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'To whom shul we compleyn?': the poetics of agency in Chaucer's complaints.

Few literary kinds appeal less to modern readers than the complaint. We associate real complaining with self-absorbed disgruntlement, and many critics find medieval poetic complaints so stylized and conventional as to lack even the force of genuine discontent (e.g., Norton-Smith 16-18, Clemen 188, Peter 10). Formulaic grumbling seems particularly unsuited to the comically diffident narrator of the House of Fame, the humble poet of the Troilus, and the genial persona of the Canterbury Tales. Thus Chaucer's admirers may be reluctant to accept James Wimsatt's reminder that "Aside from the ABC, all of his lyrics of more than a hundred lines are called 'complaints'" (110).

Wimsatt's "all" comprises only three poems, but those long complaints and three or four shorter ones constitute one of Chaucer's most sustained investigations of a literary kind. Perhaps, then, we should ask what he saw in the complaint. The answer, to anticipate my argument, will not darken the genial Chaucerian persona; it will, rather, illuminate the poet's explorations of a problem that encompasses subjectivity: poetic agency.


If they are seldom applauded, complaints are also rarely and inconsistently defined. In the only extended study to date of Chaucer's complaints, W. A. Davenport identifies them rather uncertainly as "a type of expression, or a rhetorical device ..., not - for Chaucer at any rate - a poetic form" (6). On the other hand, Nancy Dean points out that the amatory complaint was for some French poets a designation of "content, not form" (2) but for others a "separate lyric genre" (27); "Chaucer," she notes, "appears to have taken it as an epistle and a kind of 'lay' at different times" (27). Perhaps reflecting the poets' own inconsistencies, Douglas Kelly identifies the French complaint as a kind of thematic "moment" within love-narratives (182), but then aligns it with formal types such as the rondeau and balade cycle (183).

Those discrepant definitions suggest that the literary complaint is distinguished neither by themes on the one hand nor by forms and devices on the other, although it often uses certain verse-forms, topoi, and rhetorical devices. Essentially, complaint is a kind of speech act: the speaker simultaneously postulates and laments a loss or injury.

In contrast to other writers (such as Green 19), I thus distinguish complaint within the larger category of lament, whose speakers may bewail material afflictions such as military defeat and bodily violence. The complainant, aggrieved emotionally or morally, can denounce the loss only after defining it - after establishing, that is, that his lady is essential to his happiness and ought to have returned his love, or that he should have been better treated by "fortune," or that she (Mary, speaking in the medieval planctus) suffers uniquely from the otherwise propitious Redemption, or that humanity has lapsed into sin. Perhaps readers avoid literary complaints for the same reason that parents scold complaining children: defining the grievances that they bewail, complainers may seem to be fabricating their own problems.

Thus far, my definition scarcely alleviates our aversion to the complaint. In a short but suggestive article, Lee Patterson seeks to redeem Chaucer's complaints by identifying their apparent perversity with that of language in general. The complaint's claim, he says, is "virtually always self-cancelling"; therein complaint is "virtually coextensive with poetry, indeed with writing itself" ("Writing" 56). That may be true, but it shifts the inquiry prematurely beyond the particular dynamics of the complaint. I wish to propose a more specific defense of the Chaucerian complaint by reexamining a common assumption that I have thus far tacitly endorsed.

That the speaker must construct the terms of his or her grievance, as I have argued, does not mean that the grievance is a mere subjective projection, as I may have suggested. To regard complaints as the speakers' fabrications undoes a complex balance. On the one hand, we cannot assume that complaints are voiced by coherent individual subjects - that, as Patterson suggests, "complaint is above all an act of self-expression" ("Writing" 56).(1) As Judson Allen reminds us, drawing on earlier work by Leo Spitzer and others, the self of medieval lyric makes no automatic claim to empirical consistency and expressive sincerity (217-19). On the other hand, if the speakers of Chaucer's complaints are not autonomous selves, neither are the objects of their grievance - Fortune, pitiless beauty, the age of Saturn, the God of Love - merely imaginative constructs. Most of Chaucer's complainants insist, with Mars, "That yf a wight shal pleyne pitously, / Ther mot be cause wherfore that men pleyne" (Mars 156-57).(2) Seeking such causes in a lady who may intend them no harm, in time or mutability, in a God whom they are reluctant to blame, and occasionally even in themselves, they recapitulate in some measure the original medieval quest for the cause of misfortune, the Consolation of Philosophy.

Boethius's plaintiff does find doctrinally authorized causes, of course, and his complaint dissolves in faith. Not reaching that point, most medieval complainants protest and petition forces and beings whose reality lies somewhere between the ordained and the fabricated. As I have suggested, the complainants themselves sometimes recall Boethius's authentic persona but may also evoke the artificiality of courtly masque.

Foregrounding those equivocations, Chaucer centers his complaints on the perennial question of their speakers, "to whom shul we compleyne?" (Pity 28; cf. Lady 46, Mars 191). In what follows, I will trace Chaucer's poetics of agency in the conventional A Complaint to His Lady, in the more self-conscious A Complaint unto Pity, briefly in two non-amorous complaints, and at greatest length in the highly sophisticated Complaint of Mars. I hope to show that Chaucerian complaint entails not personal grumbling but an occasionally playful, occasionally profound questioning of subjectivity and causation.


