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Spatial Power and Speculation - Parliament of Fowls
Deepsouth v.5.n.2 (Summer 1999)
Copyright (c) 1999 by Mary McLaughlin
|Mary McLaughlin - University of Otago, Department of English|
|In my thesis I am studying three of Geoffrey Chaucer’s dream vision
poems: the Book of the Duchess, the Parliament of Fowls, and the House
of Fame. A recurring theme in these poems is movement - the shifting of
images and meaning, the passage of the dream narrators through their texts
and the delays and disappearances of women figures in the poems. This article
is an extract from the middle section of my thesis, which is entitled ‘Detachment’,
in which I examine the relationships of the dream narrators (they are always
to their dreams, concentrating particularly on examples where the narrator
is uncomfortable with and detached from his dream.
The Parliament of Fowls opens with the narrator reading about Scipio’s dream vision of the cosmos. He reflects on the diverse causes of dreams and falls asleep to dream that he is led to the gates of a walled garden by Africanus, the dream guide of Scipio’s vision. Inside the gates the narrator wanders through the garden and the temple of Venus before emerging into a parliament of birds gathered by Nature to choose their mates as it is Saint Valentine’s Day. The parliament opens with the royal eagle’s request for the formel (female) eagle who sits on Nature’s hand. Two noble eagles also pledge their love for the formel, and this inspires a rowdy debate over who should win her and what the losers should do. Finally Nature turns to the formel to hear whom she wishes to marry. The formel asks for a year’s ‘respit’ from all three eagles, after which time she will make her choice freely. The other birds sing a roundel to Nature and fly off as couples.
We can see a perspective of detachment between viewer and viewed at work in the Parliament of Fowls. This perspective is apparent from the start in the visions of Scipio and the dream narrator. Africanus shows Scipio - his descendant - Carthage, his future, earth and the heavens, in a dream which encompasses cosmological harmony, personal revelation and truths eternal, in a fixed and unmoving vision. While the vision is clearly important to Scipio - he is shown what he will be, where he will go, and the cosmos is displayed to him in response to his questions about the afterlife - there is a sense that he is disengaged from what he sees; he has no entry point into the worlds opened before him, and must wait for the passage of time to carry him into a known future.
Thanne telleth it that, from a sterry place,In like manner, the narrator passes through his dream world as a disengaged observer, watching but never joining those around him. Even the guide who gets him to the gates and shoves him in disappears from view once that decisive action has been taken. The dreamer is isolated and silent, shelled in ambiguous solitude and the quiet of observation, self-screening. Even as Africanus leads the narrator through the gates, he remarks on the dreamer’s lack of engagement in love. The narrator cannot decide how to respond to the inscriptions on the gate, which offer both joy and pain in love. Africanus releases him from this worry by telling him that the tidings do not apply to him as he is not a lover, but that he will be free to observe and describe the happenings of the garden: “Yit that thow canst not do, yit mayst thow se” (163).
The narrator is immediately plunged into a rich and diverse landscape, a forest abundant and providential. In his journey through the dream world, he sees things in fixed, concretised form: unmediated by his presence, people and places retain form and manner as he passes by. To get a clearer sense of the narrator’s relationship to his dream world, I shall compare the description of this landscape to that of the forest in the Book of the Duchess. In this other dream poem the narrator dreams that he wakes in a stunning glass-walled temple and then rides out into a hunt in the fields outside. The ‘hert’ (deer) is lost and the narrator follows a whelp, a little dog, into the forest where he meets a man in black. The conversation between the narrator and this man is the focus of the rest of the narrative. The same essential elements fill each landscape - a variety of trees and deer, squirrels, flowers - and yet there are significant differences in the movement of the narrators through the landscape, and in the ways they describe those landscapes.
The description of the forest in the Book of the Duchess echoes gently the hunt from which the narrator has just stepped. The enumeration of the varied deer in the forest plays on the image of the absent hert, and the movement of the whelp and narrator through the trees is a chase like the one that has just been abandoned. This chase brings them directly to the man in black whose solitary stillness shakes into question the teeming plenitude of the forest. Twice the narrator embellishes his description with sidelines, one on the work of Flora and Zephirus in the nourishing of flowers, and the other on the inability even of Algus - noble mathematician - to count the animals of the forest. The trees of the forest are described in terms of their configuration and their appearance as a mass to the narrator moving through them (they are set far apart, but are so huge that their branches form a heavy canopy overhead). Throughout this portrait, there is a sense that the narrator is describing a largely undifferentiated whole. The classical references fit with the allusive network undergirding the whole poem, and the pace of the journey through the forest comes both from the abundance of trees, groves, fields, deer, and from the placing of these in relation to the narrator - the whelp runs before him, the flowers are beneath his feet, the trees arch above him and the deer flock “both before me and behynde” (428). The observation of the narrator carries the blurred generality of speed, the perspective of movement and momentary wonder or allusion.
