'A Lover's Complaint' by William Shakespeare

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FROM off a hill whose concave womb reworded
A plaintful story from a sistering vale,
My spirits to attend this double voice accorded,
And down I laid to list the sad-tuned tale;
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale,
Tearing of papers, breaking rings a-twain,
Storming her world with sorrow's wind and rain.

Upon her head a platted hive of straw,
Which fortified her visage from the sun,
Whereon the thought might think sometime it saw
The carcass of beauty spent and done:
Time had not scythed all that youth begun,
Nor youth all quit; but, spite of heaven's fell rage,
Some beauty peep'd through lattice of sear'd age.

Oft did she heave her napkin to her eyne,
Which on it had conceited characters,
Laundering the silken figures in the brine
That season'd woe had pelleted in tears,
And often reading what contents it bears;
As often shrieking undistinguish'd woe,
In clamours of all size, both high and low.

Sometimes her levell'd eyes their carriage ride,
As they did battery to the spheres intend;
Sometime diverted their poor balls are tied
To the orbed earth; sometimes they do extend
Their view right on; anon their gazes lend
To every place at once, and, nowhere fix'd,
The mind and sight distractedly commix'd.

Her hair, nor loose nor tied in formal plat,
Proclaim'd in her a careless hand of pride
For some, untuck'd, descended her sheaved hat,
Hanging her pale and pined cheek beside;
Some in her threaden fillet still did bide,
And true to bondage would not break from thence,
Though slackly braided in loose negligence.

A thousand favours from a maund she drew
Of amber, crystal, and of beaded jet,
Which one by one she in a river threw,
Upon whose weeping margent she was set;
Like usury, applying wet to wet,
Or monarch's hands that let not bounty fall
Where want cries some, but where excess begs all.

Of folded schedules had she many a one,
Which she perused, sigh'd, tore, and gave the flood;
Crack'd many a ring of posied gold and bone
Bidding them find their sepulchres in mud;
Found yet moe letters sadly penn'd in blood,
With sleided silk feat and affectedly
Enswathed, and seal'd to curious secrecy.

These often bathed she in her fluxive eyes,
And often kiss'd, and often 'gan to tear:
Cried 'O false blood, thou register of lies,
What unapproved witness dost thou bear!
Ink would have seem'd more black and damned here!'
This said, in top of rage the lines she rents,
Big discontent so breaking their contents.

A reverend man that grazed his cattle nigh--
Sometime a blusterer, that the ruffle knew
Of court, of city, and had let go by
The swiftest hours, observed as they flew--
Towards this afflicted fancy fastly drew,
And, privileged by age, desires to know
In brief the grounds and motives of her woe.

So slides he down upon his grained bat,
And comely-distant sits he by her side;
When he again desires her, being sat,
Her grievance with his hearing to divide:
If that from him there may be aught applied
Which may her suffering ecstasy assuage,
'Tis promised in the charity of age.

'Father,' she says, 'though in me you behold
The injury of many a blasting hour,
Let it not tell your judgment I am old;
Not age, but sorrow, over me hath power:
I might as yet have been a spreading flower,
Fresh to myself, If I had self-applied
Love to myself and to no love beside.

'But, woe is me! too early I attended
A youthful suit--it was to gain my grace--
Of one by nature's outwards so commended,
That maidens' eyes stuck over all his face:
Love lack'd a dwelling, and made him her place;
And when in his fair parts she did abide,
She was new lodged and newly deified.

'His browny locks did hang in crooked curls;
And every light occasion of the wind
Upon his lips their silken parcels hurls.
What's sweet to do, to do will aptly find:
Each eye that saw him did enchant the mind,
For on his visage was in little drawn
What largeness thinks in Paradise was sawn.

'Small show of man was yet upon his chin;
His phoenix down began but to appear
Like unshorn velvet on that termless skin
Whose bare out-bragg'd the web it seem'd to wear:
Yet show'd his visage by that cost more dear;
And nice affections wavering stood in doubt
If best were as it was, or best without.

'His qualities were beauteous as his form,
For maiden-tongued he was, and thereof free;
Yet, if men moved him, was he such a storm
As oft 'twixt May and April is to see,
When winds breathe sweet, untidy though they be.
His rudeness so with his authorized youth
Did livery falseness in a pride of truth.

