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A Short History of the Complaint.                       


The Complaint. On Attainment Forgone and Inconstancy: the Most Constant Refrain in Literary History, Highest Attainment in the World of Poetry, in the Realm of the Global Lyric (and in Music).






Single voice (whence the cause for complaint) – against the world or because abandoned by it… virtue unrewarded, passed over or ignored. Most commonly a putting into words (through the images these express) of an inconsolable sense of loss…


A keening which informs us of its cause; a moan configured as a message.


As persistent in history, in the history of writing, most cogently in the history of the lyric, of song, moreover in popular song, as in our wounded psyche - or maybe more so… as life must, in spite of everything, go on… or, conversely, because a lyric poem may survive a person’s life (Shakespeare’s boast in the sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’).


Structurally, isomorphic with the exposition of the problem in the problem/solution analysis of form (the clash of the ‘problem’ phase is a kind of complaint).


In history (the history we have received, the stories we have been told, which inform us of the way in which we tell our story):


Egyptian writing, perhaps, provides some of the earliest examples (3rd millennium BC). The complaint can be found in the tales of ‘Sinhue’ and the ‘Eloquent Peasant’, ‘The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul’, the laments of ‘The Dialogue of Ipuur and the Lord of All’, and even a complaint from beyond the grave, ’The Teaching of Lord Amenemhat’: in these tales and teachings we find the complaint as foiled desire, sexual disappointment and as a complaint to the ruler for a perceived lack of recompense or reward for loyal service… the first recorded instance of the economic complaint?


In Chinese literary history, the complaint as a genre occupies a prominent place; from the Ur text of Chinese culture, the Book of Songs (the popular lyric section) to the Elegies of the State of Chu (where the complaint appears as the dominant thematic form) as well as in the ‘Lament…’ by the same author, to the glories of Tang dynasty poetry (especially that of the late Tang) … And on, a canon as genre established…


Ancient Greece. The poetry of Sappho leads the way, followed by Semonides (the complaint against women in general) the bitterness of Theognis, and the allusions in Ibycus, Anacreon and others, to the cruelty of Eros, to lovers unattained – as well as the capriciousness of the gods. The Complaint may be considered as established as a key lyric form crystallising desire’s natural, generalised and persistent complaint regarding its structural lack of satisfaction as well as its particular frustrations and losses. Previously the Prometheus legend offered a complaint against the gods (a facet of much Classical Greek literature and perhaps a feature of Tragedy… as exemplified in the later ‘Prometheus Bound’ by Aeschylus - Shelley was to take this aspect and make it a feature of his own poetic appropriation). The Pastoral, not least, may be read as a complaint against urban life and the fall from a mythic unity with Nature - as exemplified by Theocritus, through Virgil, and since… (the opposite myths - elevating Culture and the City - are those of the ‘City on a Hill’ (religious, moral), and ‘Streets paved with Gold’ (economic)). And that continuation of the Pastoral ‘by other means’, ‘Romanticism’, may be said in toto to be a complaint against urbanisation, mass society and industrialisation. An epochal complaint…


Tropological aside.  The tropes that follow lend themselves to the genre of, or may signal the presence of, the Complaint : Anthypophora (rogatio) to pose and answer ones own question; Ecphonesis (exclamatio) the expression of extreme emotion; Metalepsis, present effect, distant (temporal) cause (as blame); and Apostrophe or Prosopopoiea, featuring the appeal to, naming, or evocation of a Name, in this case the appeal to the named one for help, or to denounce unfairness, sub-lunary or celestial, or to denounce their unfairness… the unfairness of the one so named (or in the Elegy, the unfairness of the loss of the named one).