Of the complaints generally attributed to Chaucer, the most traditional and probably the earliest is A Complaint to His Lady, termed by Paul Clogan an "exercise in different keys on the conventional theme of unrequited love" (187) and by Davenport a "metrical experiment" (10) treating a "courtly commonplace" (11). Chief among its conventions is a two-fold idealization of the lady as unsurpassed in goodness (88) and compounded of ideas:

Hir name is Bountee set in womanhede, Sadnesse in youthe and Beautee prydelees And Plesaunce under governaunce and drede. (24-26)

She lacks pity, however - "Hir surname is eek Faire Rewthelees" (27) - and thus the speaker suffers pain relievable only by death (6). The poem is a complaint because in addition to expressing his suffering, the speaker spends considerable time establishing its reality in the face of potential doubts. He opens by declaring, somewhat defensively, "Ther nedeth me no care for to borwe" (10). As if answering charges that the lady has only responded to his own negligence, he affirms his blamelessness (29, 76-77); as if refuting a suggestion that he can simply abandon his painful devotion, he avows himself "set on yow in such manere / That, though ye never wil upon me rewe, / I moste you love" (94-96). Like all complainants, he identifies various causes of his woe, blaming within the first half of the 127-line poem Love (15-16, 33-34), the lady (20, 59), and implicitly Fortune, for "right thus is turned me the wheel" (35).

Moreover, his successive attributions of blame are inconsistent. In the initial two-stanza section, the speaker takes responsibility for his sleeplessness and woe:

Hit falleth most into my woful mynde How I so fer have broght myself behynde That, sauf the deeth, ther may nothyng me lisse, So desespaired I am from alle blisse. (4-7)

But in the next section he blames Love and claims to be helpless (18-19). Finally, in the fourth and longest section he attributes his pain to the lady alone, demanding to know her motives - "What have I doon that greveth yow or sayd, / But for I serve and love yow and no mo?" (60-61) - and urging her to change:

But the more that I love yow, goodly free, The lasse fynde I that ye loven me; Alias, whan shal that harde wit amende? (98-100)

Attributions of cause shift often, not just in love-complaints but also in other literature of fin amour: love is personified but also personalized, the lover is both passive victim and eager suitor. Courtly convention can be held accountable also for A Complaint to His Lady's inconsistent portrayal of the lady, who is by turns debonair and hostile, incapable of pity and naturally piteous (27, 5657, 101-02). But the poem broadens those shifts and paradoxes into contradiction. It does so partly through changes in tone, particularly toward the lady. Grave and even worshipful respect, in which one critic hears echoes of the Second Nun's invocation to Mary (Green 27), gives way to a rather patronizing reproach:

And so hool, swete, as I am youres al, And so gret wil as I have yow to serve, Now certes, and ye lete me thus sterve, Yit have ye wonne theron but a smal. (104-07)

Changes in point of view also divide the poem's courtly paradoxes. The speaker makes his rueful self-accusations in soliloquy; he then turns to a presumably sympathetic second-person audience when he begins to blame Love: "Now hath not Love me bestowed weel / To love ther I never shal have part?" (33-34). And whereas he anatomizes and praises his lady in the third person throughout sections II and III and the first paragraph of IV, he switches abruptly to "your" in line fifty-two, dramatizing through the last seventy-five lines her reconception from idealized object to fallible actor.

The speaker's own intentions conflict sharply as well. Not only does he both love and fear, in typical courtly fashion; he also veers between renouncing and asserting his will. On the one hand, he declares that he is not

so hardy ne so wood, For to desire that ye shulde love me For wel I wot - allas - that wil nat be; I am so litel worthy and ye so good. (84-87)

Shortly thereafter, on the other hand, he presses his service on her rather threateningly - "Yit for al this, witeth ye right wele / that ye ne shul me from your servyce dryve" (90-91) - and impugns her womanhood if she resists his suit (98-102). And his strongest vow of subjugation to her desire becomes his device to change that desire:

But I, my lyf and deeth, to yow obeye And with right buxom herte hooly I preye As is your moste plesure, so doth by me; Wel lever is me liken yow and deye Than for to anythyng or thynke or seye That yow myghte offende in any tyme. And therfor, swete, rewe on my peynes smerte, And of your grace graunteth me som drope . . . (118-25; emphasis added)

Like most courtly petitioners, but more overtly, he renounces his will in order to impose it.

Although modern editors undo most of Skeat's emendations in A Complaint to His Lady, one significant interpolation survives. Benson gives lines 15-19 as follows:

This Love, that hath me set in such a place That my desir [he] nevere wol fulfille, For neither pitee, mercy, neither grace Can I nat fynde, and yit my sorwful herte For to be deed I can hit nought arace.

Even as emended, the passage has no main clause - an emblem, perhaps, of the amorphousness of agency in this and other complaints. But Benson removes an even clearer metaphor for causal ambiguity when he supplies a subject for the clause in line 16. Unemended, the poem fails to name the cause of unfulfilled desire: Love; the alternately idealized and manipulated lady; the speaker, who declares at the outset that no one will "bereve" him of his woe (12-13); or desire itself, which subsists by remaining unfulfilled.

In Merciles Beaute and To Rosemounde, Chaucer mocks the voluntary passivity of the lover who refuses to escape Love's trap.(3) In Troilus and Criseyde and differently in the Clerk's Tale, he gives serious prominence to female agents who are also idealized objects. He may or may not intend to foreground similar dilemmas of agency in A Complaint to His Lady. He does delineate them: changes in stanzaic form coincide with the shifts in causal attribution that are reinforced by changes in point of view. That is, Chaucer sorts the love-complaints' inconsistent topoi - the active and victimized speaker, the absent and present addressee, the beloved as superhuman ideal and the beloved as capricious actor - into formal compartments. But he does not synthesize them thematically; nor does he yet yoke them in obvious and significant tension.


