complainte (noun), also compleinte
Complainte usually designates content rather than form: the expression of grief, pain and suffering, a lamentation, a petition or list of grievances. Complaints appear as speeches within longer works or as stand-alone poems. Complaint is recognised as a literary register or genre having its own styles and conventions. Chaucer tells us that Damian in the Merchant’s Tale writes about his unrequited love in a letter ‘[i]n manere of a compleynt or a lay’, which might specify the letter’s form or content or both (see also the entry on lai).
The complaint section of Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars begins with a statement of what the ‘order of compleynt’ requires in terms of its content, again suggesting a particular set of genre-expectations. Chaucer’s triple ballade, the Complaint of Venus, calls itself ‘this complaint or this lay’, indicating these terms could be used generally about the content of a poem even if in another form. Dorigen’s complaint in the Franklin’s Tale (labelled as such by the narrator both before and after she speaks) is not distinguished from the rest of the narrative by a change of form.
In French poetry, complaintes are both stand-alone poems and lyrics inserted into narratives. They aren’t defined by their form, but there are forms associated with the complainte genre as well as expectations about formal intricacy. French examples sometimes have longer stanzas (10, 12 or 16 lines per stanza), sometimes have lines of different lengths, and sometimes show conspicuous verbal skill by using only two or three rhyme-sounds in a long stanza. The prince’s complainte overhead and written down by the narrator of Machaut’s Fonteinne Amoureuse has a hundred rhymes on the same sound without repetition, as the narrator points out. The complainte section of Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars (written in nine-line stanzas rhyming aabaabbcc) is likely an English attempt at this French genre. It may be that some of the Middle English references to complainte also allude to this expectation of formal sophistication.
Chaucer lists the lyrics written by the lovesick squire Aurelius in the Franklin’s Tale in a list which moves from the general (if ‘layes’ just means ‘songs’ here) to the particular: ‘layes, / Songes, compleintes, roundels, virelayes.’ Some complexity of form may be being indicated here. The Black Knight’s complaint in the Book of the Duchess is given a form which distinguishes it from the surrounding narrative. The narrator promises ‘ten vers or twelve’ and in fact gives eleven lines: varying the rhyme-scheme from the couplets of the rest of the poem: aabba ccdccd.
Chaucer’s Anelida’s Complaint (which may be an imitation of a French lai lyrique, twelve stanzas in various different rhyme-schemes) may have reinforced the association between the complaint genre and formal intricacy, as did Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars and his Complaint of Venus. A short poem called The Complaint to his Lady (attributed to Chaucer) has a final section in ten-line stanzas rhyming aabaabcddc. These complaints inspired later Scottish poets to include inset lyric complaints in their narratives in intricate forms. Whilst the main body of the text is in rhyme royal, Cresseid’s complaint in Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid is written in nine-line aabaabbab stanzas. Similarly, Orpheus’s ‘mone’, his lament for his lost wife Eurydice in Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice, is made in a ten-line aabaabbcbc stanza, in contrast to the rhyme royal narration and the moralitas in couplets. The ‘lay’ of complaint sung by the narrator in Gavin Douglas’s Palis of Honoure is three ten-line stanzas (rhyming aabaabbaab), as is the corresponding three-stanza ‘lay’ of celebration later in the poem.
Lee Patterson, writing about Chaucer’s complaints in an essay called ‘Writing Amorous Wrongs: Chaucer and the Order of Complaint’, suggests that the complaint is ‘virtually coextensive with poetry’ because it asks one of poetry’s key questions: ‘is poetry primarily a spontaneous expression of feeling (as the rhetor Ion tells Socrates) or is it an art (Aristotle’s techne)?’ The formal intricacy of these complaints intensifies the complaint’s paradoxical answer to that question: they offer both profound emotion and yet also ostentatious artistry.