Hoccleve’s “Complaint”: An Open-Access Prose Translation

As a resource for all readers of Hoccleve, Jenni Nuttall has for the first time provided an open-access Modern English prose translation of Hoccleve’s Complaint, the first poem in the Series.

This translation is based on the text of the Complaint as given in J. A. Burrow’s edition of Thomas Hoccleve’s ‘Complaint’ and ‘Dialogue’ (EETS o.s. 313, 1999). The glosses and explanatory notes draw on those found in both this edition and in ‘My Compleinte’ and Other Poems, ed. Roger Ellis (2001). Nuttall’s translation aims to give an accurate, idiomatic representation of the meaning of Hoccleve’s Middle English verse, divided into prose paragraphs matching the poem’s rhyme royal stanzas. Brief notes are indicated with an asterisk; click the asterisk to view the note at the bottom of the page.

The original Middle English can be read in the Hoccleve Archive, hosted by the University of Texas.

[Lines 1 to 7] After Harvest had gathered in his sheaves, and after the brown season of Michaelmas had arrived and begun to rob the trees of their leaves, which had once been green and of vivid brightness, and had dyed them the colour of yellowness and thrown them down under foot, that change sank down to the very bottom of my heart.

[8-14] For it brought to my mind once more that there is no permanence in this world: here is nothing but mutability and changeableness. However wealthy or lucky in life someone is, it will not last — they will lose it. Death will trample them down under foot: that will be everyone’s ending,

[15-21] which it is in no one’s power to avoid, however rich they are now, strong, vibrant, fresh or lively. And so at the end of November, late one night, sighing sorrowfully as I lay in my bed because of this and because of other anxiety which I had endured for many a day beforehand, no sleep came to my eyes because the melancholic disease so troubled me.

[22-28] I saw clearly, since I was last scourged with sickness, that the good fortune which shone on me very brightly in time’s past has become cloudy. The sun lost its strength and the dark shower poured right down on me and made me wallow in depression, so that my spirit had no desire to live, nor no delight.

[29-35] Grief so swelled around my heart and constantly bulged so painfully, more and more, that I absolutely had to come out with it. I thought I couldn’t keep it hidden any more nor block it up within me while I grow old and grey. And in order to prove that I was born of a woman, I burst out in the morning and thus began.

Here my prologue ends and my complaint follows.

[36-42] As it pleases His goodness, Almighty God afflicts folks every day, as you can see, with loss of possessions and physical sickness, and He did not forget me among the others. Witness the violent disease which I once had, as lots of people knew well, and which threw and hurled me out of my own self.

[43-49] It was so familiar and known by everyone that it was no private matter nor nothing about it could be. How things stood for me was in every mouth and that alarmed my friends very much. They promised pilgrimages for my health and undertook them themselves, some on horseback and some on foot — may God reward them for it — to get me my cure.

[50-56] But although the main part of my memory took a break for a while, yet the Lord of Virtue, the King of Glory, through His high power and merciful grace, made it return to the place from where it came, which happened exactly five years ago on All Saints’ Day*, neither more nor less.

[57-63] And ever since — thanks be to God our Lord for His merciful restoration of me to His favour — my mind and I have been in such agreement as we were beforehand, before its deterioration, but, by my salvation*, I have been sorely set on fire and lived in great torment and anguish during that time.

[64-70] For even though my mind had come home again, people would not understand or accept it. They disdained to deal with me: I was thought to be a disorderly person and thus ignored. All my old friendships were shaken off: no one wanted to make conversation with me. The world treated me like a stranger,

[71-77] which tormented my heart bitterly, because often when I was in Westminster Hall* and also when I went among the crowds in London, I saw the faces of those who used to invite me into their company fall and grow pale. They turned their heads away when I met them, as if they did not see me.

[78-84] Just as it’s said in the Psalms, so I can say ‘Those that saw me fled away from me’*. I was out of mind, forgotten altogether, like he that was dead to the heart’s kindness. I might be compared to a lost vessel*, for I heard many a person living near me blame me and find fault with me.

[85-91] Lots of people spoke like this and said about me, ‘Although his violent sickness has receded and passed from him for the time being, it will return, especially at the age he is now’ and then my face began to burn for hurt and fear. Those words reached my ear without them realising.