Much more successful in that regard is the self-deconstructive Complaint unto Pity. The two parts of Pity differ in addressee as do the four of Lady: nine rhyme-royal stanzas of third-person narration are followed by a nine-stanza "Bill of Complaint" in the second person. This time, the auditor addressed in the second section is the same personification to which the opening narrative refers, but that personification is widely recognized as ambiguous. Ruud, for instance, writes that Pity can be an "emotion" or "the woman herself" (248-49; following Pittock) and that the emotion can be Christian charity or sexual responsiveness (Ruud 248-50). In evoking all of those referents, Chaucer does not betray confusion or indecision, as some critics suggest (e.g., Clemen 183); the ambiguity is systematic, shaping the poem.

Pity varies, first, in ontological scope. It is on the one hand no mere "emotion" but a venerable and universal quality, "highest of reverence, / Benygne flour, coroune of vertues alle" (57-58). It has an impressive allegorical lineage:

For kyndely by youre herytage ryght Ye ben annexed ever unto Bounte; And verrayly ye oughte do youre myght To helpe Trouthe in his adversyte. Ye be also the corowne of Beaute, And certes yf ye wanten in these tweyne, The world is lore; ther is no more to seyne. (71-77)

Those lines echo the tribute to the sacred source of pity in An ABC (e.g., 135-44; see Ruud 249-50); they also link Pity with personifications in Guillaume de Lorris's Romance of the Rose, which act not merely within the individual personality but on the collective stage of courtly society. Thus Pity receives not just one lover's petitions but those of "us alle" (26). On the other hand, the poem also renders Pity particular and mortal. The speaker tells us that having sought Pity "evere in oon," he approached with special urgency on one occasion but "fond her ded, and buried in an herte" (14). Pittock and Ruud err in identifying this heart-interred Pity as "the woman herself," for she is still a quality. She is, nonetheless, a particular woman's quality rather than a universal one. Whatever extratextual events we may imagine as corresponding to Pity's "death," her subjection to a personal narrative and her constriction into a singular herte deflate her as an autonomous agent.

Lest we take these shifts from sovereign quality to personal motive as accidental, Chaucer spotlights them early in the poem. After lamenting that Cruelty can now slay all "folk redeless of peyne," the speaker continues, with a frank bewilderment that may be Chaucer's particular contribution to the registers of plaintiveness,

But yet encreseth me this wonder newe, That no wight woot that she is ded, but I - So many men as in her tyme hit knewe . . . (29-31)

Like the General Prologue's famous defense of bawdy fictions in the name of accurate reporting, this protest gives away the representational game by pretending to take it seriously.

Here, the parodied game is not mimetic realism but allegorical Realism - the identification of Pity with those universal agents whose obliteration would indeed alarm every wight.(4) Allegorical irony determines all of what Clemen calls the "logical contradictions" regarding the scale of Pity: that she has a heart but is buried in a heart (14, 57); that she is simultaneously separate from the speaker and one of his own emotions (18); that she deserves eternal service for her "benignity" but has grown callous (106-16). Thus juxtaposed, the contradictory superpersonal and subpersonal conceptions of Pity undermine each other.

Midway between the Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian Pity is a human-sized ghost, an unnamed agent repeatedly evoked by feminine pronouns. In a footnote in Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, Elaine Tuttle Hansen remarks that

the figure of Woman in the Middle Ages . . . at one moment . . . seems to be a vanishingly small object (and subject), hardly visible in the record of the culture, but from another perspective . . . she seems to us both a superhuman figure and a colossal problem, . . . overshadowing and some would say provoking the ideologies of theology, courtly love, and even the feudal state. (104n18)

In A Complaint unto Pity it is not "the figure of Woman" but a personification that alternately shrinks and looms, bypassing conspicuously the one agent who might respond coherently to the speaker's address. Together with the poem's other feminine abstractions, Pity usurps female agency. The complainant would reverse that analysis, suggesting that some willful agent - presumably the unrepresented woman - has distorted the properly ideal Pity; that is, he longs for Pity to behave like itself (71-74). Both his reading and the feminist one confirm that Chaucer here amplifies the tension between courtly abstractions and particular human beings that he introduced in A Complaint to His Lady.

In centering that tension on Pity, however, Chaucer exposes not just the displacement of female agency in love-complaints but also the anomalies of causation in all complaints. If Pity idealizes female agency, it also objectifies the response to complaint: the acknowledgment that the complainant has been wronged. Pity is the inevitable but impotent object of complaint, offering neither explanation for injury nor hope of tangible relief.

Chaucer exploits that anomaly by structuring A Complaint unto Pity around equivocations not only only about Pity's scope but also about its existence as an agent. Earlier, I identified inconsistencies about Pity's scope in the speaker's references to her location. Contradictions about its existence as an agent appear in the poem's central conceit, that Pity has died. Initially the speaker finds Pity "ded, and buried in an herte" (14), but in the next stanza he sees the hearse and her corpse, not yet buried after all. In his wry admission, to which I have already referred, that "no wight woot that she is deed, but I" (30), the speaker implies that she has not literally died, after all. He affirms that implication in the poem's second half. The "Bill of Complaint" ends with further reference to Pity's death (117-19) but for the most part appeals to her as still alive (58-116), even able to slay the speaker himself (114).(5)

