Female Indecision and Indifference in the Parliament of Fowls
"I wol nat serve Venus ne Cupide,
Forsothe as yit, by no manere weye."
Parliament of Fowls , 652–53
It seems more probable that men really fear, not that they will have women's sexual appetites forced on them, or that women want to smother and devour them, but that women could be indifferent to them altogether, that men could be allowed sexual and emotional—and therefore economic—access to women only on women's terms, otherwise being left on the periphery of the matrix.
Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence"
In the Book of the Duchess , the Black Knight repeatedly details White's "godnesse" (BD 985), the virtue that shines forth from her "benygne" (BD 918) face to her perfectly proportioned limbs, as well as from her words and deeds. According to the Knight, moreover, "the goddesse, dame Nature" (BD 871) herself took great pleasure in creating this "chef patron of beaute / And chef ensample of al hir werk" (BD 910–11). In the Parliament of Fowls , the dreamer imagines a very similar manifestation of this ideal woman, again formed and here actually accompanied by the goddess who delights in her own female creation:
. . . Nature held on hire hond
A formel egle, of shap the gentilleste
That evere she among hire werkes fond,
The moste benygne and the goodlieste.
In hire was even vertu at his reste. . . .
The similarity of these conventional descriptions suggests that the courtly lady figured in White, like "the soleyn fenix of Arabye" (BD 982) to whom she is compared, is in some sense to be reincarnated in the formel eagle. Or perhaps the avian metamorphosis denied to Alcyone, that other version of virtuous woman in the Book of the Duchess , is realized in the Parliament in the dreamy resuscitation of the dead wife as a living, talking bird. In any event, the problems that White and Alcyone represent are still at large in what we take to be the later poem, although the exemplary female has come back to life in a rather different plot.
In the Parliament as in the elegy for Blanche, the frustration of the male lover(s) and the impossibility of oneness in heterosexual love are the issues on which the story of the dream turns. But now these conventional incentives to narrative are caused not by the death of a lady who has surrendered "al hooly / The noble yifte of hir mercy" (BD 1269–70) but by the female's refusal or at least deferral of any such whole-hearted and merciful consent. While the lady's resistance is a cliché of much medieval love poetry, it may strike readers of Chaucer as unusual: it is rare enough that women in his secular stories are reluctant to yield to men's sexual importunities, and even in the few instances we do have of female resistance and unavailability, the plot that ensues comes to closure because the lady capitulates (or is forced to capitulate) and/or dies. Indifference is an attitude usually reserved for a few male characters—Troilus, for example, at the end of Book V of Troilus and Criseyde . In the Parliament , by contrast, certain kinds of narrative closure are prominently blocked by the formel eagle's unexpected but sanctioned unwillingness—as yet—to yield. She promises that her consent will come—but in a time outside the bounds of the narrative itself, in a future beyond the ending of the dream and the poem.
Either despite or because of the apparently unique place of the formel eagle in Chaucerian fiction, however, most modern commentators have not considered this female character or her naysaying in much detail, and what literary scholarship to date has said about the formel reveals that notable unevenness of opinion that Chaucerian women seem designed to evoke. Whereas to one scholar she represents "instinctive
femininity" and Chaucer's laudable advocacy of "free choice" for women, "even when the maiden is of such rank that her betrothal is the whole commonwealth's concern," to several others she is indicative of nothing more or less than the narrator's own troubled or amused indecisiveness, his desire to keep an aloof or genial distance from the courtly tradition he critiques or his exploration of "problems of consciousness." Despairing in the face of such critical disarray, at least two scholars have recently argued that the real reason for the formel's indecision is as impossible to determine as the motives for Chaucer's own "no doubt . . . deliberate ambiguity." Others have suggested that the formel's indecision, ambiguous as it and she may be, is simply not to be taken very seriously. According to D. S. Brewer, the point of the poem "lies in the humour and interest of various attitudes to or ideas about love, and not in whom the formel will choose." David Lawton hypothesizes that the formel could be judged "in the wrong" for seeking "an escape from love, an escape from experience," but then dismisses his own suggestion as "too heavy an interpretation"; the Parliament is, as Nature puts it, merely
an "entremes," a game, "an inconclusive trifle, a polished inconsequentiality."
While I share the dissatisfaction that several scholars have expressed with the available readings of the formel, I argue that the typical invocation of indeterminacy and play too easily obscures both the importance of the female character and the narrative and ideological problem of gender difference in this poem. The formel's indecision, I suggest, is finally neither ambiguous nor inconsequential; it is in fact both explicable and crucial to serious social and poetic contexts in which this poem can be situated. The centrality of the female eagle's particular role here is suggested, from the outset, by the way in which the Chaucerian story characteristically marshalls and deploys one of its chief sources. As Willard Farnham has shown, the plot of the Parliament is based on the common folktale of the "contending lovers" type. The fact that the lady herself (rather than another judge) is asked to choose among rival suitors, although uncommon in Western versions of the tale, is by no means original; it is derived from the Oriental form of the story called the svayamvara . The subsequent failure of the lady or any one else to make a choice, on the other hand, is not usually found in the svayamvara but is a feature of what Farnham terms all "uncorrupted" Western versions. The Chaucerian dream-vision thus yokes two elements from different strains of the folk story in order to bring to the fore and conjoin two issues in the formel's role: first, the element of "female self-choice"; second, the lady's inability or unwillingness to make that choice. The formel's indecision, moreover, is made more prominent and troubling by comparison with the poem's sources. For whereas in other Western versions textual closure is effected in various ingenious ways (ranging, according to Farnham, from the stellification of the lady and her suitors to the woman's decision to marry them all), the formel eagle's choice, at the end of the Parliament of birds, is merely postponed for a year; and the poem's openness to interpretation is thereby made to seem the final point of it all.
In his study of the "contending lovers" tales, Farnham also observes with some puzzlement that the literary convention of the svayamvara seems unrelated to social reality; the representation of female self-choice persists in this Oriental type, he points out, "in spite of the usual belief that woman in the East plays but a small part in the making of her own marriage." This phenomenon is not so hard to account for as Farnham seems to believe, however, and should by no means be construed as evidence of the literary tale's irrelevance to historical reality. Many social codes declare female sexuality more or less illegitimate in a variety of ways, but, as we know, laws serve to define crimes; sometimes the historian's only evidence of subversive behavior may be the statutes against it. The widespread and insistent denial of the female's rights of choice and consent in marriage might suggest that females keep insisting that they do have rights, or that something about those rights is perceived, and not just in "the East," as fundamentally threatening to social order. It should hardly surprise us to find a literary genre reworking a problem that "usual belief" conceals and that the norms of society cannot resolve or contain. In the Parliament , the narrator's dream rehearses a conventional plot that turns the attention of fiction to the problem of female desire and consent in a situation where males are fixed in the position of competitors for the scarce resource of the noblewoman's hand in marriage. The Western type of the story also links the problem of female desire to the problem of poetic closure, so that the disruption of the text mimics the disruption of the social order that real female power to choose a marital partner would bring about.
