The Glasgow Review Issue 4

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Thomas Hoccleve's Complaint: Extracts From A Free Verse Translation

Carl James Grindley

The following vers libre translation or version of Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint is based on two editions of the text: Frederick J. Furnivall’s (EETS ex 61, 1892); and John Burrow’s in English Verse 1300-1500 (Longman, 1977, pp.265-80).

The overall objective of this translation was to provide a skeletal reading of The Complaint which would serve as both an introduction to the text and as a separate gloss of the original’s sometimes opaque content. It was not designed as a completely scholarly exercise, or as a replacement for any possible reading of the original, but merely as an introduction to and an augmentation of Hoccleve’s text.

Certain decisions were made regarding the structure of Hoccleve’s work, primarily with regard to the poem’s narrative temporality. Some possibly deliberate textual ambiguities have been simplified or condensed. For example, from the text, it is unclear whether the sense of lines 120-133 apply to past third party descriptions of the narrator’s mania, or are opinions encountered during one particular outing. Where such occasions arose, simplicity was favoured over deliberate ambiguity, and Hoccleve’s narrator was forced into adopting basic present tense timeline for his commentary.

As it stands, this translation takes the form of a long soliloquy delivered as if the narrator is talking to a non-existent ‘other’. In practical terms, the plot structure is as follows: the narrator, after recovering from mental illness (and in this text, mental illness is deliberately specified), spends the better part of five years cut off from society. Suddenly he decides to rejoin the world, but upon leaving his home, finds himself little-prepared to deal with the comments he hears on the streets. He returns to his home and begins to meditate upon his condition, remembering other episodes from his recovery which illustrate his mistreatment by the public.

Rather than to strive for any absolute dialectical equivalency or accuracy, it was decided that Hoccleve’s general voice should be mimicked, and his concerns, as far as possible, mirrored. Therefore, Hoccleve’s stanza length has been preserved, but his meter and rhyme have been discarded. A trans-Atlantic diction and approach was utilised because it seems more suitable to Hoccleve’s own ‘rambling and repetitive’ ‘mannered naturalness’ (Burrow 266) than would be any direct modern poetic substitution. Indeed, one of the major strengths of Hoccleve’s poetry is that it is surprisingly colloquial and direct. Adopting a similar outlook in translation, the poem remained ‘chatty’ and personal, and the periodic lowered diction served to reinforce Hoccleve’s seeming paranoia and melancholy.

Most of Hoccleve’s imagery has been preserved intact, but some of his metaphors have been modified, others completely abandoned. For example, line 154, ‘Which was now frosty cold, now firy hot,’ has been retained as ‘Which was now frosty cold, now fiery hot.’ Line 191, ‘If that I not be seen amonge the prees,’ has been slightly modified and was translated as ‘If I don’t show my face in public.’ And lines 204-5, ‘By the taste of fruit men may well wite and knowe/What that it is--other prefe is there non,’ has been substituted with ‘If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck/What more proof can there be? It’s a duck.’ Each case has been judged according to the image or metaphor’s relative frequency in a standard Midwestern North American dialect.

Also, some of Hoccleve’s diction has been deliberately mis-translated, primarily for poetic effect. Most notably, in lines 15-16, Hoccleve’s use of ‘lusty’ and ‘gay’ have been rendered as ‘horny’ and ‘gay’, and although the original poetic sense is changed, the change itself does not detract noticeably from the flow of the work.

On the other hand, certain elements of Hoccleve’s recurrent imagery have been strengthened, in particular, every instance of Hoccleve’s use of ‘falling’ has been preserved and additional ‘falls’ inserted at various textual cruces. The most obvious of these being the use of the North American word ‘fall’ meaning ‘autumn’ in line 2, where Hoccleve uses ‘myhelmesse’.

As regarding Hoccleve’s narratorial voice and the modern analogue used for this translation, Furnivall’s idiotic comments on the matter served as an inspiration for making the translated narrator as forceful as possible. Furnivall calls Hoccleve ‘a coward’ (xxxv) and a ‘weak, sensitive, look-on-the-worst side kind of a man,’ (xxxviii). However, it is quite clear that Hoccleve’s impatient, direct personal address in The Complaint speaks with some vigour. Although at times lacking in momentary lucidity, Hoccleve’s narrator argues his case with pride. If the narrator appears overly ‘sensitive’, it is probably because he has only partially recovered from a debilitating mental illness, and suffers constant semi-public scorn and abuse.

The only real concession to any sort of post-modern intertextuality has been in the periodic adaptation of certain of Furnivall’s odd introductory comments into the translation.

As a final note, this translation has been confined to lines 1-308. The forty-fifth to fifty-ninth stanzas, commencing line 309, appear to be written in a slightly different poetic voice, and are placed temporally on ‘this othar day.’ The allegorical figure of Reason is introduced, and the poetic flow is altered to better suit a pseudo-internalised debate. It was felt that these lines comprised a separate section of The Complaint, and that they could be omitted without losing any of the first section’s intensity.

Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint

After they brought in the summer wheat,
And the fall began misting the land over, Robbing the trees of leaves,
Turning everything that was once fecund and green
Into pale yellowness,
Dead and rotten under foot,
Change sank into my heart.

You must always remember
That nothing lasts forever.
There is nothing but change and variance.
No matter what family you’re born into,
What high-falutin’ social class, it won’t
Last, it’ll go. One day you’ll die
Just like everyone else,

And believe me, no one is too strong,
Or too rich, or too horny, or too gay
For too long. As for me,
At the butt end of November,
One night, in bed, all kinds of things started
Just a running through my head,
And I couldn’t get to sleep.

When you find yourself sick and beaten,
Deserted by fortune, then the clouds roll in
And dullness takes over,
The sun abates and dark rain
Pours over you, you practically swim in misery,
And lose all delight in living.
Well, that’s how it was with me.

I got this pain in my chest
And it grew and grew and grew until
I had to do something,
I couldn’t hold it in anymore,
Or save it up for senility,
So to prove I still had a pair,
I burst out into song:

here endythe my prologe • and folowythe my complaynt.

God has this habit of paying little visits,
You can see him at it almost every day,
Some people lose the best things, others
Just their problems; well He didn’t forget me--
Think about my wild infirmity,
Subject of much gossip and common knowledge,
Which had cast me out of myself.

No big secret indeed,
My story was on everyone’s lips,
And my friends worried, so much so,
That for my health
Not only did they swear to go on pilgrimages,
But actually went on them, some on horseback, some on foot,
Bless them all, they just wanted me to be well again.

But although the substance of my memory
Went out to play for a while, as it were,
God in all His virtue and glory
With all of His might and grace
Made it return and flit back into my skull-box.
This was November 1st,
And it was a full five years ago.

And ever since that day,
Praised be the good Lord,
My brains and I have been this close,
But although I’m back on top of things,
Saved by the good Lord himself,
I’ve been living like a burning man,
In great torment and misery.

For although I knew my wits were back home again,
No one gave me the benefit of the doubt,
Or had the time of day for me.
All my old friendships were shaken off,
Put away, and I was dissolute and alone,
And with no one to talk to or be with,
I became a stranger to all.

Heartache and torment!
I’d be walking past Westminster Palace,
And in the vast crowds of London
I’d see my old friends’ faces fall:
People who used to be so close.
Heads turned away,
And it was like I was invisible.

If I may quote for a minute from the good book:
“They that saw me without fled from me.”
Whatever that means, and,
“I am forgotten as one dead from the heart.
I am become as a vessel that is destroyed.
For I have heard the blame of many
That dwell round ‘bout.”

Did people think I’d gone deaf?
“That boy ain’t right.
Sure he looks right and acts right,
But it’ll come back,
And at his age you can’t be too sure no how.”
I could hear what they were saying,
And their words filled me with fear and trepidation.

“It’s getting hot again,
Old Thomas will be barking mad soon.”
But the seasons passed,
And their words stayed words.
Thank God for that.
Thank God for every summer month
And every hot day.

What happens, happens;
Every person’s future is an unexplored country,
And it’s unadulterated ignorance
To believe anything else.
Nobody knows how God works,
And if He’s going to visit,
You’ll never know how, why, where or when.

For the longest time I was like everyone else;
After all, no one expects wake up alone in the woods,
But the Lord can and will do what He wants,
He can take your health and send sickness,
And no matter how good you feel today
Don’t be too sure that it’ll last:
“The good Lord giveth and the good Lord taketh away.”

God puts up with a lot,
And when you least expect it, He acts.
So keep your eyes open,
Because those of us with clear enough heads
Can see the world’s change and mutability
In all sorts of ways.
Enough of that. Let’s get down to business.

They said I looked like a wild bull,
Crazed of expression,
Holding my head from too high,
Overbearing and proud in the brain,
Like a six point stag,
Reasonless and useless,
Without serenity or seriousness.

Some easy wandering existence indeed!
They said I was bolting like a doe,
Starting at the slightest thing,
Completely out of my mind, brain sick.
Others had my feet waving to and fro,
Or my eyes dancing around every
Corner of every room.

I heard all these whispered words,
But kept my peace. My heart said:
If I answer back,
Or in any way behave badly,
Then this crowd would run me out of town on the rails,
And I’d be further ruined,
So it’s best just to return home.

Answering back would have been pointless,
I’d lost the key to my tongue,
And anything I could have said
Would have been deemed worthless,
So I made my way home,
Drooping and heavy and all woebegone,
I had nothing and no reason for gladness.

But because they talk and gossip,
I worked hard to fashion normalcy,
And maintain my composure;
The shame and fear of it all struck me hard:
It was like I was drowning in my own sweat,
Damper than any river,
And at once both frosty cold and fiery hot.

And when I got home, and found myself alone
And in my own room,
I struggled to the mirror,
To see if it was my face that stared back,
Or some other guy’s, some one not quite right,
Some vision that through
Cunning and force I could dispel.

