Chaucer (ca. 1380) The Parliament of Fowls is one of Geoffrey Chaucer's major dream visions. Traditionally, there has been an assumption that the poem was written for an engagement (perhaps that of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia), but no consensus has been achieved regarding which betrothal, if any, the poem seeks to comment on. The action of the Parliament takes place on Saint valentine's Day; the poem may, in fact, have inaugurated the tradition of valentine's Day love poems. Chaucer wrote the Parliament in rhyme royal, a stanza form consisting of an ababbcc rhyme scheme in iambic pentameter.
The Parliament of Fowls can be broken into three primary divisions: (1) the narrator's comments on himself and his reading; (2) the first part of the dream, in which the narrator enters a seductive but also sinister garden; and (3) the second part of the dream, in which the narrator witnesses a bird debate regarding which male eagle should be chosen as a mate for a female eagle. While none of these sections is particularly long, each is quite complex in itself, and the attempt to determine the significance of the relationship between the three has been a major focus of scholarship.
The poem's narrator introduces himself as a typical Chaucerian persona: self-deprecating, bookish, and inexperienced in love. He tells of reading Cicero's Dream of Scipio (really Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio), in which the deceased Roman general, Scipio the Elder, appears to his grandson so that he may show him the cosmos and charge him to live for "commune profyt" ("the common good," ll. 47, 75). While reading the book, the narrator falls asleep; Scipio then appears in a dream and promises to reward him for his labor.
Transitioning to the second part, the dreaming narrator finds himself before a gate modeled after Hell's gate in Dante's Inferno. Unlike Dante's gate, though, which promises only eternal sorrow, the gate in the Parliament offers two possibilities, bliss or pain. Scipio pushes the narrator through the entrance with the assurance that the gate's terms apply only to those who are servants of Love. Once inside, the narrator finds himself in a beautiful forest with a garden, streams, and singing birds. He sees Cupid and a host of allegorical figures (such as "Delyt" and "Desyr") that suggest both the wonderful and terrible nature of Love. The narrator enters a temple of venus, which is filled with sighs of desire and adorned with images of famous figures who suffered for love. He sees Venus there, scantily clothed, but leaves her alone and exits the temple.
In the poem's final section, the narrator sees Nature herself surrounded by birds "of every kinde that men thynke may" ("of every kind one could imagine," l. 311). Under Nature's governance, the birds are having a debate to decide which eagle deserves to marry the formel (female) eagle. Three tercels (males) present their suits, after which the other species of birds begin to chatter and dispute over which eagle is most worthy. Ultimately, the decision is left with the female eagle, who decides to defer selection for a year. The remaining birds take their mates and then sing a song to welcome the spring season. The narrator awakes at this point and begins to read more books.
one major problem in understanding The Parliament of Fowls involves its main theme. On one hand, the poem would seem to be an examination of love. The introduction presents love as the narrator's central concern—indeed, as his crisis, since he is inexperienced and only knows about amorous affairs through books. Certainly the erotic garden and the temple of venus deepen this theme, as does the birds' squabbling over mating selection. on the other hand, within the discussion of the Dream of Scipio, the narrator emphasizes the importance of "commune profyt" (common good), and so it is has been typical to see the Parliament as a social commentary. Pursuing this track, the class hierarchy of the bird debate is of especial importance.
Taking love as the Parliament's primary concern, we encounter a highly contradictory presentation. Given the cosmic perspective of the Dream of Scipio in the opening, Nature's attempt to preserve order during the spring mating can be linked to an overall order under divine governance—the earthly world reflecting in microcosm what is orchestrated on the much larger universal level. The birds' concluding song would thus serve as a celebration of the harmony that permeates creation. Several elements of the poem, however, work against such an interpretation, including the bickering during the birds' deliberation, the lack of any decision regarding the formel eagle's mate, and the return at the end of the poem to the narrator, who does not devote
"PASSIONATE SHEPHERD TO HIS LOVE, THE" 309
himself to love but instead commits himself voraciously to further reading.
Focusing on the common good as the poem's core leads to a similar impasse. While it is clear that Scipio the Elder advises his grandson to work for "commune profyt" in the Dream of Scipio itself, Scipio does not explicitly address this idea when he appears in the narrator's dream. Furthermore, the opening universal view in which the poem advances the notion of "commune profyt" as a model for human behavior is undermined by the fighting amongst and within species during the debate. This is particularly the case since the one bird that refers to the "commune spede" (common good, l. 507) is the cuckoo, who is looked down upon by the other birds and who has no higher purpose than simply wanting to get the debate over with. It is also difficult to discern how the second part of the poem (the garden and Venus's temple) serves the common good.
More and more, the Parliament's inconclusiveness has come to be seen as crucial to unlocking the poem. The poem offers its audience a variety of choices as it resists a notion of objective truth. One aspect of this interpretive openness involves Chaucer's use of previous writers. The conflicting worldviews of Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Dante's Commedia, Giovanni Boccaccio's Teseida, Alan of Lille's Deplanctu Naturae, and Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose—to pick but the most important examples—are all woven into the Parliament's odd tapestry. Commentary on these texts prior to Chaucer (such as the commentaries on Dante's Commedia or Boccaccio's own glosses on his Teseida) already suggests their interpretive complexity; Chaucer puts these fertile texts in tension with one another and further complicates matters by reinterpreting each one to suit his own purposes. The result is a somewhat bizarre hybrid of styles, poetic registers, and viewpoints.
Chaucer's refusal to provide clarity for the reader may serve to put the responsibility upon the reader's own judgment. Reading the poem would thereby become an act of the will. Alternately, Chaucer may be responding to philosophical debates of his time over how we know the world, and the Parliament would then not be centered so much on will as on knowledge, particularly our inability to acquire determinate meaning. Whether Chaucer was equally concerned with love or the good of society (or other matters suggested in recent discussion on the poem, such as homoerotic desire, or nature and the feminine), it seems clear that Chaucer was fundamentally meditating on the human condition of trying to understand a vast world that is always filtered through a variety of authorities.
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