Chaucer, Parliament of Foules

Genre: dream vision. Chaucer's adaptations of this form are characteristically concerned with social and literary issues, rather than the more purely moral concerns of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood and Middle English Pearl, but somewhat like the fused socio-moral vision of humanity found in William Langland's Vision of Piers Plowman, only Chaucer's dream visions tend to be funny as well as insightful.

Form: one hundred rhyme royal stanzas, seven lines of irregular five-stress lines, approaching iambic pentameter, and rhyming ababbcc.

Characters: "Chaucer the dreamer," Scipio Africanus (borrowed from Macrobius' famous moral tract, Somnium Scipionis or "Dream of Scipio," excerpted from the dramatic, visionary conclusion of Cicero's "De re publica" or "On the Republic"), Venus and the many allegorical figures who populate her temple/court, the goddess Nature holding her own court among the birds, a formel eagle courted by three male eagles, various waterfowl, seed-eating fowl, and worm-eating fowl.

Summary:  The narrator, a typically uncomprehending and troubled "Chaucer," studies Macrobius' commentary on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis (the Dream of Scipio) to learn "a certeyn thing" he never names (20). After summarizing the plot and the advice given the dreaming Roman general by his ancestor, night falls on the reading "Chaucer" and he falls asleep still pondering his problem (90-1). The spirit of Scipio Africanus comes to the dreaming poet and offers to reward his study of Macrobius with a vision of his own. Scipio takes the dreamer through the gates of a beautiful garden filled with allegorical figures related to courtly values and love. In Venus' palace, he sees two lovers awaiting the goddess's judgment in a hall painted with tales of classical lovers (all unhappy tales), and then he passes into the inner court of the goddess Nature, who oversees the birds who will choose their mates on this February 14, St. Valentine's Day. Three tercel (male) eagles plead for the hand (wing?) of a beautiful formel (female) eagle. The other birds weigh in with their advice. Nature asks the formel to choose, and the formel asks leave to wait a year. Nature agrees, and the birds sing a carol to celebrate Nature's goodness, singing so loudly on their departure that they awaken the dreamer and the poem ends.

Issues and Research Sources:

1)  "Dream vision" as a Genre:

        The typical dream vision is a medieval work of literature which takes advantage of medieval dream psychology's acceptance of the notion that some types of dreams could communicate wisdom to the dreamer. The source of this dream might be God (a truly prognostic "visio"), the devil (sometimes a form of sexual temptation like an incubus or succubus), or natural causes. Typically, the dream vision occurs in a predictable series of stages: 1) the dreamer falls asleep in the midst of some life crisis or emotional impasse; 2) the dreamer, almost always a male, finds himself in a beautiful natural place (locus amoenus), often an enclosed garden filled with beautiful plants, animals, etc. (hortus conclusus); 3) the dreamer encounters a guide figure who instructs the dreamer and/or leads the dreamer to one or more allegorical visions; 4) the dreamer may interrogate the guide figure about the significance of the visions, but often this does not produce satisfactory results; 5) something within the dream causes the dreamer to awaken before the full significance of the dream can be explained.

Chaucer's three surviving dream visions (Parliament..., Book of the Duchess, and House of Fame) are characterized by some additional stylistic quirks: the dream involves a book by some classical author; the dreamer complains of a problem but nature of the dreamer's problem almost always remains a mystery, and the problems of the vision's characters occupies the center of our interest; the vision usually appears to contain both a moral/social allegory and references to contemporary political events (courtship of Richard II's bride; death of John of Gaunt's wife; struggles between parliamentarian and royalist forces).

2) The Locus Amoenus and Hortus Conclusus allegories

        The beautiful place of the vision's forest, and the enclosed garden about Venus' court, both are highly suggestive symbols for medieval readers. No beautifully ordered place can fail to evoke Paradise and the first "enclosed garden," Eden. To return to such perfection implies that the dream's content is somehow purified, abstracted from reality's trivial details. The two gates (gold and black) reduce love to its two essential qualities, pleasure and pain, and this duality paralyzes the dreamer (like Dante in Inferno I.1) until Affrycan pushes him through. Once inside, the catalogue of trees, flowers, and animals gives way to an allegorical court populated by figures who represent vices and virtues (as in the Roman de la Rose, which Chaucer had translated into Middle English--see RC: 716 ff. for similar allegorical characters in Love's Garden). The allegory gives Chaucer a vocabulary of ideas in images with which he can comment on his world.

