Highbury and Islington

Medieval English Poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer: An ABC and the Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Fowls)

14th century, Middle English. Many 15th century manuscripts, a Caxton printed edition and numerous printed copies.

He thinks he's gone into the heavens, or at least we do, but all of a sudden we realise that he's still on the Earth. Looking at a goddess.

'I think it is one of the most beautiful works of art ever made,' said Miranda, with a look of awe on her face. She and Quintin were sitting on a padded bench in a gallery that echoed with footfall, having just filed past Leonardo da Vinci's charcoal and chalk cartoon of the Virgin Mary, with mother, child and infant John the Baptist.

'Astonishing isn't it,' agreed Quintin. 'I know why it sends shivers up my spine: it is as though the two women are emerging from one body. And did you see how the baby Jesus seems to be one with the Virgin's arm? She isn't holding the baby, it is a part of her, emerging from her sleeve!'

'I think it was allowed to worship a goddess in those days,' said Miranda. 'Mary, the Queen of Heaven. Just as long as you acknowledged that she was inferior to the male Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Chaucer's poem to the Virgin, An ABC, has her as Queen of Heaven and as the mistress of everything on the Earth, and what that leaves for her not to be in charge of I don't know.'

'Chaucer was a nature-worshipper,' said Quintin. 'He worshipped the daisy. His Marian poem, An ABC, was just a translation and probably a commission. His real affinities, I reckon, lay with a real triple goddess. Nature. Just look at the Parliament of Fowls: he says that he spends all day reading about Cicero's account of how an old Roman is wafted up into the heavens to be shown the place where you go to when you die, if you are good. Then he says that people dream of the things they have been doing during the day; a knight dreams of battle, a carter of haulage. So where is he leading us to? Where do you think his dream that night is going to take him? Obviously, back into the heavens. And at first it looks like it has. The goddess Venus is there. He's already told us that he looked at Venus in the sky before writing about his dream. There are personified abstract nouns everywhere, like Patience, Elegance, Courtesy, Temerity, just as in Plato's region where the Forms exist, out beyond the outer sphere of the universe. There was a sign over the entrance to the place that made it sound like it was the sort of heaven you would hope to go to when you die.'

'Actually, that sign that Geoffrey sees is quite equivocal,' said Miranda. 'One side said that it was a beautiful place of eternal joy he was entering, the other that it was a place of pain and misfortune. Both of those notices must have been on the same side of the gate, because Chaucer had to be pushed through by his guide when he hesitated after reading them both and wouldn't move.'

'Well, but that's the whole point, isn't it!' said Quintin. 'It wasn't heaven at all. Once inside, he wanders away from the Temple of Venus and comes across the goddess Nature whom all the birds have assembled in front of to choose their mates for the year. He thinks he's gone into the heavens, or at least we do, but all of a sudden we realise that he's still on the Earth. Looking at a goddess.

'It's there that you go to when you die. Here. A place of pain and eternal joy.'

Chaucer's poems An ABC and the Parlement of Foules recounted from: Skeat, Walter W, edited from numerous manuscripts, 1912, reprinted 1973. Chaucer: Complete Works. Oxford University Press, with reference to The Riverside Chaucer, 2008 Edition, Oxford University Press. An ABC was written early in Chaucer's literary career, possibly in his early twenties, the Parlement of Foules sometime around 1380, when Chaucer was in his late thirties.


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