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A Lover's Complaint
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Year of Publication
Characters
Verse Format
Authorship Question
Summary of the Poem
Complete Poem With Notes
Themes
Figures of Speech
Biography of Shakespeare
Shakespeare Index Page
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010..©

Type of Work

.......As the title suggests, this Shakespeare work is a complaint poem. This type of poem was popular in medieval and Renaissance times. Authors of complaint poems narrated stories of unrequited love, personal difficulties, injustice, poverty, or another social problem. Sometimes they spiced their poems with satire. A complaint poem often appeared at the end of a collection of other poems.

Year of Publication

.......The poem was published in 1609, at the end of a quarto edition featuring Shakespeare's sonnets

Setting

.......The events described in the poem take place in rural England.

Characters

The narrator: Unidentified person. He observes a woman complaining about a man who seduced her, then left her.
The woman: Person who yields to the charms of the seducer.
Old Man: Person who listens to the woman's story. 
The Seducer: Handsome young man with a clever tongue who treats women as objects for satisfying his lust.

Verse Format

.......The poem is in rhyme royal (or rime royal), a format in which each stanza has seven lines and the metric pattern is iambic pentameter. In rhyme royal, the rhyme scheme is ababbcc. 
.......Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, pioneered this rhyme scheme in England in his works Troilus and Criseyde and The Parlement of Foules. Rhyme royal was going out of fashion when A Lover’s Complaint was published, although later poets–including John Milton in the seventeenth century and John Masefield in the twentieth–revived it. 
.......The first stanza of the poem demonstrates the rhyme scheme:

.From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded
A plaintful story from a sistering vale
My spirits to attend this double voice accorded
And down I laid to list the sad-tun’d tale
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale
Tearing of papers, breaking rings a-twain
Storming her world with sorrow’s wind and rain.
Lines 4 and 5 demonstrate the prevailing metric pattern:
.........1...............2..............3..............4................5
And DOWN..|..I LAID..|..to LIST..|..the SAD-..|..tun'd TALE

........1...............2...............3..............4..............5
Ere LONG..|..es PIED..|..a FICK..|..le MAID..|..full PALE

Authorship Question

.......Because parts of the poem appear “un-Shakespearean" in style, some researchers hold open the possibility that another author wrote the poem. However, it was not unusual for Shakespeare to alter his style. Moreover, although un-Shakespearean passages do exist in the poem–passages which Algernon Charles Swinburne ridiculed as bombastic–a goodly passel of typically Shakespearean passages grace the poem. Swinburne acknowledged these passages as exquisite. And here’s something more: The first stanza of A Lover’s Complaint resembles the first stanza of The Rape of Lucrece in structure and word choice. Other similarities exist in other stanzas. Below is a comparison of the first four lines of A Lover's Complaint and the first four lines of The Rape of Lucrece. Note the similarities:

A Lover's Complaint
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From off a hill whose concave womb reworded
A plaintful story from a sistering vale,
My spirits to attend this double voice accorded,
And down I laid to list the sad-tuned tale;
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The Rape of Lucrece
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From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Summary of the Poem
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
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.......When woeful cries echo from a hill, the poem’s narrator cocks an ear to listen. By and by, he spies in the distance the source of the lamentations: a maid wearing a straw hat against the bright sunlight. Pale and careworn, she is crying into a handkerchief. Although past her youth, she retains a glimmer of youthful beauty. Her distress attracts a “reverend man" grazing cattle nearby. Leaning on a sturdy ashen staff, he seats himself a modest distance from her and asks what troubles her. It may be that, as a man of many years and much experience, he may have the wisdom to alleviate her grief. 
"Father,' she says, "though in me you behold
The injury of many a blasting hour,
Let it not tell your judgment I am old;
Not age, but sorrow, over me hath power:
I might as yet have been a spreading flower,
Fresh to myself, If I had self-applied
Love to myself and to no love beside."
.......She then tells her listener how a young man whose “qualities were beauteous as his form" wooed her, first winning her “affections in his charmed power," then stealing “all my flower." In other words, the young man had seduced her. His methods, she says, were “foul beguiling" and deceits “gilded in his smiling." Afterward, he abandoned her. The poem ends when the maid bitterly denounces the wrongdoer while acknowledging, paradoxically, that she would yet again succumb to his wiles if the opportunity presented itself:
"O, that infected moisture of his eye,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glow'd,
O, that forced thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spongy lungs bestow'd,
O, all that borrow'd motion seeming owed,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray'd,
And new pervert a reconciled maid!"
The old man offers no response.


A Lover's Complaint
By William Shakespeare

Text and Explanatory Notes

1
From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded
A plaintful story1 from a sistering vale2
My spirits to attend this double voice3 accorded,
And down I laid to list4 the sad-tun’d tale; 
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale,...............................5
Tearing of papers5, breaking rings a-twain, 
Storming her world with sorrow’s wind and rain. 


