Work has been keeping me very busy! I didn’t even notice how quickly Valentine’s Day came upon us. No worries–I don’t celebrate the Hallmark holiday. I do profit on it though, at least I hope to tonight when I work at the restaurant. I don’t have time for a full post, so here’s an essay I wrote in school that fits the occasion of the Day of Love.
Some might know that the connection of St. Valentine’s Day with affairs of the heart is credited to Geoffrey Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales) from his poem “A Parliament of Fowls” (link leads to a modern translation). In school, we were asked to read an essay from A.C. Spearing from his book on the Medieval dream poem and discuss both in an essay. At the time, I was feeling a bit exasperated with my live-in boyfriend and our inability to move to the next step of our relationship (that semester I wrote a poem about my failed attempts to domesticate him). My angst came through in the following essay. Enjoy it with your futile holiday.
The Futility of Love as Proved by a Parliament of Fowls on St. Valentine’s Day
A.C. Spearing clearly knows The Parliament of Fowls very well, yet his essay does not discuss clearly what the poem is actually about. Spearing does not get around to telling us what the narrator takes away from his dream. He fails to explain the transition from the encounter with Africanus to the gathering of birds. It would be beneficial to the reader to discover what the connection is. A.C. Spearing states that the “real subject of the poem” occurs when the birds gather to choose their mates (Spearing, 328). He believes “what the narrator is seeking is presumably the meaning of that love which is the major subject of medieval courtly poetry” (Spearing, 326). Chaucer’s true intention, however, was to make the poem have a moral: to tell the reader not to waste time with love, because securing a spot in heaven is the only thing that matters, as was dictated in Scipio’s dream.
Chaucer seems to imply that he thinks looking for love is a waste of time. One hint is when the narrator, ignorant of love, is vaulted into paradise when Africanus pushes him through the gates. His innocence allows him to hear the birds singing “with vois of aungel in hir armonye” (191). Perhaps this is the same “armonye” of heaven earlier described to Scipio (61). Later, the temple of Venus is “decorated with paintings of famous figures from myth and legend who died for love” (Spearing, 330), displaying the mortality of the concept of love. Africanus asks Scipio, “how insignificant will it be that human glory which can scarcely endure for a fraction of a year” (Cicero, 263)? Since love is a human concept, like the glory Scipio is to pursue, Chaucer is pointing out that love’s benefits do not last and can not be carried into the next life.
The proceedings and outcome of the parliament of fowls as they choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day is also an example of Chaucer’s intent to show that love can be absurd. At this point, “the Dreamer drops almost completely out of sight, as if the birds had squeezed him out of the poem; and so does Africanus, his guide” (Spearing, 330).This disappearance of our guide is elicited by the emergence of the squabbling mates. Our guide retreats to a plane of higher moral values, showing us that love makes us act falsely, not for the common good. At the event, the debate about which tercel is to win the formel is not even resolved, revealing the futility of chasing love.
Africanus insists that the only way to gain access to heaven is by working for the common good of mankind. Africanus tells Scipio, “he ne shulde him in the world delyte” (66). The argument is that if a man spends his life working for the greater good, rather than working for earthly delights, he will go to heaven. Africanus says, “all those who have saved, aided, or enlarged the commonwealth have a definite place marked off in the heavens where they may enjoy a blessed existence forever” (Cicero, 260). Chaucer paraphrases this by saying, “What man, lered other lewed/That loveth comun profit, wel y-thewed,/He shal unto a blissful place wende,/Ther as joye is that last withouten ende” (46-49). By reiterating, Chaucer urges the reader to follow this advice and be selfless rather than focus on selfish ideas like love.
Selflessness is not exhibited by the tercels as they state their worthiness for the formel. The argument of the first three eagles lasts all day, prohibiting all the potential mates in all of birdkind from choosing their partners. Scipio was told, “cherish justice and your obligations to duty” (Cicero, 261) if he wanted access to heaven. Yet here the tercels pay no heed to their own obligations to commence the proceedings of the day.
Spearing recognized the implications of the influence of the story of Scipio’s dream on the narrator of Chaucer’s poem, but he failed in his analysis. Courtly love, exhibited by the squawking of a bunch of birds that come to no conclusion, is not the subject of the poem. The subject of The Parliament of Fowls is to heed Africanus’s advice to Scipio if you wish to make it to the heavens. Don’t waste your time on courtly love, and don’t waste the time of others when you should be helping them instead. To prove this idea, Chaucer closes his poem by having the tercels go away with the same resolve that Scipio has after his dream: to “strive much more zealously, with the promise of such a reward before me” (Cicero, 263). The tercels in this case are going to continue being good with the reward of the formel. The narrator may wake up and continue his search to find a book that will teach him about love, but he has already read and learned something far more valuable.