Hailey Dee McHadlo
Washington State University
Conflicting Authorities in
The Parliament of Fowls
Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls is considered a kind of literary triptycha tripartite exploration of various attitudes about love, wherein The Dream of Scipio provides an otherworldly thesis, the temple of brass a very worldly antithesis, and Nature, as mediator, a happy synthesis (Lumiansky, McDonald, Frank). This interpretation is viable, yet such a reading tends to ignore both the function of the poet/dreamer and the final decision made by the formel eagle. Explications of thematic concerns should link the several sections of the poem while also restoring the poet and the formel eagle to their roles as central figures around whom revolve the debates on love.
One unifying thematic concern is that of conflicting authorities. The topic of love becomes a test case for an investigation into the dilemma created by seemingly irreconcilable authoritative pronouncements. Chaucer’s dumbfounded persona has been described not only as a frustrated lover, but as a frustrated reader as well with a peculiar “inability to interpret or evaluate” (Owen 265). This persona, waking and sleeping, repeatedly founders when faced with the dilemma of conflicting authorities. The formel eagle, however, succeeds where the poet fails. While inexorably refusing to conclude the love debate, she nevertheless provides a subtle resolution to this greater problematic issue by placing authoritative pronouncements in proper perspective.
The poet holds such pronouncements, despite their seeming irreconcilability, to be indispensible. The possibility of ignoring the authorities altogether is dismissed in the very first stanza. The final rhyme of this single sentencethynke/synke (PF 67)encapsulates the poet’s opening statement: when he considers for himself the topic of love, without guidance, he is lost. Quite naturally, therefore, the poet turns to “bokes” for enlightenment (10).
His findings, however, demonstrate the existence of interpretive discrepancies among the authorities. Confounded by conflicting evaluations of love, the poet presents a composite description apparently gleaned from the several “bokes.” But then, is love a “craft” (1), or a “lord” (12)? Is love’s “wonderful werkynge” (5) characterized by “myrakles” or by “crewel yre” (11)? The poet’s uneasy juxtapositioning of these contradictory characteristics and and his nervous dismissal of the topic (13f) indicate that he ultimately is unable to synthesize the various authoritative evaluations of love.
The poet passes over this matter quickly, only to stumble upon another discrepancy, this time concerning theories about reading. Here again, he presents conflicting philosophies, and his meager attempt to combine them yields only an awkward non-sequitur:
And therupon, a certeyn thing to lerne,
The longe day ful faste I redde and yerne.
For out of olde feldes, as men seyth,
Cometh al this newe corn from yer to yere,
And out of olde bokes, in good feyth,
Cometh al this newe science that men lere.
The poet reads with a certain purpose in mind; and yet he juxtaposes this solipsistic theory of personal bias, or selective reading, with the theory of impersonal authority in which any given book imparts one universal and objective truth. Do books contain a single meaning “from yer to yere” which is given for all readers to “lerne,” or do various readers distort a text in seeking that for which they individually “yerne”? The poet, refusing to struggle with these contradictory philosophies, merely glides over their incompatibility with a disturbing perversion of logic.
Dream theory provides the subject for yet another interpretive conflict left unresolved by the poet. After reading “The Drem of Scipioun” (31) and falling asleep, he sees Affrican before him in his own dream. The poet interrupts the narrative at this point in order to account for the appearance of this martial figure.
The wery huntere, slepynge in his bed,
To wode ayeyn hys mynde goth anon;
The juge dremeth how his plees been sped;
The cartere dremeth how his cartes gon;
The riche, of gold; the knyght fyght with his fon;
The syke met he drynketh of the tonne;
The lovere met he hath his lady wonne.
According to Macrobius’ interpretation, any such dream, in taking over the specific concerns of the day, would probably constitute an “insomnium,” and could be dismissed as insignificant (Macrobius 8890). In any case, by logical extension, the poet’s dream should be said to have resulted from his reading about Affrican throughout the day. But the poet seems unable to relate dream theory, which he is obviously reciting from memory here, to his own experience. He immediately undercuts the expectations he has set up:
Can I not seyn if that the cause were
For I hadde red of Affrican byforn,
That made me to mete that he stod there. . . .
Unable to evaluate various dream theories, the poet dismisses the issue. But in his interpretive confusion, he soon offers another possible cause for such a dream. He mentions that Cytherea, or Venus, the “blysful lady swete” (113) has granted him “this sweven for to mete” (115; Leicester 18). The illogical juxtapositioning once again demonstrates the poet’s incompetence in either reconciling for himself the various theoretical possibilities or choosing from among them that which seems most applicable.