[92-98] ‘When it is extremely hot,’ they said, ‘you can be sure that disease will attack him again.’ And yet, by God, they made a mistake: their prophecy had no effect at all. Many summers have passed since my cure from that which God through his grace supplied for me. Thanks be to God that it did not happen as they predicted.

[99-105] Whatever people suppose or speculate, knowledge of what will happen is reserved for He who knows every man’s secret. It is stupidity for people to pretend to know more than they do, and no one knows, whether a him or a her, to whom God will pay a visit, nor how nor when — it often happens when one little expects it.

[106-112] Once upon a time I expected as little as anyone to have fallen into that madness. Yet, whenever it may please Him, God will and can withdraw health and send sickness to anybody. Though you might be well today, no certainty that it will last is promised to anyone. One moment God can hurt and another moment heal and cure.

[113-119] He is long suffering but in the end He smites. When someone lives in prosperity, it’s wise to dread a coming fall. Whoever pays attention can often perceive this world’s change and mutability in various ways — I don’t need to explain how. Instead I’ll address myself to my subject matter straightaway.

[120-126] People said that I looked like a wild young bullock and just so I threw my gaze about. Another said I carried my head too high: ‘His brain is very buck-ish*, I dare well think.’ And the third said, ‘he is well suited to sit in the ranks of those who can give an idiotic opinion: there is no sanity in his head.’

[127-133] I had changed my way of walking, some said as well, for I darted forward here and there like a roe deer, no pausing, no stopping, but completely brain-sick. Another spoke and said as well, concerning me, that my feet were always shifting to and fro when I ought to stand still and talk with people, and that my eye sought every corner.

[134-140] I always listened in as I passed by and heard everything and I pondered in my heart like this: ‘I may regret staying here for any length of time in case, through rash anger, I answer wrongly in the end. It would be best to get out of here, because if I behave myself inappropriately in this crowd, it will result in harm and damage for me.’

[141-147] And I considered this carefully, and also understood well that whatever I might answer or reply, they would not have considered it worth anything. Because of that, as if I had lost my tongue’s key, I kept myself hidden away and went on my way, drooping and dejected, and completely overcome with woe. It seemed to me that I had little reason to be happy.

[148-154] My mental powers always struggled anxiously to fake my expression, behaviour and look, because people spoke about me with such amazement and I shook for very shame and fear. Even if my heart had been dipped in the stream, it would have been no wetter and moister than it was from my sweating fit, which was one moment frosty cold, another fiery hot.

[155-161] And when I was sat by myself alone in my chamber at home, I acted in this way: I reached for my mirror, my looking glass, to see what I thought about my appearance, if it were in any way other than it should be, because, if it had not been right, I would have gladly fixed it to the best of my power and ability.

[162-168] I often leapt up to get this mirror, thinking, ‘If I look in company in the same way as I look now, no fault of a suspect look may appear in my face. I’m sure that if I go on adopting this expression and this behaviour, there will be nothing to object to, at least for those who have reasonable ideas in their heads.’

[169-175] And furthermore I soon thought like this: ‘People are blind to their own situation all the time, as I have heard said many times before, and I may stand in that same plight. What shall I do, which is the best way to bring my troubled spirit to peace? If I knew how, I would willingly do the right thing.’

[176-182] Since I have recovered, I have very often had cause to be angry and impatient, at times where I have born it gently and patiently, suffering wrong and offence to be done to me but not answering back and keeping quiet, in case that people would judge me and say, ‘See how this man has become afflicted once more.’

[183-189] When once I came from Westminster, very bitterly troubled with burning anxiety, I thought like this: ‘I am a great fool to beat these streets like this every day and to work doggedly and sweat indoors and outdoors, in order to earn nothing but restlessness and misery, since I am fallen out of all good fortune and grace.’

[190-196] But then I thought on the other side of things: ‘If I’m not seen among the crowds, people will think that I hide my head and am worse than I am, that’s the truth.’ O Lord, my spirit was so restless, I sought rest and I did not find it, yet trouble was always ready at hand.

[197-203] I may not prevent someone’s imagination leaping far above the moon, if they want it to. They may not ascertain the truth by that: rather things are known and understood by proof. Many a judgement is hidden in the mist: an individual shall be known by their deeds and not by their appearance, as is written down in books.