'Well could he ride, and often men would say
'That horse his mettle from his rider takes:
Proud of subjection, noble by the sway,
What rounds, what bounds, what course, what stop
he makes!'
And controversy hence a question takes,
Whether the horse by him became his deed,
Or he his manage by the well-doing steed.

'But quickly on this side the verdict went:
His real habitude gave life and grace
To appertainings and to ornament,
Accomplish'd in himself, not in his case:
All aids, themselves made fairer by their place,
Came for additions; yet their purposed trim
Pieced not his grace, but were all graced by him.

'So on the tip of his subduing tongue
All kinds of arguments and question deep,
All replication prompt, and reason strong,
For his advantage still did wake and sleep:
To make the weeper laugh, the laugher weep,
He had the dialect and different skill,
Catching all passions in his craft of will:

'That he did in the general bosom reign
Of young, of old; and sexes both enchanted,
To dwell with him in thoughts, or to remain
In personal duty, following where he haunted:
Consents bewitch'd, ere he desire, have granted;
And dialogued for him what he would say,
Ask'd their own wills, and made their wills obey.

'Many there were that did his picture get,
To serve their eyes, and in it put their mind;
Like fools that in th' imagination set
The goodly objects which abroad they find
Of lands and mansions, theirs in thought assign'd;
And labouring in moe pleasures to bestow them
Than the true gouty landlord which doth owe them:

'So many have, that never touch'd his hand,
Sweetly supposed them mistress of his heart.
My woeful self, that did in freedom stand,
And was my own fee-simple, not in part,
What with his art in youth, and youth in art,
Threw my affections in his charmed power,
Reserved the stalk and gave him all my flower.

'Yet did I not, as some my equals did,
Demand of him, nor being desired yielded;
Finding myself in honour so forbid,
With safest distance I mine honour shielded:
Experience for me many bulwarks builded
Of proofs new-bleeding, which remain'd the foil
Of this false jewel, and his amorous spoil.

'But, ah, who ever shunn'd by precedent
The destined ill she must herself assay?
Or forced examples, 'gainst her own content,
To put the by-past perils in her way?
Counsel may stop awhile what will not stay;
For when we rage, advice is often seen
By blunting us to make our wits more keen.

'Nor gives it satisfaction to our blood,
That we must curb it upon others' proof;
To be forbod the sweets that seem so good,
For fear of harms that preach in our behoof.
O appetite, from judgment stand aloof!
The one a palate hath that needs will taste,
Though Reason weep, and cry, 'It is thy last.'

'For further I could say 'This man's untrue,'
And knew the patterns of his foul beguiling;
Heard where his plants in others' orchards grew,
Saw how deceits were gilded in his smiling;
Knew vows were ever brokers to defiling;
Thought characters and words merely but art,
And bastards of his foul adulterate heart.

'And long upon these terms I held my city,
Till thus he gan besiege me: 'Gentle maid,
Have of my suffering youth some feeling pity,
And be not of my holy vows afraid:
That's to ye sworn to none was ever said;
For feasts of love I have been call'd unto,
Till now did ne'er invite, nor never woo.

''All my offences that abroad you see
Are errors of the blood, none of the mind;
Love made them not: with acture they may be,
Where neither party is nor true nor kind:
They sought their shame that so their shame did find;
And so much less of shame in me remains,
By how much of me their reproach contains.

''Among the many that mine eyes have seen,
Not one whose flame my heart so much as warm'd,
Or my affection put to the smallest teen,
Or any of my leisures ever charm'd:
Harm have I done to them, but ne'er was harm'd;
Kept hearts in liveries, but mine own was free,
And reign'd, commanding in his monarchy.

''Look here, what tributes wounded fancies sent me,
Of paled pearls and rubies red as blood;
Figuring that they their passions likewise lent me
Of grief and blushes, aptly understood
In bloodless white and the encrimson'd mood;
Effects of terror and dear modesty,
Encamp'd in hearts, but fighting outwardly.

