December 15, 2017
Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls, Valentine's DayGeoffrey Chaucer is usually acknowledged as the father, if not saviour, of English literature. He rescued the language from the French, and from the formula-writing of the Church and Court; he brought his people and places alive. Generations of university students continue to discover with relief that there's sex and swearing in The Canterbury Tales, but less known is another of Chaucer's poems, The Parliament of Fowls. It has been called "the finest occasional poem in the English language," and through it Chaucer may be able to claim another paternity: that of Valentine's Day.
Chaucer's father was a successful London vintner and politician but, like most of his class, upwardly immobile: real power lay behind the walls of neighbouring Westminster. To this end, he obtained for his son a placement in a royal household, as page. By his late twenties, Chaucer was working not just for the higher-ups but the very-tops. As Esquire in the Royal Household of Edward III, the Black Prince, he traveled to Europe throughout the 1360's and 70's on the King's business.
For his efforts, and for the rest of his life, Chaucer was granted a series of royal appointments: collector of the king's taxes, manager of the king's forests, justice of the king's peace. He was also granted various perks; among them, executed under writ of privy seal in French and Latin, was the gift of one "pitcher" of wine daily, to be collected from the king's butler. A pitcher of wine was about a gallon -- more than enough, though Edward's mistress received three times that daily ration, and apparently enjoyed it all. But it was free, it was for life, and it was from the King: a signal that the vintner's son had arrived.
The wine may have been payment for a poem. Chaucer's earliest poems were court ballads on the usual Romance topics of love, or war, or -- if possible -- both. The knights-and-damsels lifestyle was nostalgia by Chaucer's day, but the myths weren't. Nobody minded much -- then as now -- that the reality of love was somewhat different than its media image: according to C. S. Lewis's famous definition, the four characteristics of courtly love had always been humility, courtesy, religion, and adultery.
For those in Chaucer's class, the marriage imperatives were economic. To leave no one in doubt, the financial arrangements between the two families were usually announced at the church door -- before the wedding ceremony, and before witnesses For a king, marriage was a complicated international contract. When the boy-king Richard II began his reign in 1377, so did the matchmaking, and it went on for over three years. Chaucer himself was often an envoy in the negotiations, but by the time of the wedding in 1382 -- Richard just turned fifteen, his bride a year older -- Chaucer had put on his other hat.
Chaucer's birds don't send, but talk their valentine rhymes -- and talk, and talk. Nature has "prick[ed] them with desire," but also decreed that the lower birds cannot mate until the higher ranks have chosen. The seed and water birds try to listen patiently while the regal eagles make their pitch to the fairest fowl, but the lofty prose is soon punctuated with hisses and whistles and cries of "Come on!" and "Have done!" When the turtle dove appeals for patience, as the choice of a mate must last for life, she gets a good belly-quack from the ducks. When Nature offers all the bird back-benchers a chance to speak, the clucking and squawking over the best choice for mate reaches parliamentary proportions. She steps in to impose the only possible solution: the female eagle must choose her valentine as she thinks fit; and of course, she can't make up her mind. This causes a riot of sexual anxiety among the other birds, but when Nature grants them leave to make their choices anyway, they leave happy -- and in a hurry:
And whan this werk al brought was to an ende,
To every foul Nature yaf [gave] his make [mate]
By evene acord, and on here way they wende.
And, Lord, the blisse and joye that they make!
For ech of hem gan other in wynges take,
And with here nekkes ech gan other wynde [embrace],
Thankynge alwey the noble goddesse of kynde [nature].
The English court would have found laughs, if not lessons, in Chaucer's poem. Richard's marriage to Anne seems to have been a happy one. His relationship to Parliament was less so, and he and many of his appointees -- but not Chaucer -- would eventually lose their power, if not their heads, because of it.
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