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 Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
3 The dredful joye, alwey that slit so yerne,
4 Al this mene I by love, that my felynge
5 Astonyeth with his wonderful werkynge
6 So sore iwis, that whan I on him thinke,
7 Nat wot I wel wher that I flete or synke.

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 at be that I knowe nat love in dede,
9 Ne wot how that he quiteth folk hir hyre,
10 Yit happeth me ful ofte in bokes reede
11 Of his myralles, and his crewe 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 na moore.

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 bok, was write with lettres olde,
20 And therupon, a certeyn thing to lerne,
21 The longe day ful faste I redde 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 seyth,
23 Cometh al this newe corn from yer to yere;
24 And out of olde bokes, in good feyth,
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 delite,
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 bok of which I make of mencioun
30 Entitled was al ther, as I shal telle,
31 “Tullius of the Drem of Scipioun.”
32 Chapitres sevene hit hadde, of hevene and helle
33 And erthe, and soules that therinne dwelle,
34 Of whiche, as shortly as I can hit trete,
35 Of his sentence I wol yow seyn the greete.

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 Fyrst telleth hit, whan Scipion was come
37 In Affrike, how he meteth Massynisse,
38 That him for joie in armes hath inome.
39 Thanne telleth [it] here speche and al the blysse
40 That was betwix hem til the day gan mysse,
41 And how his auncestre, Affrycan so deere,
42 Gan in his slepe that nyght to hym apere.

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 it that, from a sterry place,
44 How Affrycan hath hym Cartage shewed,
45 And warnede him beforn of al his grace,
46 And seyde hym, what man, lered other lewed,
47 That lovede commune profyt, wel ithewed,
48 He shulde into a blysful place wende,
49 There as joye 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 Thanne axede he, if folk that here been dede
51 Han lyf and dwellynge in another place.
52 And Affrican seyde, “Ye, withoute drede,”
53 And that oure present worldes lyves space
54 Nis but a maner deth, what wey we trace,
55 And rightful folk shul gon, after they dye,
56 To hevene; 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 lytel erthe, that here is,
58 At regard of the hevenes quantite;
59 And after shewede he hym the nyne speres,
60 And after that the melodye herde he
61 That cometh of thilke speres thryes thre,
62 That welle is of musik and melodye
63 In this world here, 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 hym, syn erthe was so lyte,
65 And dissevable and ful of harde grace,
66 That he ne shulde him in the world delyte.
67 Than tolde he hym, in certeyn yeres space
68 That every sterre shulde come into his place
69 Ther it was first; and al shulde out of mynde
70 That in this world 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 Thanne preyede hym Scipion to telle hym al
72 The wey to come into that hevene blisse;
73 And he seyde, “Know thyself first immortal,
74 And loke ay besily thow werche and wysse
75 To commune profit, and thow shalt not mysse
76 To comen swiftly to that place deere,
77 That ful of blysse is and of soules cleere.

“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 likerous folk, after that they ben dede,
80 Shul whirle aboute th’erthe always in peyne,
81 Til many a world be passed, out of drede,
82 And than, foryeven al hir wikked dede,
83 Than shul they come unto that blysful place,
84 To which to comen God the 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 faylen, and the derke nyght,
86 That reveth bestes from her besynesse,
87 Berafte me my bok for lak of lyght,
88 And to my bed I gan me for to dresse,
89 Fulfyld of thought and busy hevynesse;
90 For bothe I hadde thyng which that I nolde,
91 And ek I ne hadde that thyng 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 Tok reste, that made me to slepe faste;
95 And in my slep I mette, as that I lay,
96 How Affrican, ryght in the selve aray
97 That Scipion hym say byfore that tyde,
98 Was come and stod right at my beddes 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 huntere, slepynge in his bed,
100 To wode ayeyn his mynde goth anon;
101 The juge dremeth how his plees been sped;
102 The cartere dremeth how his cart is gon;
103 The riche, of gold; the knyght fyght with his fon;
104 The syke met he drynketh of the tonne;
105 The lovere 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 not seyn if that the cause were
107 For I had red of Affrican byforn,
108 That madde me to mete that he stod there;
109 But thus seyde he, “Thou hast the so wel born
110 In lokynge of myn olde bok totorn,
111 Of which Macrobye roughte 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 blysful lady swete,
114 That with thy fyrbrond dauntest whom the lest,
115 And madest me this sweven for to mete,
116 Be thow myn helpe in this, for thow mayst best!
117 As wisly as I sey the north-north-west,
118 When I began my sweven for to write,
119 So yif me myght to ryme, and endyte!



The Middle English text is that published in The Riverside Chaucer.
“The Dream of Scipio”, translated by Michael Grant, from Cicero: On the Good Life, 1971. Baltimore: Penguin Books..