''And, lo, behold these talents of their hair,
With twisted metal amorously impleach'd,
I have received from many a several fair,
Their kind acceptance weepingly beseech'd,
With the annexions of fair gems enrich'd,
And deep-brain'd sonnets that did amplify
Each stone's dear nature, worth, and quality.

''The diamond,--why, 'twas beautiful and hard,
Whereto his invised properties did tend;
The deep-green emerald, in whose fresh regard
Weak sights their sickly radiance do amend;
The heaven-hued sapphire and the opal blend
With objects manifold: each several stone,
With wit well blazon'd, smiled or made some moan.

''Lo, all these trophies of affections hot,
Of pensived and subdued desires the tender,
Nature hath charged me that I hoard them not,
But yield them up where I myself must render,
That is, to you, my origin and ender;
For these, of force, must your oblations be,
Since I their altar, you enpatron me.

''O, then, advance of yours that phraseless hand,
Whose white weighs down the airy scale of praise;
Take all these similes to your own command,
Hallow'd with sighs that burning lungs did raise;
What me your minister, for you obeys,
Works under you; and to your audit comes
Their distract parcels in combined sums.

''Lo, this device was sent me from a nun,
Or sister sanctified, of holiest note;
Which late her noble suit in court did shun,
Whose rarest havings made the blossoms dote;
For she was sought by spirits of richest coat,
But kept cold distance, and did thence remove,
To spend her living in eternal love.

''But, O my sweet, what labour is't to leave
The thing we have not, mastering what not strives,
Playing the place which did no form receive,
Playing patient sports in unconstrained gyves?
She that her fame so to herself contrives,
The scars of battle 'scapeth by the flight,
And makes her absence valiant, not her might.

''O, pardon me, in that my boast is true:
The accident which brought me to her eye
Upon the moment did her force subdue,
And now she would the caged cloister fly:
Religious love put out Religion's eye:
Not to be tempted, would she be immured,
And now, to tempt, all liberty procured.

''How mighty then you are, O, hear me tell!
The broken bosoms that to me belong
Have emptied all their fountains in my well,
And mine I pour your ocean all among:
I strong o'er them, and you o'er me being strong,
Must for your victory us all congest,
As compound love to physic your cold breast.

''My parts had power to charm a sacred nun,
Who, disciplined, ay, dieted in grace,
Believed her eyes when they to assail begun,
All vows and consecrations giving place:
O most potential love! vow, bond, nor space,
In thee hath neither sting, knot, nor confine,
For thou art all, and all things else are thine.

''When thou impressest, what are precepts worth
Of stale example? When thou wilt inflame,
How coldly those impediments stand forth
Of wealth, of filial fear, law, kindred, fame!
Love's arms are peace, 'gainst rule, 'gainst sense,
'gainst shame,
And sweetens, in the suffering pangs it bears,
The aloes of all forces, shocks, and fears.

''Now all these hearts that do on mine depend,
Feeling it break, with bleeding groans they pine;
And supplicant their sighs to you extend,
To leave the battery that you make 'gainst mine,
Lending soft audience to my sweet design,
And credent soul to that strong-bonded oath
That shall prefer and undertake my troth.'

'This said, his watery eyes he did dismount,
Whose sights till then were levell'd on my face;
Each cheek a river running from a fount
With brinish current downward flow'd apace:
O, how the channel to the stream gave grace!
Who glazed with crystal gate the glowing roses
That flame through water which their hue encloses.

'O father, what a hell of witchcraft lies
In the small orb of one particular tear!
But with the inundation of the eyes
What rocky heart to water will not wear?
What breast so cold that is not warmed here?
O cleft effect! cold modesty, hot wrath,
Both fire from hence and chill extincture hath.

'For, lo, his passion, but an art of craft,
Even there resolved my reason into tears;
There my white stole of chastity I daff'd,
Shook off my sober guards and civil fears;
Appear to him, as he to me appears,
All melting; though our drops this difference bore,
His poison'd me, and mine did him restore.

'In him a plenitude of subtle matter,
Applied to cautels, all strange forms receives,
Of burning blushes, or of weeping water,
Or swooning paleness; and he takes and leaves,
In either's aptness, as it best deceives,
To blush at speeches rank to weep at woes,
Or to turn white and swoon at tragic shows.

