70  The wofull complaint, and lamentable death of a forsaken Lover [Pepys 1.354-55]

Author: Anonymous

Bodies - clothing Bodies - looks/physique Death - burial/funeral Death - suicide Emotions - despair Emotions - love Emotions - sorrow Environment - animals Environment - birds Environment - flowers/trees Environment - landscape Gender - courtship Gender - masculinity Recreation - dance Recreation - music Religion - Christ/God

Song History

The wofull complaint appears to have enjoyed considerable success from the 1620s through to the end of seventeenth century, though its popularity faded after 1700. It tells a very sorry story about the love-induced suicide of a gentleman, thus revealing yet again the taste for tragic personal drama that characterised the ballad audience. No names are given in the text and it does not seem possible to connect the ballad with an actual case.

The ballad-writers adopt a perhaps surprisingly sympathetic tone in discussing the desperate man. Although the song was composed in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, when highly judgemental attitudes to suicide were common, the authors take a different line from that found in much cheap print of the period (see McDonald and Murphy). There are, for example, no references to the role of the devil in tempting the gentleman to sinful ‘self-murder’, and the ballad-writers express no moral or religious condemnation of the act. There is none of the humour or mockery noted by McDonald and Murphy in other reports. And in an age when the burial of suicides could be brutal – stakes were sometimes driven through bodies to prevent spirits from wandering – the ballad’s narrator provides an improvised send-off that is rather touching (he even rings a peal on the dead man’s discarded lute, in imitation of the church bells that normally sounded at funerals). Overall, the ballad’s emphasis is on the sadness of the scene, rather than the sinfulness.

Love-melancholy was a well-known motive for suicide in the period, and there are several other examples within our list of successful songs (see, for example, A Godly Warning for all Maidens). Indeed, it is noticeable that fierce condemnation of romantically motivated suicide is not found in any of these ballads. The generally sympathetic attitude that marks these songs is perhaps more characteristic of the gentler judgements that are often said to have developed primarily in the eighteenth century. The fact that The wofull complaint was so popular is therefore interesting, perhaps shedding a little new light on contemporary ideas about suicide.

The ballad-makers’ decision to avoid blaming the man leaves them free to heap criticism upon the woman who broke his heart. She is identified as the sole cause of his despair, and labelled in misogynistic terms as ‘Haggard-like’ and a ‘disloyall wretch’. Male characters in ballads were often more afraid of the inconstancy and ‘disdain’ of women than of their capacity for direct insubordination. From this perspective, the unsettling power of women resided in their right to turn men down during courtship, a power that was at its height during youth.

In this ballad, the disdainful female sweetheart has no voice, yet she has managed to reduce ‘a Gentleman both fine and brave’ to despair, endangering his capacity for the self-control and fortitude that should have been at his disposal. Externally, he seemed to the narrator ‘a proper man’ but in truth his love-induced melancholy means that he is nothing of the sort. The final lines are damning; women can be advised and implored but ultimately they will not listen. We can only imagine how these aspects of the song might have played out among male and female audience members.

Other interesting features of the song include the morally dubious position of the unusually active narrator, who hides in a hollow tree ‘because I would his passion see’ and misses numerous signals that a terrible act of self-destruction is imminent. Finally, the manner in which the story is set deeply into the natural world – with trees, birds and beasts all called upon as witnesses – seems to go some way beyond ballad convention.

Christopher Marsh


Broadside ballads from the Bodleian Library: http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

English Broadside Ballad Archive: https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/

English Short Title Catalogue.

Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless souls. Suicide in early modern England (Oxford, 1990).

Hyder E. Rollins, An analytical index to the ballad-entries (1557-1709) in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London (1924; Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1967), nos . 633 and 2982.

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Featured Tune History

‘To a pleasant new tune’ (unidentified)

The purpose of this section is to provide brief notes on the melody followed by detailed evidence relating to  its career, paying particular attention to the ‘echoes’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was nominated for the singing of more than one ballad. In the list presented in the ‘Songs and Summaries’ section below, we have endeavoured to include as many of the black-letter ballads that used the tune as possible, under any of its variant names. Titles from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type (these are also in colour when there is a link to the relevant ballad page on the website). It should be noted that it is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).  In most cases, we list the earliest surviving edition of a ballad, though in many instances there may have been earlier versions, now lost

Versions and variations

Unfortunately, it has not been possible to identify the ‘pleasant new tune’ to which this ballad was sung.

Echoes (an overview)

Without an identifiable tune, it is not possible to provide information on other ballads that used the same music.

Songs and Summaries

The wofull complaint, and Lamentable death of a forsaken Lover (Henry Gosson, 1624-40). Pepys 1.354-55; EBBA 20165.  Death – suicide; Emotions – love, sorrow; Gender – courtship, masculinity; Recreation - music. The narrator observes the suicide of a gentleman, driven to despair by a woman who has rejected him.

