Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls: The Prologue

Geoffrey Chaucer, transl. by Brett Rutherford

The Prologue to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls

A loosely metrical, free-verse adaptation, with slight explications of Cicero’s Dream of Scipio. This is in the form of a poetic improvisation, made without reference to any other modern English version and using only the glossary and notes for The Riverside Chaucer, Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” and the personal assistance of Hermes, the god of sudden inspiration. Each modern English stanza is followed by Chaucer's original in Middle English.

Not years enough, in life so short,
     to learn a craft so long,**           (Ars longa, vita brevis)
whose effort’s hard, whose winning hurts,
whose painful joys slides snakily off –
by all this I mean Love, whose working
wonderful astonishes my senses,
so painful indeed, that when I think on it,
I know not whether I float, or fall.

1    The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
2    Thassay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
3    The dredful Ioy, that alwey slit so yerne,
4    Al this mene I by love, that my feling
5    Astonyeth with his wonderful worching
6    So sore y-wis, that whan I on him thinke,
7    Nat wot I wel wher that I wake or winke.

Though practice of Love have I no knowledge,
nor of how well He pays his followers,
well have I read of his ways in books,
of both his miracles, and his cruelty.
There read I well, he will be Lord and master;
I dare not say how painful his strokes,
But “God give me such a Lord!” Ah, say no more!

8    For al be that I knowe nat love in dede,
9    Ne wot how that he quyteth folk hir hyre,
10   Yet happeth me ful ofte in bokes rede
11   Of his miracles, and his cruel yre;
12   Ther rede I wel he wol be lord and syre,
13   I dar not seyn, his strokes been so sore,
14   But God save swich a lord! I can no more.

What use is Love? a moment’s friction or
     a whole life’s education? –
I read so many books, as I did say –
and why at all am I essaying this? because
just now I happened to behold a book,
a certain ancient text in antique tongues,
and there I sought to learn a Certain Thing,
so eager for it I read the whole day long.

15   Of usage, what for luste what for lore,
16   On bokes rede I ofte, as I yow tolde.
17   But wherfor that I speke al this? not yore
18   Agon, hit happed me for to beholde
19   Upon a boke, was write with lettres olde;
20   And ther-upon, a certeyn thing to lerne,
21   The longe day ful faste I radde and yerne.

For out of old fields, as old wives say,
Comes the new corn from year to year,
Just so do old books, seen with new eyes
yield all that is new, that we call Science.
But now to get down to my business here:
reading that one book gave me such delight,
that all that day my own small soul seemed lost.

22   For out of olde feldes, as men seith,
23   Cometh al this newe corn fro yeer to yere;
24   And out of olde bokes, in good feith,
25   Cometh al this newe science that men lere.
26   But now to purpos as of this matere --
27   To rede forth hit gan me so delyte,
28   That al the day me thoughte but a lyte.

This book of which I make such mention --
I’ll tell you how its title reads. It is:
The Dream of Scipio, as told by Cicero
(Yes, Marcus Tullius, our old Roman friend!)
In only seven chapters, Heaven to Hell,
and Earth, and all the souls that dwell
therein, are all encompassed, and I mean
as quickly as I can, to share the gist.

29   This book of which I make of mencioun,
30   Entitled was al thus, as I shal telle,
31   `Tullius of the dreme of Scipioun.';
32   Chapitres seven hit hadde, of hevene and helle,
33   And erthe, and soules that therinnr dwelle,
34   Of whiche, as shortly as I can hit trete,
35   Of his sentence I wol you seyn the grete.

First off it says, when Scipio arrived
in Africa, to meet Massinissa, that King
of Numidia embraced him in joy – they talked
of his great forebear till the sun did fade.
Then in his sleep his ancestor appeared,
great Scipio Africanus, Carthage’s conqueror!

36   First telleth hit, whan Scipion was come
37   In Afrik, how he mette Massinisse,
38   That him for Ioye in armes hath y nome.
39   Than telleth hit hir speche and al the blisse
40   That was betwix hem, til the day gan misse;
41   And how his auncestre, African so dere,
42   Gan in his slepe that night to him appere.

The book relates, how from a starry place
the ancient Roman showed him Carthage
[the city he pillaged and sowed with salt],
forewarned him of his own ill providence,
and told him that any man, learned or ignorant,
that loved the common good, with virtue’s ways –
that man shall go to a blissful resting place,
where joy without end awaits him.

43   Than telleth hit that, fro a sterry place,
44   How African hath him Cartage shewed,
45   And warned him before of al his grace,
46   And seyde him, what man, lered other lewed,
47   That loveth comun profit, wel y-thewed,
48   He shal unto a blisful place wende,
49   Ther as Ioye is that last withouten ende.

And then he asked, if folk that here be dead
have life and dwelling in some other place,
and Africanus answered him, “Yes, doubt it not!”
and that the present life we live, whatever
way we go, is in itself a kind of death,
and that the righteous folk shall Heavenward
wend; and here, he showed the Galaxy

50   Than asked he, if folk that heer be dede
51   Have lyf and dwelling in another place;
52   And African seyde, “ye, withoute drede,”
53   And that our present worldes lyves space
54   Nis but a maner deth, what wey we trace,
55   And rightful folk shal go, after they dye,
56   To heven; and shewed him the galaxye.