In the poem's most carefully crafted "logical contradiction," Chaucer twists the equivocation about Pity's death into a narrative loop. Early in the poem, the speaker tells us that he had a complaint to Pity "writen in myn hond" before learning of Pity's death (43-44), but when he saw her corpse, "I held my pleynte stille" (47). Although he dares not reveal the letter itself to Pity's allegorical survivors, who are "Confedered alle by bond of Cruelte" (52), he nonetheless gives his current hearers the bill's "effect" (56) at such length that he might as well be quoting the full text. As he recapitulates it, the bill implores that Pity fulfill her proper function and "have mercy" on his mortal pain (92). Eventually, though, the writer finally despairs of arousing Pity's concern; indeed, he laments, she is dead (117-19). That last statement startles the reader who remembers that the bill was supposed to have been written before the speaker knew that Pity had died. Seamlessly linked to the bill itself, commingling references to Pity as dead and alive, the final stanza has no single temporal location:

This is to seyne I wol be youres evere, Though ye me slee by Crueltee your foo, Algate my spirit shal never dissevere Fro youre servise for any peyne or woo. Sith ye be ded - allas that hyt is soo - Thus for your deth I may wel wepe and pleyne With herte sore and ful of besy peyne. (113-19)

Finishing the Complaint unto Pity is like closing a Mobius strip: the event earlier cast as the bill's sequel has become its antecedent. Verbal repetition fastens the loop, for the poem's last line was also its second line.

The speaker hinted earlier that he has traversed this loop before. After noting that no one but he knows of Pity's death, he conceded,

And yet she dyed not so sodeynly, For I have sought hit ever ful besely Sith first I hadde wit or mannes mynde, But she was ded er that I koude hir fynde. (32-35)

As agent of complaint, Pity is in fact always dying but always potentially alive. Only by ceasing to operate can she have occasioned the complainant's pain, but if she does not operate, neither can complaint. Thus the recursions that close A Complaint unto Pity draw our attention to a pattern fundamental to complaint. Like this speaker, most complainants conceive their addressees as alternately blameless and culpable, sovereign force and transient motive, injurer and victim. Here, the manifestly inconsistent conceptions of Pity suggest that the addressee is ultimately a cipher, a reification of the search for agency. Declaring that meta-agent repeatedly dead and living, real and unreal, the speaker ends his complaint only to resume it, always "put[ing] . . . it up ageyn" (54).


Although the Complaint unto Pity's self-reflexiveness is generic, elsewhere Chaucer extends and even breaks the loop of complaint. He suggests in fact two escapes in "Balades de [visage] sanz peinture," editorially titled Fortune.(6) As a dialogue between a Pleintif and Fortune, Fortune is half a complaint. The Pleintif's half resembles A Complaint unto Pity in identifying a personification as object of grievance and in equivocating about the presence of that personification through mixed second- and third-person references (Fortune 5 and 8, 11, 23-24). Surprisingly, Fortune also equivocates about her own presence. She opens her first speech by articulating what was merely an implication and structural principle of the love-complaints, that the complainant constructs his own grievance: "No man is wrecched but himself it wene" (25). Indeed, Fortune eventually declares herself to be an artifact of human ignorance:

Lo, th'execucion of the majestee That al purveyeth of his rightwysnesse, That same thing "Fortune" clepen ye, Ye blinde bestes ful of lewdednesse. (65-68)(7)

In those same lines, however, Fortune also reveals the unfabricated "majestee" that sustains her. She is based not on human projection but on what Boethius's Philosophy calls "the stablenesse of the devyne thought," for which not only "Fortune" but even "Providence" and "destiny" are provisional names (Boece IV.pr6.41-78).

The Boethian path would certainly lead out of Fortune's causal loop to a genuine first cause. Still, a reader who takes that path abandons the poem prematurely and misses Chaucer's more modest but more complex achievement. Whereas Boethius's Philosophy impersonates Fortune only in order to repudiate her, here Fortune herself articulates the Boethian sentence. That is, she announces her own contingency, which she construes as cosmic regularity:

The see may ebbe and flowen more or lesse; The welkne hath might to shyne, reyne, or hayle; Right so mot I kythen my brotelnesse. In general, this reule may nat fayle. (61-64)

The "fals dissimulour" (1.23) avers her own unreliability with apparent truthfulness, a version of the all-Cretans-are-liars paradox.

The poem ends by affirming not just Fortune's self-destructive message but also her survival as agent of that message. She delivers an assured and gracious envoy:

Princes, I prey you of your gentilesse Lat nat this man on me thus crye and pleyne, And I shal quyte you your bisinesse . . . (73-75)

Unmasked as rhetorical fabrication, Fortune is simultaneously reconstituted as a biographical and historical principle. Although Fortune's "intresse" in the speaker will end with his death (71-72), meanwhile she is indeed his queen (43).(8) And Fortune's offer to reward the "princes" turns them too into her supplicants, reminding us - and them - that they can escape the Cretan paradox no more easily than can the poet. Rather than opening onto divine Reality, the allegorical paradox collapses into the earthly contingencies that give particular agency to Fortune and empirical substance to the speaker's complaint.

The poem widely regarded as Chaucer's last work leads even more clearly to historical contingency, though not, despite its title, by complaining. Most of the Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse burlesques the fabrication of agency. Reverting to the rhetoric of the love-complaints, Chaucer here personifies a mundane object in the same almost-Marian terms used of the Lady and Pity: "Now purse that ben to me my lyves lyght /And saveour as doun in this world here . . ." (15-16). On the other hand, he further parodies his love-complaints by playing with the purse's impotence, both material and causal; he speciously accuses this pseudo-agent not of action but merely of being "lyght."

