Parliament of Fowls, The

Parliament of Fowls, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1382)
   The Parliament of Fowls is one of CHAUCER’s earlier DREAM VISION poems, written as a celebration of Valentine’s Day—a day,we are told in the poem, when every bird chooses its mate. It has also been suggested that the poem was written to commemorate the adolescent RICHARD II’s betrothal to ANNE OF BOHEMIA. This reading would identify the three tercel eagles in the poem with the three noble rivals for Anne’s hand: Richard himself, Charles of France, and Friedrich of Meissen.
   If that is the poem’s intent, it would date the text to about 1380–82. This would place the poem soon after Chaucer’s second Italian journey, and the poem reflects the influence of BOCCACCIO in particular. Abandoning the short, octosyllabic (eight-syllable) couplets of the earlier dream visions The BOOK OF THE DUCHESS and The HOUSE OF FAME, here, under the Italian influence, Chaucer adopts a longer decasyllabic (10-syllable) line and invents the stanza form called RHYME ROYAL. Rhyming ababbcc, the rime royal stanza is strikingly similar to Boccaccio’s OTTAVA RIMA (which rhymed abababcc): Chaucer simply eliminated the fifth line to create a stanza with two equal parts (lines 1 through 4 and lines 4 through 7), both including the b-rhyme of the central fourth line. Thus the structure supports the fourth line as a turning point in the stanza.
   The Parliament of Fowls begins with a comic persona of Chaucer avidly reading in order to learn “a certeyne thing,” presumably about love. The narrator tells of his experience reading Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” summarizing Africanus’s journey into the heavens with the younger Scipio to view the insignificant earth. When the narrator falls asleep reading, Africanus comes to him and guides him through a gate reminiscent of DANTE’s infernal one. But this gate leads not to hell but into a garden of love, an idealized landscape surrounding a dark Temple of Venus. Much of the description is adopted from a similar one in Boccaccio’s TESEIDA. Ultimately the dreamer emerges into the light where the Goddess Nature is supervising a great meeting of birds, who have all gathered on Valentine’s Day to choose their mates. Nature holds on her hand a beautiful formel (female) eagle, to which three tercel (male) eagles lay claim. Each tercel eagle makes his case, and Nature says that the formel must choose among them. Meanwhile the birds hold a noisy parliament to debate the issue of just whom the formel should choose. A variety of opinions is expressed by representatives of the different classes of birds—the “birds of ravine,” probably suggesting the nobility; the seed fowl, representing the clergy; the waterfowl, representing the commoners; and the worm fowl, suggesting the middle class.
   Ultimately the formel postpones her decision for a year, and Nature tells the other birds that they are free to choose their own mates. Before they leave, the birds sing a harmonious song in the form of a roundel (or RONDEAU). The noise of the birds awakes the dreamer, who goes back to his books to keep looking for answers. If there is an answer to his question in the parliament, the Narrator hasn’t seen it. Scholars have debated themselves as to whether the theme of the poem is love and love’s complexities, or whether the theme is politics: Africanus discusses the importance of acting for the “common profit” in the beginning, and the birds’ song at the end returns their own chaotic society to harmony at the end.Many recent critics have suggested that the poem is really about the nature of knowledge and truth and how we know what we know: The birds’ song seems to suggest that we can have certainty in this world, while the final stanza that shows the dreamer still searching for something suggests that he, at any rate, has not been able to find any certain knowledge. The Parliament of Fowls is a pivotal text in Chaucer’s career: It is the most mature of his early dream visions, and its rime royal verse form looks forward to his great love poem TROILUS AND CRISEYDE, while the ESTATES SATIRE of the bird parliament itself looks forward to the GENERAL PROLOGUE to the CANTERBURY TALES.
   ■ Aers, David. “The Parliament of Fowls: Authority, the Knower, and the Known,” Chaucer Review 16 (1981): 1–17.
   ■ Brewer, D. S., ed. The Parliament of Fowls. London: Thomas Nelson, 1960.
   ■ Leicester, Marshall, Jr. “The Harmony of Chaucer’s Parlement: A Dissonant Voice,” Chaucer Review 9 (1974): 15–34.
   ■ Ruud, Jay. “Realism, Nominalism, and the Inconclusive Ending of the Parliament of Fowls,” Geardagum 23 (2002): 1–28.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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