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In the Oxford English Dictionary "Parliament" is a verb that means "To talk or converse; to confer; to parley" ("Parliament"). To speak is not a passive action. Speaking requires some active thought process, movement of the vocal cords as well as lips, tongue, or even beak. To effectively speak with another being requires some form of understood communication or language. Sound and noise is typically present during all forms of communication even in its absence. The sounds outside a window can be perceived even if the sounds cannot be heard. Geoffrey Chaucer has the reader perceive an environment full of melodious and cacophonous sound through the quiet and passive narrator. He does not present a male figure in the dream vision and simply serves as the reader's eyes and ears. The major representation of males in "The Parliament of Fowls" derives from the male courting birds. The courting male birds are at the opposite end of the spectrum of sound; they are boisterous and unorganized. The male birds are active, but very inefficient. The female birds are at the other end of the sound spectrum in parliament. Chaucer presents the female birds as decision makers with concise and efficient speeches and logic. In the garden and outside of parliament all creatures live in an idyllic harmony. Throughout the dream vision Chaucer adds elements of noise and sound that balances and ties both genders in a common sense of urgency. Spring is a time of rebirth, renewal and continuation that includes reproduction to continue the line. Despite the formel eagle's decision to delay her choice, she is asked to make the decision regardless. Thus, the need for order and lineage surpasses all things and unites both genders in a common goal. From a gender standpoint, there are questions of what Chaucer was saying about woman and how sincere this portrayal actually was. Why make them all birds and why a dream? In understanding Chaucer's subversion of the traditional gender roles and traits through passive and inefficient males and active and decisive females, it is possible to see how this is achieved through the furtive placement and use of sound and how Chaucer uses this to promote the image of females as equally skilled in discourse and logic.
The first words on love in "The Parliament of Fowls" come from the narrator who has no skill or comprehension of love "I knowe nat Love in drede / Ne wot how that he quyteth folk hir hyre, / Yet happeth me ful ofte in bookes rede / Of his miracles and his cruel yre" (Chaucer 8-11). He is more concerned with the answer to an unstated question or topic. He searches for a, "certeyn thing" (Chaucer 20) that is never quite explained as a specific thing or something tangible and concrete. According to R.M Lumiansky, the "thing" is how to live with true and false felicity. Specifically, his dilemma is between, "whether his writings should be devoted to moral teaching or to the god of love" (Lumiansky 83). This "thing" he presumes to find in a book about the Roman General Scipioun who falls asleep and dreams of his relative, Affrican. Affrican eventually leads Scipioun to the heavens where he hears the music of the spheres (Chaucer 40-63). In contrast, upon falling asleep, the narrator is lead to the music of the garden by Affrican. This contrast as discussed by Robert Worth Frank, Jr is, "between the certainty and order of the moral universe and the uncertainty and anarchy of the universe of love" (Frank 535). The narrator pauses at the gates of the garden his indecisive nature paralyzing him from taking any action "No wit had I, for errour, for to chese / To entre or flee, or me to save or lese" (Chaucer 146-147). He is then literally pushed by Affrican through the gates "Me hente and shoof in at the gates wyde" (Chaucer 154). Affrican is aware that the narrator has no comprehension of love and furthermore the narrator cannot even articulate his fears or doubts with words "It stondeth wryten in thy face, / Thyn errour, though thou telle it nat to me" (Chaucer 155-156). According to Affrican, the narrator's "taste" has been lost, which is to say that that narrator did know of love at one point perhaps alluding to more platonic than romantic love. He is declared an observer by Affican that can do more good watching, learning, and preserving the scene in words "But natheles, although that thou be dulle, / Yet that thou canst nat do, yet mayst thou see [...] I shall thee shewn mater of to wryte" (Chaucer 162-168). Once in the garden of love the narrator transforms into a vassal of reception; the eyes and ears of the reader who observes and hears the sounds of the garden "On every bough the briddes herde I singe" (Chaucer 190).
The male birds, specifically the upper class birds sit highest during parliament and their feeling of entitlement is evident from their lengthy and overly romantic speeches, the longest belonging to the tercel eagle, which essentially jeopardizes the reproductive time frame of all the mating birds (Chaucer 415-441). The motif surrounding the male courtly birds is of excess; excess sound, discourse, and rank. The lower class male birds also delay matters by interrupting a quick resolution to the mating of the formel eagle. However, the upper class birds are playing a game as Craig E. Bertolet states, in which they will show any face necessary for the sake of the game and not the goal:
Essentially, the noble birds recreate with their language a courtly game their rivalry for the formel (a game in which how the goal is reached is as important as the goal itself) and frustrate the lower birds who fail to see the point in this contest. [...] The result of this cultural disagreement is that the lower fowls misconstrue an exercise in poetic embellishment as waste, while the upper fowls regard the use of the plain style as crudity (Bertolet 379).