And way below it, the little earth our home,
so tiny compared to the vastness of things.
Later, the ghost showed Scipio nine spheres.
from which he heard the harmonies and notes
that come by nature from thrice times three –
the wellspring of all music and melody,
the basis of all our harmony!

57   Than shewed he him the litel erthe, that heer is,
58   At regard of the hevenes quantite;
59   And after shewed he him the nyne speres,
60   And after that the melodye herde he
61   That cometh of thilke speres thryes three,
62   That welle is of musyk and melodye
63   In this world heer, and cause of armonye.

Then Africanus bade him: if the world is a mote,
deceptive and full of bad fortune,
to take no delight in this lower world.
Then he revealed to him, that ages hence
all the great stars will spin back home
from where they started, and all that man
has done in this world shall be forgotten.

64   Than bad he him, sin erthe was so lyte,
65   And ful of torment and of harde grace,
66   That he ne shulde him in the world delyte.
67   Than tolde he him, in certeyn yeres space,
68   That every sterre shulde come into his place
69   Ther hit was first; and al shulde out of minde
70   That in this worlde is don of al mankinde.

Then he prayed Scipio to tell him how
he might himself arrive at Heaven’s bliss
and the ghost said, “Know thyself first immortal,
then look to your work and direct yourself
to the common good – you cannot miss
your chance to come swiftly to that place
where clear souls live in eternal bliss.

71   Than prayde him Scipioun to telle him al
72   The wey to come un-to that hevene blisse;
73   And he seyde, “Know thy-self first immortal,
74   And loke ay besily thou werke and wisse
75   To comun profit, and thou shalt nat misse
76   To comen swiftly to that place dere,
77   That ful of blisse is and of soules clere.

“But breakers of the law, if truth be told,
and lecherous folk, once they are dead,
shall whirl about the earth in pain,
age upon fearful age, and then at last
they shall be forgiven of their wicked deeds,
and they shall come into that blissful place,
where all who come to God receive his grace.”

78   “But brekers of the lawe, soth to seyne,
79   And lecherous folk, after that they be dede,
80   Shul alwey whirle aboute therthe in peyne,
81   Til many a world be passed, out of drede,
82   And than, for-yeven alle hir wikked dede,
83   Than shul they come unto that blisful place,
84   To which to comen god thee sende his grace!” --

The day had fallen, and gave way to night,
which robs all beasts of their business.
Men too – it was too dark to read –
and so, undressed for bed, I went –
my thoughts filled up with a heavy burden,
for I had a Certain Thing that I did not want,
and I did not have a Certain Thing I wished for.

85   The day gan failen, and the derke night,
86   That reveth bestes from her besinesse,
87   Berafte me my book for lakke of light,
88   And to my bedde I gan me for to dresse,
89   Fulfild of thought and besy hevinesse;
90   For bothe I hadde thing which that I nolde,
91   And eek I ne hadde that thing that I wolde.

But finally my spirit, at the last,
so weary from my labor of the day,
took rest and put me fast asleep,
and in my sleep I dreamed, as I lay,
that Africanus, just in the same array
as Scipio saw him that time before,
just so he came to my bedside and stood.

92   But fynally my spirit, at the laste,
93   For-wery of my labour al the day,
94   Took rest, that made me to slepe faste,
95   And in my slepe I mette, as I lay,
96   How African, right in the selfe aray
97   That Scipioun him saw before that tyde,
98   Was comen and stood right at my bedes syde.

The weary hunter, asleep in his bed,
dreams that he never left the wood;
the judge dreams that his case moves forward;
in the carter’s dreams, the cart rolls on;
the rich dream of gold; the knight fights foes;
the sick man dreams he drinks of the cask;
the lover dreams he has his lady won.

99   The wery hunter, slepinge in his bed,
100  To wode ayein his minde goth anoon;
101  The Iuge dremeth how his plees ben sped;
102  The carter dremeth how his cartes goon;
103  The riche, of gold; the knight fight with his foon;
104  The seke met he drinketh of the tonne;
105  The lover met he hath his lady wonne.

Can I not say but that the cause of this
was that I had read of Africanus,
and that’s what made me dream he stood there.
But what he said: “You’ve borne yourself well.
You found me in that tattered book –
found me despite the footnotes of Macrobius
a monk who understood me not at all.
Let me repay your labor with something…”

106  Can I nat seyn if that the cause were
107  For I had red of African beforn,
108  That made me to mete that he stood there;
109  But thus seyde he, “Thou hast thee so wel born
110  In loking of myn olde book to-torn,
111  Of which Macrobie roghte nat a lyte,
112  That somdel of thy labour wolde I quyte!” --

Venus! Cyhtherea! thou blissful lady sweet,
who with your fire-brand conquers whom you please,
you who made me dream this very vision,
be thou my help in this, for you lead best,
as truly as the sail turns north-north-west,
so as I begin my vision to write,
so give me strength to rhyme and indite!

113  Citherea! thou blisful lady swete,
114  That with thy fyr-brand dauntest whom thee lest,
115  And madest me this sweven for to mete,
116  Be thou my help in this, for thou mayst best;
117  As wisly as I saw thee north-north-west,
118  When I began my sweven for to wryte,
119  So yif me might to ryme and endyte!



The Middle English text is that published in The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. W.W. Skeat (Oxford, 1900), taken from the website of Berkeley University, CA
“The Dream of Scipio”, translated by Michael Grant, from Cicero: On the Good Life, 1971. Baltimore: Penguin Books..