Christopher Marsh

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Pedlar in woods

The purpose of this section is to provide evidence relating to  the career of the image under discussion, paying particular attention to the ‘reflections’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was chosen to illustrate more than one ballad. The list given below includes all ballads from the Pepys and Roxburghe collections that feature this woodcut or a close variant (these are the two largest collections, including approximately 3300 sheets, in total). References to ballads from other collections occur only when the featured edition of the song under consideration here (or the featured edition of another song from our list) comes from such a source. Ballads from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type, and they also appear in colour where there is a link to another song in the database. Please note, however, that the editions of hit songs listed below are not necessarily those for which digital images are presented on this website. Cross-references to other examples of our featured woodcuts are also presented in bold. It is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).

Reflections (an overview)

This densely detailed image was used sparingly on ballad from the 1620s to the 1680s. Surviving copies of the woodcut all seem to derive from the same block, and the fact that this block remained in good condition even towards the end of its career reinforces the impression that it was not heavily used.

The picture may originally have been designed for The Pedler opening of his Packe, to which it has direct relevance, but it was subsequently displayed more variously to signify outdoor interactions of several sorts (ranging from hunting trips to the attempted seduction of Susanna by the wicked elders). Later editions of The wofull complaint dropped the picture, perhaps because it was difficult for viewers to process the representation of a three-person encounter as part of a song about a solitary suicide, witnessed by a single hidden observer.

[See 'Postscript', below, for brief notes on the other woodcut that appears on our featured edition].

Songs and summaries:

The Pedler opening of his Packe, To know of Maydes what tis they lacke (E. A., 1584-1640).  Pepys 1.238-39; EBBA 20109.  Employment – crafts/trades; Recreation – fashions; Bodies – adornment, clothing. A pedlar sings out an impressive list of his wares (picture placement: the scene appears beneath the title).

Maister Basse his Careere, OR The new Hunting of the Hare (imprint missing, 1620-40?).  Pepys 1.452-53; EBBA 20213. Recreation – hunting; History – ancient/mythological; Nature – animals, birds. Two hunting songs, the first featuring hounds and the second concentrating on the falcon (picture placement: the scene appears beneath the title).

The wofull complaint, and Lamentable death of a forsaken Lover (Henry Gosson, 1624-40). Pepys 1.354-55; EBBA 20165.  Death – suicide; Emotions – love, sorrow; Gender – courtship, masculinity; Recreation - music. The narrator observes the suicide of a gentleman, driven to despair by a woman who has rejected him (picture placement: the scene appears on the right, immediately above the lines, ‘To silent trees I make my mone,/ and birds and beasts doe heare me grone’).

Londons Ordinarie, OR Euery Man in his humour (John Wright, 1634-58?).  Pepys 1.192-93; EBBA 20086.  Employment – crafts/trades, professions, sailors/soldiers; Humour – verbal; Recreation – food, hospitality; Society – urban life; Places – English. A musical list of London’s occupational groups, each of which is said to take lunch at an appropriately-named tavern (picture placement: it appears over the third and fourth columns of text).

An Excellent Ballad, intituled, The Constancy [of] SUSANNA (J. Wright, J. Clark, W. Thackeray, and T. Pass[inger], 1682-84).  Pepys 1.496-97; EBBA 20234.  Religion – Bible, Christ/God, divine intervention, prayer; Gender – marriage, adultery/cuckoldry, sex, femininity, masculinity; Morality – romantic/sexual; Emotions – fear, confusion, anger; Bodies – physique; Crime – false witness; Death – execution, result of immorality; Nature – flowers/trees; Places – extra-European; Society – neighbours; Violence – punitive. The Biblical story of Susanna and her heroic rejection of the sexual advances made by two lecherous elders of Babylon (picture placement: the scene appears beneath the title).


Bruce Smith has noted that the other woodcut on our featured edition bears a resemblance to Isaac Oliver's miniature portrait of Edward Herbert of Cherbury, painted in 1613-14. Clearly, the pose adopted by the reclining man in both pictures was associated with romantic melancholy and social withdrawal. See Bruce Smith, 'Female impersonation in early modern ballads', in Pamela Allen Brown and Peter Parolin, eds., Women players in England 1500-1660: beyond the all-male stage (2008), pp. 281-304.

Christopher Marsh


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Related Texts

So far, we have not found other early-modern texts that bear a close relationship to this ballad.

Christopher Marsh

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The wofull complaint, and lamentable death of a forsaken Lover.

To a pleasant new tune.

[We have not made a recording because the tune is unknown]


DOwne by a forrest where as I did passe,

to see what sport abroad there was,

Walking by a pleasant spring,

the Birds in sundry notes did sing.

Long time wandring here and there,

to see what sports in forrests were,

At length I heard one make great mone,

saying, From me all joyes are gone.


I gave good heed unto the same,

musing from whence this Eccho came:

But by no meanes I could devise,

from whence this sorrowfull sound did rise,

But in that place did still remaine,

untill I heard it once againe.

Then presently I heard one say,

O death, come take my life away.


I looked downe upon my right hand,

a sort of pleasant trees did stand:

And under them I did behold

a pleasant place with shadowes cold.

A sumptuous place was in the same,

musing from whence this Eccho came:

And in that place I did perceive,

a Gentleman both fine and brave.