As in Fortune, the last stanza drops fabricated agency in favor of empirical reality, this time without the mediation of Fortune:

O conquerour of Brutes Albyon, Which that by lyne and free eleccion Been verray kyng, this song to yow I sende, And ye, that mowen alle oure harmes amende, Have mynde upon my supplicacion. (22-26)

The speaker merges with the historical poet, who turns from his apostrophized purse to an addressee whose agency, like his own, is not metaphoric. To the "verray kynge" and his counselors, however, Chaucer presents no overt lament and no non-ironic protest. The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse differs from his other complaints in not really complaining: it leaves to the reader's imagination any serious formulation of the speaker's suffering. Here it is not the complainant but the narratee who formulates the complaint.(9) Not coincidentally, the Complaint to His Purse also suggests that that suffering might be relieved through the acts of sovereign human subjects.


Though a happy achievement, the Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse is of course a slight one. In both its wit and its closing appeal to readers, however, it echoes Chaucer's longest and most original complaint, which is also his finest short poem. The Complaint of Mars both exploits and reinvents its genre by multiplying, compounding, subverting, and finally reconstituting agency.

Mars begins his "Compleynt," which constitutes roughly the second half of the poem, by reflecting on the "ordre of compleynt" itself, which requires "That yf a wight shal pleyne pitously, / Ther mot be cause whetfore that men pleyne" (155-57). He sets out accordingly to rehearse "the ground and cause of al my peyne, / So as my troubled wit may hit atteyne" (160-61). Were complaints essentially lyric outcries, as commonly assumed, that passage might well merit C. S. Lewis's excoriation as "sheer nonentity yawning in thirty syllables" (165). In fact, however, it epitomizes the preoccupation of all Chaucer's complainants not so much to lament as to formulate grievances: Mars hopes "not for to have redresse," but merely "to declare my ground of hevynesse" (162-63). As it turns out, the grounds of Mars's heaviness are extraordinarily muddy, rendering his pedantry somewhat poignant. Some thirty lines later we find him still asking, "To whom shal I than pleyne of my distresse?" (191).

Mars's search for agency is similar to those in other complaints but even broader. He thinks first of his "lady fre" but will not seek pity or redress from her, for she suffers equally from their enforced separation (193-96). He then attributes danger and woe to love itself (198 ff.), reifying his own condition as did the complainant to Pity. But in blaming love, Mars implicates the goddess whom he has just termed "the verrey sours and welle" of love (174-79). He retreats, reaffirming that Venus also does not know "to whom to pleyne" (214). At an impasse, he looks higher:

To what fyn made the God, that sit so hye, Benethen him love other companye And streyneth folk to love, malgre her hed? (218-20)

Mars compares God to the fisher who "Baiteth hys angle-hok with som plesaunce" (238), leaving the fish wounded even after the line has broken (24244). Again, Venus resembles the irresistible but fatal Brooch of Thebes, and the cause of Mars's "adversite" is

he that wroghte her, also mot I the, That putte such a beaute in her face, That made me coveyten and purchace Myn oune deth . . . (267-70)

Clemen is wrong that blaming God breaks with the complaint tradition (195). Because all complainants search restlessly for causal agency, "It is," as Wimsatt writes, "both natural and in accord with the French conventions [of fourteenth-century court poetry] for distracted, despairing lovers to blame the Creator for their woes" (122; also Ruud 257-58). But Mars prolongs the topos, highlights it by altering the traditional metaphor of "God [as] the benevolent fisher and Christ [as] the bait which lures men to salvation" (Amslet 306 and 304; also Wood 157 and J. Dean 134-35), and even admits its possible blasphemy (231).

As Gardiner Stillwell writes, to hold God accountable for one's amorous pain "from the Boethian point of view is altogether witless" (87). But like Fortune, Mars's story yields no straightforward sentence. Mars disarms Boethian rebukes by indicting his own "unwit" as well as the God who did, after all, frame Venus's beauty (271).(10) His inquiry ends in what H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., aptly calls a "tangle of complicities, complexities, and causalities" (121).

In likening his lady's attraction to the Brooch of Thebes, Mars recasts the "tangle" as a chronological conundrum. Readers of Ovid and Statius will recall that Vulcan creates the fatally beautiful Brooch, spitefully, for the daughter of Mars and Venus (Hultin 66, Amsler 309). But the chronology of the Complaint of Mars leaves no space for Harmonia's birth: the poem opens as Mars "hath wonne Venus his love" (31) and proceeds through their night of love to the dawn separation that Mars now laments (compare Merrill 16-17). The allusion to events that have not happened constructs a temporal Mobius strip like that at the end of A Complaint unto Pity, but one that inverts agency as well as sequence: Mars casts himself as victim of the object whose creation he will, in a future or parallel narrative, help to occasion.

Several critics still defend a Boethian reading of the poem by holding Mars responsible for the recursion that enfolds him. For instance, Mark Amsler argues that Mars suppresses his own adultery and obfuscates the story of the brooch but that Christian readers can see beyond him to the poem's fundamental warning against venereal love (Amsler 312 and 307-09; also Wood 141, Hultin 66, J. Dean 136-39). That reading depends heavily on Ovidian elements absent from the Complaint of Mars, where Phebus interrupts the lovers' joys for unspecified reasons. More important, Amsler and others can hold Mars accountable for the yet-unnarrated birth of Harmonia only by invoking the narrative's cyclic recurrence and thereby appealing to a circumstance that renders Boethian rebukes spectacularly problematic: the lovers are, inter alia, planets (Amsler 309, 312).

The Complaint of Mars is best known, in fact, not for the "Compleynt" proper but for the equally lengthy narrative preceding it, an amalgam of myth, courtly romance, and planetary movements. Although the astronomy appears in astrological metaphors, several scholars trace them to actual astronomical configurations (North, Chapter 20; Eade 69-82). Mars's confusion about causation is understandable, for we can scarcely summarize his story without arbitrary choices among diverse forms of agency.

