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Echo, Love and Death in ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ | Early Modern and Open Access

By September 25, 2016 No Comments

This is part of a bi-weekly series here at TSS: Early Modern and Open Access regularly showcases peer-reviewed articles (or other resources) of interest to early modernists that are freely available in open access formats.


Will McKenzie, “The ‘Concaue Wombe’: Echo, Love and Death in A Louers Complaint,” Early Modern Literary Studies, Special Issue 24 (2015)

First Paragraph (in lieu of an Abstract):

No-one dies in A Louers Complaint. But the poem finds death in the heart of love itself. This essay suggests it does so by stressing and strengthening the complaint’s traditional links between love, death, and echo. The most important contextual study of the poem – John Kerrigan’s Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and ‘Female Complaint’: A Critical Anthology – finds these triangulated motifs in plaintive genres as historically distant as Ovidian elegy, Virgilian pastoral, Biblical Psalm or Lamentation, medieval chanson d’aventure, broadside ballad, de casibus cautionary tale and Spenser’s Ruine poems. The use of echo is perhaps unsurprising in the literature of abandonment, as repeating a vanished word arguably seeks to retain or recoup a (happier) past in a (desolated) present. But echo often stresses in these texts enduring emptiness and lament. In Ovid’s Heroides 10 the rocks’ echoes of Ariadne’s lost lover’s name, ‘Theseus’, while offering some consolation, anticipate the excessively prolonged and repeated funeral ceremonies – breast-beating, hair-pulling, fainting – at the end of the piece. Theseus is gone, but not dead. Echo figures the unsuccessful mourning which results: the mourning of mourning. In the most famous and influential retelling of her tale, Echo herself dies unsuccessfully, melted into the rocks and stones of pastoral landscape, but still echoing, eternally continuing an undead state: ‘nought is left but voice and bones. The voice yet still remains’ (Metamorphoses trans. Golding 3.496). Samuel Daniel’s ‘Complaint of Rosamond’, narrated by a ghost, offers the narrator ‘Eternal matter for my Muse to mourne’ (line 738), reminding us that Echo and the Fama of poetic re-citation were often connected in the Renaissance. This essay traces, first, A Louers Complaint’s innovative variations upon these generic themes via Catherine Bates’ argument (174- 215) that the poem depicts desire as a repeated circulation of violent urges within and between women, and thus implies love has murderous and suicidal tendencies. It then goes on to explore how this death-laced, often masochistic desire is connected to the poem’s distinctive structure, where a concentric set of speakers (maid, youth, narrator) each ‘echo’ a confessional speech of complaint, where sexually transgressive desire is uneasily paralleled and juxtaposed with the need for absolution and a good death. The ostensibly puzzling final stanza is then explored as the poem’s culminating combination of its erotic and confessional forms of masochistic repetition.


Author Lindsay

Lindsay Ann Reid is a regular contributor to The Scrivener and Early Modern and Open Access. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto and is a Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

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