Upon her head a platted6 hive of straw,7
Which fortified her visage from the sun, 
Whereon the thought might think sometime it saw.............10
The carcass of a beauty spent and done: 
Time had not scythed8 all that youth begun,
Nor youth all quit; but, spite of heaven’s fell9 rage, 
Some beauty peep’d through lattice10 of sear’d11 age.


Oft did she heave her napkin to her eyne,12.......................15
Which on it had conceited characters, 
Laundering the silken figures in the brine 
That season’d woe13 had pelleted in tears, 
And often reading what content it bears; 
As often shrieking undistinguish’d woe14............................20
In clamours of all size, both high and low. 

4
Sometimes her levell’d eyes their carriage ride
As they did battery to the spheres intend;15
Sometime diverted, their poor balls are tied 
To the orbed earth; sometimes they do extend....................25
Their view right on; anon their gazes lend 
To every place at once, and nowhere fix’d, 
The mind and sight distractedly commix’d. 


Her hair, nor loose nor tied in formal plat,16
Proclaim’d in her a careless hand of pride;...........................30
For some, untuck’d, descended her sheav’d hat, 
Hanging her pale and pined cheek beside; 
Some in her threaden fillet17 still did bide, 
And true to bondage would not break from thence 
Though slackly braided in loose negligence..........................35


A thousand favours from a maund18 she drew 
Of amber, crystal, and of beaded jet, 
Which one by one she in a river threw, 
Upon whose weeping margent19 she was set; 
Like usury, applying wet to wet,20........................................40
Or monarch’s hands that let not bounty fall 
Where want cries some, but where excess begs all. 

7
Of folded schedules21 had she many a one, 
Which she perus’d, sigh’d, tore, and gave the flood; 
Crack’d many a ring of posied gold and bone,........................45
Bidding them find their sepulchres in mud; 
Found yet more letters sadly penn’d in blood, 
With sleided silk feat22 and affectedly 
Enswath’d, and seal’d to curious secrecy. 

8
These often bath’d she in her fluxive23 eyes,..........................50
And often kiss’d, and often ’gan to tear; 
Cried "O false blood! thou register of lies, 
What unapproved24 witness dost thou bear; 
Ink would have seem’d more black and damned here."25
This said, in top of rage the lines she rents,26........................55
Big discontent so breaking their contents. 

9
A reverend man that graz’d his cattle nigh— 
Sometime27 a blusterer, that the ruffle28knew 
Of court, of city, and had let go by 
The swiftest hours, observed as they flew—...........................60
Towards this afflicted fancy29 fastly30 drew;
And, privileg’d by age,31 desires to know 
In brief the grounds and motives of her woe. 

10
So slides he down upon his grained bat,32
And comely-distant33 sits he by her side;...............................65
When he again desires her, being sat, 
Her grievance with his hearing to divide: 
If that from him there may be aught34 applied 
Which may her suffering ecstasy assuage,35
’Tis promis’d in the charity of age...........................................70

11
‘Father,’ she says, ‘though in me you behold 
The injury of many a blasting hour,36
Let it not tell your judgment I am old; 
Not age, but sorrow, over me hath power: 
I might as yet have been a spreading flower,............................75
Fresh to myself, if I had self-applied 
Love to myself and to no love beside.

12
‘But, woe is me! too early I attended 
A youthful suit,37 it was to gain my grace, 
Of one by nature’s outwards so commended,...........................80
That maidens’ eyes stuck over all his face.38
Love lack’d a dwelling, and made him her place; 
And when in his fair parts she did abide, 
She was new lodg’d and newly deified. 

13
‘His browny locks did hang in crooked curls,   85
And every light occasion of the wind 
Upon his lips their silken parcels hurls. 
What’s sweet to do, to do will aptly find:39
Each eye that saw him did enchant the mind, 
For on his visage was in little drawn.........................................90
What largeness thinks in Paradise was sawn.40

14
‘Small show of man was yet upon his chin; 
His phoenix41 down began but to appear
Like unshorn velvet on that termless42 skin 
Whose bare out-bragg’d the web it seem’d to wear;43................95
Yet show’d his visage by that cost44 more dear,45
And nice affections wavering stood in doubt 
If best were as it was, or best without. 

15
‘His qualities were beauteous as his form, 
For maiden-tongu’d46 he was, and thereof free;........................100
Yet, if men mov’d47 him, was he such a storm
As oft ’twixt May and April is to see, 
When winds breathe sweet, untidy though they be. 
His rudeness so with his authoriz’d youth 
Did livery falseness in a pride of truth.48...................................105

16
‘Well could he ride, and often men would say 
“That horse his mettle from his rider takes: 
Proud of subjection, noble by the sway, 
What rounds, what bounds, what course, what stop he makes!" 
And controversy hence a question takes,.................................110
Whether the horse by him became his deed, 
Or he his manage by the well-doing steed. 

