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From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded

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.              7


  concave womb - hollowness, depression in the hillsisde.
re-worded - repeated as an echo.
plaintful - sorrowful.
sistering - adjacent, close by. (A neologism derived from 'sister'. The word suggests not only that the vale was close by, but that the echoing hill was closely related to it, and sympathetic to the story being related.)
spirits - attentiveness, interest.
double voice - the tale itself plus its echo; deception is also implied.
accorded - consented.
list - hearken to, listen to.
sad tuned - sung (related) in tones of melancholy.
Ere long espied - before long I espied, caught sight of.
fickle - unstable, wild, unreliable. This anticipates the behaviour of the maid as she subsequently relates it, but the adjective is more fittingly applied to the man who seduces her.
papers - probably love letters. See below, 43-56.
full pale - very pale.
a-twain - in two.
Storming her world - making her own life a misery.
sorrow's wind and rain - the sighs and tears of sorrow.

 Upon her head a platted hive of straw,

Which fortified her visage from the sun,

Whereon the thought might think sometime it saw

The carcase of a 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 peeped through lattice of seared age.                14

  platted hive - woven hat, shaped like a beehive. (OED only gives this one usage). platted = plaited.
fortified - protected.
whereon - i.e. regarding her face.
the thought might think - one might be struck with the thought that. Shakespeare would no doubt be toying with the Platonic idea that a thought possibly thinks, just as in Venus and Adonis he showed Love being in love. See sonnet 53 et al for similar ideas.
sometime - at times.
carcase - the body considered as a purely material object; a shell. The word had contemptuous overtones. Lord Essex, shortly before his rebellion, was widely reported as saying of Queen Elizabeth (who was then in her late sixties) 'Her mind is as crooked as her carcase'.
spent and done - that was now ruined and past.
scythed - cut down, mown. Time's scythe is referred to in the sonnets.
quit - abandoned, departed.
fell rage - savage anger.
lattice - the criss cross lines of bars, as in a window, or prison. Cf.
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time
. 3.


 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.               21

  heave - lift up. In the use of the word at this time there is no suggestion of weight or effort.
napkin - handkerchief.
eyne - eye.
conceited - imaginary, fanciful.
characters - letters, writing. (OED 2 & 3). The fact that she reads the characters 3 lines later, implies that the characters (and figures of the next line), are writing. But possibly emblems of some sort are also intended. The description is expanded a few stanzas later. 43-56.
Laundering - washing (with her tears).
silken figures - the embroidered letters.
brine - sc. of her salt tears.
seasoned - long established.
pelleted - cast in round drops.
contents - i.e. the wording of the letters.
it = the handkerchief.
undistinguished - ill-formed, uncontrolled.
clamours - shrieks and shouts.
all size - both loud and soft, and of varying pitches, as high and low indicates.

 Sometimes her levelled eyes their carriage ride;

As they did battery to the spheres intend;

Sometime diverted their poor balls are tied

To th' orbed earth; sometimes they do extend

Their view right on; anon their gazes lend

To every place at once, and nowhere fixed,

The mind and sight distractedly commixed.              28

   Sometimes etc. - At times her eyes remain fixed looking straight ahead. (The metaphor is from a gun placed on a gun carriage. Levelled = aimed).
As they - As if they.
battery - attack; assault by cannon. The eyes direct their cannon (looks) to the skies.
spheres - stars. Strictly speaking, the Ptolemaic spheres which hold the planets and the fixed stars.
diverted - turned.
tied to - fixed on.
orbed - spherical. Pronounced orbéd.
extend - reach out.
right on - straight ahead.
anon - immediately thereafter.
their gazes lend - direct their sight towards.
distractedly commixed - thrown together in confusion.

 Her hair, nor loose nor tied in formal plat,

Proclaimed in her a careless hand of pride;

For some, untucked, 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.                     35

  nor... nor - neither ... nor.
formal plat - decorous, traditional plait.
a careless hand of pride - a hand which was indifferent to pride; or, a hand which displayed its pride in itself with studied care and indifference.
untucked - not tucked in (under the hat).
descended - fell from under.
sheaved hat - hat made of straw.
pined - wasted away. Pronounced pinéd.
threaden fillet - stitched hair band.
bide - remain.
true to bondage - obeying the dictates of its captor, i.e., the head band.
braided - plaited, woven.
It is uncertain why Shakespeare should devote a whole stanza to the state of the maiden's hair. Probably it is meant to be a reflection of the state of her mind. Some of her thoughts are rational, but others break loose and are uncontrolled. There is also an element of former pride in her appearance still remaining.

