Geoffrey Chaucer- "The Parliament of Fowls" (1343-1400)

The Basics:

A raucous gathering of birds debate the meaning of true love in this late fourteenth-century Middle English dream-vision poem.

Plot Summary:

The “Parliament of Fowls” is told from the perspective of a reader who falls asleep while perusing Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” in search of some unidentified “thing.” After a brief account of this classical treatise’s views on duty, we follow the narrator into his dream world where he encounters a “Garden of Love,” populated by Greco-Roman gods of love and their supplicants. In acorner of the garden, the Dreamer finds that the goddess “Nature” is holding her annual “parliament” at which all of the world’s birds gather to find their mates. The proceedings appear to be going smoothly until Nature’s prized female eagle receives proposals from multiple suitors. This prompts a lively debate amongst the fowls about what constitutes the most true form of service to one’s beloved.  

Chaucer’s contribution to the tradition of medieval bird-debate poems (yes, this was an actual genre…) is equal parts thought-provoking and hilarious and a must-read for anyone interested in birds/animals, parliamentary politics, or the medieval tradition of “courtly love.”

Highlights:

  • Lines 183-308 – The narrator’s somewhat scandalous description of Venus and her servants in the “Garden of Love” 
  • Line 309 – The first-ever reference to St. Valentine’s Day as a day for couples (as opposed to a religious holiday) 
  • The colorful voices of Chaucer’s birds throughout the debate section (e.g. “Ye, queck!” quoth the duck”)

Rating:

5/5

Online editions and additional resources:

  • Plain-text edition of the full poem (Middle English)
  •  Modern-English translation (courtesy of A.S. Kline)
  • Medieval manuscript version (BL Harley MS 7333)