THE PARLIAMENT OF FOWLS

The Parliament Of Fowls

an extract

by Geoffrey Chaucer(ca. 1343-1400)

A gardyn saw I, ful of blosmy bowes

Upon a ryver, in a grene mede,

There as swetnesse evermore inow is,

With floures whyte, blewe, yelwe, and rede,

And cold welle-stremes, nothyng dede,

That swymmen ful of smale fishes lighte,

With fynnes rede and skales sylver bryghte.

          On every bow the bryddes herde I synge,

          With voys of aungel in here armonye;

          Some busied hem hir bryddes forth to brynge;

          The litel conyes to here pley gonne hye.

          And ferther al aboute I gan espye

          The dredful ro, the buk, the hert and hynde,

          Squyrels, and bestes smale of gentil kynde.

Of instruments of strenges in acord

Herd I so pleye a ravyshyng  sewtnesse,

That God, that makere is of al and lord,

Ne herd nevere beter, as I gesse.

Therwith a wynd, unnethe it myghte be lesse,

Made in the leves grene a noyse softe

Acordaunt to the foules songe alofte.

          Th`air of that place so attempre was

          That never was grevaunce of hot ne cold.

          Ther wex ek every holsom spice and gras;

          No man may there waxe sek ne old;

          Yit was there joye more a thousandfold

          Than man can telle; ne nevere wolde it nyghte,

          But aye clerday to any mannes syghte.

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The Parliament of Fowls is perhaps the first Valentine`s poem ever written; but then, Chaucer is presumed to be the first in so much to do with the English language. Although he was not the first to write in what is now known as Middle English, he is without doubt the greatest exponent of the language of his age, and the man who fully unfettered the chains of social restraint concerning it`s written usage. From Chaucer onward, English re-asserted it`s rightful place as England`s premier language after 300 years of verbal usurpation by French after the Norman conquest in 1066. 

Throughout the 14th century English had been regaining lost ground simply because the great Anglo-Norman families whose lands had straddled the Channel, had lost their ancestral lands to a resurgent French crown as it systematically asserted it`s overlordship. The Norman ruling classes began to look inwards for English brides instead of the traditional French ones which had become hard to come by. As a consequence, they were exposed to the English language and culture of their new wives, and no doubt, their children were brought up by English nurse maids who cooed to their infants in the Mother Anglo-Saxon tongue of the 95% who toiled in the fields and silently made the wealth for the rich lords in their castles.

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By the time Edward III launched the great English invasion of France and instigated the Hundred Years War in 1337, England not only had a king who could speak English, but was surrounded by lords who also could brag of being bi-lingual. And by the time of Chaucer`s death around 1400, Henry IV was the first monarch since the Conquest to give his coronation speech entirely in English, as a means of legitimizing his usurpation, politically and socially by appealing directly to his subjects in their own language.

Chaucer is rightly called the Father of English Literature simply because he was not only the first great writer in the national tongue, but was a genius with words who fully understood the function and place of dialects in story telling. Each one of his Canterbury Tales is told from a different social and geographically dialectic viewpoint, depending on who, or what the narrator was. For the first time in English literature, individual dialects are heard spoken by characters representing the whole of English social strata. No more courtly love ballads and poems espousing an unreality found only among perfumed, pampered, silk wearing French speakers reclining on pomaded scented pillows in their ivory towers. Chaucer`s people were real, honest vagabonds, scallywags, con artists, braggarts, farters, fornicators, fallen women looking for a hand up, dodgy merchants, liars, cheats and fallen priests…….the list could go on indefinitely.

In other words, Chaucer wrote about the real people he knew, and embroidered their lives by the judicious use of his linguistic genius. He unleashed the full potential of the English language; it`s flexibility, adaptability, originality and it`s unrivaled chimeric ability to take foreign words, subsume, re-tool them, and spit them out, fully formed as a fully fledged part of the mother tongue. Far from being drowned by the language of foreign invaders, English has had a remarkable survival instinct, whereby it simply soaked new words up like a sponge, and squeezed them out in full working order as another addition to the national vocabulary.

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The vagaries of history made Chaucer possible; and from Chaucer freeing up the English language and lighting the blue touch paper came the sublime glories of Shakespeare. He is the Godfather of English; the language which dominates human linguistic interaction, which has insinuated itself into every conceivable nook and cranny of modern life; it`s indispensable and incomparable. It is a language which has twice died on the operating table from the foreign invasions of Vikings and Normans, only to resurrect itself like a phoenix, each time stronger than the last.

High up this greasy pole of success hangs Geoffrey Chaucer; the man who gave a language not just a universal life, but breathed into it`s soul a divine spark. Anyone who has read Shakespeare and the 1611 King James James Bible cannot fail to realize how ravishing, and exceptionally beautiful the English language can be in the right hands.

Whenever I hear Anglo-Saxon being read I get goose bumps; 1500 hundred years ago, a small, rag tag band of Germanic people took to their leaky boats to cross the hazardous North Sea in search of a home. The whole of Europe was on the move; the Roman Imperium had expired, presenting new opportunities for movement, plunder and settlement elsewhere. From a few hundred souls came a language and a culture which would come to influence, and then dominate the whole world, and give us the words and thoughts of unadulterated genius. 

In this long walk towards the future, the footsteps of Geoffrey Chaucer were the strides of a giant………………..

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