The dream itself, appropriately enough, provides no escape from such a dilemma (Aers 14). The poet/dreamer immediately faces a gate upon which are written two polar opposite interpretations of love, one advising the “redere” to enter (13233), the other warning that “Th’eschewing is only the remedye!” (140). The dreamer once again finds himself “astoned” (142), as when he had thought independently about love (5). In this instance, though, he succinctly presents the mental effect created by conflicting authorities:
Right as, betwixen adamauntes two
Of evene myght, a pece of yren set
Ne hath no myght to meve to ne fro
For what that oon may hale, that other let
The “myght” of the magnets and lack of it on the part of the piece of iron corresponds to the contrast between the omnipotent authorities and the helpless, perplexed reader. This metaphoric passage indicates that the poet perceives himself as a powerless subject, intimidated and manipulated by authoritative advice. Affrican meanwhile, acting quite out of character in this dream, argues no particular philosophy in any attempt to coerce the dreamer with revelatory truth. Instead, he yanks the dreamer through the gate (169170). The abrupt Affrican may seem an inappropriate guide to the subject of love, but in this instance, he serves the dreamer well by assuming responsibility and resolving the dreamer’s paralyzing indecision. As a result, however, Affrican perpetuates the dreamer’s incompetence. Chaucer’s passive persona in The Parliament of Fowls fails to develop his own strategy for satisfactorily resolving authoritative contradictions.
At the center of the work’s major dilemma, the formel eagle similarly finds herself bombarded with conflicting, supposedly authoritative, advice. We must regard Nature for the time being as merely a political authority, for until the end of the debate she gives no advice to the formel but simply serves to establish occasional order. Thus Nature the coordinator outlines a mating program whereby the female bird ultimately has veto power:
. . . natheles, in this condicioun
Mot be the choys of everich that is heere,
That she agre to his eleccioun,
Whoso he be that shulde be hire feere.
It would seem to follow then, that once the three suitors have confessed their love, the formel should be consulted as to her preference for any one of the tercelets. Instead, the formel is forgotten as the other birds, serving as advisors or self-proclaimed authorities on love, become engrossed in what would seem to be an unnecessary debate. As other critics have noted, the courtly love dilemma is submerged into a larger issue which they take to be the greater idea of love in all its aspects from idealism to pragmatism (Reed 21522). But Chaucer opens as well still another can of worms, as it were. Here begins an examination into the nature and origin of authoritative pronouncement.
As the parliament proceeds, seemingly irreconcilable advice to the formel eagle grows more and more irrelevant and the discussion becomes progressively more removed from the situation at hand. At first, all runs smoothly. The “foules of ravyne” (323) elect as their spokesman the falcon. He offers the type of advice one might expect to hear from a bird who “with his feet distrayneth / The kynges hand” (33738) in suggesting that the formel base her decision upon “estat” and “blod the gentilleste” (550). This authoritative advisor is biased by class-consciousness, but he is mindful at least of the practical applicability of his suggestion: “And of these thre she wot hireself, I trowe, / Which that he be, for it is light to knowe” (55253). He thus gives direct if overbearing advice to the formel. Next, the “water-foules” elect “by oon assent” the goose (557), who proposes that “But she wol love hym, lat hym love another” (567). Indirectly, this advice acknowledges that the formel should choose whomever she loves most. And yet, it is somehow off the mark. The goose seems to be advising the tercels instead of the formel. The supposed authorities lose sight of the female eagle, around whom the debate initially revolved, as they warm to the more general topic of love.
Subsequently, parliamentary representatives do not even address the dilemma itself. A hawk interrupts the proceedings merely to discredit the goose (568f). Afterwards, consistent with the sentiments one would expect from “The wedded turtil, with . . . herte trewe” (355), this elected “sed-foul” (576) speaks of fidelity in love, but offers no solution to the problem at hand:
Though that his lady everemore be strange,
Yit lat hym serve hire ever, til he be ded.
. . .
For, though she deyede, I wolde non other make;
I wol ben hires, til that the deth me take.
The element of subjectivity, such as that which enters decisively in the turtledove’s last lines, becomes even more pronounced as discussion continues. The duck, for example, intrudes with a boisterous commentary, virtually divorced from the dilemma at hand, on the turtledove’s speech:
That men shulde loven alwey causeles,
Who can a resoun fynde or wit in that?
Daunseth he murye that is myrtheles?
Who shulde recche of that is recheles?
The duck argues for a practical hedonism, but his doctrine seems entirely irrelevant. After the especially superfluous mudslinging which ensues, the cuckoo puts himself “forth in pres” (603), also without having been elected as spokesman. This bird, “ever unkynde” (358), offers, appropriately, the most unnatural advice: “Lat ech of hem be soleyn al here lyve!” (607). The cuckoo also makes it obvious that he is motivated by self-interest in having his own mate quickly (605). This spawns further mudslinging before Nature reasserts her political authority by ending the proceedings:
. . . I have herd al youre opynyoun,
And in effect yit be we nevere the neer.