3) Medieval estates satire, "courts of love," and the poem's "parliament."

        The birds who populate the vision's parliament clearly relate to factions in the English parliament during the period 1380-1400. Merchants, especially the powerful mercer's guild which controlled the export and import of cloth and finished goods, were a literate and wealthy presence at court because they generated large sums of capital by international trade, capital they loaned to the king when taxation failed to fund royal largesse. Lesser guilds like the grocers, masons, and scriveners, all usually literate by trade, tended to follow the mercers' strategy of buying their way into political and cultural positions of power. They may have formed an additional segment of Chaucer's audience for these poems, in addition to the court nobles and their educated servants like Chaucer (the wine-importer's son). So Chaucer could be seen as a figure who moves between two worlds, that of commercial enterprise and that of the court. Just as his literary training exposed him early to the "new learning" which would become the "Renaissance" in another century, so his career brought him from the warehouses and docks of the Vintry district of London to the palaces of the noble magnates. All around him, the culture was slowly beginning to change in ways his experience of French and Italian culture, and his reading in the classics, may have prepared him to predict.

4)  Nature and courtly custom.

        The concept of "nature" as a reigning queen strikingly suggests the importance of physical realities to Chaucer's audience, as a counterbalance to the metaphysical speculations which grounded their discussions of religious faith. Natural philosophy was pursued as an extension of the synthesis of all learning by which medieval scholars understood their disciplines to be grounded ultimately in the Bible. In this system, the thinking of ancient pagan natural scientists who studied the elements, physics, mathematics, and biology was fused together with Christian thinking to the degree to which it did not violate revealed truth. Natural law, as a divine creation (Genesis 1.1), operated harmoniously within moral law, which was understood to rule it. Nature also can be contrasted with artifice, especially the artifice of court custom which increasingly came to stand opposed to the "green world" of the forest, the place where adventures came to knights in romance and the place where the habits of society were challenged by the requirements of life, death, hunger, fatigue, fear, and the exciting threat of the unknown. The dream vision's positioning of the coded debate about a royal courtship within the enchanted natural world of Nature's court suggests that the values of court culture are somehow in competition with those of the green world.

5)  The poem's content echoed in its form: 

        Line 372 stands out as a rhetorical shift of purpose so that the poem might be said to divide into two parts at "But to the poynt..." The first portion of the dream vision introduces the dreamer’s situation, the walled park ruled by Venus, the catalogue of trees and allegorical figures surrounding Venus, the painted tales of famous unhappy lovers, and the interior court of Nature with its catalogue of birds awaiting Nature’s judgment before mating.  What does Chaucer mean by structuring the poem's dreamscape so that, to enter Nature's court, one must pass through the court of Venus? 

6)  Chaucer's Allegory of Love, Doubled in Birds:

        The characters of Venus' court are human in form, though allegorical, and the characters of Nature's court are birds, though perhaps also allegorical.  How might you describe the thematic relationships between those two allegorical systems?  When Chaucer says he saw the following cluster of characters standing together in Venus' court, their close association obviously suggests that they "belong together" in life: Beaute withouten any atyr, / And Youthe, ful of game and jolyte; / Foolhardyness, Flaterye, and Desyr, / Messagerye ["message sending"], and Meede" [bribery] (225-8). Some of the associations are ironic (youth and foolhardiness) and some brutally honest about the kinds of things which can occur in love affairs (flattery, desire, love-note-sending and bribery). Far from being an idealized view of love, this first set of allegories exposes a rather skeptical view of it, a view reinforced by the sad stories alluded to in the portraits of classical lovers on Venus’ temple’s wall.