But such a story, like any narrative, may both identify and contain or resolve threats to the dominant ideology, and we see these operations, too, in the Parliament . What could more clearly reinforce female silence than to arrange the elements of a familiar tale in the way the Chaucerian dream-vision does, giving the woman a voice that she herself is unable or unwilling to use to bespeak her own desire? Turning from its traditional folk sources to a more detailed consideration of its complex textual and contextual particularities, I suggest that the Parliament of Fowls confronts one historical manifestation of the problems of women's choice and Woman's voice by staging a conflict between feudal and courtly matrimonial models that centers on their apparently opposing construc-
tions of the female subject. In fact, however, these competing ideologies turn out to have one thing in common: their efforts to manage the paradoxical place of female sexuality in medieval culture, to deny and thereby control women's desires at the same time that they compel the myth of natural heterosexuality on which (aristocratic and masculine) identity and discourse alike depend. My reading of this poem will also suggest some possible answers to the question of why female desire is such a frightening, disruptive possibility for masculine identity in the theoretically heterosexual, male-dominated worlds that the poem evokes. In the concluding section of the discussion I shall consider on one hand the narrator's identification, throughout, with the female character and with certain feminine strategies and on the other hand his crucial difference from the formel, through which he continues the task of recuperating the feminization of the poet's position and laying claim to an individual authorial voice.
She / Shal han right hym on whom hire herte is set.
By these authorities, it is evident that no woman should be coupled to anyone except by her free will.
Gratian, Decretum in corpus iuris canonici , trans. John T. Noonan
Like the Book of the Duchess , the Parliament of Fowls begins with the retelling of a story from the book that the narrator was reading just before he fell asleep. This time, the text is the Somnium Scipionis , the Ciceronian work known to the Middle Ages only through its inclusion in another framing text, Macrobius's commentary. David Aers has recently argued that a female voice or a feminine principle is precisely what has been silenced or suppressed in Scipio's univocal vision, and that this omission is exposed in the narrator's characteristically dialogic, subversive dream. On the face of it, there are good textual grounds for such a reading. If
we begin to analyze the dream-within-the-book along the lines that the poem itself proposes (99–105) as a projection or replay of the dreamer's waking preoccupations, we note Scipio's obsession with both his distance from and return to the father and the voice of male authority. The hero's place in the patriarchal state, by virtue of his descent through the male line, is confirmed when he is welcomed joyfully to "Affrik" by his grandfather's friend and ally, Massynisse (see 36–40). In contrast to the source text, this version seems to contain no generational conflict among men. In the dream that follows, the surrogate (grand)father Massynisse is replaced by the true male ancestor, "Affrycan so deere" (41), who also embraces the son with joy. But this model of the felicitous transmission of male authority and the achievement of transcendence depends on the suppression of a female or feminine presence; Scipio's vision of order opens with a glimpse of the destruction and violence it is founded on, when "from a sterry place, / . . . Affrycan hath hym Cartage shewed, / And warnede hym beforn of al his grace" (43–45).
In legend, Carthage is the city ruled by Dido, who represents in Virgilian tradition the lure of the feminine (within and without) that the properly masculine hero and founder, Aeneas, is destined to confront
and overcome. In the dream of Scipio as retold in the Parliament , the confrontation is declared over. Male hegemony and patriarchal authority leading to a triumph for the privileged few over both temporality and mortality—"joye . . . that last withouten ende" (49)—are explicitly based on the alleged conquest and destruction of the feminine place, the city ruled by a female who is both ruler and lover. But then two females with precisely these functions reappear undefeated in the narrator's answering, revisionary, subversive dream: Nature and Venus. The vision of the Parliament thus seems to stage quite clearly the return of what Scipio is said to have conquered or repressed; the dreamer wakes up in a garden of love ruled by two powerful female divinities and then witnesses the Parliament in which an alternative version of the quest for "commune profyt," organized under the gracious lady Nature's authoritative control, is centered on and then disrupted by the alluring female for whom three aristocratic males contend.
I submit, however, that the garden of love imagined here cultivates no simple alternative to the patria , no essentially female voice or positively feminine counterprinciple that neatly contrasts with, complements, or corrects Scipio's vision. The Chaucerian dream world may be ruled by Venus and Nature and obsessed with the formel's desirability and power, but it is not a matriarchy, and none of these females is unambiguously a figure of authority. The narrator's dream, as I read it, would preserve much that is valued in Scipio's vision. Africanus, after all, is still the narrator's initial guide, the one who pushes him through the forbidding gate and guarantees him immunity from the risks of love. But once inside the gate, what the dreamer sees about female subjectivity and feminine power does indeed subvert the univocal authority of a patriarchal vision such as Scipio's. As in the House of Fame , the narrator's contest with the older male generation is thus waged over a familiar issue, with specific historical and literary dimensions: the Woman question. His dream suggests that theories of social organization that claim to subordinate and transcend women and deny the instability of gender are at best oversimplifications. The dream world is a garden of love wherein
heterosexual desire is assumed and even elevated to a religion, or at least the central, inescapable subject of secular poetics, and here females and the feminine are not so easily conquered and left behind; they are a troubling and inescapable aspect of male experience. To some extent, the narrator's dream may even interrogate the possibility of any essential maleness at all, for, as I shall discuss more fully later, if the male poet projects himself into any figure other than the dreamer himself, it is into his heroine, the formel eagle. All this is not to say, however, that the vision that supplants one crude form of patriarchal hierarchy necessarily means to replace it with a feminist utopia in which gender asymmetry is abolished and women are empowered or revalued.
The garden ruled by Venus and Nature cultivates nothing but contradiction between and within; here, as in all Chaucerian dream worlds, clear relations of difference and similarity constantly dissolve and reform. At first, for instance, there seems to be an obvious contrast between two parts of the terrain, the area surrounding Venus's temple and the hill on which Nature holds the Parliament. We might expect to be able to read this contrast as a lesson in the difference between illicit lust and marital bliss, or, emphasizing the problem of the female subject, between the two faces of Woman—Venus, a terrifyingly seductive Eve, and Nature, a merciful, bodiless Mary. But the truth at once turns out to be more complicated, for the marked opposition of Venus and Nature is laid over contradictions within their respective realms.