17
‘But quickly on this side the verdict went: 
His real habitude49 gave life and grace
To appertainings and to ornament,50.........................................115
Accomplish’d in himself, not in his case: 
All aids, themselves made fairer by their place, 
Came for additions; yet their purpos’d trim 
Piec’d not his grace, but were all grac’d by him. 

18
‘So on the tip of his subduing tongue.........................................120
All kinds of arguments and question deep, 
All replication51 prompt, and reason strong, 
For his advantage still did wake and sleep: 
To make the weeper laugh, the laugher weep, 
He had the dialect and different skill,..........................................125
Catching all passions in his craft of will:52

19
‘That he did in the general bosom reign 
Of young, of old; and sexes both enchanted, 
To dwell with him in thoughts, or to remain 
In personal duty, following where he haunted:..............................130
Consents bewitch’d,53 ere he desire, have granted; 
And dialogu’d for him what he would say, 
Ask’d their own wills, and made their wills obey. 

20
‘Many there were that did his picture get, 
To serve their eyes, and in it put their mind;.................................135
Like fools that in the imagination set 
The goodly objects which abroad they find 
Of lands and mansions, theirs in thought assign’d;54
And labouring in more pleasures to bestow them 
Than the true gouty landlord which doth owe55 them.....................140

21
‘So many have, that never touch’d his hand, 
Sweetly suppos’d them mistress of his heart. 
My woeful self, that did in freedom stand, 
And was my own fee-simple,56 not in part, 
What with his art in youth, and youth in art,..................................145
Threw my affections in his charmed power, 
Reserv’d the stalk and gave him all my flower. 

22
‘Yet did I not, as some my equals did, 
Demand of him, nor being desired yielded; 
Finding myself in honour so forbid,57.............................................150
With safest distance I mine honour shielded.
Experience for me many bulwarks builded 
Of proofs new-bleeding,58 which remain’d the foil59
Of this false jewel, and his amorous spoil. 

23
‘But, ah! who ever shunn’d by precedent........................................155
The destin’d ill she must herself assay?60
Or forc’d examples, ’gainst her own content, 
To put the by-pass’d perils in her way? 
Counsel may stop awhile what will not stay; 
For when we rage, advice is often seen..........................................160
By blunting us to make our wits more keen. 

24
‘Nor gives it satisfaction to our blood, 
That we must curb it upon others’ proof;61
To be forbid the sweets that seem so good, 
For fear of harms that preach in our behoof.....................................165
O appetite! from judgment stand aloof; 
The one a palate hath that needs will taste, 
Though Reason weep, and cry “It is thy last." 

25
‘For further I could say “This man ’s untrue," 
And knew the patterns of his foul beguiling;.....................................170
Heard where his plants in others’ orchards grew, 
Saw how deceits were gilded in his smiling; 
Knew vows were ever brokers to defiling;
Thought characters and words merely but art, 
And bastards of his foul adulterate heart..........................................175

26
‘And long upon these terms I held my city, 
Till thus he ’gan besiege me: “Gentle maid, 
Have of my suffering youth some feeling pity, 
And be not of my holy vows afraid:62
That’s to ye sworn to none was ever said;........................................180
For feasts of love I have been call’d unto, 
Till now did ne’er invite, nor never woo. 

27
‘“All my offences that abroad you see 
Are errors of the blood, none of the mind; 
Love made them not: with acture63 they may be,...............................185
Where neither party is nor true nor kind:64
They sought their shame that so their shame did find, 
And so much less of shame in me remains,65
By how much of me their reproach contains.

28
‘“Among the many that mine eyes have seen,....................................190
Not one whose flame my heart so much as warm’d, 
Or my affection put to the smallest teen,66
Or any of my leisures ever charm’d: 
Harm have I done to them, but ne’er was harm’d; 
Kept hearts in liveries, but mine own was free,....................................195
And reign’d, commanding in his monarchy. 

29
‘“Look here, what tributes wounded fancies sent me, 
Of paled pearls and rubies red as blood; 
Figuring that they their passions likewise lent me 
Of grief and blushes, aptly understood................................................200
In bloodless white and the encrimson’d mood; 
Effects of terror and dear modesty, 
Encamp’d in hearts, but fighting outwardly. 

30
‘“And, lo! behold these talents67 of their hair, 
With twisted metal amorously impleach’d,68........................................205
I have receiv’d from many a several fair, 
Their kind acceptance weepingly beseech’d, 
With the annexions69 of fair gems enrich’d,
And deep-brain’d sonnets, that did amplify 
Each stone’s dear nature, worth, and quality........................................210

31
‘“The diamond; why, ’twas beautiful and hard, 
Whereto70 his invis’d71 properties did tend; 
The deep-green emerald, in whose fresh regard 
Weak sights their sickly radiance do amend; 
The heaven-hued sapphire and the opal blend........................................215
With objects manifold: each several stone, 
With wit well blazon’d,72 smil’d or made some moan. 

32
‘“Lo! all these trophies of affections hot, 
Of pensiv’d and subdu’d desires the tender,73
Nature hath charg’d me that I hoard them not,........................................