Many times I dashed to that mirror, thinking,
If I can only hold this shape, keep this pose,
Then they won’t know,
They won’t suspect,
And the happy look and the calm style
I’ll adopt will be no offence
To them.

I don’t think anyone can,
As the story goes,
Truly see their own faults,
And why should I be any different?
But what shall I do? Which is the best way
To bring some peace?
I can only pledge to do my best.

I don’t get mad anymore,
Wellness has inflicted a sort of peace on me,
And instead of anger and impatience,
I am easy and soft, suffering all wrongs
And offences in silence, rather than to lash
Out and hear them say
‘See how he has collapsed again.’

Once I was walking back from the office, from Westminster,
And my mind was ablaze,
And I thought, what an idiot I am,
Beating this sidewalk endlessly with my feet,
Labouring on in sweat and anxiety,
And only obtaining heaviness,
Because they won’t forgive me.

But on the other hand,
If I don’t show my face in public,
They’ll say I’m too scared or too insane.
This isn’t me being paranoid by the way, this is the truth.
Oh God, because my spirit was restless,
I sought rest, but I found nothing,
Except ready trouble at my hand.

I’m not about to rain on anyone’s parade,
If someone wants to be the King of the Moon,
That’s their business and vice versa;
Anyhow it’s the concrete things that count,
That whole ‘judge not’ sort of thing,
And you apply it to deeds, not to shades of lipstick,
Or at least that’s what the good book says.

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck,
What more proof can there be? It’s a duck.
See? My rationality is fully intact,
And yet I know what people think
When I walk past.
(They think I’m nuts!)
You tell me if it’s the truth.

You see, the clothes don’t make the man,
You can’t judge someone on appearance,
You can’t tell whether their wits are sound or sick
During something like a brief encounter,
And even if someone once had a hard time of it,
You can’t assume that they still suffer;
Why don’t you just talk with ‘em and find out the truth?

I mean--and I know I’m being pretty basic here,
But I am a vulgar man, without a doubt
Ignorant and free from sophisticated logic,
Yet I have some common sense,
I’m not as thick as people seem to think I am,
Mary Mother of God and sweet Jesus willing--
Only deeds can be the proof of words.

Say someone falls into drunkenness,
Do you think they’ll stay drunk forever?
Of course not, even if they get really blasted,
Unable to speak or walk a straight line,
So drunk their brains get ripped out of their heads
And buried in a bottle, sooner or later
They’ll sober up.

Therefore, even though my mind went on a little holiday
Far away from home, it returned;
God sucked the poison out of my brain
The poison that had infected and ‘wilded’ me.
God the almighty, King of all Physicians,
See how He giveth the sick medicine,
And relieveth them of their pain.

Let’s get on with it. God knows, though,
Many people look and act like real geniuses,
But when you get down to it, a lot of them
Are nothing but the finest class of idiot.
And others may look like absolute morons
But once you get past their appearances
They reveal themselves as being regular brainiacs.

At any rate, the debate regarding my appearance
Is no longer between me and my mind,
Though, as you know, we once had a bit of a
Falling out.
My fault really; I was never all that well-
Educated, or prudent or rational:
A genius doesn’t wear my boots.

But this much is true: whatever brains I did have
Before I became unsettled--
And I never was that smart, mind you--
Praise be to Jesus--
I’ve got it all back; yet they say
The exact opposite. This is the cause
Of my latest bout of misery and true sorrow.

Since my luck has changed for the worse,
It’s high time for me to creep into my grave.
I mean, how can I live without joy?
I can have no happiness in my heart,
And if I open my mouth, men say I rant and I rave.
Since there’s nothing for me now but woe,
I might as well be dead.

Farewell prosperity! Adieu good fortune!
I’ve been struck off your list.
And now, since no one will ever talk
To me again, adios all,
I’ve turned in my uniform
And been transferred from the team.
Good-bye good times, good-bye good luck.

But, you know,
If I keep ragging on myself like this,
I’m just going to end up buying more trouble.
Why should I make matters any worse?
Since God gave me back to myself,
Why should I care what anyone says?
I’ll suffer them all and leave myself alone.

Sometimes, though, when I meet those people
Who still doubt that I’m well,
And who still see me as a rack of sickness,
I hear them wish me all the best,
And gladness and joy fills my spirit,
And their little tendernesses cheer me up.
Bless them all, I find life worth living.

But those sorts of folk do have a problem,
And that is that they can’t see the whole me,
And even though I pass by in heat and cold,
Neither loud nor still, they still suspect the worse,
A dark cloud obscures their eyes--
Dull sky, bare banks, hardly a boat to be seen--
Leaving them only with doubt.

Folk sometimes approach my colleagues, as it were,
My fellow scribes in the cold bowels of the Privy Seal,
And corner them, asking,
Is old Thomas ill or well,
And no matter what anyone says,
Their replies are seen as lies,
And held in little value.

This troubled life has gone on too long,
And although I’ve often wished to twist in my skin,
I’m whole again, my own best friend,
And as long as I’m alive
I’ll never be hungry again.
I don’t care no how,
Let them say and think and dream what they want.