 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 monarchs' hands, that lets not bounty fall

Where want cries 'some,' but where excess begs all.              42

  favours - trinkets, gifts.
maund - basket.
beaded - shaped as beads. The original gives bedded, which perhaps means 'inlaid'.
margent - margin.
Like usury etc. - i.e. as usury (money lending) adds more money to the original stache, so she adds more liquid by her tears to the already wet river.
lets - applies either to the monarch(s), or the hands of the monarch(s).
Where want cries 'some' - where poverty cries out for some relief.
where excess begs all - that which already has riches in superfluity, yet still manages to beg for all that the monarch has to give. The maid pours her tears into the river, like a monarch bestowing riches and relief where it is not needed. Cf. Sonn. 66
Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,

 Of folded schedules had she many a one,

Which she perused, sighed, tore, and gave the flood;

Cracked many a ring of posied gold and bone,

Bidding them find their sepulchres in mud;

Found yet mo letters sadly penned in blood,

With sleided silk feat and affectedly

Enswathed, and sealed to curious secrecy.                        49

  schedules - written sheets of paper.
the flood - the river.
posied - with a lover's motto written on it.
mo - more.
sleided - sleaved, divided into thin filaments.
feat and affectedly / Enswathed - cleverly and curiously tied up.
sealed to curious secrecy - sealed in a secret manner, so that prying eyes could not overlook the contents. The construction is complex, suggesting secretiveness, and the curiosity of outsiders seeking to know the contents of the letters. One would expect 'sealed from curiosity', or 'sealed for secrecy', and the construction manages to suggest both these options. Letters were sealed with sealing wax, and also tied with a band which had to be cut. (A knot of silk would be difficult to untie).

 These often bathed she in her fluxive eyes,

And often kissed, and often 'gan to tear;

Cried, 'O false blood, thou register of lies,

What unapproved witness dost thou bear!

Ink would have seemed more black and damned here!'

This said, in top of rage the lines she rents,

Big discontent so breaking their contents.                         56

  These - the favours.
fluxive - wet, overflowing, apt to flow.
'gan to tear - started to tear. An emendation from 'gave to tear', which could mean 'set her heart to tearing them up'.
O false blood - the letters were written in blood, not ink.
register -record.
unapproved - disproved by the outcome.
Ink would have etc. - i.e. ink would have been more appropriate, since your words were black and damned.
in top of rage - at the height of her anger.
the lines - i.e. the lines of words on the schedules, or love letters.
rents - tears apart.
Big discontent - swelling rage.
so - thus.

 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.                      63

   reverend - respected.
nigh - nearby.
Sometime - in the past.
blusterer - a braggart, a boastful shallow person. The implication is that he had since reformed, or that one had to be a blusterer to take part in court life.
ruffle - hustle and bustle.
had let go by / The swiftest hours etc. - had passed the swift hours of his youth in such court pastimes, but had observed the qualities of human life therein.
afflicted fancy - aggrieved and passionate maid. Her grief is cited as if it were she herself. fancy = love, desire, imagination.
fastly - swiftly; close by.
privileged by age - i.e. since, because of his advanced years, he posed no threat to her.
grounds and motives - foundation and actual events which caused etc.

 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.                               70

   slides he down - he lowers himself. Possibly he slides down a bank towrds her, but this seems unlikely, given his age. The original meaning of slide is 'to move smoothly'. (OED 1a).
upon his grained bat - leaning upon his staff, which showed the grain of the wood.
grained - pronounced grainéd.
comely distant - at a tactful distance. Presumably this means that although he sits by her side, he does not sit so close that he touches her.
desires her - requests her to speak.
being sat - when he is seated.
grievance - sorrow.
divide - share.
suffering ecstasy - passion of her grief. ecstasy in Elizabethan times was used of frenzied despair, rather than of transports of delight, which is its modern connotation. See OED 1 & 4. '
Tis promised
- it is assured to you. I.e. 'If there is anything which he, an old man, might offer by way of comfort, he assures her that the charity and detachment which old age confers will allow him to bestow it on her'. It is noticeable however that after this stanza the old man disappears from sight, (apart from 'Father' in the next line), and is not given an opportunity to affer any further advice.

 'Father,' she says, 'though in me you behold

The injury of many a blasting hour,

Let it not tell your judgement 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.                       77

  Father - a form of address used to old men. It does not indicate paternity.
blasting hour - damaging experience. to blast = to blight or ruin. (OED 8a).
tell - indicate, show.
fresh to myself - Cf.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die.
if I had self-applied / Love to myself - i.e. if I had loved only myself. The awkward syntax perhaps indicates that such self-love is unnatural, or regarded so by her.
no love beside - no other lover (apart from myself).

 '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 maiden's eyes stuck over all his face:

Love lacked a dwelling and made him her place;

And when in his fair parts she did abide,

She was new lodged and newly deified.                          84

   attended - listened to, gave attention to.
A youthful suit - The amorous pleas of a young man.
it was to gain my grace - his suit was intended to win me over. A euphemistic way of saying that he wished to seduce her.
nature's outwards - the external appearance given him by nature.
commended - recommended; made attractive.
stuck over all his face - could not detach themselves from his face.
Love - Venus, or Cupid, or the spirit of love. The idea of Love taking up a dwelling place in the bosom, or the face, or the parts of a loved one (usually a woman) was a commonplace of sonnet writing.
abide - settle, dwell.
newly deified - her (Love's) divinity was renewed.