In the first stanza, for instance, the goddess of love subjugates the god of war; simultaneously, the planets Mars and Venus move within 7 1/2 degrees of one another; alternatively, we could say that "platic" planetary conjunction lets Venus's "benevolent [astrological] influence [temper] Mars's evil effects";(11) or perhaps a noble suitor simultaneously wins and submits to his "maistresse":

Whilom the thridde hevenes lord above, As wel by hevenysh revolucioun As by desert, hath wonne Venus his love, And she hath take him in subjeccioun, And as a maistresse taught him his lessoun, Commaundynge him that nevere, in her servise, He here so bold no lover to dispise. (29-35)

Similarly, that Venus now becomes blissful and Mars sings (43-46) indicates their joy in love, or it signals Venus's astrological "exaltation" and Mars's conjunction with her in a position said to cause a planet to "ring."(12) Agreeing to meet soon in Venus's "nexte paleys," Mars and Venus are lovers making an assignation - but they are also planets approaching exact conjunction in the sign of Taurus.(13) While awaiting Venus there, Mars will be "in the opposite of his chief domicile Scorpio," a position of great astrological "myschef";(14) alternatively, the faithful lover will be in mortal danger while separated from his "hertes lady swete" (57). Fortunately, his lady feels such compassion that she hastens their meeting by walking twice as fast as he: that is to say, Venus is now moving about eighty minutes of arc a day to Mars's forty.(15) And so forth: the Complaint of Mars can be called, throughout, a composite narrative.

It is, moreover, an inharmonious composite, for its variants turn on incompatible forms of causation. In the Complaint of Mars, Chaucer disaggregates what was in Lady, Pity, and Fortune an equivocation about the source of agency. On the astronomical level, the story justifies Mars's suspicion that God has predetermined both his joy and his pain. The planets are, after all, ruled not merely by the conventionalized Love of the other complaints but by "love, that governeth erthe and see, and hath also comandement to the hevene" (Bo II.m8.15-16). They inhabit not quite a Mobius loop but an orbit: Mars's sense of autonomy is illusory. So too is his sense of grievance - not merely because he will rejoin Venus as often as he loses her but also, more profoundly, because he cannot feel. His debilitating fever (95-96, 127-28), Venus's tears, and the entire love affair can be reduced to astrological metaphors: planets "kovered with the bemes of the Sunne" were "cleped combust, or brent" (North 309, citing Alkabucius); Venus conventionally brings rain and moisture (North 310); "the common verb used to describe conjunction in the astrological manuals is copulare" (Wood 147); and even love and hate were a "general metaphor for expressing the accord or discord supposed to obtain between planets in aspect with one another" (Laird 230). Cosmic law preempts not just Mars's and Venus's will but their very subjectivity.

On another level, Mars produces a more convincing illusion of subjective agency than do any of Chaucer's other complaints. The behavior of Mars occasions not only serious ethical and theological analyses (Wood, Dean, Amsler, Storm) but also emotional responses ranging from amusement to pity and gloom.(16) Those effects arise in part from what Clemen calls an "unaffected, natural mode of expression, sometimes coming near a 'speaking voice'" (193), but more powerfully from Chaucer's mastery of that venerable narrative trick, point-of-view. We see not just a talking planet and a euhemerized god but a lover frustrated at being also a planet, a god embarrassed by his divinity:

After he walketh softely a paas, Compleynyng, that hyt pite was to here, He seyde, "O lady bryght, Venus, alas, That evere so wyd a compas ys my spere? (134-37)

But to yow, hardy knyghtes of renoun, Syn that ye be of my devisioun, Al be I not worthy to so greta name, Yet, seyn these clerkes, I am your patroun; Therfore ye oghte have sore compassioun Of my disese, and take hit not a-game. (272-77)

We can scarcely avoid taking Mars "a-game"; a helpless god of war is indeed comic, as Ovid and Vulcan knew. Still, Mars's rueful self-consciousness attracts as much sympathy as ridicule. This is, surely, what it would be like to be a self trapped in an object.

In thus "represent[ing] behavior as both externally compelled and self-chosen" (Patterson, "Writing" 64), Chaucer evokes a wider medieval debate about the locus of causation. And as is well known, that debate often concerned astrological influence on human behavior. Chaucer recenters the question onto the freedom of the planets themselves, conceived - somewhat as in Ovid - as both sovereign and helpless.(17)

To have recast the astral determiners as victims, merging them meanwhile with Ovidian myth and courtly narrative, is at least a tour de force. To some it is nothing more: J. M. Manly long ago branded the Complaint of Mars "a mere exercise of ingenuity" (124). More recently, three critics apparently working independently have associated Mars's heterogeneous meanings with the wit of John Donne and other seventeenth-century poets.(18) Although they do not endorse Manly's dismissal, they too describe the poem in terms of craft rather than of significance.

But the twentieth century has recognized more in Metaphysical correspondences than mechanical cleverness. I would argue that like Donne's conceits, the Complaint of Mars does signify - not through the dominance of any of its inconsistent implications but in their surprising and partial congruity. Wimsatt acclaims the "wonderful concurrence of the astrological, the mythological, and the romantic when Mars and Venus hie them to bed, a true conjunction of courtly planets" (120); but the entire poem double-exposes determined events and determining agents, keeping them always distinct enough that their convergence surprises us. The double-exposure itself captures our attention, rather than any particular moral, mythic, or astronomical development. When Mars tentatively blames God for his pain, the appropriate response is not to reject his blasphemy but to recognize that certain planetary events, conjoined with eponymous myths, mimic the situations in which people blaspheme.(19) Similarly, when Mars claims to have chosen motions accordant with cosmic law, Chaucer surely intends us not to decide whether or not planetary Intelligences have free will but to marvel with him that our mythic and astrological accounts of Mars and Venus, when compounded, model the entanglement of necessity and freedom in human narratives. And our recognition of such resemblance goes beyond admiration for a parlor trick. Sustained through nearly 300 lines, insulated from easy dismissal by its playful irony, Chaucer's coordination of astronomical observation, astrological metaphor, Ovidian narrative, and the topoi of fin amour proposes congruence among irreconcilable versions of agency.