     When we get to the birds, Chaucer’s double tone switches to accommodate the peculiar properties of the beast fable. Sometimes the fable’s truths relate to the animals’ natures (geese are foolishly confident), but at other times they clearly are meant to expose human foibles. (For another famous example of this, see the "Nuns’ Priest’s Tale" of Chauntecleer the rooster, Pertelote the hen, and "daun Russell" the fox.) A close reading of Chaucer’s alternation between the animal and human elements of his satire might reveal clues to his well-hidden intentions in creating this peculiar Valentine’s Day confection. Note the narrator’s strange reluctance to reveal what’s on his mind in the opening (ll. 20-21 and 90-91). Does the beast fable’s satire give us grounds for guessing his true intentions? Or are those two attempts to obscure a personal motive merely lures to conceal the fact that Chaucer’s purpose is public, not privately motivated at all?

7)   The poem's moral cosmology:

        The narrator’s summary of the vision in Cicero/Macrobius’ Somnium Scipionis repeats with notable emphasis the importance of "commune profit" (ll. 47 & 75). RC glosses this as "public good, welfare of the state" (385) and much has been made of the importance of this concept in the literature of Chaucer’s time, where it becomes a kind of code used by political reformers who urge both king and parliament to put aside their feuding to act according to this concept. In particular, Chaucer’s contemporary John Gower specifically addresses the importance of "commune profit" in two of his three major works, Confessio Amantis ("The Lover’s Confession") and Vox Clamantis (The Clamoring Voice [of the Populace]). Think about Parliament as a playful meditation on the problem of detecting and acting for the public good in a feudal culture which, until now, has operated far more upon the principles of loyalty and obligation to individuals in a strictly ordered hierarchy. How does a poet go about suggesting that nobles, for all their long-established power, might not "naturally" have the right to dispose of all affairs as their mighty ancestors would have done? Before the existence of opinion polling, national elections, and other means of representing such a collectivist world-view, how can you cause those in power (and the powerless!) to look beyond their own traditional interests?

8)  Interpreting "bird-talk":

        How would you analyze the three tercel eagles’ reasons for why the formel should pick them? If we were talking about who should rule the nation rather than who should marry the bird, how would these three claims translate into political reasoning? Where might you look to find those three "eagles" in England?  The seed-fowl, water-fowl, and worm-fowl debate often turns upon the peculiar mating behaviors of the representative birds who speak. However, many of these arguments can be found in the literature describing debates in the so-called "courts of love" which we find in Andreas Capellanus’ The Art of Courtly Love. How does the addition of attributes of bird-nature affect our reaction to these amorous arguments from the courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne? What might Chaucer want us to conclude about them as a result?

9)  Closure--does Nature's judgment satisfy your need, or frustrate it?:

        The judgment rendered by Nature is complex, involving as it does the formel’s own will as well as a consideration of the suffering tercels’ conditions. When the goddess says "If I were Resoun, thanne wolde I / Conseyle yow the royal tercel take," what is Chaucer saying about the difference between conclusions reached by reasoning and conclusions reached by following Nature?  The formel’s request sounds somewhat like the beginning of a religious vow: "I wol nat serve Venus ne Cupide, / Forsothe as yit, by no manere weye" (652-3). However, she first has asked for two profoundly "modern" things which would have seemed novel to medieval readers: "respit for to avise me" and "my choys al fre" (648 & 649). Under what circumstances do aristocratic medieval women usually get married and what motivates these decisions? If you know your Canterbury Tales, compare this with the equally fantastic (i.e., not entirely realistic) life story we find in the "Wife of Bath’s Prologue" for some useful patterns of coincidence.

10) Post-Modern Chaucer:

        Were you to look at Chaucer's "Parliament of Foules" from the perspective of a seminar studying novels that rewrite the plots of novels from the Modernist or Victorian period (Rhys, The Wide Sargasso Sea and Bronte's Jane Eyre, Cunningham's The Hours and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway), you might be surprised to find our "Medieval" artist doing the same thing to the Somnium Scipionis ("Dream of Scipio") and to Alanus de Insulis' De planctu naturae ("The Complaint of Nature").  What kinds of points does Chaucer make when explicitly alluding to these works of literature?  Does he treat them reverently, casually, or ironically?  What is the literary past to this Medieval poet?

