Thursday, February 11, 2010

Birdie Love, My Birdie Love

nightingalepheasantfinches_150 unicorn-partridges_150 heronwoodcockmallard_150

Above, from left to right: In The Unicorn is Found, a handsome pair of pheasants has been attracted to the fountain (the larger detail shows two goldfinches and a nightingale perched nearby); two partridges keep company on the bank at the bottom of The Unicorn is Attacked; The Unicorn Defends Itself includes a stately heron, and a woodcock and a mallard flying low to the water are visible in the larger detail.

Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte,
Thus syngen smale foules for thy sake:
Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake.
Wel han they cause for to gladen ofte,
Sith ech of hem recovered hath hys make;
Ful blissful mowe they synge when they wake:
Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe
That hast this wintres wedres overshake
And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!

—Excerpt (lines 682–692) from The Parlement of Fowles by Geoffrey Chaucer. For a modern prose translation of the complete work, see: www.umm.maine.edu/faculty/necastro/chaucer/pf/.


In his comic dream-vision, The Parlement of Foules, Chaucer makes poetic play of the fourteenth-century belief that the birds choose their mates on the feast of Saint Valentine, at the season when they first begin to sing. Nature has convened a parliament of all the birds, which the poet attends. Three tercels (male eagles) speak first, in keeping with their high position as the noblest of birds, and make their respective cases for winning a single formel (a female eagle). The birds of the lower orders protest against the eagles’ claims. (Chaucer is careful to differentiate this avian hierarchy: worm-eaters are placed directly beneath the raptors in the trees; seed-eaters are seated on the green and given precedence over the waterfowl, who sit lowest.

Chaucer has the commoner birds voice their objections in a parody of a parliamentary debate. Nature intervenes in the cacophony that results, and allows the formel another year before making her choice between the three tercels, although all the other birds are paired off. At the close of the poem, the birds welcome in the sweet season by singing the round quoted above.

The poem is the earliest reference to the belief that the fourteenth of February is set apart for lovers. While Valentine’s Day is celebrated by the birds in the fourteenth century, men and women choose their valentines in the fifteenth century. The earliest English valentine letter belongs to the copious family correspondence known as the Paston Letters, and was written by Margaret Brews to her husband-to-be, John Paston, in 1477. The seventeenth-century Protestant John Gee referred in a sermon to the practice, among certain Jesuit priests, of celebrating the feast of Saint Valentine by choosing a female saint to be their heavenly valentine for that year. Robert Herrick (1591–1674) refers to both the medieval tradition of the birds’ choosing their mates and the later practice of choosing a lover on that day:

Oft have I heard both youths and virgins say,
Birds chuse their mates and couple too this day:
But by their flight I never can devine
When I shall couple with my valentine.

—Robert Herrick, To his Valentine, on Saint Valentine’s Day

The males of the many European house sparrows that inhabit the gardens of The Cloisters have been cheeping on fine days this month. Chaucer apostrophizes the sparrow as “Venus’ lecherous son.” Notorious for their constant tupping, sparrows have been sacred to the goddess since antiquity. (These birds are as bellicose as they are amorous; W. B. Yeats described them as “brawling in the eaves,” and so they do under our roof tiles.)

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1999.

Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1956.

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Comments (3)

  1. 5oclockteaspoon Says:

    This was a delight to read- informative and filled with lovely imagery.

  2. thea mcginnis Says:

    that was lovely! i so appreciate the beauty of this blog. next time i’m in NY i must come up to visit.

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Please do let me know if you are coming up, Thea.

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