Venus's realm is most obviously an unpleasant, disorderly place, and the personifications that the dreamer encounters on the way to her temple are in brazen conflict: "Tho was I war of Plesaunce anon-ryght, / And of Aray, and Lust, and Curteysie" (218–19), and so on. This situation seems troubling to the dreamer, and even his powers of description are beset by contradiction inside the temple, as we see in his contorted depiction of the lack of light in the "prive corner" where the goddess and Richesse are found "in disport" (260): "Derk was that place, but afterward lightnesse / I saw a lyte, unnethe it myghte be lesse" (263–64). The dreamer finds himself with relief returning to the "sote and grene"
place (296) wherein he thinks to find respite from the paradoxes and oxymorons of Venus: "Forth welk I tho myselven to solace" (297). Here, indeed, the gracious and putatively authoritative voice of Nature, as opposed to the partially visible and oblivious body of Venus, seems to keep order, and for several stanzas the dreamer's catalogue replaces the troubled description of earlier lines and imitates the hierarchical containment of difference and diversity that Nature putatively controls (lines 323–64). The events of the Parliament soon disclose, however, that this ideal of rhetorical and social order is as conflicted as any other this dreamer seems able to imagine. The most deeply embedded, problematic, and elaborated contradiction in the dream world subtends the process by which Nature, in the verbal arena of the Parliament, attempts to resolve the opposition between disruptive individual (male) desire and stabilizing class hierarchy while upholding the fundamental given of both the literary genre and the social context of the poem: the principle of female consent to marriage.
Nature opens the Parliament by calling on the royal eagle, who is given first choice because of his rank, "above yow in degre" (364), and then she describes how the proceedings will continue:
"And after hym by ordre shul ye chese,
After youre kynde, everich as yow lyketh,
And, as youre hap is, shul ye wynne or lese.
But which of yow that love most entriketh,
God sende hym hire that sorest for hym syketh!"
And therwithal the tersel gan she calle,
And seyde, "My sone, the choys is to the falle.
"But natheles, in this condicioun
Mot be the choys of everich that is heere,
That she agre to his eleccioun,
Whoso he be that shulde be hire feere.
This is oure usage alwey, fro yer to yeere."
At first glance, these original rules for the Parliament might seem to bespeak, as one critic puts it, "the benevolent and relatively uncomplicated mating system established by Nature." They presuppose a natural heterosexuality that transcends (or underlies) class difference, not to
speak of gender difference; within each rank, it is assumed, males and females will properly desire each other, will desire the same thing from each other, and will usually mate. Proper gender difference reconciled by (or, by the reading I suggest, disguised as) mutuality is articulated in the further presupposition that males choose and females consent to be chosen. Reciprocal desire thus assumed and marriage thus made available and orderly at all social levels, neither individual sexual appetite nor the call for female consent need (theoretically, at least) threaten social hierarchy and order. Nature assures her listeners, moreover, that customary practice sanctions her arrangements (411).
But already Nature's decree admits that the orderly mating for every rank of bird may not be so orderly for every individual: by circumstances or "hap," as she notes, some will win; but then some, no matter what their social standing, will lose. There is also an initial disjunction (introduced by "But" in line 403) between the rule of "hap" (402) and the logic of Nature's benediction (403–4), which rewards according to degree of desire. As the second "But" clause further hints (407), female consent, required as either a final obstacle or an afterthought here, actually represents a fundamental adversative in Nature's social syntax and the fatal flaw in her practical efforts to mate her subjects in hierarchical order. This problem becomes manifest when the formel's theoretical right of "eleccioun" is in fact put into practice at the close of the Parliament and of the dream.
Although announced as part of the rules to begin with, the right of female consent is thoroughly ignored until the debate fails to reach a conclusion, even after the birds of other ranks have joined the discussion. Then, when all else has failed and the Parliament cannot determine which of the three contending males desires the lady more and thus deserves to possess her, Nature reinvokes the policy of female election. Now, however, she recasts what she originally proposed as a general rule as a "favour" she is doing for the formel:
"For sith it may not here discussed be
Who loveth hire best, as seyde the tercelet,
Thanne wol I don hire this favour, that she
Shal han right hym on whom hire herte is set,
And he hire that his herte hath on hire knet:
Thus juge I, Nature, for I may not lye;
To non estat I have non other ye."
It is no longer possible to imagine how Nature's goal in line 628—the gratification of individual male desire—can be universally (or even in most cases) accomplished, since all three royal male birds claim to have their hearts set on possessing the one and only formel. In the very next lines, moreover, Nature contradicts her alleged dedication to the gratification (and reciprocity) of individual desire by suggesting the other "estate" that might have to be taken into account, as she reconfirms her own initial emphasis on the importance of privileging social class above individual desire: "If I were Resoun, certes, thanne wolde I / Conseyle yow the royal tercel take, / As seyde the tercelet ful skylfully" (632–34). Recall that the royal tiercelet's advice that Nature refers to in line 634 was to choose "the worthieste / Of knyghthod, and the lengest had used it, / Most of estat, of blod the gentilleste" (548–50). In this ironic, provisional formulation—"If I were Resoun"—that may in itself open the door for the formel's resistance, Nature goes on to endorse the same choice, and less cryptically identifies just which suitor she means. But the crucial difficulty with this suggestion is that Nature is not Reason, and that in retrospect she seems to be trying to accomplish something irrational, perhaps even impossible, on this Saint Valentine's Day. She wants to accommodate incompatible goals; these reflect historically competing matrimonial codes that appear to differ fundamentally in their strategies for containing female desire and their concomitant construction of female subjectivity.
On the one hand, the advice of Nature and the royal tiercelet, which relies on social hierarchy and is aligned with the rational position here, suggests what we might loosely call a feudal model, one designed to sustain the proper rule of aristocratic families and the principle of patrilineal authority. In its starkest formulation, as prefigured in Scipio's dream, such a model denies that women's desires matter at all to the "commune profyt"; or if they do matter, it is because they threaten and so must be conquered and then ignored. The somewhat softer version of this model that Nature and the tiercelet favor holds that the "commune profyt" is best served when female desires are either in harmony with or subordinated to the social principles of "estat" and "blod the
gentilleste." On the other hand, contesting models, which historically challenged feudalism from various vantages, privilege what the feudal code makes illegitimate or of secondary importance: the right of female consent. The particular brand of antifeudalism here invoked is the courtly, which most dramatically elevates the female as a center of value and power.
Called upon at the climactic moment of the poem to resolve the problem and restore social order by stating her preference, the formel refuses to choose, or, more precisely, asks and is allowed to postpone her decision for a year. Her reason for doing so is not stated, but it is not, I submit, ambiguous or indeterminable. The formel does not choose, the evidence of the poem suggests, because female desire, which appears to be construed in opposing ways by the competing matrimonial models I have referred to as feudal and courtly, is actually precluded by both. For the lady to decide on the grounds of social hierarchy and aristocratic precedence, as the formel is counseled to do by authoritative voices, would be to choose by a model that blatantly illegitimates and disenfranchises female desire. She is more covertly but equally blocked from making a free choice by the courtly code as it is represented here. To support the second and less obvious part of this claim, let me turn now to the central event of the Parliament, the tiercels' debate. A closer consideration of the suitors' position reveals how and why the female is in an important sense no more empowered by courtly ideology than by the feudal model it ostensively challenges.