[204-210] By tasting a fruit you can truly know and identify what it is, there is no other proof: everyone knows that well as far as I can see. Just so for those that think that my mind has left me. Still to this day there are many people who think I am not well: may they, as I pass by them, taste and assay if that be true or not.

[211-217] It’s hard for people to base their opinion of what a person is on just a look: that way the truth is hidden. Whether their mind is sick or healthy can’t be known or recognized by appearance. Though someone has once been severely afflicted, God forbid that it should continue that way for them forever. Thus the best test is by conversation.

[218-224] I mean talking about ordinary things, because I am certainly nothing more than uneducated and ignorant — my knowledge is pretty meagre. Yet nevertheless I know about everyday wisdom: I hope not to be found so irrational as men think. St Mary, Christ forbid! I can do nothing more — may my deeds prove this.

[225-231] If someone falls into drunkenness once, will they remain in that state for ever more? No, even though someone drinks to excess, so much that he cannot speak or walk, and his wits are almost taken from him and buried in the bottom of the cup, afterwards he comes to himself again — otherwise things would be difficult.

[232-238] Just so, though my mind has been a pilgrim and travelled far from here, he returned again. God emptied me of this harmful poison which had infected and maddened my brain. See how the most excellent and merciful doctor gives medicine to the sick at their time of need and relieves them of their pain.

[239-245] Now let this pass. God knows, many people seem very wise on the basis of their appearance and expression, who, if they were tested to see what they were capable of, one might compare them to nothing more than a fool. And some people seem to have a foolish manner, at least in terms of external judgement and verdict, who, when put to the test, are found to be prudent and sensible.

[246-252] But all the same, whatever my expression is, there is not disagreement between me and my mind, although there was an estrangement for a while between me and it. The greater harm is mine, that I was never yet well educated, prudent and rational. A wise man never yet stood in these shoes.

[253-259] The truth is this: such intelligence and understanding as I had before my wits were unsettled (although it was only a small amount), such have I now — thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ for all things! — but the reverse is spread about nearly everywhere, because of which my grief is great, causing me to sigh like this in lamentation.

[260-266] Since my good fortune has changed her mind, it’s high time for me to creep into my grave. What am I doing here, living without joy? I’m able to find no gladness in my heart. I can say little without people deciding that I’m raving. Since I can grasp nothing other than sorrow, I’m now ready for my tomb.

[267-273] Goodbye to my well-being, farewell to my good fortune! You have erased me out of your writing tablets. Since almost everyone is loathe to speak with me, farewell prosperity! I am no longer in your uniform: you have put me out of your retinue. Goodbye my good fortune and good luck!

[274-280] And as quickly afterwards I thought like this: ‘If I despair in this fashion, it is a way of obtaining yet more adversity. What need is there to harm my feeble wit since God — blessed is he — has made my health return home? And whatever people think or speak, I plan to endure it and I won’t take revenge on myself.’

[281-287] And yet I had a small amount of happiness from time to time, and also gladness in my spirit, that though the people judged faultily and wrongly, considering me not free from my sickness, yet because they regretted, with the tenderness of the heart’s loving-kindness, the miserable situation in which they had seen me, my grief was the less.

[288-294] I blamed them for only one fault. They could not believe that I was healthy, and yet day by day they saw me pass by them in hot weather and cold, and neither when speaking or silent did they find me acting suspectly. A dark cloud obscured their sight within and without, and because of all that they were in such an uncertainty.

[295-301] They have asked very often, and enquired of my friends from the Privy Seal, and begged them to tell them really and truly how things went for me, whether badly or well. And they told them every part of the truth, but they considered their words nothing but lies. They might as well have kept quiet.

[302-308] This turbulent life has lasted all too long. I have not known which way to go regarding my own situation. But now I have made myself a promise to never complain in the future about such bewilderment. As long as my life shall remain with me, I’ll not care about such imagining. Let them dream and speak and speculate however they please.

[309-315] The other day I saw in a book a lamentation by a sorrowful man*, to whom Reason gave words of consolation, speaking helpfully, and my heart was very eased by it, for when I had read for a while in that book, I was well nourished by the speech of Reason.

[316-322] The miserable man, sorrowful and anguished, complained in this manner and he said thus: ‘My life is very burdensome to me, for wherever or to whatever place I flee, my wickednesses will always follow me, as one can see the shadow follow a body, and I cannot escape them by any means.

