Chaucer: The Parliament of Fowls
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
In French, metrical accents are softer or absent, so versification is easier — just syllabic. English is accentual, so alliterative poetry is more basic. The eight-syllable (octasyllabic) line more or less dies out in English. The ten-syllable line (pentameter) offers flexibility, from high rhetorical to colloquial modes. Symmetry is lost because the caesura is gone or does not fall in the middle of the line, but there were fewer possibilities in octasyllabic verse due to the basic desire for two half-lines. Pentameter reduces slightly the frequency of rhyme, so rhyme is less obtrusive, potentially more meaningful.
Rime Royal — Chaucer is the first to use this stanzaic form for narrative purposes. In this he is free from tradition and convention. It’s a more receptive form (rather than a mere alternative), offering triadic thinking (in lines and rhymes), and then opposition and ambiguity with lines potentially forming or seeming like couplets. Chaucerian ambiguities become more subtle, less obtrusive (e.g., Troilus III.924: “syn” pun concealed).
- Who tells you the story?
- Describe him, her, or it as a character.
- The narrator reads a book at first. How does the narrator end up in a garden?
- At the entrance of the garden, what is unusual about the gates?
- Before reaching the parliamentary portion of the garden, what do we first see?
- Who is in charge at the parliament?
- Why must the dilemma be resolved?
- What does the narrator resolve to do at the end?
- Brief Essay: Politically, Chaucer is not a good American. Why not?
What is it? A philosophical tract? A comedy of manners? A Christian allegory? A historical allegory? A civic poem? We’re faced with disharmony, indirectness, inconclusiveness again.
The manuscripts are from the 15th century. The work is ascribed to Chaucer in three places: LGW Prologue, CT Retraction, Lydgate FP.
Farnham, in a PMLA 32 (1917) article, emphasized the contending lovers theme in poetry, identifying the genre as the typical debate (except for the inconclusiveness), akin to debates between body and soul, owl and nightingale, etc.
Koch, Englischen Studien 1 (1877), began an ongoing debate about the poem as an occasional piece. He saw it as a compliment to Anne of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, on her engagement to Richard II. Negotiations for this were underway in summer of 1380, so this poem was written not before June 1380. In December 1380 a commission was sent to England from Bohemia. On January 23, 1381, Anne appointed three men to act for her; her mother reappointed these on January 31. On February 1, the brother of Anne, Wenceslas (of jolly good king fame in the Christmas carol) was given authority to make an alliance. On March 29, 1381 a treaty was completed; signed May 2; ratified in Prague September 1. On December 18, 1381, Anne landed in Dover. The marriage took place January 14, 1382. Richard was 13 or 14; Anne was 14.
So the birds represent the bourgeoisie, agricultural, and merchant classes? This assertion has been debated as being too specific. The three male eagles are 1) William of Hainault (betrothed to Anne in 1371); 2) Friedrich of Meissen (considered a match in 1377, of lesser rank but with longevity of service), and 3) Richard II (born 1367).
O.F. Emerson, Modern Philology 8 (1910), concerning the suitors, claimed William of Hainault would not be allegorized here by 1380, Friedrich yes since he was still a rival, but that Charles VI is the third. In 1378 comes the Papal Schism, and both popes needed Bohemia. England supported Urban in Rome vs. Clement in Avignon. Froissart records a Charles VI / Richard II rivalry. England gave a huge foreign aid loan.
Edith Rickert proposed that the formel is Richard’s daughter Philippa.
Haldeen Braddy said it was Marie, daughter of Charles of France.
J.M. Manly pointed out that Marie was dead.
What is wrong with him?
He seems retreating and wishy-washy, incapacitated by conflicting authorities (and he must be pushed through the gates). He wants no responsibility.
He is confused by love, and seeks answers in books!
But books are no help.
As for The Dream of Scipio, he could not have picked a worse book for addressing his interest in love. It’s a Boethian text where “the moon is connected to the tides, the solar system is connected to the hip bone…” (TG).
Consistent with the narrator’s evasion of responsibility and things simply happening, the book is summarized, with no perspective or processing. Authority and subjectivity seem to be at issue again, and perhaps the text is distorted in the retelling.
The book instigates his dream. He must take it from there, once he’s rewarded with an experience. (The guide disappears.)
The Dream Vision:
The gates signify divided will? “Daunger.”
A generic garden of delight, but questioned, undercut, made to seem unnatural and distorted.
At the Temple of Venus he observes voyeuristically. But he does nothing with his experience. What should he have realized?
The mention of “north-north-west” (117) is an astronomical problem and has become an enigma.
Cytherea, thow blysful lady swete,
That with thy fyrbrond dauntest whom the lest
And madest me this sweven for to mete,
Be thow myn helpe in this, for thow mayst best!
As wisly as I sey the north-north-west,
Whan I began my sweven for to write,
So yif me myght to ryme, and endyte!
Venus, you blissful lady sweet,
Who with your firebrand conquer whom you like
And made me this dream to have,
Be my help in this, for you may best!
As wisely as I saw you north-north-west,
When I began my dream for to write,
So give me strength to rhyme, and write.
Note on NNW: “The meaning has been much debated, since Venus is never seen from London as far to the north as north-north-west. It may mean ‘not at all,’ or in an unconventional, oblique way.'”
Bah. I seem to remember someone speculating that the direction would work from somewhere in Italy — the problem then being that Chaucer was in Italy years earlier than the suspected date of this poem. But everything is uncertain behind a somewhat Stratfordian-like orthodoxy in this field of Chaucer Studies too. Interestingly, the same enigma occurs in Shakespeare’s use of the directional: Hamlet’s claim to be “but mad north-north-west” (II.ii.378). It may also have been of interest to Shakespeare that “Wille” is Cupid’s daughter (214).
Nature and Parliament:
In The Romance of the Rose, Nature argues for fornication. Here, Nature’s qualities are what?
The Valentine’s Day business is not found packaged like this before Chaucer (PF, CMars). Chaucer seems to have invented the lore that birds choose their mates on Valentine’s Day. (In the four volumes of the Paston Letters, Mrs. Paston writes a letter to a prospective son-in-law, hinting about Monday being St. Valentine’s Day.)
The debate of three. Who should win? Is the first eagle too idealizing? Does he want her for a lady, not a mate? Rhetoric gets in the way. Favoritism (390f, 442f)?
Opinions are rendered.
Is it a relevant debate question?
How is this anyone’s business? How does our opinion matter?
(Compare poll shows on whether the populace believes Elvis is alive or the call-in-you-vote PBS special hosted by Peter Ustinov concerning who was Jack the Ripper. On Family Feud, “What is the most important thing in life?” “A new car!” “Good answer! Good answer!” “We’re looking for a new car….” Ding ding ding. “The number one answer!”
Voting does not make it true. Democracy in action is not always relevant.)
Perhaps we’re supposed to see the futility of attempts to make rational arguments — all are motivated by desire, will, motes in eyes. All argue passionately, not rationally — the “foule” side of human nature?
An odd partial resolution takes place in that the other birds mate and sing. One cannot wait around forever for the larger issues (or authorities) to resolved themselves first and then expect a trickle-down order. One must get on with it. Act, don’t shilly-shally. (It would be imprudent to assume that nuclear testing is murdering the planet; we must wait until all the facts are in. There’s no proof that slaughter is painful to animals; more tests need to be done.)
The last stanza: birds go off and mate. (They have the last word in the dream vision.)
The narrator is left with books. He misses the point, and always will, turning to more books.
Now we will go home and read our next work on love….
For more commentary in the form of a formal paper on The Parliament of Fowls and the issue of conflicting authorities, see this.