As all commentators inside the poem and most commentators outside the poem agree, the three suitors do not differ adequately in ways that could resolve the Parliament; it is impossible to determine from their arguments who loves the formel more and who therefore might best arouse and meet her desire. The tiercelet who speaks for the birds of ravine, echoing the general response to the day-long debate (496–97), notes that it would be hard to prove" 'by resoun / Who loveth best this gentil formel heere'" (534–35), and he underscores the rhetorical nature of the competition: "'For everych hath swich replicacioun / That non by skilles may be brought adoun. / I can not se that argumentes avayle . . . '"(536–38).
The highly similar and predictable courtly sentiments that the three contenders express in fact suggest not only that all three birds are equal or indistinguishable in their protestations of love but also and more importantly, for the formel, that none of them actually feels desire for her. What is most notable about the rivals is what they have in common: their self-interest and their desire to compete in a male homosocial arena. Each talks only about himself, about his own irrational and unswerving devotion to the lady (419–20; 479–81); about the danger or promise that he will die if she refuses her mercy or if he is untrue (421–27; 459–62; 469); about his loyalty (428–34; 456–58; 482–83), and increasingly about the superiority of his love to that of other males. The formel's self-centered suitors incrementally reveal their overwhelming interest in outmaneuvering each other; they spend proportionately longer and longer segments of their speeches arguing not so much for their own love as against the claims of the other two. The royal tiercel merely assumes his privileged position and consigns all other contenders to mass anonymity and inferiority: "'And syn that non loveth hire so wel as I'" (435). The second
tiercel's opening words highlight his primary goal, to contest the claims of the socially superior male—"' That shal nat be!'" (450)—and so he changes the terms of comparison from qualitative to quantitative ones: "'I love hire bet than ye don, by seint John, / Or at the leste I love hire as wel as ye, / And lenger . . .'" (451–53, my emphasis). The third tiercel concedes this point but argues for a superlative intensity of experience proved by its self-annihilating and therefore, by familiar illogic, selfaffirming quality: I can't boast of long love, he notes, "'But as possible is me to deye to-day / For wo as he that hath ben languysshyng / This twenty wynter . . . I am hire treweste man'" (471–79).
The third bird's arguments also underscore the even more important point that Nature and the other fowls all indirectly acknowledge: the suitors' motivation is not love or even lust for the formel but entry into a verbal competition with the other rhetoricians. While the first two eagles claim that they will die either if the lady refuses them or if they betray her, the third eagle admits that the really life-threatening possibility is that he will not be able to speak of love and enter into the verbal debate: "'And but I speke, I mot for sorwe deye'" (469).
Finally, it is made dear that at another time, in another dream, this contest might easily become something more than a verbal game, and dying for love might be more than a figure of speech. The potential violence of the suitors' self-centeredness and competitiveness with each other, far more important to them than the formel herself, is glimpsed in the eagerness with which they collectively interrupt the tiercelet of the falcons when he mentions the word "batayle" (539). Perhaps, too, this barely controlled physical aggression of the male suitors retrospectively accounts for the formel's actual response to the first eagle's speech as well as for her subsequent refusal to follow the falcon and Nature in choosing him, or in fact any suitor. When the "foul royal" finishes talking, the formel blushes "for shame" and is rendered speechless, "so sore abasht was she" (444–47). Why is the formel ashamed and afraid to hear of this male desire? J. A. W. Bennett has argued that it is because she is instinctively modest and hence "feminine," while R. W. Frank dismisses her blush as merely conventional. But Nature seems to interpret the
formel's blush as a sign of fear, as she consoles her: "Doughter, drede yow nought, I yow assure" (448). The formel's "drede" makes dramatic sense if indeed she hears the ferocity of her would-be lover's self-interest, as I do; she is humiliated and terrified by the thought that she should submit to the egotistical, potentially violent demands of any such lover or read his self-centered and conventional protestations as a sign of concern for her wishes or well-being. (As Bennett points out, moreover, this female knows her choice is crucial to the "commonwealth," and so she may also fear that she will not be allowed to defer or refuse entry into marriage.)
Force, however, will not be exerted in this garden of love; the dream-vision presents alternatives to the way suggested by Scipio's military conquest of Dido's city. The formel will be allowed to postpone her decision, and in doing so she will bring the Parliament (not to speak yet of the poem) to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. This power of postponement is construed, however, as a fundamentally self-negating power. She is caught in what twentieth-century psychology would describe as a classic instance of a double bind, for whatever she does will in some sense work against her self-interest and reinforce male empowerment in the terms in which it is characterized here.
On one hand, as I have argued, neither the feudal model nor the courtly model enables the formel to choose in this situation without acting against her own interests. To the former, her opinion is irrelevant; the female subject is something easily conquered and put behind, as in Scipio's dream, or something quietly subordinated to the demands of class hierarchy, as in Nature's and the falcon's view. The lady is in effect brought into being, desired, and described as desirable only by the conventions of courtly love. But neither does courtly love offer any viable grounds for female choice or desire; the suitors are all alike and all equally undesirable. Her indecision, then, follows from the fact that both models deny the possibility of meaningful female consent, even as the one seems to legitimate it; to elect any of these suitors, on any of the proposed grounds, would be to relinquish power and subjectivity altogether.
On the other hand, the formel's remaining option—to refuse to choose at all—is in an important sense equally self-negating. Power, in the lit-
erary world of the Parliament as in courtly writing, is explicitly equated with the right to desire and to speak about desire: the courtly male birds exercise this power over the other ranks quite literally by discoursing for an entire day on the subject of their alleged love and so in effect blocking the gratification of the other ranks' desires even as they define and prove their own nobility. It is the verbal expression of aristocratic male desire, then, that differentiates between classes and maintains social hierarchy—male desire that only appears to look outside itself to any referential, historical female object of desire. In the practice that would be inscribed and referenced here, desire is male only, and the formel's only power—the power to deny that she desires at all—in fact confirms this male exclusivity. We are, after all, in Venus's garden, and here love is an institution that as usual turns out to be about male competition and compels female heterosexuality, thus erasing a crucial part of the power to choose that it allegedly confers on women.
The formel's actual words, when she does speak for the first time at the very end of the dream, substantiate this argument. She again reveals fear, as she speaks "with dredful vois" (658); the first (and now obsolete) meaning of the word "dreadful" is frightened, full of dread. Before revealing her answer, she both reassures Nature of her subjection—" 'I am evere under youre yerde' "(640)—and asks for a special "bone" (643). Assured of Nature's protection, the formel first makes her request for a year's "respit" (648) to think it over. The perceived enormity of this "bone" is suggested by her unprovoked insistence that she will say no more:" 'This al and som that I wol speke and seye. / Ye gete no more, although ye do me deye!' " (650–51). While by other readings her claim that she will defend her silence to the death might look overly self-dramatizing, by my reading this comment is not an idle threat or a rhetorical pose, but an accurate description of the situation. The formel has nothing to say except to postpone her desire, to defer her speech; when she says that she will speak no more, even if she is killed for her resistance, she is not proclaiming her courage as much as her lack of subjective power, of self-possession: "ye gete no more" simply because there is no more.