The tercelet falcon appeared respectful addressing the formel eagle, Nature, and the higher order birds that are his true competition and as representative of the birds of prey, "For sirs, ne taketh nought agref I preye, / [...] Oures is the vois that han the charge in honde, / And to the juges dome ye moten stonde" (Chaucer 541-546), yet he displays crude and lowbrow name calling that the lower class birds would be criticized for as being crude, "Now fy, cherl! / [...] Thy kind is of so lowe a wrechednesse / That what love is, thou canst nat see ne gesse (Chaucer 596-602). The irony Chaucer displays here is that this is essentially a dream with birds as delegated members of parliament and Chaucer does not satirizes their representation. The only comedic elements come from those aimed at the lower class birds by the courtly birds. It could very well be a statement on the rising middle class or parliament itself except for the placement of female representatives in parliament which skews toward a statement on gender considering their emphasis on logical and organized efficiency. One of the insults Chaucer chooses to focus on is directed toward the female goose who is called a "fool" and laughed at by the courtly birds (Chaucer 571-575), demonstrating another display of digression.
In the center of the garden, just outside the temple full of gods and goddesses synonymous with languor, the narrator encounters Nature. She does not have the most dialogue yet she is ultimately the most authoritative and commanding with little need for lengthy speeches to exhibit her evident power, "Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure / That they ne were prest in hir presense / To take hir doom and yeve hir audience (Chaucer 306-308). In the original source material Chaucer drew from Jean de Meun's continuation of the Roman de la Rose, Nature is a stereotype of woman and very much satire as Sylvia Huot discusses:
The repeated identification of Nature as a stereotypical woman, emotional, talkative, clever, yet somehow scatterbrained, and full of complaints about men, is on the one hand quite comical, for as Genius's admission suggests, she is not a woman in the ordinary sense. On the other hand, however, this application of misogynist tropes to Lady Nature is authorized by the traditional association of the natural and bodily with the feminine, an association that underlies the Rose (Huot 42).
Chaucer chooses to translate her character as more authoritative and less comical. He acknowledges her as a grounded yet divine being "Nature, the vicaire of th'almighty Lorde" (Chaucer 379). Never too far from Nature is Venus who, "on a bed of golde she lay to reste" (Chaucer 265). Not too far from Venus is "the cause of sorwes", Jelousye (Chaucer 251) who is an equal force in the disorder she sometimes causes. Neither Venus or Jelousye are given a voice in the vision. Nature speaks as needed and is a female that delegates and works only with the order that parliament provides and by the absence of yet another voice, her own essentially, she aids in the progression toward harmony which as Hugh White asserts is her main role. Her power of harmony brings together a wide array of birds which typically do not get along, "This magisterial and beneficent harmonizing force presents a strong contrast to the dissolute Venus in whose Temple we find the disharmony of frustration in love" (White 166). It is through this "harmonizing force" that any resolution is ever reached consistently every year at parliament. Chaucer displays Nature not as a satire of women with power but as being who has power and just happens to be female.
Out of the lower class birds, two female representatives are chosen; goose with, "hir facounde gent" (Chaucer 558) and the "trewe" turtledove (Chaucer 577). They disagree in the manner of love yet respectfully do so with no name-calling unlike the courtly birds. It is the female goose who that is the most commanding of the lower class birds and reserts the point and goal of their meeting:
Al this nis nat worth a flye!
But I can shape hereof a remedye,
And I wol sey my verdit faire and sythe
For water foul, whoso be wrooth or blythe (Chaucer 501-504)
With her voice the previous cacophony of discordant sound "So cryden, 'Kek, kek!' 'Kukkow!' 'Quek, quek!'hye / That thurgh myn eres the noyse wente tho" (Chaucer 499-500) is nullified with her initial idea to represent the waterfowl in order to create some efficiency on their part. This plan is expanded to the rest of the bird orders by Nature. The first instance of ridicule comes at the expense of the goose that goes against the custom of the romantic courtly birds by stating their main purpose is swift procreation in order to continue the species:
Pees! Now tak kepe every man
And herkeneth which a reson I shal forth bringe;
My wit is sharp, I love no taryinge;
I seye, I rede him though he were my brother,
But she wol love him, lat him love another! (Chaucer 563-567).