Roman writing evinces a range of relations to the ‘lover’, ranging from idealised aristocratic women (only these may have had the freedom to live this way) such as Catullus’, Lesbia/Clodia (or their use as inspiration for a largely imaginary addressee), to the realities of the cultured prostitute… The Complaint surfaces most obviously in the poetry of blocked or denied desire as a literary convention (along with the aristocratic Lady or the cultured prostitute), the obstacle (again class or social status as obstacle, wither high or low, or just literary convention) – and not a little grossness. See Catullus (poems 11 and 58). The subjective, lyric turn of the nepteroi was particularly suited to the (lover’s) complaint. See also Tibullus and his ‘Delia’ and ‘Nemesis’ and Sextus Propertius’ trials with his ‘Cynthia’ and then there is the Ovid of the Erotic Poems (the ‘Amores’, ‘Cures for Love’ and ‘Art of Love’, including also the ‘Letters…’ ). Even Horace, too, may be found to moan just a little in his Satires (I, i); a sermon as much as a satire; a complaint as much as a compendium of folly.


The Historical Complaint: histories structured as narratives of ‘the Fall’, just like Gibbons, Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, may be complaints against the causes of that fall; in Gibbon’s case; the history of Christianity. History read as tragedy, like the genre of tragedy itself, is a form of compliant of the vagaries (or machinations) of Heaven, or Fate.



The Religious Complaint. The ‘Lamentation’ as a religious genre. Jewish and Christian: as found  in the Bible, where the stories of Jeremiah, Moses and Isaac, and of course Job, who losses everything, exemplify a test of faith. Can one complain of Fate: in Greek tragedy does the victim complain… : yet it is the basic innocence of Oedipus, for example, which makes the sense of tragedy all the greater. This sense carries an implicit complaint as to the ways of the gods. Yet a Muslim or even Buddhist ‘complaint’ at first thought appear unthinkable; would this not be a form of sacrilege - evincing insufficient ‘submission’ or ‘detachment’? Yet as we shall see we have the elements of complaint (sexual, existential and historical) in the Arab and Persian lyric. Which together with the additional influence of the pan-European (early) medieval Saint’s Life, featuring the dance of saint (usually male, a spiritual ’Lover’) and convert (female, the Lady as chaste) often contrasted to the heathen desires of a third party, of a given ruler, king or consul, as another potential antecedent or ingredient of ‘courtly love poetry’. Itself including (at its inception) as well as itself becoming antecedent for the sexual complaint (effectively constituting a parallel sonnet tradition and featuring in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, ‘To his coy mistress…’).


The Religious Complaint (continued). The Indian tradition offers another version of the complaint as a cause for (introduction to) instruction. A form popular with religious reform movements, as for example in the Shiva poems of the 10th c Hindu reform movement, a complaint regarding wealth, privilege, caste and gender roles - often posed as rhetorical questions.


The Religious Complaint (as Genealogy or Isomorphology). The Persian tradition…… exemplified by the Gazel, and the poets Hafiz and Rumi. Where the predominance of the spiritual content does not exclude the complaint due to material life and love.  Including the exploitation of the ambiguity of earthly and spiritual desire, where the relation to the Ideal or Beloved, which may be the relation to ones own soul or to God, is explored. This tradition and its many variations itself then feeding back into the Arab or Islamic tradition and so to Mozarabic Spain, where its massive popularity guaranteed an influence on local bilingual poetry (Arabic, Occitan dialect) that transmitted the tradition first to the Troubadours, in Occitan/Provencal and Old French and then to Old German, the Minnesingers and the Meistersingers. Similarly in Sicily, where Arab traditions predominated in the Norman courts, permeating into Italian culture (an influence denied by Petrarch, as in Spain, where to this day these connections – or, maybe now, their degree of importance - are still denied…). A marriage of traditions, Muslim and Christian, on the ground of the Beloved and ‘her’ Lover’s complaint. So informing and influencing the European ‘courtly love’ tradition and its influence up to our own day; including the evolution of the popular folk song and its heirs in the popular lyric of mass culture (adding to the perennial popularity of the Beatles: ‘The day breaks, your mind aches…’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, etc, etc).


