Study Guide: Hoccleve, ‘My Compleinte’

By Dr. Brendan O’Connell (oconneb2@tcd.ie) 

The prologue opens with a description of the season of Autumn which inverts the famous Spring opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You may want to reflect on why Hoccleve opens with the passing of the seasons, and how this relates to his arguments about the inevitability of death, and his experience of sickness. What do you think is the significance of ‘scourgid’ in line 23? Consider in detail the oft-discussed images in lines 29-35. What is the significance of ‘swelling’ and ‘bursting’, and of the curious claim that Hoccleve writes to prove he ‘cam of a womman’ (34)?

As you read the text, make a note of the language Hoccleve uses to describe his illness: the ‘þouȝtful maladie’ (21), ‘wilde infirmitie’ (40), etc. What does Hoccleve’s language suggest about the way he views the mind, or the relationship between an individual and their reason? Consider for example lines 50-1, 59-60, 232-3, 246-9. What is the significance of his insistence on illness and recovery (e.g. 234-8)? What do you make of his allusion to drunkenness and sobriety at 225-31? What do you think of the explanation of the cause of his mental illness at 386-406?

Hoccleve makes a distinction between his experience of mental breakdown and his experience of trying to regain his former place among his professional and social circles. What are the main challenges he experiences as he tries to re-integrate with society? Consider lines 71-77, lines 85-91 etc. What is the impact of the whispering and gossip that he overhears? What role does his religious faith play in his process of re-integration?

Hoccleve speaks powerfully of feeling under surveillance, of being constantly watched by people looking for symptoms of returning madness. How does this affect his behaviour? See lines 120-32. How does it affect his ability to speak and communicate (141-7)? How does the stress and anxiety he experiences in society manifest physically and emotionally?

In the most famous scene, Hoccleve tells us how he agonises over how people perceive him, and explains that he stands repeatedly in front of his mirror, practising how to look normal (155-68). Stephanie Trigg’s TEDx talk, which I’ve uploaded on Blackboard, is very good on this. What is the significance of the image of the mirror in medieval culture and literature? Do you think it has a larger significance than just referring to a literal mirror?

Hoccleve tells us that he has frequently had to suppress anger and impatience (177) so that people will not think his illness has returned (185-89). The experiences he has make him to want to withdraw from company, but then he worries people will think he’s withdrawing from society because of his illness (190-3). He makes a powerful case that people should not just make assumptions, but should talk to people if they want to know how things are with them. What do you think of his claim that ‘commvnynge is the beste assay’ (217)? Did anyone act charitably to him during his recovery? What is the significance of his claim that he no longer wears the ‘livery’ of good fortune (266-73)?

Hoccleve places great significance on ideas of wisdom and learning (250-2). It could be useful to think about his many references to the Bible (e.g. 78) and other works, as well as the book of lamentation and consolation that provides him with some comfort (309-77). Consider the form of this book (apparently the Synonyma of Isidore of Seville), which is represented as a dialogue between a man and Reason. How is this related to Hoccleve’s earlier account of his mental health issues? What comfort does he find in the book? What is the significance of the fact that he never gets to finish reading it (372-4)?