By Kelly Snyder
Geoffrey Chaucer: poet, astronomer, philosopher, and father of English literature. He has written many great works including several short poems known as “complaints”. The complaint as a literary genre gained some popularity in Chaucer’s time as a “highly imprecise expression of woe, lacking place, times, and often names” (Dean 1). We know he has “complained” to his purse, to his lady, of Mars, of Venus, of pity, and of love, but whether or not he wrote “A Balade of Complaint” is uncertain.
With some medieval writings we are able to determine the authenticity by closely examining their original manuscripts. As you can see in the manuscript being shown by Dr. Stella Panayotova in the video below, medieval manuscripts were extremely ornate and made entirely by hand. This allows us to analyze the handwriting of the writter, the materials used to make the book, and several other forensic aspects in order gain insight as to who made the text and when. Unfortunately there are no surviving manuscripts of Chaucer’s poetry written by his own hand (Jones 231). This is very unusual for a poet of Chaucer’s renown and in his book Jones suspects that all of Chaucer’s manuscripts were intentionally destroyed. Whether or not it was foul play, the bottom line is that this means we cannot forensically authenticate his works and must instead examine historical clues and the content of the poem to gain insight into who wrote it.
During Chaucer’s time many poets, including Eustache Deschamps, did not recognize a complaint as its own genre so the pool of people who were writing complaints was limited. Chaucer however managed to distinguish himself from other authors in this genre by choosing not to write generic lamentations of love that could be sung by any old troubadour to any and all ladies.
The problem with attributing “A Balade of Complaint” to Chaucer is that it is a troubadourian generic complaint of love. The poem goes on about how the speaker is madly in love with some unknown, unnamed, and undescribed woman and how the has naught to offer but his devotion and the poem itself:
“My worldes joye, whom I wol serve and sewe,
Myn heven hool, and al my suffisaunce,
Whom for to serve is set al my plesaunce
Beseching yow in my most humble wyse
T’accepte in worth this litel pore dyte,” (lines 13-16)
Throughout the poem the woman is referred to only as “myn hertes lady”, essentially as the “lady of my heart”. Chaucer’s authentic complaints are usually much more specific about their subject matter, or at least give us enough context that we know who he is actually addressing. In “The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse” we know that Chaucer is complaining about not being paid by his king for his works. Although there is debate over whether he wrote it to Richard II or Henry IV it is clear that the context of the poem is of a writer complaining about not being paid by his patron, a much more unique and specific situation than the love woes presented in “A Balade of Complaint”
This poem is also stylistically very different from complaints that have been more certainly attributed to Chaucer. “A Balade of Complaint” is only 21 lines long as opposed to his other complaints, which fall mostly in the 80-220 line range. If Chaucer wrote this poem it would be one of the shortest and least descriptive complaint he’s written that we know of. Benson notes in The Riverside Chaucer that this poem “it is a good example of pedestrian verse, heavily indebted to Chaucer but far from attaining his standard”(637). “A Balade of Complaint” is by no means a bad poem, I believe it’s actually a very good example of the woeful expressions of love commonly seen in medieval complaints, but it simply cannot compare to the real works of the Father of English Literature.
According to The Riverside Chaucer, this poem originally comes to us in a manuscript written by a 15th century scribe named John Shirley. Shirley never attributed “A Balade of Complaint” to Chaucer and is also noted for his books that preserved many of John Lydgate’s shorter works. The first person to attribute this poem to Chaucer was Walter William Skeat, a 19th century English philologist. According to Larry Benson, “Skeat was so impressed with its ‘melodious flow’ that he printed it in his edition, though in a section (along with Against Women Unconstant and the Complaynt D’Amours) reserved for which there was a ‘lack of external evidence’ for their authenticity” (Benson 1076). Skeat was the first and last person to claim that this poem was written by Chaucer and even later denied its authenticity and attributed it to Lydgate, a much more likely scenario given the large amount of his work that Shirley worked on.
So why did Skeat originally attribute this poem to Chaucer only to deny its authenticity later? It is possible that it was an honest mistake, but it’s also possible that it was done intentionally. The literary world is not a perfect meritocracy and often we end up studying the works of great writers simply because they are “the greats”, we intrinsically ascribe value to certain works simply because they were written by someone we think was important. It is impressive that Shirley’s 15th century manuscript even survived to the 19th century. Even some of Chaucer’s authentic works have been lost in that time and once something that old is lost it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recover it. The Riverside Chaucer emphasizes how much Skeat admired “A Balade of Complaint” and therefore probably did not want it to be lost among the pages of history never to be read again (Benson 637, 1076).
All the evidence points to “A Balade of Complaint” being written by John Lydgate; including Skeat’s own later testimony. But what better way to preserve one of your favorite poems than by suggesting that it might have been written by the father of English literature? Whether or not it was done on purpose, the mere suggestion that Chaucer might have written “A Balade of Complaint” has led it to be included in all comprehensive collections of Chaucer’s works and preserved for future generations.
1. Dean, Nancy, Chaucer’s Complaint, a Genre Descended from the Heroides
Comparative Literature , Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1967), pp. 1-27
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1769397
2. Jones, Terry. Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2004. Print.
3. Davenport, W. A. Chaucer: Complaint and Narrative. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 1988. Print.
4. “EChaucer.” A Balade of Complaint. Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. <http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/chaucer/texts/short/balcomp07.html>.
5. Larry Dean Benson, and Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Print.
6. Connolly, Margaret, and Linne R. Mooney. Design and Distribution of Late Medieval Manuscripts in England. [York, England]: York Medieval, 2008. Print.
7. Connolly, Margaret. John Shirley: Book Production and the Noble Household in Fifteenth-century England. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1998. Print.
“Medieval Manuscripts of the Fitzwilliam Museum – Part 2.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JpcR3kblv0&feature=relmfu Digital Video
“Group of Troubadours, illustration from ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria.’” Bridgeman Art Culture History. http://www.bridgemanart.com/asset/68647/Spanish-School-13th-century/Group-of-Troubadours-illustration-from- Digital Image
“John Lydgate.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:John_Lydgate.jpg Digital Image