Complaint types in general in Arab poetry: pre-Islamic poetry offers Shanfara’s Ode, ‘Lamiyyatu’l’Arab’, where the complaint is of the harsh desert life – so offering an (first?) instance of the geographical complaint. Whilst in the dirge it is the loss of a (male) relative or husband as hero that is lamented, written by (and narrated as from a) female voice; largely also the case for the elegy, ‘dritha’ or ‘marthiya’, the most famous practitioner of which was the poetess Khansa. In ‘The Poor Man’s Daughter’ the lot of the daughter after the expected death of the impecunious father is bewailed. Poetry after the arrival of Islam continues the tradition of the lament : in Muti’s ‘The Yeoman’s Daughter’ the poet laments the loss of an admirer; Abu l’Ala  writes critiques of the epoch and its superstitions ; and Mu’tamid reveals a defeated ruler of Spain, imprisoned in Africa, lamenting his fallen state and that of his family. And not forgetting Madjnoun Layla, the ‘Tristan of the Orient’, whose Beloved may well be read as having exceeded any available reality.


Arab poetry also includes an ambiguity regarding the relation of the religious and the secular. The Beloved as soul or person; desire as sacred or profane. And who at times can tell them apart? The Beloved may therefore feature in the Complaint as existential or sexual.


Then there is Ferdowsi’s (11th century) epic verse complaint, ‘Shahnameh’, bemoaning the time of the Muslim conquest of Persia (to be taken as a complaint about the treatment of the indigenous population by the ruling Arab caste).


And is the Koran itself the bearer of human complaint? In the very first chapter, ‘The Cow’, we hear the voice of complaint, with the invocation to ‘remember’; however the complaint is not metaphysical, not levelled at the heavens, but admonitory, the voice of the intermediary baring the complaint of the heavens to those who have forgotten… this voice then returns at various times again to complain of lapses and to remind…


The Consolation of Philosophy (as with much religion, which the ‘Consolation…’ in fact is) as the apposite response to a complaint (existential)!


Which is not quite the same as ‘being philosophical’ about it…


Celtic literature: more obviously in the Laments, where the meditation on ruins manifests epochal complaint, and the plight of the character/narrator (and ‘implied’ author, at the very least) as expressing ground for existential complaint. Elegy (when not a form of praise song) may also be a euphemism for Complaint…


History again (courtly traditions): In most court or ‘courtly love’ poetry, Classical, feudal-aristocratic, Christian and Arabic, pre-Islamic Europe and post, the turning of an obstacle into a virtue, a complaint into praise, to elevate the Beloved into ‘the Lady’, to civilise the Lover into ‘the Lord’, augmenting the manners of the court, of displaying their ideal form; the discourse, in subjunctive voice, of courtly behaviour. An exchange relation where the (literary) foregoing of pleasure results in an identity gain (a gain in civilisation; the attainment of a civilised identity). But still evincing no lack of complaint regarding the lack of ‘reward’ for faithfully rendered service…


The early sonnet, Petrarch through Wyatt, Daniel and Surrey, features much in plaintive voice; causes for complain are not lacking: the pains of the Lover; the ground for the movement to (literary) renunciation and ‘service’; as well as complaint of the dangers of court life; who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ – ‘actually-existing’ courtliness, we might say. An ‘exchange’ being thus made (with virtue, a positive identity, as reward) there is no longer cause for complaint. So following the ‘courtly love tradition’ in poetry, in the Lyric: in the Romance, adultery, not renunciation, reigned supreme, although usually ending in tragedy, and so a return to order… So raising the question of the Romance as sharing the accolade as the tragedy (the bearer of tragic content) of the literature of the Middle Ages, medieval or feudal period, with the Saint’s Life, most especially the latter’s popular guise with the gesta as passione, the tales of the martyrs – where the tragedy is not a fall but an elevation.