The congruence begins, oddly enough, in the subhuman rather than the superhuman realm: Mars's complaint is reported by a bird. "Gladeth, ye foules, of the morowe gray," the proem begins (1). The end of the second stanza reveals another narrator, who overheard the bird at dawn on St. Valentine's Day (13-14); this speaker, presumably human, retreats immediately with "Yet sang this foul" (15). Two stanzas later the fowl proposes to honor St. Valentine by recounting the "sentence of the compleynt" of Mars, which it then transmits so unobtrusively that a reader is likely either to forget its presence or to wonder why Chaucer introduced it. Some critics propose that Chaucer prefaces the story of Mars by contrasting the happily mating birds with lovers who "lye in any drede" and must flee the daylight and "wikked tonges" (5-7; see Hultin 62, Ruud 263-64, and Norton-Smith 31). But the proem's fearful lovers may be birds as well: they are no more anthropomorphic than the contented pairs urged in lines 16 through 21 to choose mates or "renovele[n] your servyse" in honor of St. Valentine.(20) In fact, the proem compounds human and avian lovers somewhat as the body of the poem superimposes mythic deities, planets, and courtiers.

The complex alloy of agencies links the Complaint of Mars with Chaucer's other complaints, whose speakers formulate changing and sometimes inconsistent tormenters. The mythic-cosmic-courtly characters of Mars recall the abstracted ladies, the semi-sacred Pity, the allegorical scapegoat Fortune, and the ontologically light Purse. But Chaucer here moves the multiplication of agency beyond semiotic play into a serious suggestion of cosmic anthropomorphism. Indeed, he eventually resolves the poem's causal and narratological heterogeneity by extending the poetics of complaint into a poetics of universal compassion.

The Complaint of Mars contrasts with Chaucer's other complaints in that its complaining is almost entirely vicarious. Not only is Mars's lament relayed by two other narrators; Mars himself also turns quickly from his own grief to a complaint on behalf of all lovers and particularly of Venus (191-217). The poem ends in a sustained plea for transplanetary empathy. Mars urges human "knyghtes of renoun" to take his pain seriously because they are "of my devisioun" and because - as Troilus came to know - "The proudest of yow may be mad ful tame" (272-78). Equally, naturally piteous ladies have special reason to mourn, "Sith that youre emperise, the honurable, / Is desolat" (285-86);

Now shulde your holy teres falle and reyne. Alas, your honour and your emperise, Negh ded for drede ne can her not chevise! (287-89)

Finally Mars rises to an anaphoric climax also somewhat reminiscent of the Troilus:

Compleyneth eke, ye lovers, al in-fere, For her that with unfeyned humble chere Was evere redy to do yow socour; Compleyneth her that evere hath had yow dere; Compleyneth Beaute, Fredom, and Manere; Compleyneth her that endeth your labour; Compleyneth thilke ensample of al honour, That never dide but al gentilesse; Kytheth therfore on her sum kyndenesse. (290-98)

The plea moves us with its rhetorical effects but more powerfully with its semiotic audacity. Chaucer not only anthropomorphizes planet-gods but also subjects them to his readers: Mars, Venus, and Venus's allegorical avatars need our pity, which, unlike the perennially moribund abstraction of A Complaint unto Pity, vitalizes its recipients. The entire poem has anticipated that empathic leap. A proem that confounds species, a narrative in which "the line between persons and astrology is so thin that it is not clear whether planets are being described in human terms, or characters described in astrological terms" (N. Dean 23), and a complaint ventriloquized across the solar system prepare us for fellow-=feeling not just with Venus but with the entire created and intelligible world.

I do not mean to endorse Norton-Smith's conclusion that the Complaint of Mars "attempt[s] to establish an archetypal plot or pattern of tragic love" (28). The poem doubtless confirms the universality of "impermanence, suffering and implied betrayal" (Norton-Smith 28), but it implies also the recurrence of reunion and joy. More to the point, it implies less about any particular archetype of love or mutability than about our apprehension of archetypes. Contrived, funny, occasionally poignant, and remarkably abundant, its wide-ranging congruences move us not toward any philosophical conclusion but toward bemused wonder at our ability to see ourselves mirrored in the nonsubjective universe. We end where Mars would have us, in the kyth[ing] of kyndenesse.

Nancy Dean suspects that for Chaucer, medieval complaint had lost its Ovidian basis in "a cause all men would grasp as 'real.'" Hence, she concludes, Chaucer strove to supply "biographical settings [for] the majority of his complaints" (24). Dean misses the mark slightly. Although he may indeed have grown impatient with the rich but inconclusive semiotics of medieval complaint, Chaucer grounds his finest complaints not in fictional biography but in a subjectivity that we "grasp as 'real'" much more firmly: our own. In the House of Fame, Jill Mann points out, correspondence among literary accounts of experience "carries something of the same evidential power as finding it confirmed in experience" (4). The complaints, particularly the Complaint of Mars, generate an even wider and more problematic set of correspondences. Fabricated abstractions equivocate with sacred ones, literary reifications with particular women, comic pseudo-gods with cosmic intelligences, hackneyed bird with genuine poetic subject. And even more explicitly than his longer poems, Chaucer's complaints submit those correspondences to "The creative autonomy - or plain cussedness - of the reader" (Mann 12), in whose synthesizing imagination they take real shape. Mann sees in the reader's imaginative autonomy the writer's cause of despair but also his "abiding consolation" (12). She might have been writing about the Complaint of Mars, whose witty appeal to compassionate projection places it among the few true complaints, able to generate a consoling subjectivity from the deconstruction of agency.


