Parliament of Fowls: Chaucer promotes literature over love

25th November, 2010


Many critics deem Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls as a poem about love. It is difficult to argue with that idea. The majority of Chaucer's poem does focus on the theme of love. During a dream, the spirit of Scipio Africanus leads Chaucer into a beautiful garden filled with allegorical figures related to courtly values and love. Chaucer sees a hall painted with unhappy tales of classical lovers and encounters famous mythical characters of love such as Venus and Nature. Finally, he observes three tercel eagles pleading for the wing of an attractive formel eagle on St. Valentine's Day.

However, many analysts overlook a “certeyn thing”about Parliament of Fowls that does not directly concern love (20). Chaucer captures his audience's attention during the introduction and makes them believe he will only share a love story. That is when Chaucer spontaneously introduces Macrobius's famous moral tract, Dream of Scipio, a commentary of an except in Cicero's De re republica and the inspiration for his poem. By doing this, Chaucer promotes the importance of literature. He also shows how readers often become part of the stories they read.

Although Chaucer summarizes Dream of Scipio in his poem, some readers of Parliament of Fowls might desire to look up Macrobius and Cicero and explore their works. If not for Parliament of Fowls, I would have never considered studying these particular classical authors. I do not know much about Macrobius and vaguely remember Cicero from another class. Yet, Chaucer has increased my awareness of both writers. During the poem, the Spirit of Africanus appears to the dreaming Chaucer and rewards his study of Macrobius with his own vision. Chaucer, in this passage, implies that readers who study literature will be rewarded with valuable wisdom and unique experiences.

Chaucer also obscurely promotes literature as he passes through Venus' palace and sees unhappy tales of classic lovers "peynted overal" on the walls (284). The lovers have stories written in literature that detail their failed attempts at love. Those who read the stories of classical figures such as Bacchus, Achilles, Cleopatra, Ceres, Helen, Troilus, Hercules, Thisbe, and others will have a better overall understanding of Parliament of Fowls. For instance, the young Trojan War leader Troilus falls in love with Criseyde, whose father defects to the Greeks. Criseyde pledges her love to Troilus, but she gives her affections to the Greek hero Diomedes after she is sent to her father during a hostage exchange. Those literary allusions in Parliament of Fowls play a vital role in Chaucer's poem. He demonstrates in Parliament of Fowls that love is a "dredful joye," both a pleasant and painful emotion (3). Readers with no knowledge of the classical figures might not fully understand Chaucer's poem and could be encouraged to research the histories of the characters.

Also, Chaucer studied Macrobuis so deeply that he became mentally attached to Dream of Scipio and its commentary. This happens often with readers. One can become so engulfed in the stories that he or she reads that dreams about the literature will occur. Many times during those dreams, readers meet the characters of the stories and have a chance to change the course of the plot. While working on a research paper on Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown last semester, I dreamed that I stood in the forest and encouraged Goodman Brown to return home to his wife. He left to participate in evil activities. As with Chaucer during Parliament of Fowls, I woke up shortly afterward and never found out if Goodman Brown heeded my advice. I've had other similar experiences.

In literature, a story's conclusion often reveals the work's main goal. In Chaucer's conclusion to Parliament of Fowls, he clearly promotes the importance of literature above the theme of love. When the singing birds awaken him from his nap before he understands the full meaning of his dream, he vows to continue reading. If he keeps reading, he believes he will continue to gain valuable knowledge and experience situations he wouldn't otherwise be a part of. If Chaucer had not been reading Dream of Scipio, his masterpiece Parliament of Fowls would have never existed. He writes:

I wok, and othere bokes tok me to,/ To reede upon, and yit I rede alwey/ In hope, iwis, to rede so sum day/ That I shal mete sumthyng for to fare/ The bet, and thus to rede I nel nat spare. (695-699)

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “Parliament of Fowls.” The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. John H. Fisher. 2nd ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1989. 566-579. Print.