Before Nature can reply, moreover, the formel speaks two final lines that emphasize both what she is firmly resisting—conscription into the
ideology of love—and the temporary nature of her resistance: " 'I wol nat serve Venus ne Cupide, / Forsothe as yit, by no manere weye (652–53). The power the formel exerts here, a power that at once frightens and emboldens her, is expressly ephemeral and promises retraction. The "as yit" pledges her to a deferred submission that sits oddly but inevitably with the expressed strength of purpose and conviction that embeds it: "Forsothe . . . by no manere weye." The specifically temporal and temporary nature of her resistance highlights what the formel sees and wants to sustain: the power of being the desired one, which is automatically and paradoxically foreclosed when that desire is reciprocated. It is therefore a power that recognizes and exploits to the lady's ends the real lack of mutuality in courtly ideology, but it cannot formulate a lasting alternative, a narratable story of female subjectivity outside marriage, or an unconstrained form of female desire. Thus we see again the common denominator linking ideologies that seem to be differentiated above all by their treatment of the female and their valuation of the feminine. The narrator's dream, like the courtly model of heterosexuality that it privileges (even as it critiques it), allegedly gives a voice to the woman in direct opposition to Scipio's dream and the feudal, male-dominated model; but like the Wife of Bath and so many others, this voice can speak only of its own silence. The formel's situation in this way also bespeaks what modern scholars tell us about historical reality. There is no secular place outside heterosexual relations for the aristocratic medieval woman; as Ann Haskell puts it, "life for women of the gentry was synonymous with marriage."
Such a reading of the Parliament of Fowls may at the same time provide terms for analyzing why no available vision of social order can permit the female to desire and why this prohibition itself constitutes a problem and reveals a frightening possibility, for the courtly model in particular. The formel's voice may be "dredful" (638) in the second and now more familiar sense of the term as well. Full of fear for itself, it is also a formidable voice that terrifies and awes others, striking dread into the hearts of the dominant males; for their maleness, both constituted and constrained by the rules that give the formel the right to choose, is
seriously problematized by the formel's indecision. Essentially undifferentiated as individuals, the three courtly suitors need to define themselves as males and to establish at once their collective similarity and their individual superiority through the possession of the most desirable (because most desired) female. As the double usage of the word suggests, "identity" contains an irresolvable paradox: it means and depends on both a core difference, a uniqueness that is construed as the self, and a similarity with others that situates and directs the individual in the material and social world. Like White, the formel is presented as the only object available that affirms masculine identity, in both senses: individual subjectivity and empowerment articulated (she is mine, not yours, and I am more manly than other men because I possess her), and common manhood proved (I am a man, like all others, because I desire her). Courtly discourse conceals this way in which the female is at once objectified and neglected because to reveal it, it seems, is dreadful; it calls into question both the stability and independence of masculinity, just as the narrator's dream undermines the foundations of Scipio's vision. And so in the suitors' conventional rhetoric we hear the ostensive granting of power to the awesome object of desire: she is "my soverayn lady" (416), and the three vow truly "to serven hire" and her alone forever, to surrender themselves completely to her "whos I am al" and to give her the power of life and death over them.
The formel, backed as it seems unwittingly by her powerful patroness, Nature, calls their bluff. In refusing to choose a lover, the formel simultaneously resists functioning as an object of exchange and prolongs the brief period, before consent is given, during which she is at least temporarily empowered to do what the rhetoric says she can do. By choosing not to exercise the illusory power of consent—by choosing not (as yet) to play her inevitable role in the masculine game of courtly love—the formel momentarily reveals and extends her dreadful power to disrupt the game, to thwart male desire if not indefinitely, in this case, then at least for a substantial period. Courtly love is all but undone, in this plot, by the female subjectivity it has, for other reasons, brought into being.
This power is, as I have said, in the main a "negative" power for the female in that it negates her subjectivity and power, too, in the terms by
which subjectivity and power are culturally defined by the courtly code—it negates her (heterosexual) desire. In order to resist the compulsion to desire and thus to make a man, she must deny that she desires; she must speak silence and figure absence. There is, however, another, possibly more long-lived, threat to masculine identity and power that the formel and her indecision can suggest: the possibility that women might never desire men: not that a woman might threaten the male with both the excess (rampant sexuality) and the lack (castration) that male authorities from Jerome to Freud are often thought to have feared, but that she might be indifferent to masculine desire, not loving any man at all. Nevertheless, she might desire something, might be a speaker, might have a story. This possibility and the challenge it poses to the ruling (and otherwise competing) ideologies of love and gender relations are alluded to earlier in this poem when the dreamer looks further into the temple of Venus, beyond her reclining body and the two young supplicants kneeling at her bedside, to a wall where the broken bows of former maidens devoted to chastity are hung "in dispit of Dyane the chaste" (281). Venus's rule is quite literally backed up by these signs of her triumph over Diana, who represents the possibility and the threat of female resistance to the institution of heterosexual desire. The catalogue of painted stories that the narrator immediately goes on to describe tellingly begins, too, with women who try to be indifferent to the love of men and succeed only long enough to make Venus's victory worthy of the name: Callisto, a follower of Diana, and Atalanta, wounder of the Calydonian boar, "And many a mayde of which the name I wante" (287). (The sense in which the narrator "wants" the names of resisting maidens—lacks them or desires them—remains open to discussion.)
It seems highly possible that the formel might indeed be one of Diana's many nameless followers, who wish never to love any man. She might be satisfied, moreover, by her present preeminent position, presumably a chaste one, as Nature's most beautiful creation. She sits, after all, on Nature's hand, and is caressed by the goddess: "Nature hireself hadde blysse / To loke on hire, and ofte hire bek to kysse" (377–78). The
wonderful and powerful Nature has trained the formel to believe that she is supremely beautiful, virtuous, and desirable in and for herself, and has showered her with admiring looks and kisses. Why should the formel desire, instead of this divine adoration by one of her own sex, any of the three egotistical, scrappy eagles who care only for themselves, for each other, and for the prestige of possessing her? The likelihood that the formel desires none of her male suitors, that she is indifferent to heterosexual love, implies a more threatening power than the momentary power of postponing a consent that she will eventually have to give. The possibility that women may not desire men undermines the naturalization of heterosexuality and marriage—to a man or to Christ—for all medieval women and is an important part of the problem of Woman that subtends those competing ideologies, the courtly code of ideal love and the aristocratic code of social order, that together bicker and attempt to rule the day.