In the Parliament of Fowls, the narrator’s descriptive impulse is seen immediately as he launches into a functional catalogue of the trees around him. The trees are distinguished by kind and categorised by the uses to which their wood is put - oak is a building material, yew provides shelter, laurel is used in the practice of divination and so on. In contrast to the deer in the Book of the Duchess, those in the Parliament of Fowls are seen “ferther al aboute” (194); the narrator in this text settling on a standpoint from which to view and gradually widening, extending the range of his gaze. He continually marks himself as observer of the world around him, sprinkling his description with simple verbs of observation: “herde I” (190, 198), “I saw” (225, 231, 238), “I gan aspye” (194). The forest comes into existence for us in the wake of the narrator’s noticing, a blinking into view with the shift of his gaze.
The narrator’s description of the landscape is a dense uncovering and countering of the promises inscribed on the gate just entered. The first side of the gate promises a greenly enduring springtime May, bliss, cure and healing, the well of grace, and good adventure. The second side speaks of death and misfortune in love, trees which do not bear fruit and leaves, a stream which leads to a weir dry and full of mortality as imprisoned fish. Inside the gate, the narrator is struck by the greenness of leaves which shall never fall, he takes joy in their colour and freshness of hue. The potential for despair and death (disguised as it is by emerald green leaves, blossom and flowers) is everpresent in this garden, held out as a future waiting, a possibility dormant. And yet, the concentration of this description is on life and well-being. The grace-full well and the deceptive stream offered in the gate’s inscription are melded in
colde welle-stremes, nothyng dede,These fish are very much alive, sustained by their environment and sparkling in freedom, in movement. Only a sliver of the question remains, the finest edge of uncertainty threatens the pleasure of the narrator’s imagery. The description of the landscape derives more from the literary imagination of the narrator than from the mobility and fantasy of his dream. His dream echoes that which he reads (in books or on gates) and this textual interplay creates a distance between dreamer and dreamed landscape.
The landscape of the Book of the Duchess is less particularised than that of the Parliament of Fowls, and so being is less dependent on the narrator’s recording. The undifferentiated plurality of trees, deer, flowers, animals gives longer life to the elements of this description and spins out their presence as we read on. Their positions are less fixed than those of the trees and people of the forest in the Parliament of Fowls and so they move with the text; they have a more lasting but less keenly felt, less specific, existence for us. The verbs of the Book of the Duchess are verbs of action and relationship: “I wente” (357, 388), “I hym folwed” (397), “they romed ryght wonder faste” (443). The narrator here touches his dream world, feels its edges and engages with its occupants. The narrator of the Parliament of Fowls is more detached, a speculative layer separates him from his vision.
In a chapter entitled ‘Railway Navigation and Incarceration’, Michel de Certeau writes of the nature of railway travel, encased in movement through untouchable worlds. He describes railway travel as “[a] travelling incarceration” (111). I shall explore the narrator’s passage through the dream world of the Parliament of Fowls in terms sprung out of de Certeau’s work. He begins by defining two immobilities. The first is that of the traveller, celled in the order of the carriage, crossing land in an insular and self-sustaining system:
Only a rationalized cell travels. A bubble of panoptic and classifying power, a module of imprisonment that makes possible the production of an order, a closed and autonomous insularity - that is what can traverse space and make itself independent of local roots. (111)
The train carriage is imaged as a bubble or cell from which all can be seen and within which life is classified, made rational and orderly. Shut off from the outside world, the traveller has the power to observe all that passes outside without pause for engagement or depth of perspective. The dream narrator shares the panoptic insularity of the railway traveller as he passes through the forest, the temple, past the lives unfolding in his dream vision. He sees all; orders, classifies and describes; moves without touching or getting his footing in the landscape of his journey. In this he is unlike the narrator of the Book of the Duchess who shifts his path to follow a whelp, places himself in the midst of his landscape with trees, deer all about, overhead, behind and in front. So ‘arrested’ are the elements of the dream world for the narrator in the Parliament of Fowls that he does not place them in orientation to himself or each other before they are presented to our view - he catalogues trees, sees deities and birds in attractive tableaux without describing the spatial relations of these groupings to each other or to his movement through the landscape.