Indeed, the more the parliamentary discussion progesses, the further the speakers from the immediate issue. The authoritative advisors lose sight of their practical function and argue among themselves instead of working towards a practical end. Perhaps Chaucer intends for us to see the authorities of the old “bokes” in this light. Since advice given by parliamentary spokesbirds has been motivated by self-interest, we are made to question even the possibility for objective authoritative pronouncement.
The chaos presented in this portion of the poem has further relevance to the issue of responsible advice. Since the program of electing proper speakers from among the various groups quickly dissolves, and since all the humorously self-important debaters are merely “foules” anyway, we must question their assumed positions of authority and the validity of their proposals. The turtledove, ignoring the subject of love at one point, speaks directly to this issue of reliability among supposedly responsible advisors:
. . . bet is that a wyghtes tonge reste
Than entremeten hym of such doinge,
Of which he neyther rede can ne synge;
And whoso hit doth, ful foule hymself acloyeth,
For office uncommyted ofte anoyeth.
Progress is therefore hindered when “foules” assume the office of authority.
Despite the apparent disparity among the pronouncements of these questionable authorities, the formel eagle is given an advantage in resolving her dilemma which the poet had not been given when he had encountered various conflicts. After the debate, the goddess Nature offers a synthesis of the more relevant advice, which she abstracts from the parliamentary debate (McDonald 456; McCall 30). Nature declares, “she / Shal han right hym on whom hire herte is set” (626627), as the goose and perhaps also the turtledove had suggested. The goddess also indirectly counsels the formel to choose the royal tercelet (632f), as was proposed by the falcon. There is some indication that these two pieces of advice do not present a dilemma in this particular case. The first tercelet has been called the “royal” eagle, and is the most worthy of “estat”; and since the formel eagle had blushed at his speech (44245) but did not react to the others’ speeches, perhaps she would choose him for her mate anyway. The choice seems obvious, and, thanks to the synthetic skills of Nature and a fortuitous circumstantial accord on the part of the formel eagle, there are “no losers in this debate” (Reed 221), saving perhaps the two less fortunate tercelets.
Even so, the formel eagle decides to suspend judgment. In one sense, this kind of deferral has been the poet’s strategy all along. Unable to weigh the disparate interpretations of various issues, he makes no decision for himself, but instead tends to skirt personal responsibility. The enigmatic final stanza of the poem suggests that he has been unable to interpret or to apply the dream vision and that he will continue to founder among conflicting authoritative discussions presented in his many “bokes” (695). And yet, unlike the poet, the formel eagle appears to take control of the situation. Her deferral is not one of confusion, rather she assumes full responsibility for the eventual resolution.
Had the formel eagle chosen the royal tercelet, her decision might have been attributable to the persuasive authority of Nature or of the “foules.” But while she listens attentively to authoritative advice, she will not let herself be pressured by authority, nor will she resign herself to the acceptance of any single criterion for judgment that is externally imposed. She asks for time to consider the situation, and after a year she will “have [her] choys al fre” (649). Unlike the poet in the opening stanzas, the formel does not attempt entirely to set aside authority to think through the dilemma alone. She listens to opinions and lets the speakers inform her of possible criteria for her choice. But she is not an inanimate piece of iron caught between magnets, waiting for a guide to make her decision for her. Even when Nature provides a synthesized solution, the formel suspends her judgment but accepts responsibility. She will supplement the testament of authority with her own year of experience.
Thus, while The Parliament of Fowls seems to end with indecision, the formel actually offers resolution to the problem of authority. Her deferral is a triumph that the poet himself has not been able to achieve; for while she does not reject authority, she nevertheless realizes that she has the final say. Had she chosen the royal tercelet this year, it could have been construed as having been Nature’s decision. If after weighing all the advice and supplementing authoritative counsel with personal experience she chooses the royal tercelet next year, it will be her own decision.
Aers, David. The Parliament of Fowls: Authority, the Knower and the Known.” Chaucer Review 16 (Summer 1981): 117.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Parliament of Fowls. In The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987. 383-394.
Frank, Robert Worth, Jr. “Structure and Meaning in The Parliament of Foules.” PMLA 71 (1956): 530539.Leicester, H. M., Jr. “The Harmony of Chaucer’s Parliament: A Dissonant Voice.” Chaucer Review 9 (Summer 1974): 1539.
Lumiansky, R,M. “Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules: A Philosophical Interpretation.” Review of English Studies 24 (April 1948): 8189.
Macrobius. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. Trans. William Harris Stahl. NY: Columbia University Press, 1951.
McCall, John P. “The Harmony of Chaucer’s Parliament.” Chaucer Review 5 (Summer 1970): 2231.
McDonald, Charles O. “An Interpretation of Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules.” Speculum 30 (July 1955): 444457.
Owen, Charles A., Jr. “The Role of the Narrator in the Parlement of Foules.” College English 14 (February 1953): 264269.
Reed, Thomas L., Jr. “Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules: The Debate Tradition and the Aesthetics of Irresolution.” Revue de l’Universite d’Ottawa 50 (Spring 1980): 215222.