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Parlement of Foules

Parlement of Foules

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The "Parlement of Foules" (also known as the "Parliament of Fowls", "Parlement of Briddes", "Assembly of Fowls", "Assemble of Foules", or "The Parliament of Birds") is a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer , known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey...

 (1343?-1400) made up of approximately 700 lines. The poem is in the form of a dream vision
Dream vision
A dream vision is a literary device in which a dream is recounted for a specific purpose. While dreams occur frequently throughout the history of literature, the dream vision emerged as a poetic genre in its own right, and was particularly popular in the Middle Ages. This genre typically follows a...

 in rhyme royal
Rhyme royal
Rhyme royal is a rhyming stanza form that was introduced into English poetry by Geoffrey Chaucer.-Form:The rhyme royal stanza consists of seven lines, usually in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c. In practice, the stanza can be constructed either as a terza rima and two couplets...

 stanza and is interesting in that it is the first reference to the idea that St. Valentine's Day was a special day for lovers.


The poem begins with the narrator reading Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

’s Somnium Scipionis in the hope of learning some “certeyn thing.” When he falls asleep Scipio Africanus
Scipio Africanus
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus , also known as Scipio Africanus and Scipio the Elder, was a general in the Second Punic War and statesman of the Roman Republic...

 appears and guides him up through the celestial spheres to Venus
Venus is the second planet from the Sun, orbiting it every 224.7 Earth days. The planet is named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. After the Moon, it is the brightest natural object in the night sky, reaching an apparent magnitude of −4.6, bright enough to cast shadows...

’s temple, after some deliberation at the gate both promising a “welle of grace” and a stream that “ledeth to the sorweful were/ Ther as a fissh in prison is al drye” (Reminiscent of Dante
Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe is a not-for-profit organisation that plans, builds and operates the international networks that interconnect the various national research and education networks in Europe and surrounding regions...

's "Abandon all hope ye who enter here"). The narrator then passes through Venus’s dark temple with its friezes of doomed lovers and out into the bright sunlight where Nature is convening a parliament at which the birds all choose their mates. There three tercel eagles make their case for the hand of a formel eagle until the birds of the lower estates begin to protest and launch into a comic parliamentary debate, which Nature herself finally ends. None of the tercels wins the formel, for at her request Nature allows her to put off her decision for another year (indeed, female birds of prey often become sexually mature at one year of age, males only at two years). Nature allows the other birds, however, to pair off. The dream ends with a song welcoming the new summer. The dreamer awakes, still unsatisfied, and returns to his books, hoping still to learn the thing for which he seeks.


There are fifteen manuscript sources for the poem:
  • British Library, Harley 7333
  • Cambridge University Library Gg. IV.27
  • Cambridge University Library Ff. I.6 (Findern)
  • Cambridge University Library Hh.IV.12 (incomplete)
  • Pepys 2006, Magdalene College, Cambridge
  • Trinity College, Cambridge R.3.19
  • Bodleian Library, Arch. Selden B.24
  • Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 416
  • Bodleian Library, Fairfax 16
  • Bodleian Library, Bodley 638
  • Bodleian Library, Tanner 346
  • Bodleian Library, Digby 181
  • St. John's College, Oxford, J LVII
  • Longleat 258, Longleat House, Warminster, Wilts

William Caxton
William Caxton
William Caxton was an English merchant, diplomat, writer and printer. As far as is known, he was the first English person to work as a printer and the first to introduce a printing press into England...

's early print of 1478 is also considered authoritative, for it reproduces the text of a manuscript now considered lost. The stemma and genealogy of these authorities was studied by John Koch
John Koch
John Koch was an American painter, and an important figure in 20th century realist painting. His early work may be considered Impressionist...

 in 1881, and later established by Eleanor Prescott Hammond in 1902, dividing them into two main groups, A and B (last five MSS), although the stemma is by no means definitive.

Concerning the author of the poem, there is no doubt that it was written by Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer , known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey...

, for so he tells us twice in his works.
  • The first time is in the Introduction (Prologue) to The Legend of Good Women
    The Legend of Good Women
    The Legend of Good Women is a poem in the form of a dream vision by Geoffrey Chaucer.The poem is the third longest of Chaucer’s works, after The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde and is possibly the first significant work in English to use the iambic pentameter or decasyllabic couplets...

    : "He made the book that hight the Hous of Fame, / And eke the Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse, / And the Parlement of Foules, as I gesse" (Larry D. Benson, The Riverside Chaucer, 1987: 600).
  • The second allusion is found in the Retractation to The Canterbury Tales
    The Canterbury Tales
    The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at...

    : "the book of the Duchesse; the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes" (Benson 1987: 328).

A more difficult question is that of date. Early criticism of the poem, as far as the first decades of the 20th century, relied mainly on the different interpretations of the text — comparing the fight for the female eagle with royal betrothals of the age — to produce a date of composition for the poem. Fred N. Robinson (Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 1957: 791) mentioned that "if the theories of allegory in the Parliament are rejected, the principal evidence usually relied on for dating the poem about 1381-2 disappears." Later criticism, however, is much more objective on the reasons why the poem has been dated in 1382, the main reason given in lines 117-118 of the poem itself: "As wisly as I sawe the [Venus], northe northe west / When I begane my sweuene for to write" for according to John M. Manly (1913: 279-90) Venus is never strictly in the position "north-north-west,"but it can be easily thought to be so when it reaches its extreme northern point". Manly adds that this condition was met in May 1374, 1382, and 1390.

The third date is easily discarded since we know that the poem is already mentioned as composed in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women. Derek Brewer
Derek Brewer
Derek Stanley Brewer was a medieval scholar, author and publisher.-Life:Born in Cardiff, Wales, the son of a clerk with General Electric, Brewer read English at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was taught, among others, by C.S. Lewis...

 (1960: 104) then argues that the date of 1382, as opposed to that of 1374, is much more likely for the composition of the poem since, during the same period (1373-85), Chaucer wrote many other works including The House of Fame which, in all respects, seems to have been composed earlier than "The Parliament of Fowls," thus: "a very reasonable, if not certain, date for the Parlement is that it was begun in May 1382, and was ready for St. Valentine's Day, 14th February 1383" (Brewer, 1960: 104). Although much of the criticism on the interpretation of "The Parliament of Fowls" — which would render clues for its date of composition — is contradictory, and criticism about the importance of line 117 does not agree on whether it can be taken as serious evidence for the dating of the poem, there is nowadays a general agreement among scholars as to 1381-1382 being the date of composition for "The Parliament of Fowls."

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