This is the second immobility de Certeau describes, that of things outside: “towering mountains, stretches of green field and forest, arrested villages, colonnades of buildings, black urban silhouettes against the pink evening sky, the twinkling of nocturnal lights on a sea that precedes or succeeds our histories” (111). As the narrator describes the deities of the dream world, it is clear that he must be moving as the locations of his portraits alter, yet this passage itself is not recorded. We have instead a series of pictures laid out before us: Cupid and Wille forging, filing, tempering arrows beside a well; Delight standing alone under an oak tree, Gentility beside him; naked Beauty; groups of named and unnamed deities. And suddenly a temple is in sight, made of brass, doves and women flock about. We see these things with the ‘speculative’ eye de Certeau evokes, “being outside of these things that stay there, detached and absolute, that leave us without having anything to do with this departure themselves; being deprived of them, surprised by their ephemeral and quiet strangeness” (111-112). The narrator’s detachment is grounded in more than the distance of observation - there is an ‘untouching-ness’ here that keeps him apart, the unthinkability of engagement or connected surfaces. We do not expect this narrator (as we do the narrator in the Book of the Duchess) to be part of his dream world: we sense in the frozen action of the forest, in the verbs of sight and hearing - senses dependent on a certain distance - that he will not talk to those about him, will not merge with his dreamed environment. He is the fly on the wall, the silent video camera recording layers of action in an endless panning of space. Michel de Certeau reflects further on this immobili>
Transfer interrupted!examining the elements which both enforce and facilitate the separation between viewing traveller and viewed landscape:
Between the immobility of the inside and that of the outside a certain quid pro quo is introduced, a slender blade that inverts their stability. The chiasm is produced by the windowpane and the rail. These are the two themes found in Jules Verne, the Victor Hugo of travel literature: the porthole of the Nautilus, a transparent caesura between the fluctuating feelings of the observer and the moving about of an oceanic reality; the iron rail whose straight line cuts through space and transforms the serene identities of the soil into the speed with which they slip away into the distance. The windowpane is what allows us to see, and the rail, what allows us to move through. These are two complementary modes of separation. The first creates the spectator’s distance: You shall not touch; the more you see, the less you hold - a dispossession of the hand in favor of a greater trajectory for the eye. The second inscribes, indefinitely, the injunction to pass on; it is its order written in a single but endless line: go, leave, this is not your country, and neither is that - an imperative of separation which obliges one to pay for an abstract ocular domination of space by leaving behind any proper place, by losing one’s footing. (112)
There is a break, a ‘caesura’, in this text between the narrator and the world through which he passes, the inhabitants of the dream world disregard his presence, and he does not attempt dialogue or physical contact. There is a sense in which he is an invisible observer of the garden, that he need not reveal his identity or his motives, that he is protected by a barrier of detachment or observation. And the narrator is also kept apart by some imperative of movement, like that of the railway line. This movement allows him to see all with abstract power, but also prevents him from participating in the dream world. As comforted or warned by Africanus, the narrator can ‘se’, but cannot ‘do’.
Interestingly, as the spatial dimensions of the dream world concentrate when the narrator enters the temple, the verbs of the his activity shift slightly. The verbs of sight and hearing remain - the narrator hears the “swogh” of lovers’ sighs, sees Priapus garlanded and unclothed and gazes on the scantily clad Venus. But his movements are a little more explicit and the geography of the temple increasingly mapped. Suddenly he is in a space with sides, Dame Patience sits on a hill of sand, with Promises and Art both inside and outside the temple. The dreamer goes into the temple and sees Priapus en route, finds Venus and Richness in a private corner, lets them lie and begins to spy further into the temple. The pictorial quality remains, but involves more action - the narrator slows and his descriptions spin over lengthened time.
