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CHAP. XXI.

OUTLINE OF CHAUCER'S POEM OF THE PARLIA.

MENT OF BIRDS.

XXI.

1358.

CHAP THE first poem which Chaucer wrote, so

far as can now be ascertained, after he entered into the service of the court, is variously styled in different manuscripts, The Assembly of Fowls, and the Parliament of Birds. The subject of this poem is the suit or courtship of John of Gaunt just mentioned, and appears to have been written before the lady had accepted the addresses of her illustrious suitor. The natural construction therefore to be put upon such a performance is, that it implies a considerable degree of familiarity and confidence between the poet and the persons who are the subject of it : and indeed it is not improbable that it was penned at the request of the lover, for the

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XXI.

1358.

under which Chaucer

his former

purpose of softening the obduracy of his mis- CHAP. tress's resistance. As the lady is represented in the course of the poem as deferring the suit of her admirer for a twelvemonth, a circumstance which occurs again in the Book of the Duchess above quoted, and as the marriage was solemnised in May 1359, the date of the poem obviously falls upon the year 1358.

This first courtly composition of Chaucer Impressions we may believe was written by the

young poet with great care, and no ordinary degree had written of anxiety to produce something worthy of works. the masters into whose service he had entered. It was a new field that he was to occupy; and it was with very different feelings that he sat down to write. Hitherto he had been a poet in the purest and most unmingled sense of that word. He gave himself up to the impressions of nature, and to the sensations he experienced. He studied the writings of his contemporaries, and of certain of the ancients. He was learned, according to the learning of his day. He wrote, because he felt himself impelled to write.

XXI.

1358.

CHAP. He analysed the models which were before

him. He sought to please his friends and fellow-scholars in the two universities. He aspired to an extensive and lasting reputation. He formed the gigantic and arduous plan of giving poetry to a language, which could as yet scarcely be said to have any

poetry to boast.

his Parlia. ment of Birds.

Now he was placed in a different scene. Without bearing the title of the court-poet, he was the court-poet in reality. He had no competitor. His superiority was universally acknowledged. He had been borne along on the tide of his acknowledged reputation to the eminence he at present occupied. He had the character of his country to sustain ; and the literature of a nation rested upon his shoulders.

To every man a scene presented to the eye is impressive, much beyond the effect of any abstraction appealing to the understanding. This is still more the case with a poet, than other man.

Chaucer had hitherto written for such as were lovers and discerners of true poetry, without well knowing, except

with any

XXI.

1358.

perhaps within a limited circle, where they CHAP. were to be found. He now wrote for the court of England, a court which at this moment was higher in lustre and character than any

other in the world. He wrote for the conquerors of Cressy and Poitiers. He had before him sir John Chandos, sir Walter Manny, and the other heroes who had won immortal note on those plains. John king of France, and several of the first personages of that country, were now prisoners in London. Edward III was, it may be, no profound scholar, nor eminent judge of poetical composition.

But the ardent imagination of Chaucer was not to be stopped by such impediments. He knew that a piece in which he celebrated the loves of a favourite son of the king, would be often mentioned in the highest circles, and the name of its author often repeated. He aspired, it may be, to that fame which the writer himself which brings strangers and scholars and persons of eminence to desire the happiness of knowing him, and which surrounds him with grateful whispers whenever he appears, as

may hear,

CHAP
XXI.

Plan of the poem.

well as to that fame which breathes incense from the venerable tomb a thousand years after the poet is no more.

The Parliament of Birds is a poem marked with

pregnancy of fancy and felicity of language. It is written in Rhythm Royal, the same species of stanza as that of the Court of Love and the Troilus and Creseide. It

begins with an extract, beautifully expressed, Somnium of Cicero's Somnium Scipionis from the com

mentaries of Macrobius. The following stanzas will remind every reader of the manner of Spenser, mellifluous, soothing and animated.

Scipionis.

Then asked ?he, if folke that here ben dede Have life and dwellyng in an other place? And Affrican saied, Ye, withouten 'drede, And how our present worldly livé's space Nis but a maner deth, what waie we trace,

Scipio the younger, the destroyer of Numantia and Carthage.

* Scipio the elder, the conqueror of Hannibal, whom the younger sees in his dream.

c doubt.

b Yea.

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