'That not a heart which in his level came
Could 'scape the hail of his all-hurting aim,
Showing fair nature is both kind and tame;
And, veil'd in them, did win whom he would maim:
Against the thing he sought he would exclaim;
When he most burn'd in heart-wish'd luxury,
He preach'd pure maid, and praised cold chastity.

'Thus merely with the garment of a Grace
The naked and concealed fiend he cover'd;
That th' unexperient gave the tempter place,
Which like a cherubin above them hover'd.
Who, young and simple, would not be so lover'd?
Ay me! I fell; and yet do question make
What I should do again for such a sake.

'O, that infected moisture of his eye,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glow'd,
O, that forced thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spongy lungs bestow'd,
O, all that borrow'd motion seeming owed,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray'd,
And new pervert a reconciled maid!'

Editor 1 Interpretation

A Lover's Complaint by William Shakespeare: A Masterpiece of Bittersweet Love

William Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language. His plays and sonnets have been studied, analyzed, and praised for centuries, and his influence on literature and culture is immeasurable. Yet, there is one work of his that seems to be overlooked, overshadowed by his more famous works: A Lover's Complaint. This poem is not as widely known as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, but it deserves just as much attention and appreciation. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve into the beauty, complexity, and depth of A Lover's Complaint and explore why it is a masterpiece of bittersweet love.

The Beauty of Language

The first thing that strikes the reader of A Lover's Complaint is the beauty of the language. Shakespeare's use of words, imagery, and metaphors is simply breathtaking, and it creates an atmosphere of melancholy and longing that is both poignant and powerful. The poem tells the story of a young woman who has been abandoned by her lover and left to grieve in solitude. She wanders through the woods, weeping and lamenting her fate, and her words are full of sorrow, despair, and regret. Yet, even in her pain and suffering, there is a beauty and a grace that shines through.

Take, for example, this passage:

"Oft did she heave her napkin to her eyne, Which on it had conceited characters, Laund'ring the silken figures in the brine That seasoned woe had pelleted in tears, And often reading what contents it bears; As often shrieking undistinguished woe, In clamours of all size, both high and low."

Here, Shakespeare uses the image of a handkerchief soaked in tears to convey the depth of the woman's grief. The characters on the handkerchief, which represent her thoughts and feelings, are washed away by her tears, symbolizing the loss of her lover and the pain of separation. The woman's cries of anguish are described as "clamours of all size, both high and low," which suggests that her sorrow is all-encompassing and overwhelming. The language is rich, vivid, and evocative, and it creates a vivid picture of the woman's emotional turmoil.

The Complexity of Emotions

Another aspect of A Lover's Complaint that makes it a masterpiece is the complexity of emotions that it explores. Love, loss, grief, regret, anger, and hope are all interwoven in the poem in a way that is both realistic and profound. The woman's love for her lover is all-consuming, but it is also tinged with doubt and insecurity. She wonders if he ever loved her truly or if he was just toying with her emotions. She is hurt by his abandonment, but she also blames herself for not being enough to make him stay. She is angry at him for leaving her, but she also longs for him to return and make things right.

One of the most striking examples of this complexity is the woman's attitude towards her own tears. At times, she seems to revel in her sorrow, almost enjoying the pain of her own heartbreak. She describes her tears as "sacred maidens" and "pearls," suggesting that she values them as a sign of her love and devotion. Yet, at other times, she is ashamed of her tears, seeing them as a weakness and a burden. She refers to them as "shameful ocean" and "wat'ry glister," indicating that she feels embarrassed by her own emotional outbursts. This ambivalence towards her own emotions is both realistic and relatable, and it adds depth and nuance to the character of the woman.

The Depth of Meaning

Finally, A Lover's Complaint is a masterpiece because of the depth of meaning that it contains. On the surface, it is a simple story of unrequited love and heartbreak, but on a deeper level, it is a meditation on the nature of love, the fragility of human emotions, and the inevitability of loss and change. The woman's grief is not just about the loss of her lover, but about the loss of her own identity and sense of self. She feels adrift in a world that has been turned upside down, and she struggles to make sense of her own feelings and desires.