The vehicle for much courtliness, the Sonnet, is, in its darker, we might say, more realistic or pragmatic aspects, a form which adopts the complaint as its content of expression. The Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s late sonnets is indeed cause for complaint.


Done complaining? Donne, in his Holy Sonnets, discourses on the difficulties of faith and loss – with a passing debt to the biblical Lamentations. Existential then; over and above the sexual complaint (‘can’t get no… satisfaction’) of the other ‘Metaphysicals’. Yet Donne too, with Shakespeare, complains of love’s ‘fever’. Showing that even with faith we have not yet done complaining…


With death the (heretical) complaint to the deity; dirge, wake… ritual of passing in (or over) the dead, of moving on the dead, moving on our memories. The complaint due to (and due from) those left behind…


‘Death’ and Emily Dickinson. Along with the speculation on desire in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, there is the speculation on death; so constituting a double complaint. The resulting personification of Death often leads to a conflation of both themes. In Sylvia Plath poetry is also as viewed from the ‘woman’s room’ (if with somewhat more experience) and offers the complaint due to husband, fate, and madness…


The ‘confessional’ suicide poem or radical play or even suicide as complaint; from the legendary poet Qu Yuan (the inspiration behind Duanwu, or the Dragon Boat festival in China) to Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, to Megan Terry, Marsha Norman Adrienne Kennedy and Ntozake Shange, modern American poets and playwrights.


The complaint against death: the complaint against time (Nietzsche); against entropy. The past can not be undone: and then all passes…Such things must be put up with (‘being philosophical’) – or transformed into poetry.


Or into music… (how many transitions into the minor, down a fourth or unresolved dissonances are musico-affective equivalents of the complaint?)



One key ingredient of the Complaint, indeed its cause, the obstacle to the (implied) poet’s desire, often takes the form of the key agon (contradiction or conflict of loyalty or identity) of a given society. Expressed through desire, or its frustration, due to the social divisions (such as class barriers) or conflict of loyalties (Family v State) of a society, so constituting this division as obstacle, as cause for complaint. Just like the tragedy (a genre constituted from social agon and its resolution in death) where the obstacles result not in sadness but the annihilation of the key players. Do the frustrations that cause the complaint transcend the social form and its limitations that propel tragedy to its bloody and sobering end? Tragedy takes the cause for complaint to its extreme end (as contained, incited by a particular agon as apposite for a given social form). By contrast we have adultery, miscegenation, and Greco-Roman ‘New Comedy’ as the positive resolution of such (often through the rectification of a mistaken identity).


The Lyric Complaint’s relation to Tragedy is as the individual, more personalised, perhaps more democratic, form of suffering, as compared to the collective witness of a socially significant crisis in human affairs. In the tragedy we witness -with the chorus or other characters- the end of those -socially significant individuals- who Fate or whose desire, has caused them to transgress – so before the return to order, tragedy. In the Lyric we endure.


In European culture an important part of the lyric tradition, especially that christened (sic) the ‘courtly love tradition’, consists of the Complaint (from lack of reciprocity, lack of  reward for services rendered, to the loss of a lover, as due to military affairs, the crusades, the mal mariee genre, etc). Followed by its transfiguration as ‘service’ in the cause of the unattainable, or hard-hearted, Lady (although a pragmatic or ’realistic’, indeed ironic or down-right parodic strand, has always existed side by side, to ‘debunk’ the idealisations of the courtly form, so again complaining of the realities of human desire). The evolution of the complaint in all its double-edged awareness continues in Italian 19th century poetry in Leopardi (the ‘Canti’) following the complaint due to unrewarded service with the ironies of expecting nothing more… In France we have the short step from the plaintive, determinedly ‘low life’ complaint, economic, social as well as romantic (Testament 70-72) of Francois Villon, reappearing in Baudelaire - with ‘Spleen and Ideal’ in its entirety readable as a species of Complaint. In the German language, Holderlin’s complaint extended to the awareness of being a mere or fallen human, incapable of transcendence (attaining the ideal), and with ‘Hyperion’, the political and existential-religious complaint joins the frustrations of a dependant life… With Rilke the vexed relation to the ideal is developed to its literary peak; one topic of the ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’, and a central theme of the ‘Duino Elegies’. Celan’s mourning poems are, of course, at once, a universal existential complaint and a historically specific memorial. More recently the Complaint continues to provide a large part of the content for the lyrics of today’s (globalised) popular song, or ‘pop’ music (where we often find the combination of blocked or frustrated individual desire -including the protestation of innocence paired with the accusation of ill-use, or unfaithfulness- with generational complaint).