And from that place hee did come downe,

casting from him a mourning Gowne,

Walking up and downe the place,

me thought a proper man he was;

Thus to himselfe he did lament,

wishing to God his dayes were spent,

His torments did increase so sore,

his heart was able to beare no more:


I stept into a hollow tree,

because I would his passion see:

With folded armes looking to skies,

the teares alas stood in his eyes:

And carelesse of his life he seem’d,

pitty he was no more esteem’d:

Then downe he laid him on the ground:

no ease to sorrow can be found.


Thus he lamented in wofull case,

seven long yeeres within few dayes,

Saying, While I live, I must remaine,

I find no ease to helpe my paine:

For she that should my sorrowes remove,

she doth disdaine to be my Love,

And hath beene since that she did heare,

that I good will to her did beare.


Ye gods above come ease my paine,

sith heavy griefe doth me constraine,

For whilst my corps remaines, on earth,

shall shew the causes of my death.

Every tree that here doth stand,

shall be engraven with mine owne hand,

That they long time may witnesse beare,

Love was the cause I died here.


Nature did to her so much right,

scorning to take the helpe of Art:

And in as many vertues dight,

as ever did imbrace a heart.

Being so good, so truly tried,

O some for less were deifi’d,

Full of pitty as may be,

and yet perhaps not so to me.


When first I saw her pleasant face,

me thought a joyfull sight it was,

Her beauty tooke my wits away,

I knew not how one word to say,

A Gentleman tooke her to dance,

she gallantly her selfe could prance,

And kept her order in good time,

I wish to God she had beene mine.


But when I thought she had been mine owne,

then was she farthest from me flowne:

She gave no eare unto my cry,

which makes me here in sorrow die.

For she was in another mind,

which to my pains I often find,

Of all my hopes I am beguild,

which makes me walke in woods so wilde.


The second part. To the same tune.


TO silent trees I make my mone,

and birds and beasts doe heare me grone,

Yet she that should my griefe remove,

disloyall wretch to me did prove.

My love to her was constant pure,

and to my end will so indure,

And Jove to her I hope will send

a grieved minde before her end.


I have forsaken friends and kinne,

my dayes to end these woods within,

My pleasure past I now do leave,

sweet Saviour now my soule receive.

Beare witnesse heaven of my griefe,

to ease my heart send some reliefe,

Faire Maids, unto your lovers be true,

if first be good, change not for new.


O young men all, be warn’d by me:

gaze not too much on womans beauty,

Lest that you be so fettered fast,

you cannot be enlarged at last.

Some womens wils they are well knowne,

in love oft changing sticke to none:

They’ls sweare they love you with their heart,

when mind and tongue are both apart.


My love to her I did reveale,

and from her nothing did conceale,

Though at the first she seemed coy,

she said at the last I was her joy,

And none but I her love should have,

what need I any more to crave?

But Haggard-like she me abus’d,

another chosen and I refus’d.


When he had bewail’d his sorrowes long,

hee tooke a Lute that by him hung,

And on the lute he sweetly plaid,

and unto it these words he said:

O death, when will the houre come,

that I have waited on so long?

For whilst I live I languish still,

finding no helpe to ease my ill.


Then quite he flung his lute away,

and tooke a sword that by him lay,

Sayes, Oft thou hast been thy masters friend,

and now thou shalt his torments end.

He gave true sentence in that place,

to end his life in a wofull case.

The hilt he strooke downe to the ground,

and gave himselfe a deadly wound.


Then unto him I ranne amaine,

but out alas it was all in vaine:

For long before to him I came,

his death he had upon the same.

I found his grave was ready made,

wherein I thought he should be laid.

And in that place I laid him downe,

and over spred his mourning Gowne.


Ovor his Grave his sword I laid,

whereon his death he had receiv’d,

Upon his Lute a peale I rung,

and by the place the same I hung.

Then I beheld on every tree,

her name that was his onely joy,

Which long before his face did stand,

because she got the upper hand.


This Maid that did doe all this wrong,

to live a Maid thought it ore-long,

Married she is to such a one,

that daily makes her sigh and groane,

Her coynesse to her former Love,

disloyall then, now truely proves:

Take heed faire Maids, for you may see

wrongs alwayes will revenged be:

Thus you women will use your skill,

let us poore men say what we will.


Printed at London for Henry Gosson.

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This ballad is included according to the criteria for List A (see Methodology). The evidence presented here is accurate, to the best of our knowledge, as of 1st January 2024.

Shirburn ballads: not included.

Appearances on Ballad Partners' lists: Pavier and partners, 1624 (as 'Downe by a forrest' from first line); Coles, Vere, Wright and Clarke, 1675; and Thackeray, 1689 ('Down by a Forrest').

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: none.

No. of known editions c.1560-1711: 9

No. of extant copies: 10

New tune-titles generated: 'Down by a forest' (1 ballad).

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none known.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 4 references, with no evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud no. V30046).

POINTS: 0 + 30 + 0 + 18 + 10 + 2 + 0 + 0 = 60

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This box will be used to highlight any new information on this song that might come to light after the launch of the website.

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