But this observation gives rise to the further question that I explore in the following section: if the formel's indecision is, as I have argued, both determined by and seriously threatening to the dominant ideologies of gender and class relations, what then is the signficance of the oft-noted and characteristic similarity between the female character and the male narrator, who "has difficulty with decisiveness himself" and has allegedly projected his "state of mind" onto the unlikely figure of a nubile female bird?
To rede forth hit gan me so delite,
That al that day me thoughte but a lyte.
For metonymic deferral, postponement or putting off ironically represents the traditional feminine posture whenever a question of inter(dis)course arises.
Domna C. Stanton, "Difference on Trial"
In the Parliament , the narrator seems less fully or personally characterized than in any of the other dream visions, especially within the dream itself, where he is less a participant than a spectator—or in this case an eaves-dropper. Even the little he tells us about the sounds of the dream world and his response to them, however, is highly suggestive; and key elements of this narrator's self-representation are notable, to begin with, in the interplay of two terms, "voice" and "noise," which come to be aligned, respectively, with order, authority, the thing that the narrator seems to want, as opposed to disorder, subversion, the thing that the narrator says he has and doesn't want. When the dreamer describes his first visit to the pleasant part of the garden (where Nature rules, and later the Parliament is held), the key words "voice" and "noise" are not in opposition. Both are at this point associated with the harmony and accord of a Golden Age. A good part of his initial joy in the garden comes from the sounds of literally and figuratively distant, higher, and highly ordered realms and beings. From every branch, for instance, he hears birds sing "with voys of aungel in here armonye" (191). He also perceives what is usually taken to be the music of the spheres, described as "instruments of strenges in acord" (197), and so too elements of nature are in aural accord: the wind in the trees makes "a noyse softe / Acordaunt to the foules song alofte" (202–3). All this evokes in aural terms the possibility of an appealingly transcendent, organized vision like Scipio's; at the outset of the dream we thus see, as I noted before, the narrator's partial attraction and affinity to the dreams of the patria .
Just as Scipio's vision is problematized, however, so too the dreamer's initial acoustic perceptions of delightful harmony are soon disrupted. In Venus's realm, the only sounds he hears come from below, not from above; they are human, but subverbal and tangible: "sykes hoote as fyr . . . engendered with deseyr" (246–48) or those unheeded cries of the two lovers who kneel before the reclining Venus. When he returns to the "sote and grene" place where Nature holds court and listens to the birds in this garden at doser range, they no longer sing like angels. They can do more than sigh or weep with desire; in fact, they speak (usually) like recognizable types of human beings, and cacophony replaces the music of the spheres.
Notably, once human language enters into the soundtrack of the dream, the original notion of "a noyse softe" becomes oxymoronic; as in most usages of the term "noise," the word henceforth becomes associated with loud, harsh, discordant, and meaningless strains. For instance, when he first hears the birds who have come to Nature's court to choose their mates, their noise literally takes up geographical space and threatens to displace—and perhaps crush—the dreamer himself:
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr. and tre, and every lake
So ful was, that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
The next time the birds speak out as a group, immediately after the tiercels' debate, the effect of synesthesia recurs. Their noise again seems to the narrator to have tangible consequences, and his description reveals a sense of widespread violence and fragmentation, as well as personal displacement: "The noyse of foules for to ben delyvered / So loude rong, 'Have don, and lat us wende!' / That wel wende I the wode hadde al toshyvered" (491–93).
In both of the passages I have just quoted, "noyse" as the dreamer uses the term refers to the powerful, even violent clamor of the many for deliverance from a state of oppression identified here as sexual frustration. When Nature subsequently uses the word "noyse," part of her effort to control the power of the crowd's desire entails some semantic shifting, which may clarify what is implicit in the dreamer's response to the forceful din of the group. She authorizes her own univocal judgment by characterizing the noise of desire and class contention as the con-
straining, oppressing force from which she will liberate her subjects—"'Hold youre tonges there! / And I shal sone, I hope, a conseyl fynde / Yow to delyvere, and fro this noyse unbynde"' (521–23)—by delegating one voice to speak the collective opinion of each group (524–25). The narrator, moreover, now reserves the term "voice" to describe single, authoritative speech—Nature speaks "with facound voys" (521). The Falcon also uses "voys" to reaffirm his authority in response to the three tiercels' interruption, in hopes of battle: " 'Oure is the voys,' "he says in the royal first person plural," 'that han the charge in honde' "(545). The prelinguistic harmony of noise and voice, the many and the one, unruly desire and meaningful speech, is lost. The single voice (sometimes speaking for a plural class) of authority, supposedly liberating or not, cannot enforce silence on the crowd; social order keeps dissolving into the noise of unruly sexual desire, just as alignments within the dream world keep slipping and reconfiguring, dimaxing in the final disquieting anticlimax of indecision.
A return of harmony and accord—many voices making a pleasant, polite, cooperative noise—allegedly doses the Parliament with the necessary stability and accord that the failed debate and the formel's indecision threaten. After Nature has given all the other birds "his make / By evene acord" (667–68) and before the grateful, loving couples depart, the fowls honor Nature with "a roundel" (675). The sound of the birds' desire is now organized aesthetically, by convention; the singers are "chosen" birds, the tune ("note") they sing is "imaked . . . in Fraunce" and has "wordes" and "vers," and the whole performance restores the notion of customary rule, the status quo: "As yer by yer was alwey hir usaunce" (673–79). Some modern readers have been dissatisfied, however, by the closural effect of the rondel. And in fact, modern editorial practice obscures just how unclosed the poem may be: only one late manuscript actually includes the complete words of the rondel (lines 680–92), which Skeat first ordered and added to the printed edition and which all subsequent editions have inserted. Quoted or not, moreover, the harmonious, artificially ordered and selectively voiced noise of the
rondel does not close the dream. The song is actually followed by the "shoutyng" (693) of the birds as they fly away to mate, and it is this final raucous, nonverbal ejaculation of sound that wakens the dreamer and sends him without further comment back to his literary quest for a certain something—"and yit I rede alwey. / I hope, ywis, to rede so som day / That I shal mete som thyng for to fare / The bet . . . "(696–99).
At the end of the poem, then, in the face of all this noise, the narrator's own voice cannot express a single choice or speak a clear verdict. Whether we seek his judgment in what the figure of the poet says or in what the poem does, it is hard to find a certain message; the narrator's last gesture is one of deferral and postponement that appears to provide no definitive solution and that promises only continuation after the end of the story. As other commentators have observed, then, this narrator, who "has difficulty with decisiveness himself," resembles none other than the formel eagle. Once more the figure of the poet aligns his position with that of the female character and thus confronts, even perhaps parades, something feminine in his own makeup. The familiar site of the quest for meaning and certainty is the particular place where the poet and the woman meet: hence the commonality of the narrator's position at the end, in the midst of a nebulous and unsuccessful search for "that thyng that I wolde," "som thyng for to fare / The bet" (698–99) and the formel's, her explicitly unexplained, implicitly overdetermined inability to make a choice. Here the feminization of the writer's position—his inability to be sure, or to act, his disconcerting failure to lay claim to his patrilineal heritage of single truth—is most markedly foregrounded, and here poetic and feminine strategies, delay and indecision, look, as I have said, quite similar.