For which humanity quickly finds its natural and habitual therapy, an instinct for ‘the talking cure’, a putting into words (transformed into poetry).


Or into music…


The lone voice of complaint; the lyric voice: the collective voce of complaint; the chorus: verse and chorus as backbone of our song traditions… The lone voice of the suffering individual and his or her re-appropriation (comforting) by society… The voice of inner expression (its codes and genres in a given culture) and the voice, or echo, of ritual in art (never far away). Melody and harmony; the voice and its place with others. (Leaving the genre of dance, of bodily movement and that which incites it, to fill in the remaining musical element of rhythm).


(‘I can’t get no…’)


The Blues: the Complaint as musical genre. Slow blues shares this with the classical adagio; mourning as unresolved loss as complaint - although slow movements, Baroque, classical and romantic do, of course, resolve, in key and in cadence onto a tonic triad, the blues, famously, does not… retaining its flattened seventh. Music as wordless (but not silent) complaint. The accompaniment to the Complaint takes on a life and history of its own… (Blues, Jazz, atonality and beyond…). Complaint (a ‘true’ complaint) as ‘problem-solution’ form without the solution, without resolution (whence the cause for complaint…).


Why this predominance of the Complaint in the Lyric - in lyrical mode? Collective complaint certainly is possible, and - some might say, casting an un-jaundiced eye over history - as much called for. Yet, we feel it as an individual matter, (almost) inexpressible (like pain, whose substitutes are the cry and the complaint). The cry is inarticulate, so passing most obviously into music: the Complaint however, is articulate; by definition words can be found, words that suggest images, words that do communicate, by convention to be sure, the inner, so invisible anguish of the lyric first person voice. Inner sensations, personal feeling, are traditionally handed down to poetry as best expressed in the Lyric as the best vehicle or carrier of this nexus of private (as opposed to public) emotions (the appropriation is felt to be individual and private even as it is publicly performed and heard). Therefore the ubiquity and success of the Complaint, as expressing the inner frustration, of loss, of failure, of betrayal, of personal inadequacy (occasionally bordering on self-abjection – also found in religious variants… as in existential and emotional prostration before the sublime lover…). All these are vocalised (given rhythm and metre, sound and song) and so always given images… (memorable and expressive of otherwise inexpressible feelings… or perhaps more precisely, unattainable ends as source for our world of representations, the consolations of literature and the solace of song). So telling our story – but (radically) in the singular.


Or perhaps now we might say…iStory. Needless to say the lowercase ‘i’ is hardly a claim to modesty or unassuming selflessness (in an increasingly competitive society such could only be a form of rhetoric – much like the denial of self found in religious practice; designed to found a new self, rather than preside over its disappearance).


Lone voice of the lyric verse, at times joined (so no longer alone) consoled or witnessed (so no longer alone) by the chorus. (The constitution of popular song).


Universal genre. Where there is desire (or servitude), there also will be the complaint; the handmaiden of art as at once a confession, a consolation, and a commentary on our innermost lives.




So offering a new mood to the study of languages and their expressive force, a genre in cultural expression as well as in literature and the lyric; the plaintive mood (what happens when the indicative is to be negated but the impossibility of the subjunctive mood is realised).





Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2013