1 Patterson adds immediately that the conventionality of complaints undermines the sews authenticity, but he still regards an autonomous self as the poems' premise ("Writing" 56).

2 Quotations from Chaucer are taken from Benson, The Riverside Chaucer.

3 I assume, as do most scholars, that Chaucer did write the unattributed Merciles Beaute.

4 I suspect that Chaucer learned this kind of allegorical joke from Jean de Meun, who subjects, for instance, the initially transcendent Nature to crude misogyny; see Roman de la Rose 16314-29.

5 The rubric "The Bill of Complaint" is editorial, with a precedent in only one of the nine manuscripts. It is justified by the preceding lines ("And I have put my complaynt up ageyn, / For to my foes my bille I dar not shewe, / Th'effect of which seith thus, in wordes fewe . . ." [54-56]), but we cannot be sure where it is intended to end. Charles J. Nolan, Jr., argues that it ends in line 98 because at that point it has fulfilled the structure of legal bills of complaint (Nolan 368). The legal precedents are not particularly close, however, and like Robinson (641) and Benson (527-28), I see no syntactic or thematic indication that the bill of complaint ends before the poem does. Nolan tries to remove the anomaly whereby the Bill both precedes and follows Pity's death by postulating that the section after line 98 addresses the lady herself, but because there is no apparent shift in addressee between line 99 and line 117, line 117 would then mean that the lady herself is dead - a worse anomaly. As Nolan suggests, trying to disentangle the references merely produces confusion (Nolan 369-70). And as I will suggest below, the speaker has acknowledged that Pity has already died repeatedly (lines 32-35, 71-74).

6 See Benson 1084; the manuscripts read Balades de vilage, but all editors emend to visage.

7 Like Davenport (23) I cannot accept Norton-Smith's call to restore the manuscript attribution of this section to "Le pleintif' ("Chaucer's Boethius" 70-73), but I can well understand that scribes would be confused by Fortune's disavowal of her own reality.

8 That statement differs subtly but significantly from the passage in the Consolation of Philosophy that Gross (in Benson 1084) sees as an analogue: there, Philosophy tells Boethius that he has "chosen [Fortune] frely to ben thi lady" (Bo 2.pr1.97-98). This Fortune too is ultimately ephemeral, but the speaker's temporal subjection to her is not self-chosen.

Ruud (241-43) astutely follows the envoy's paradoxes, concluding that it is "playful in its irresolution" (243).

9 I owe that observation to William Nelles. If the narrator does not really complain, neither does he really beg; although her historical conjectures have been refuted, Florence R. Scott is quite correct that the poem provides no testimony that Chaucer was really impoverished.

10 Davenport astutely observes that "the touch of word-play" in "him wire I that I dye /And myn unwit" (270-71) "leaves the serious meaning not pinned down but allowed to float off in a witty turn" (39). But the serious meaning does not float off very far; this is, as Davenport has earlier suggested (38), a Metaphysical kind of wit.

11 I quote Laila Z. Gross's note to lines 31-32 in Benson; Gross's note to lines 30-51 is the source for my preceding astronomical explanation. In both cases she cites Richard of Wallingford.

12 North (307) provides this gloss on Mars's singing from the Islamic astrologer known to Chaucer as Alkabucius: "And yif eny planete is joyned to the lord of that signe in which he were, to the lord of exaltacioun or to the lord of othere dignitees in which he were, he is seide to rynge, that is, to send his nature to the planete of that lord" (italics in original).

13 See lines 50-56 and the note in Benson.

14 Line 58 and North 308.

15 Lines 64-70 and North 308.

16 The Complaint of Mars seems comic to Stillwell (89), Merrill (22 and 35), and Wimsatt (120), among others; those who find it tragic include Patterson (Chaucer 75-76) and Lawlor (61-63). Seeing a mixture of seriousness and lightness, as do I, are Davenport (35-40) and N. Dean (23-26).

17 On Ovid's reduction of "cosmic forces" to inept blunderers, see Fyler 4 and passim.

18 Davenport 38, Schless 226, Wimsatt 120. Not only do these three critics arrive independently at that conclusion regarding Mars; Nolan (371) also finds Metaphystical wit in Pity.

19 Davenport makes a complementary point about the effect of comic passages: "the poetry remains confidently, even indulgently, sympathetic to the actions described and to the figures of the gods; the comic irony is present merely in the sense that we are contemplating it at all" (35).

20 Nor do Chaucer's other works confirm an association of subhuman love only with fidelity and straightforwardness: birds are capable of unrequited and jealous love in the Parliament of Fowls and of deception in the Squire's Tale. Robert Jordan's comment on the ending of the former poem applies to the Complaint of Mars as well: "This imaginary garden, we are told, is peopled by real birds who sing in English a song composed in France. Such sophisticated playfulness - collapsing levels of illusion and homogenizing absolutely differentiated states of being - depends on a high degree of literary consciousness and an appreciation of the artistry and play of literary illusion" (97). I would add that the playfulness projects an equally sophisticated vision of the relationship of human and nonhuman agency.

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Title Annotation:Geoffrey Chaucer
Author:Van Dyke, Carolynn
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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