Like other narrators in similar positions, however, this one finally resists the likeness that threatens to merge into identity with the female character. The narrator's situation, as he seeks to define it, is significantly differentiated from that of the formel in two obvious but crucial respects, and his subversive indecision is thereby modulated, his antiauthoritarian instability restabilized in a characteristic way by these differences. First,
he himself claims not to be desired; he stands firmly outside the world of love and sexuality, and his lack of difference from women is recuperated as indifference to heterosexual love. Second, he nevertheless feels desire of a particular sort: not sexual desire, he alleges here, but the desire he insistently associates with reading "olde bokes." In concluding this discussion, I want to go over some familiar territory and underscore the salient characteristics of the figure of the poet we see constructed in the Parliament . The portrait I examine will not, on the surface, look different from the one most readers observe. But now I want to evaluate the significance of this self-portrait in terms of other questions: how "open" is the poem to the entry of the female voice? If Chaucer is to be read as subversive here, is he critical of all dogmas, including dogmatic assumptions about gender difference? What, again, is the function of the narrator's characteristic resemblance to the female character, and if this resemblance breaks down, as it has in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale , the Book of the Duchess , and the House of Fame , then where does it do so, specifically, and why?
The narrator situates himself from the beginning in a place explicitly on the margins of the world he ostensively evokes and celebrates in the dream, even more firmly and willfully outside the institution of heterosexual love than in the Book of the Duchess or the House of Fame . Only one stanza into the poem, for example, he hastens to point out that his understanding of the conventional oxymorons of love—its "dredful joye"—is not based on any personal experience: "For al be that I knowe nat Love in dede, / Ne wot how that he quiteth folk here hyre . . ." (8–9). The beginning of the dream emphasizes again precisely this point. Africanus brings the dreamer to a gate bearing two inscriptions "of ful gret difference" (125), messages which re-mark the well-known and terrifying paradox within the garden of love; this way lies bliss, this way
lies "mortal strokes" (135). As in the first stanza of the poem (see line 7), the narrator at first stresses his unknowingness and paralysis in the face of such a dilemma: "No wit hadde I, for errour, for to chese, / To entre or flen, or me to save or lese" (146–47). His experience obviously prefigures the inability to choose that we will see later in the Parliament, when the formel eagle confronts a true dilemma. But already the confusing message on the gate turns out to represent a false dilemma for the male narrator. The contradiction it signals is not resolved, but simultaneously reinforced and avoided, when Africanus pushes him through the gate with the reassurance that the inscription simply doesn't apply in his case: "'this writyng nys nothyng ment bi the . . . For thow of love hast lost thy tast, I gesse'" (158–60).
The narrator does not directly claim any particular happiness or power—or any proof of masculinity—for himself as an indifferent man, or a nonlover, and Africanus compares him to a "sek man" (161), a weakling who "may nat stonde a pul" (164). The dreamer's perception of the birds' noise at the beginning of the Parliament, in lines 312–15, aptly sums up his anxious relation to the heterosexual desire assumed by the conventions of fin amors: he feels both hemmed in and pushed out, helplessly trapped and isolated inside a violent world where he fears there may be no place for him to stand. But at the same time there are clear benefits, given the nature of love depicted here, to his self-diagnosed disability. Or to put it in another way, at the same time that the poem registers so self-consciously the narrator's liabilities as a man and a lover, other aspects of the work convert them into assets. While he proposes no common bond with the young, aristocratic suitors, whose rhetoric is exposed for the particular illusions and anxieties it covers, he is still able to profit from the protective, educative relation with the male father figure, Africanus, who comes to give him, like Scipio Minor, a vision, or at least a push into the center of the excitement, when he would otherwise be frozen outside by his own fears and incapacities. Inside the garden he finds no single alternative realization of the "commune profyt," but he does find the compensatory thing that Africanus
initially promises him and challenges him, in effect, to use, and that the poem itself represents: a text, a subject matter for writing: "'And if thow haddest connying for t'endite, / I shal the shewe mater of to wryte'" (167–68).
Both before and after the dream, moreover, the narrator still experiences what he repeatedly represents, here and elsewhere, as perhaps his most prominent characteristic: an odd satisfaction with his ungratified state of arousal, a formative desire yoked above all to his engagement with texts. He has already told us, repeatedly, that he is an eager reader, just like the narrators of the other dream-visions. But in the others, especially in the Book of the Duchess and the House of Fame , reading old books is presented more plausibly as a compensatory activity, an anodyne for the narrator's own eight-year spell of lovesickness, perhaps, or a substitute for something that might just still be attained. The eagle, for instance, describes the dreamer as one who serves Love "Withoute guerdon ever yit " (HF 619, my emphasis). By contrast, the Parliament presents reading, thematically and structurally, as the primary activity, neither a remedy for nor a distraction from love nor merely analogous to it. When the narrator announces at the very beginning of the poem his own lack of experience in love, he also points out that his alleged obsession with the subject comes from reading: "Yit happeth me ful ofte in bokes reede . . ." (10). In the pointedly aimless meandering of the opening stanzas, the narrator veers quickly away from the discussion of love broached in lines 11–14 and back to the subject of his reading: "Of usage—what for lust and what for lore— / On bokes rede I ofte, as I yow tolde. / But wherfore that I speke al this?" (15–17).
Characteristically bemused by his own forgetful ramblings, he answers his question by introducing what he will eventually identify as the particular occasion upon which he read the dream of Scipio:
. . . Nat yoore
Agon, it happede me for to beholde
Upon a bok, was write with letters olde,
And therupon, a certeyn thing to lerne,
The longe day ful faste I redde and yerne.
But still, before we learn the name of the book and find out why this particular reading experience is storyworthy, the narrator loops back to the question of reading in general. In perhaps the most revered and
frequently quoted passage from the poem, he offers an early celebration of the pleasures of the text, with an emphasis on the radical escape from temporality that is the cause and effect of his delight. To anticipate a point I shall make more fully below, note that it is thus an escape that stands in direct contrast to the formel's contract with time:
For out of olde feldes, as men seyth,
Cometh al this newe corn from yer to yere,
And out of olde bokes, in good feyth,
Cometh al this newe science that men lere . . .
To rede forth hit gan me so delite,
That al that day me thoughte but a lyte.
