my love not be proved
But your sergeants, the agents of love, will hear nothing of the kind
For you would not want your namesake Virtue to lose to Love.
Look in me and see all lovers that have ever been
Who ache eternally from Cupid’s arrow
In search of Love’s finest manner of recreation
That can relieve a lover’s deepest pain and sorrow.
I don’t even know what sleep is anymore, as I am up before the dawn
Awoke from the cruel tortures that Love subjects me to
Whispering to me always about how to win my lady.
The loveliest lady of all I call my own true love
Whose voice is as a cuckoo’s song
And her eyes bring everyone to happiness.
Truly, Beauty herself named her in that sweet language of Beauty
As “Venus Fairest,” born free of any sin or wrongdoing.
If only she would agree to be my wife
I would be happy for the rest of my days.
But what can I do to put everything to right?
Ah! I can talk to her and push quickly to explain my case
For the bull’s song is like food at a feast
And the cows will want to eat all, and then retire to bed
Having tasted of everything in the meal of love.
Such a wooing can no maiden restrain
For always do the works of a Stierbach lord’s labors come to fruition.
I go then to my lady with full courtesy
And offer up my argument with this declaration,
Speaking the finest language I can, as a gentleman does:
O my dearly-loved one, tell Virtue your confession
That you would couple with me, and create a constellation
For we are as two stars full of Desire and Virtue
To form the greatest love ever seen or displayed.
She listens to me and offers only this in reply:
My lord, though your case is well-argued
And you speak kindly of me, I must tell you only No
For my heart is given to another, and it always has been his
That of a most worthy knight, whose keeping of my heart gladdens me
As he is from that excellent land Windmasters’ Hill
Where even now I keep my deepest love.
I am cast away to that most dismal of fates
For I am forsaken by my one true lady
Though she will not let go of my heart
But nor will she sleep with me or anything of that fine nature.
What did I do to bear such a dreadful burden?
I do not know why you, Virtue, would give a beloved one
To even the least of a hill-side baron’s men.
I need to find a lady more apt to love freely
Who would return my advances with more eagerness.
In Stierbach can I find a great number of that sort of lady, and also
If I hurry and love them, Virtue can do nothing to save them
As they will be mine, in my arms, and cannot repent of their deeds
And follow that unkind and ungrateful knight Love
And also Virtue, who would lead them to grace and righteousness.
“The Complaint unto Virtue” is, as the title implies, a complaint. The complaint was a popular genre of lyric during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Up until Chaucer’s time, the complaint generally reflected disappointed attitudes toward society, various groups within society, or fundamental ideas that reflected secular society. The narrator would then attempt to cope with the problem that brought about his complaint, while expounding upon the problem so as to cause the audience to grow more aware of it – not dissimilar to undercover reporters taking hidden cameras into shady businesses.
Chaucer’s take on the complaint was heavily influenced by French lyric poetry of the time. Chaucer’s complaints, like his influences’, focus mainly on the conventions and trappings of courtly love (as this topic was the subject of choice for the aristocracy of the time) and the troubles of a lover whose feelings are unrequited by his lady. Because the complaint was one of content rather than specific style, each complaint could be constructed differently. Some might be ballads, simple narratives, or narratives included within a longer work.
“The Complaint unto Virtue” is a poem based heavily on Chaucer’s works “The Complaint of Venus” and “The Complaint unto Pity,” wherein frustrated lovers lament their place within a system of love whose ideal is to never receive recompense for their troubles. In this poem there is infused a bit of SCA identity related to the competition (strife between Stierbach and Windmasters’ Hill) biased just slightly to one side. The narrative voice gripes upon the constraints of virtue and love, much as Chaucer’s narrator does in “The Complaint unto Pity” and “Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan” wherein Chaucer the narrator laments his old age at not being able to meet women.
The poem is separated into four sections: 1) the general complaint to Virtue about women and how unrequited love is tearing the narrator to pieces; 2) a description of the narrator’s beloved and their relationship; 3) the narrator trying to convince his lady to consummate their love; 4) the narrator being rejected and cursing his fate. This separation is loosely based on the structure of “The Complaint of Venus” wherein the narrator focuses on different subjects and arguments to complete the general complaint.
The poem’s stanzas are 7 lines each, with an ABABBCC rhyme scheme, as was favored by Chaucer for many of his short poems, including “Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan,” “Chauceres Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn,” and portions of “A Complaint to His Lady.” The meter of each line is not set, as Chaucer’s lines ran anywhere from 10 to 15 syllables within a stanza. I have tried to keep them generally close together, but there is not one underlying meter common to each line.
Benson, Larry D., ed. The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature. Harvard: Cambridge, 1974.
Benson, Larry D., ed. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1987.
Peter, John. Complaint and Satire in Early English Literature. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1956.
Robertson, Jr., D.W., ed. The Literature of Medieval England. McGraw: New York, 1970.