At the same time, the poem explores the theme of time and its effects on human relationships. The woman's memories of her lover are bittersweet, as she remembers the joy and happiness that they shared, but also the moments of doubt and uncertainty. She realizes that time has changed both of them, and that the love they once shared may no longer be possible. This realization is both heartbreaking and liberating, as it allows her to move on and find meaning in her own life.


In conclusion, A Lover's Complaint by William Shakespeare is a masterpiece of bittersweet love. Its beauty, complexity, and depth make it a work of art that deserves to be studied and appreciated by readers of all ages and backgrounds. Its language is rich and evocative, its emotions are realistic and profound, and its meaning is both timeless and universal. It reminds us of the power of love and the fragility of human emotions, and it encourages us to embrace both joy and sorrow as part of the human experience. Shakespeare may have written many great works, but A Lover's Complaint is truly a gem that shines brightly in the literary world.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry A Lover's Complaint: A Masterpiece by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of all time, has left an indelible mark on the world of literature with his timeless works. Among his many masterpieces, "A Lover's Complaint" stands out as a remarkable piece of poetry that captures the essence of love, loss, and heartbreak. Written in the form of a narrative poem, this work is a testament to Shakespeare's genius and his ability to evoke powerful emotions through his words.

The poem begins with a young woman, who is mourning the loss of her lover. She is wandering through a forest, lamenting her fate and the cruel twists of destiny that have separated her from her beloved. The opening lines of the poem set the tone for the rest of the work, as the speaker expresses her sorrow and despair:

"From off a hill whose concave womb reworded A plaintful story from a sistering vale, My spirits to attend this double voice accorded, And down I laid to list the sad-tuned tale."

The speaker's use of imagery and metaphor is striking, as she describes the hill as a "concave womb" and the valley as a "sistering vale." These words create a sense of depth and emotion, as if the landscape itself is mourning the loss of the speaker's lover. The use of the word "plaintful" also adds to the melancholic tone of the poem, as it suggests a mournful lament.

As the poem progresses, the speaker recounts the story of her love affair with her beloved. She describes how they met, fell in love, and spent many happy days together. However, their happiness was short-lived, as her lover was forced to leave her and return to his homeland. The speaker's heartbreak is palpable, as she describes her feelings of loneliness and despair:

"Oft did she heave her napkin to her eyne, Which on it had conceited characters, Laundering the silken figures in the brine That seasoned woe had pelleted in tears, And often reading what contents it bears; As often shrieking undistinguished woe, In clamours of all size, both high and low."

The use of the word "napkin" is significant, as it suggests a sense of intimacy and familiarity between the speaker and her lover. The fact that she "heaves" it to her eyes suggests a sense of desperation and anguish. The use of the word "characters" also adds to the sense of intimacy, as if the napkin itself is a symbol of their love. The speaker's description of her tears as "seasoned woe" is also powerful, as it suggests that her grief has become a part of her, like a seasoning that cannot be washed away.

Throughout the poem, Shakespeare uses a variety of poetic devices to create a sense of depth and emotion. The use of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism is particularly effective, as it allows the reader to visualize the speaker's emotions and experiences. For example, in the following lines, the speaker describes her lover's departure:

"Thus weary of the world, away she hies, And yokes her silver doves; by whose swift aid Their mistress mounted through the empty skies In her light chariot quickly is conveyed; Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen Means to immure herself and not be seen."

The use of the word "yokes" is significant, as it suggests a sense of control and power. The fact that the doves are "silver" also adds to the sense of beauty and grace. The image of the speaker's lover "mounting through the empty skies" is also striking, as it suggests a sense of freedom and escape. The fact that she is heading to Paphos, the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, adds to the sense of romance and passion.

In conclusion, "A Lover's Complaint" is a remarkable piece of poetry that captures the essence of love, loss, and heartbreak. Shakespeare's use of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism is particularly effective, as it allows the reader to visualize the speaker's emotions and experiences. The poem is a testament to Shakespeare's genius and his ability to evoke powerful emotions through his words. It is a timeless work that continues to resonate with readers today, and it is a testament to the enduring power of love and the human spirit.

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