The pleasure of reading, which makes time fly, is by no means depicted as a frivolous retreat here. When the daylight fails and the reader must leave his book and go to bed, he falls asleep (after some time) "for wery of my labour al the day" (93). The first thing that happens in the dream is that an outside observer confirms the narrator's representation of himself as a devoted and hard-working reader. Africanus begins by explaining that the vision he brings will be a reward for toil as a reader, "'In lokynge of myn olde bok totorn'" (110). At the end of the dream, the narrator reaffirms nothing except his serious and all-absorbing commitment to the morally improving task of reading, even where the exact moral goal remains unstated or ineffable. Providing no summary comment on the significance of his dream, no clue to his own interpretation of its meaning, he simply describes himself, once again, as a hopeful and disciplined reader. Consider again the final lines, to which I have referred earlier:
And with the shoutyng, whan the song was do
That foules maden at here flyght awey,
I wok, and othere bokes tok me to,
To reede upon, and yit I rede alwey.
I hope, ywis, to rede so som day
That I shal mete som thyng for to fare
The bet, and thus to rede I nyl nat spare.
His parting gesture of deferral is accompanied by a restatement of what we already know—that the narrator likes to read—and what we still aren't clearly told—precisely why he is so driven to books, what it
is he is working so hard to find. The state of the ending here recalls the conclusion of the Book of the Duchess , with its anticlimactic climax, reiterating the already known ("She ys ded") and at the same time providing no summative message of consolation before or after the dreamer awakes and the poem suddenly ends. Here, too, the narrator seems utterly untroubled by the fact that nothing has apparently been proved by the dream, or by the poem, except his failure to find the definitively indefinite "thyng that I wolde." The apparent incompletion of the House of Fame produces much the same effect, a sense that we are both missing something and seeing all there is or ever will be to see, something important, something that signifies in itself.
This odd, characteristically Chaucerian conclusion to the Parliament is read by modern critics as either a sign of failure or a mark of political or aesthetic open-endedness. Yet neither explanation is completely satisfactory if we view the enterprise of the poem as not only the putative search for some moral or intellectual authority, but also the ongoing self-inscription and self-authorization of what we have come to know as the individual author of the signed work, the figure of a secular, vernacular poet with both an authoritative public place to stand and a private, individual vision to record, a personal relation to literary convention. This poem is framed by the clearly obscured self-portrait of the fictive author we are coming to know well, one who loves old books even as he resists subjection to their authority and who thereby lays claim to an unfocused desire that makes living and speaking possible: "I redde and yerne" (21); "yit I rede alwey. / I hope . . ." (696–97). The gratification he experiences, the end (the goal and the terminal point) of reading / writing, is represented here as quest rather than attainment; as in all the dream-visions, the disquieting dream quite literally provides nothing more or less than the original substance of his own speaking. Without
complaint, the narrator postpones, not just for a year but for some explicitly indefinite period of time, the achieving of his quest; finality and certainty are thus both vaguely promised ("som day . . . to fare / The bet") and infinitely deferred ("I rede alwey. / I hope . . . som day . . ."). The ambiguity, the vagueness, and the delay again are posited here as the source of pleasure, not the obstacle to it that they represent in the natural world of the Parliament.
The place where the narrator stands in the Parliament is thus the same site for the author that, as Jesse Gellrich observes, is explicitly staked out in the House of Fame: a fictive position of real and subversive power that rejects "the Book of the past" for "his own text," to be constructed out of imaginative engagements with old stories of all sorts. Or as David Lawton argues, "The narrator in the final stanza is entirely satisfied and in harmony with his books and his dream." "Nothing," Lawton says, "could be more straightforward or more affirmative than the conclusion that art is superior to love." But such an authorial position and such an aesthetic affirmation entail a dear demarcation of the male narrator's difference from the female character he also resembles. The figure of the poet who yearns with a desire that is not (or not only) heterosexual or erotic is also the figure that at once brackets and occludes the threat to closure that the woman's lack of complicity always poses to both lovers and poets of love.
The difference between the temporally limited postponement sought by the formel and the narrator's more open-ended deferral suggests the crucial distinction between the power claimed for women, on one hand, and for the author, on the other. Unlike the formel, and unlike White, Alcyone, and Dido, the narrator is the unloved one who does not face, either sooner or later, conscription into the ideology of love. A poet looking for a voice, he dreams of the nightmarish noise produced by heterosexual desire, fixed in the dream as a state of suspended frustration, and of the inadequacy of univocal moral or legal models of authority to suppress or control this noise. He also figures for himself a safe place, outside heterosexual love, from which he may at once continue his search for order and, at a comfortable remove from its consequences, actually profit from the inevitable failure of the quest, which spurs on
the desires he identifies as useful and gratifying to himself as reader and writer.
By contrast, for all we know, the formel may feel no desire, sexual or textual, at all; she speaks only of deferring desire. Her gesture is thus not one of escape, but one of self-erasure, by the operative definition of selfhood dramatized in the poem, and female desire outside heterosexuality remains only obscurely visible at the edge of representation. Moreover, the woman character cannot forget or transcend temporality; the formel binds herself to time in a way that inevitably cancels her identity. If we project the formel beyond the end of the dream, along the lines she herself lays down, she is contracted to relinquish the power that she has temporarily seized. If we read no further than the closing moment of indecision, she is fixed forever in her indifference, like the images in Venus's temple, and hence ejected from (the) narrative beyond a certain point. Western literature tells stories about indifferent women chiefly if they are subsequently willing or forced to comply—and certainly these are the stories that Chaucerian fiction continues to retell, the stories of defeated Amazons (like the Knight's Emily), happily married victims of rape (like the Merchant's Proserpina), and reluctant paragons who are finally merciful (like White). But for indifferent men, the story is otherwise; Chaucer is one of the first writing in English in that long line of transcendent (male) artists whose moral posture is valued for its supposedly magisterial disinterest and tolerance, its androgyny, possibly, but above all its negative capability.
Both the formel and the narrator confront the impossibility of reciprocal love, which for them at least, chosen or not, represents the unattainability of ideal heterosexual union. The unmanly, unloved male poet constructs in the name of Chaucer a figure of masculine desire on the margins of heterosexuality and is thereby released into a world of resisting reading and the imagination it generates in a quest that many modern critics view as liberating and exemplary. As David Aers sees it, for example, Chaucer's search "is clearly going to be open-ended, finely resistant to authoritative and dogmatic closures of all kinds." By the same confrontation with the impossibility of having anything she might
imaginably want, the desired and desirable female character is in one way or another cast into a troubling silence. What sounds like a female voice again enters and leaves Chaucerian story not as an authoritative speaker, but as a problem. Antecedent systems of thought—in this case, both a classic moment of patriarchal rule and the ongoing discursive tradition of courtly love—are always represented as having failed to solve just this problem, and the narrator's resistance to their authority entails pointing out the errors and omissions in their construction of the female subject. His story nevertheless both rehearses and controls as problem the always unresolved position assigned to Woman, even as it refixes an enabling difference between the male poet and the female character.