The Complaint of Mars, is one of Geoffrey Chaucer's short poems that has elicited a variety of critical commentary. While this poem has been seen as allegorical, astronomical, and interpretive-appreciative in nature, a number of critics have examined the poem only as a description of an astronomical event. While this event is evident in the story, the discrepancies between the story and the actual condition in the skies has provided a useful examination of astrological beliefs in Chaucer's time.
The story begins with the days leading up to April 12, 1385, as Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war, have planned an affair. Before they are to meet, Venus teaches Mars a lesson in understanding and care. She instructs Mars never to despise any lover and forbids that he feels jealousy, tyranny, cruelty, or arrogance ever again. Once he has been humbled by Venus' power and promises to obey her command, Mars waits patiently for Venus to meet him so they can have an affair. Together, Mars and Venus reigned over the skies until, finally, the time came for Mars to enter the house of Venus at his slowed pace until she finally overtook him. Unfortunately, Mars and Venus are then broken up by Phebus, the god of the sun. He burst hastily through the palace gates, while Venus and Mars are still in the bed chambers, and shined his light on the situation.
As the now helpless, married Venus began to weep and flee the scene, Mars began to cry tears of sparks and prepared himself for a battle with Phebus. While he had no intention of fighting the Sun, Mars was only dragged down by the added weight of his armor. As the fiery sparks burst from Mars' eyes, he threw on his helmet and began to strap on his sword. Because Mars was so distraught and weighed down, he began to shake to the point where his armor broke into several pieces. He was in no condition to fight Phebus, so Mars began to follow Venus. Though fate had determined that the two lovers would never be together, Mars was forced to follow Venus slowly, as she fled to avoid confronting Phebus. As Mars is weighted down by his armor, he is unable to move swiftly enough to reunite with his love.
The lament of Mars is a five-part list of complaints stating Mars' grievances regarding his broken-up affair with Venus. However, Chaucer states that in order to complain skillfully, there must be a defined cause. Essentially, without specific reason, the man complaining would be seen as foolish. Mars, on the other hand, is not without cause. Chaucer instead uses this time to declare the pain Mars is experiencing and, rather than expecting a remedy, expects to declare the grounds for the heaviness he is feeling:
The ordre of compleynt requireth skylfully
That yf a wight shal pleyne pitously,
Ther mot be cause wherfore that men pleyne;
Or men may deme he pleyneth folily
And causeles; alas, that am not I.
Wherfore the ground and cause of al my peyne,
So as my troubled wit may hit atteyne,
I wol reherse; not for to have redresse,
But to declare my ground of hevynesse.
First, Mars begins to reminisce about how God rules over all intelligence and, although Mars gave Him all of his service and loyalty, he has been fated never to see his love again. This section is spent discussing the beneficial attributes of Venus. While she is well endowed with fortune and virtue and the melody of all sweet instruments, Mars cannot see past this lovesick infatuation with a woman he will never see again. Yet, his heart has been promised to Venus and he swears never to love again until he dies, as he plans to die in her service; unless mercy is granted, he will never set his eyes on her again.
While it is clear that Mars is in distress as he continues his lament, he seems concerned when considering who will hear his complaints. For Mars cannot spend his time complaining to Venus, as she is only causing him heaviness from the pain, fear, and sorrow she has left him with. It seems that most of Mars' worry stems from his uncertainty about her safety and well being. Sometimes, Mars claims, ladies have no pity on the men that they leave behind, as jealousy engulfs them and they begin to devote themselves to death. Women cannot please anyone, as Mars believes only the false lover has any comfort since love does not actually exist except to cause distress.
Mars begins to examine the meaning of love as God had created. Why should people be constrained to love in spite of themselves? While people can only be hurt by heartbreak, Mars sees that the joy of love lasts for only the split second that an eye twinkles. Why do people want love so eagerly, as it is only a pain which they must endure? Mars continues to marvel that God would create such a cruelty that would either break His people, causing more sorrow than the moon changes.
Mars compares his love for Venus to the love men have for the brooch of Thebes. He claims that Venus and the brooch are both precious, rarely found in nature, and so beautiful that they grip the heart of any man that lays their eyes upon them. Yet, Mars had foregone this treasure and lost her to fate. Thus, Mars blames God again for his loss, as He is responsible for creating Venus' beauty, sparking Mars' fascination and thus, driving him to death without her.
In all, Mars concludes his lament with an admission to the pain and sorrow he feels. Instead of continuing to blame higher powers for his distress, Mars simply asks for pity and kindness. He asks that ladies, though naturally and steadfastly beautiful, must have mercy on the men whose hearts they break. Men must not be greatly disappointed in beauty, bounty, courtesy and never deeply regret women who were ever held dear. Overall, men should show kindness toward these women as they cannot control fate.
While the story insinuates that the gods are having a love affair, in reality the story is describing a purely astronomical occurrence. At this point in 1385, the planetary orbitals of Mars and Venus had both entered the house of Taurus. From Earth, this looked like the planets had almost overlapped and become one. Yet, because Mars has a much larger planetary orbital than Venus, it seemed as though the planet was moving much slower in the sky. Thus, Mars was depicted as gliding slowly to eventually meet up with Venus in her palace. When Phoebus breaks up the unexpecting couple's love affair, astronomically the sun had entered the house of Taurus as well, literally shining its rays on the planets. With his torch in hand, Phebus not only exposed the affair of Venus and Mars, but drove them away from their position in the house of Taurus.
After the separation of Mars and Venus in the story, the planets appeared to move apart in the sky. Yet, because of the size of their planetary orbitals, Venus appeared to move away from the house of Taurus much more quickly than Mars. Thus, Chaucer uses the image of Mars wearing heavy armor as a means of explaining the natural phenomena. Altogether, the "Complaint of Mars" serves as an allegory for the astrological phenomena that occurred in April 1385. While this date is still under some debate, the astrological facts are presented as undertones for Chaucer's poem.