The short proem of The Parliament of Fowls pertains to the poet's feelings about art and love. He argues that life is short, but that learning the art of poetry is very difficult and takes a long time. Love, something that the poet has not personally succeeded at, is his obsession, and he makes poems about love. He has read about it and knows that love is a cruel master, but in his opinion, there is no denying it. Love is and always will be his subject.
The poet reads for pleasure and for learning. One day he came upon an old book. He read it diligently all day long, for he had been told that old books bring new wisdom. The book was of “The Dream of Scipio” by Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, called "Tullyus" in line 31). The story of the Dream is then told by the poet.
Scipio the Younger, an ancient Roman general and senator, has met with the King of Numidia, with whom he is great friends. After a long day with the king, Scipio falls asleep and is visited by his grandfather, the great general Scipio Africanus. Africanus takes his grandson up into the stars and tells him his good fortune. He lectures his grandson on virtue and informs him of the rewards of the virtuous in the afterlife. Scipio the Younger asks earnestly if there is, indeed, an afterlife, and Africanus, who is already among the virtuous dead, tells him that the life we lead is just a kind of death—the true life is after death, in heaven.
Africanus and Scipio observe the heavens and the spheres, and they discuss Stoic philosophy. Africanus abjures Scipio from taking too much delight in earthly things, since earth is so inconsequential compared to heaven. Scipio asks his grandfather how to obtain this heavenly happiness. Africanus instructs him to believe in the immortality of his soul, adding that people who work for the common good are those who will come quickly to heaven. But people who are evil will continue being whirled around the earth in torment until their wickedness has been expunged.
The poet then stopped reading the book and went to bed. He reflects that the nature of his reading material may have affected the dream that came to him later. In the dream, Africanus came to him as well. Africanus told the poet that it was right of him to read the book, which had been transmitted by the extremely partial Macrobius (who had thought the book was perfect). Africanus promised to reward the poet for reading his book.
The poet ends with a supplication to Venus ("Cytherea," line 114), the goddess of love, to help him write the dream truly, as well as to give him the power to create good rhymes.
“The Dream of Scipio” was a highly regarded text in Chaucer's day. Macrobius, a late Roman grammarian, had copied the text of Cicero's work (written about 350 years earlier, in the first century BC) and had added a long, laudatory commentary. Cicero's classical, Republican-era Latin had been greatly admired by Macrobius and was still admired among the later medieval writers. Even more admired was the Stoic philosophy of Cicero, which was focused on the afterlife and the achievement on earth of a common good. This book was of immense influence in Chaucer's time, though it was known only with Macrobius's commentary. Though “The Dream of Scipio” was a philosophical dialogue rather than a poem, the ending of Cicero’s much longer work De re publica, the fact that it was cast as a dream was especially attractive to Chaucer, who had become adept at the popular genre of the dream-poem. Making it figure in his own poem is an homage to Cicero.
The Latin Stoics (heirs of the ancient Greek Stoics) were of great interest to medieval Christians because of their focus on otherworldly values rather than materialism. This philosophical outlook fit well into much of the Christians’ beliefs about a proper Christian life. Though Cicero was a pagan, Chaucer (like St. Augustine 1,000 years earlier) had no difficulty reworking pagan wisdom for Christian purposes.
It was standard Chaucerian practice to begin a dream-vision poem, such as The House of Fame, with the recounting of classical story. In The House of Fame it was Virgil’s Aeneid, and in The Book of the Duchess it was an extract from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Here, in The Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer uses Cicero's “Dream of Scipio.” The classical story provides recognizable plot and themes to attune the reader to the new material presented by Chaucer. Comparing Cicero’s work with The Parliament of Fowls, the parallel is not so clear, but it is important to recognize that Scipio’s dream tells of the nature of the universe, while Parliament tells of the nature of a small part of that universe.
This poem is written in rime royal, a stanza usually consisting of seven lines with the rhyme scheme ABABBCC. The meter is iambic pentameter, or a set of ten-syllable lines made up of five iambs (one short syllable followed by one long syllable). Chaucer introduced the rime royal form into English as a way of elevating the tone of his poems, partially in admiration of the achievements of the Italian poets.