 '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.                   91


 browny - brownish.
every light occasion etc. - each chance gust of the wind.
their silken parcels - i.e. the ringlets of his long hair.
What's sweet to do etc. - whatever is a pleasant experience, the time will be found to enact it.
Each eye etc. - every person that looked on him was riveted by his beauty.
in little drawn - drawn in miniature.
largeness - on a grand scale.
in paradise was sawn - was seen in paradise.
What largeness thinks etc. - The line is awkward, since it is difficult to take largeness as the subject of thinks, and one has to suppose some form of elliptic construction, such as 'It is generally thought that what is seen in his face is the beauty which was abundant in paradise.'

This stanza and the next three are thematically linked to the sonnets, in that they are in praise of a beautiful youth. In this case he is also cold and unmoved by emotions. Cf. Sonnet 94. Traditionally love poems and lover's complaints paid homage to female beauty. This poem breaks the mould, as do the sonnets. Only a small space in stanza 2 is devoted to the maid's vanished beauty.


 '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-bragged the web it seemed to wear:

Yet showed his visage by that cost more dear;

And nice affections wavering stood in doubt

If best were as it was, or best without.                          98


 Small show of man - only a scant beard.
phoenix down - either the beard was brilliant, like the phoenix, a fabulous bird; or it resurrected itself each day from the disacarded (shaved) bristles. The phoenix burned itself to death every 500 years and then arose afresh from the ashes of its own funeral pyre.
down = soft feathers.
termless skin - skin that excels all terms of description; skin that had not yet reached the full term of age.
Whose bare - the bareness of which, i.e. of the skin.
out-bragged - excelled; vanquished by boasting itself.
web - a woven fabric. Often associated with silk.
it seemed to wear - the beard was still uncertain.
Yet showed his visage - His face appeared.
by that cost - as a result of that ornamentation. cost is suggestive of something valuable and precious.
more dear - more desirable.
nice affections - delicate and fastidious admirers of beauty.
If best were etc. - whether his face was better with or without a beard.

This extravagant praise of a young man's lack of beard is reminiscent of scenes in some of Plato's dialogues, e.g. Charmides. It is dramatically useful in showing why the maid was so bewitched by him. She was infatuated by the freshness of his youth. Also, being in praise of a man, it helps to sustain the nexus of anti-romantic ideas and anti-false comparisons in verse that are so much a part of the sonnets.


 '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, unruly though they be.

His rudeness so with his authorized youth

Did livery falseness in a pride of truth.                         105

  His qualities - his character.
his form - his outward appearance.
maiden-tongued - sweet voiced. It seems unlikely that his voice had not yet broken, since he subsequently seduces the maid, and had already seduced others. moved him - stirred him to anger.
94-6 - His anger showed like a spring storm, unruly, but gentle.
with his authorized youth - because of the authority which his youth conferred on it (his anger).
livery falseness - dress up falsity.
in a pride of truth with the flashy garment of truthfulness. I.e. it made whatever he said or did seem justified.

 '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.                         112

   That horse his mettle etc. - that horse derives his spirit from his rider.
Proud of subjection - proud to be subdued by him.
noble by his sway - ennobled by the control he has. Proud and noble refer to the horse.
rounds, bounds etc. - terms from horsemanship.
controversy hence a question takes - a controversy arises as a result.
by him became his deed - excelled, or behaved fittingly, because of the rider.
Or he his manage etc. - or the rider excelled because of the qualities of the horse.
manage - hosemanship. The modern term is manege.

 'But quickly on this side the verdict went;

His real habitude gave life and grace

To appertainings and to ornament,

Accomplished in himself, not in his case.

All aids, themselves made fairer by their place,

Came for additions; yet their purposed trim

Pierced not his grace, but were all graced by him.              119

   on this side - i.e. as I am about to describe.
His real habitude - his essential character.
appertainings...ornament - ancillary objects and things that appeared to adorn him. I.e ornaments do not beautify him, but he beautifies all objects by being himself (as the youth of the sonnets).
not in his case not in his outward appearance (only). For his case was also beautiful, as the previous stanzas have shown.
aids - ornaments, practices, whatever he associated himself with.
made fairer by their place - improved by being linked to him.
Came for additions - came to him so that they might be enobled by him. addition - title, mark of honour. Cf.
.....Only we shall retain
The name and all the additions to a king.

purposed trim - deliberate and artificial ornamentation.
pierced not his grace - did not damage his beauty. Were all graced - i.e. they were all beautified by him, not the converse.


 Lovers Complaint Pt. II

   Lovers Complaint text



Home Sonnets 1 - 50 Sonnets 51 - 100 Sonnets 101 - 154 A Lover's Complaint. Sonnet no. 1
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