When he leaves the temple and moves outside, the narrator walks forth to comfort himself - his movement is corporeal in a way it was not earlier in the dream, his intentions are no longer purely speculative, but have become emotionally intentional. And yet at this point the narrator largely disappears from the text as the parliament takes over. His perspective enlarges, he adopts a grand view not just of observation, but of causal and analogical knowledge. Again we come to a vision resembling Scipio’s as he is shown the cosmos: there is an orchestrated harmony about the distribution of the birds, about their placings and relative positions which bears echoes of the spheres, the allocation of right places, the music generated by the movements of cosmological elements. The narrator’s perspective becomes fixed - he stops moving - and this slowing and halting of passage changes his relation to the dream world. The axis over which the narrator’s observation is drawn is no longer space, but is time; a day of talk, the bargaining for a year, urgent and lengthy parliamentary debate. Although the separation of window-pane speculation remains (the narrator is still barred from the world before him), the imperative of passage, of tracks which impose movement through, is at rest. In this stillness, the narrator’s speculation stretches out; he arranges and orders his vision, posits lines of reference and rank through the massed birds. In describing the parliament, the narrator can comment on occasion and reason, can make textual links and provide functional hierarchies to articulate his dream. His perspective is now more akin to the Deleuzian  model of striated space which “is defined by the requirements of long-distance vision: constancy of orientation, invariance of distance through an interchange of inertial points of reference, interlinkage by immersion in an ambient milieu, constitution of a central perspective” (166-7). The day is St Valentine’s, and Nature looks as Alanus de Insulis portrayed her in De planctu naturae (The Complaint of Nature). The birds initially gather in undifferentiated plenitude:
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lakeHowever, they are swiftly commanded to take their places in a hierarchical arrangement, and the narrator who watches from a fixed and distanced vantage point describes their placements with the authority of a ‘central perspective’ and customary knowledge:
take his owne place,There is another element of railway travel which I wish to discuss. De Certeau draws our attention to both the interiority of the traveller and the silence of those things observed in passing. But he also takes us further, reflecting on the power - for the observing narrator and for the observed - of a silent exteriority.
The windowglass and the iron (rail) line divide, on the one hand, the traveller’s (the putative narrator’s) interiority and, on the other, the power of being, constituted as an object without discourse, the strength of an exterior silence. But paradoxically it is the silence of these things put at a distance, behind the windowpane, which, from a great distance, makes our memories speak or draws out of the shadows the dreams of our secrets. The isolation of the voting booth produces thoughts as well as separations. Glass and iron produce speculative thinkers or gnostics. This cutting-off is necessary for the birth, outside of these things but not without them, of unknown landscapes and the strange fables of our private stories. (112)
In isolation from that which we observe or reflect upon, it seems that we turn discourse inward. The silence of the outside world triggers a communion between ourselves and that world which takes us into an understanding not of the other, but of ourselves. We see the world fleetingly, the frozen surfaces of things heightening our isolation. And yet these images do open threads of internal discourse, lead us into memory or secret dream. I wish finally to open up, just briefly, the effect of his speculation on the narrator, to examine what it is that he sees and how in his watching detachment are born ‘unknown landscapes and the strange fables of [his] private stories.’
In his dream the narrator is creating and projecting out of his imagination and desires an inhabited landscape, a narrative, objects, characters and story. The detached, speculative nature of his movement through that world also stems from his waking bookishness and solitude. But, following de Certeau, we can see something else happening in this dream vision. Perhaps as he travels, the silence of the world he has created or dreamt acts further on the narrator’s imagination. Is he led deeper into memory and ‘the dreams of [his] secrets’ by both his solitude and the silent beings he passes? Does the dream in this way open him to greater self-awareness and understanding; does it call to the surface fears, hopes, expectations and make them fable-like stories? As the poem approaches his dream, the narrator comments on the extent to which dreams reflect our daily life or concerns:
The wery huntere, slepynge in his bed,In opening and guidance, the narrator’s dream echoes the book he has just put down, and when he enters the gates his reading is further echoed. All about him are the characters and shapes, the atmosphere and landscape of his courtly and classical literary world. This narrator paints his dream in the style of idealised countryside and fills it with classical deities. The stories he filters from imagination and memory have their roots in literature, and perhaps so too do the stories through which he tells his desires and dreams. But it is only as we get deeper into the dream that we find some clues to the narrator’s most private stories. The description of Venus is suddenly erotic, the narrator taking pleasure in her nakedness and dwelling on this description before moving on. And Dame Nature’s assembly of birds is gathered to talk about love in open parliament. Male birds ask for their chosen partners and the rules of relationships are much discussed. But at the end there is a deferral; the formel eagle puts off her decision and her three suitors are sentenced to a year of waiting and service. While the whole dream has literary roots, I wonder if we are closer at the end of the poem to the narrator’s hidden stories and memories. In his speculative detachment maybe he has told not just the stories of convention, but of his soul.
 Michel de Certeau, 'Railway Navigation and Incarceration' in The Practice of Everyday (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) 111-114.
 Gilles Deleuze, 'Nomad Art: Space' in The Deleuze Reader, ed. Constantin V. Boundas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) 165-172.