[323-329] ‘I don’t lack for torment and oppression of my spirit. I’ve plenty of that. My taste and smell is astonishingly bitter. Cursed be the time of my birth. Unlucky man, that I should ever have been born. O death, your stroke is a salve of kindness to those who live in such misery.

[330-336] ‘It would be a greater pleasure for me to die, many times over, than for to live like this. So many sorrows grow in me that my life is a true enemy to me. I cannot be comforted in my sorrow. I can see no end to my distress, no matter how soon I cease to be a man.’

[337-343] Then Reason said, ‘What is all this way of behaving for? Though well-being is not yet friendly to you, expel sorrow and worry out of your heart!’ ‘By what logic, how, and by what advice and strategy,’ said this sorrowful man, ‘might I do it?’ ‘Wrestle,’ said Reason, ‘against the oppressions of the world, troubles, suffering and hardships.

[344-350] ‘Look how many people suffer disease, as much as you and often more seriously, and though it pains them sharply and seizes them, yet they suffer and bear it patiently. Think about that and it will harm you the less. Such suffering is a purification of humanity’s guilt and makes them fit for everlasting joy.

[351-357] ‘Woe, misery and tribulation are common and advantageous to everyone. Though humanity’s temptation is painful, it does not kill anyone of those who are long-suffering. And joy is granted to those for whom God’s stroke is pleasing, for God wounds those whom he has ordained to go to eternal bliss.

[358-364] ‘Gold is purified in the furnace, as you’ve seen for yourself, so that it will be purer and unalloyed. Bear easily the weight and the burden of your disease, because God, to prove you, has scourged you with harsh adversity. Don’t grumble and say “Why do I have to put up with this?”, for if you do you have got the wrong idea.

[365-371] ‘Rather you should think in your heart like this and say, “To you, Lord God, I have done wrong: I must suffer so painfully for my offences. Just as I deserve, I am destroyed, unless you will grant your mercy to me. I am very sure you cannot deny it to me. Lord, I repent and I beg mercy from you.”’

[372-378] I wanted to have read further in this book, but so it happened that I could not. He that owned it took it back again, I being unaware of his haste. Yet I have understood some of the doctrine taught by Reason to the man, as I have said beforehand. I consider myself very satisfied with that,

[379-385] for ever since I have put less importance on people’s presumptions, saying this and that about my sickness which came from God’s visitation. If, when tested, I might have been found not to be discontented but to have undergone it patiently, my conduct would have been appropriate and wise.

[386-392] Goodbye to my sorrow, I throw it to the birds! With patience, I think to unpick the lock of such melancholic disease and sorrow from now on, and let out those things which have made me sick. Our Lord God may, if it please Him, make all my former friendships return in the future, and I will comfort myself with the hope of that.

[393-399] Through God’s just decree and his judgement, and because of what is best for me now, I accept and understand that that good Lord gave me my punishment. I paid no attention and notice to Him when things were going well, Him for to please and worship and serve, and He gave me a bone on which to chew, to discipline me and to have fear of Him.

[400-406] He gave me a mind and He took it away when He saw how I used it wrongly, and gave it to me again just as He pleased. He allowed me to repent my sins and afterwards to be aware of his divinity, to do His bidding and to improve my sinful way of life.

[407-413] Glory and honour and thanks be to you, Lord God, who are a medicine for all misfortune! Thank you for my well-being and for my adversity. Thank you for my growing older and my sickness. And thanks be to your infinite goodness for all your gifts and benefits, and to your mercy and your grace I call out.


• Line 55: All Saints’ Day is 1st November.

• Line 61: ‘By my salvation’ is an oath.

• Line 72: Westminster Hall was the great hall in the Palace of Westminster where the courts of law were held.

• Line 78: This stanza quotes from Psalm 30 (AV 31) 12–14.

• Line 82: This metaphor comes from Psalm 30, ‘I am become as a vessel that is destroyed. For I have heard the blame of many that dwell round about.’

• Line 123: The word bukkissh in Hoccleve’s original text is derived from the word bukke, meaning ‘a male deer’.

• Line 310: This book is a heavily abridged version of Isidore of Seville’s Synonyma.