She clearly states that she is aware of the issue and as Craig E. Bertolet states "love should be a means to an end, rather than an end itself" (Bertolet 365). Bertolet outlines two types of discourse present, "a courtly one emphasizing rhetorical ornamentation and hierarchy [...] and an urband one emphasizing profitable industry and community" (Bertolet 366). Thus, the lower class birds speak simply not out of ignorance or a lack of refinement but because time is of essence to those who depend on it for survival. Ironically, all birds depend on procreation to maintain their species and thus the upper class birds are cast as foolish and detrimental. Like Nature there is a need for a type of economy of language whereby only the most necessary amount of discourse, beautiful or just simple is necessary to achieve a goal. The goose echos back to Scipioun on his question on the "wey to come into that hevene blisse" which as previously stated may be part of the essential question or "thing" the narrator searches for; how to merge true and false felicity and whether to focus on the god of love or follow a more moral path. Affrican answers:
Know thyself first immortal,
And look ay besily thou werke and wisse
To comun profit, and thou shalt nat misse
To comen swiftly to that place dere,
That ful of blisse is and of soules clere
But brekers of the lawe, sooth to seyne [...]
Shal whirle aboute th'erthe alwey in peyne (Chaucer 73-80).
The goose and nature advocate toward this "comun profit" and both focus on swift and decisive action. Immortality is only obtained through the continuation of the species and that is only through maintaining order and diligence. The formel eagle is given the final choice by Nature to choose her mate. Going against her gentle and courtly manner she states, "I wol nought serven Venus ne Cupyde / For soothe as yet, by no manere wey (Chaucer 652-653). She is able to offer resolution but not concrete resolution, as Michaela Paasche Grudin discusses, Chaucer does not usually offer resolution as narrative closer as this demonstrates his attitude toward discourse "In his epistemology nothing is ever complete. His world is marked, instead, by interaction, dialectical relations, and open process" (Grudin 1165). Thus, the formel eagle allows the closer of all discussion by Nature, "Quod Nature, "here is no more to sey" (Chaucer 655) and the continuation of pairing off for some birds, the wait for others, and continued search for knowlege on behalf of the narrator who awakens with the sound of the birds, "And with the shouting, whan hir songe was do, / That foules maden at hir flight away, / I wook, and other bookes took me to" (Chaucer 693-695). The final image is of a narrator who seeks answers he cannot recognize as he misses the connection between the activity among the birds and how it is related to true felicity.
With all the birds Nature mates there are consistent and agreed stipulations of reciprocal choice that both mates must agree on the choice "That she agree to his eleccioun, / Whoso he be that shulde be hir fere; / This is our usage alwey, fro yeer to yere" (Chaucer 409-411). Hugh White discusses sexual freedom and relates it the merger of sexual love and "Africanan morality", "The harmony between individuals which sexual love promotes can be understood as an aspect of cosmic order expressive of the divine will. So the fulfilling of individual sexual drives may be felt to serve a wider purpose also and thus perhaps may be regarded as serving 'commune profit' (White 265). This sexual freedom Nature allows typically promotes efficient order that is necessary for procreation. Females are given choice, yet a wide array of bird species have not died out because of that. Chaucer's subtly implied statement is of human counterparts that will equally survive if woman are given equal choice in marriage and roles of power. Outside of parliament and in the garden there are contrasting elements; birds, Gods, Godesses, and trees of varied kind, yet all merge in the orchestra of music that is created by the sound of the natural elements of the garden and each being that inhabits it. A final song to Nature brings the birds together and the dream closes with a merger of melodious and raucous elements that compromise the garden and parliament.
In returning back to the question of Chaucer's sincerity in how he is representing woman, it is important to once again acknowledge that it is a dream and the discourse is prominently dominated by birds. This does not make his portrayal of powerful woman any less valid or genuine as dreams are way to give voice to statements and idea that may not be commonly accepted. In essence, it is one large retraction built into the narrative that gives him some form of protection from ridicule. Birds have an urgent necessity to procreate due to varied life spans and the many hazards they can encounter. They are also vocal and in narrative they give a comedic suggestion that I propose Chaucer did not add intentionally but more as another layer to dig through to reach the essence of the narrator's quest for the "thing". Chaucer's use of sound and discourse essentially satirizes the traditional male gender roles of upper class males and promotes woman as skilled in discourse and logic.