Research Sources:

Book-Length in the JRL Collection--

Bennett, J. A. W.  The Parliament of Foules: An Interpretation.  Oxford: Clarendon P, 1957.  826.2 C49HpaSb 

Hieatt, Constance B.  The Realism of Dream Visions: The Poetic Exploitation of the Dream-Experience in Chaucer and His Contemporaries.  The Hague: Mouton, 1967.  821.9 H633r    

Kirk, Elizabeth D.  The Dream Thought of Piers Plowman.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1972.  820.6 Y17 v.178 

Kruger, Steven F.  Dreaming in the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.  809.9 K94d   

Spearing, A.C..  Medieval Dream-Poetry.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.   821.9 S741m    

St. John, Michael.  Chaucer's Dream Visions: Courtliness and Individual Identity.  Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000.  826.2 C49Ssa    

Article Length (some in Full-Text via OLLI--see ***)--

Bloomfield, Josephine.  “’The Doctrine of These Olde Wyse’: Commentary on the Commentary Tradition in Chaucer’s Dream Visions.”  Essays in Medieval Studies.  20:1 (February 2004): 125-392.***

Ruud, Jay.  “Realism, Nominalism, and the Inconclusive Ending of the Parliament of Fowls.”  In Geardagum: Essays on Old and Middle English Language and Literature, (23) 2002: 1-28.

Harwood, Britton J.  “Same-Sex Desire in the Unconscious of Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls “  Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 31:1 (Spring 2001) 99-135.

Klitgard, Ebbe.  “’Dreme He Barefot, Dreme He Shod’: Chaucer as a Performer of Dream Visions.”  English Studies 81:6 (December 2000): 506-13.***

Lynch, Kathryn L.,  Chaucer's Philosophical Visions  Cambridge, England: Brewer; 2000.

Chaucer's Dream Visions and Shorter Poems.  Ed. William A. Quinn.  N.Y.: Garland, 1999.

Emsley, Sarah.  “'By Evene Acord': Marriage and Genre in the Parliament of Fowls.” Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism  34:2 (1999) 139-49.

Breeze, Andrew.  'The Stare, that the Conseyl Can Bewrye' in The Parlement of Foulys.” Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism,  33:4 (1999) 423-26.

Aers, David.  “The Parliament of Fowls: Authority, the Knower and the Known.”. In Quinn, William A. (ed. and introd.); Chaucer's Dream Visions and Shorter Poems. New York, NY: Garland; 1999. 270-98.

Lynch, Kathryn L.  “Diana's 'Bowe Ybroke': Impotence, Desire, and Virginity in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls.”  In Kelly, Kathleen Coyne (ed. and introd.); Leslie, Marina (ed. and introd.); Ferguson, Margaret W. (foreword); Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Newark, DE: U of Delaware P; 1999.  83-94.  809 M534    

Smarr, Janet.  “The Parlement of Foules and Inferno 5.”  Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism  33:2 (1998) 113-22.

Cooney, Helen.  “The Parlement of Foules: A Theodicy of Love.”  Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism, 32:4 (1998) 339-76

Bertolet, Craig E.  “'My Wit Is Sharp; I Love No Taryinge': Urban Poetry and the Parlement of Foules.”  Studies in Philology.  93:4 (Fall 1996) 365-89.

Straus, Barrie Ruth.  “Freedom through Renunciation? Women's Voices, Women's Bodies, and the Phallic Order.”   In Murray, Jacqueline (ed. and introd.); Eisenbichler, Konrad (ed.); Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P; 1996. 245-64.

Keiper, Hugo.  “'I Wot Myself Best How Y Stonde': Literary Nominalism, Open Textual Form and the Enfranchisement of Individual Perspective in Chaucer's Dream Visions.” In Utz, Richard J. (ed.); Literary Nominalism and the Theory of Rereading Late Medieval Texts: A New Research Paradigm. Lewiston, NY: Mellen; 1995. 205-34.

Anderson, Judith H.. “The `couert vele': Chaucer, Spenser, and Venus.” English Literary Renaissance.  24:3 (Autumn 1994) 638-50

Hill, Ordelle G.; Stillwell, Gardiner.  “A conduct book for Richard II.”  Philological Quarterly 73:3 (Summer 1994) 317-29.

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