The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Parlement of Foules opens with comments on the hardships of love, which, the poet and narrator assures his reader, he knows only through his books; and books, he says, are the source of all people’s new discoveries. The narrator, Chaucer, has read Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, one of the most popular stories during the Middle Ages. Chaucer tells the reader how, in this story, Scipio Africanus appears to the younger Scipio in a dream and shows him all the universe, pointing out how small the earth is in comparison with the rest. He advises the younger man to live virtuously and with knowledge that he is immortal, so that he might come swiftly to heaven after death.
Darkness forces the narrator to put his book aside; and, falling asleep, he dreams that the same Scipio Africanus comes to him and leads him to the gate of a beautiful garden. Over one-half of the gate is a message promising happiness to those who enter; above the other half is a warning of pain and sorrow. As the dreamer deliberates, his guide pushes him through the gates, explaining that neither motto applies to him because he is not a lover but adding that he might discover there something about which to write.
The two men arrive in a garden filled with every kind of tree and bird. Deer, squirrels, and other small animals are playing there. Music and fragrant breezes permeate the atmosphere. Around the garden are familiar personifications: Cupid, tempering his arrows, as well as Pleasure, Beauty, Youth, Jollity, Flattery, and many others. Nearby stands a temple of brass upon pillars of jasper. Women are dancing around it, and doves sit on the roof. Before the doors sits Dame Peace and Dame Patience “on a hill of sand.” When he enters the temple, the dreamer sees the goddess Jealousy, the cause of the great sighing he hears around him; Venus and the youth Richess; Bacchus, god of wine; and Ceres, who relieves hunger. Along the walls are painted the...
(The entire section is 800 words.)
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bennett, J. A. W. “The Parlement of Fouls”: An Interpretation. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1957. Compares Chaucer’s style to that of various poets in both antiquity and his own time. Contains several plates of illustrations, including a medieval representation of birds.
Braddy, Haldeen. Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules,” in Its Relation to Contemporary Events. New York: Octagon Books, 1969. Discusses the poem as a retrospective account of Chaucer’s attempts to negotiate a marriage contract between the king of England and a princess of France. Although more recent scholars maintain that it celebrates Richard II’s marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380, Braddy nevertheless offers a thorough piece of research on the international nuptial negotiations, which began in 1376. He also provides chapters discussing Chaucer’s view of various social classes and his use of personified birds.
Howard, Donald R. Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World. New York: Dutton, 1987. Discusses in detail several of Chaucer’s major poems, including Parlement of Foules. It also offers a glimpse into the milieu of fourteenth century England, with chapters on such topics as the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt, and life in a royal court.
Rowland, Beryl. Birds with Human Souls. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978. Contains detailed analyses of sixty birds, discussing their symbolic significance throughout the ages. Includes many black-and-white illustrations from medieval manuscripts, mostly of birds in their symbolic forms.
Rowland, Beryl. Blind Beasts: Chaucer’s Animal World. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971. Discusses Chaucer’s use of personified animals, including birds. Also contains chapters on the medieval and ancient symbolic significance of the boar, hare, wolf, horse, sheep, and dog.