In the poet’s dream, Scipio Africanus takes the dreamer from his sleeping chamber to a gate that leads into a park. It is walled with mossy stone. The wall has two poems carved on it, one in gold and the other in black, one on each side of the wall. The sense of the poems is that some men will come into this garden and find peace and happiness, but others will come and find mischance and unhappiness.
The dreamer is afraid of making an error by entering. In the face of this indecision, Africanus counsels him that the verses do not apply to him. Entering this garden and being subject to these warnings are only for the person who is "Loves servaunt" (line 159). Since it has been established that the bookworm dreamer has had no success (and perhaps never will have success) with love, he is exempt from the promise and the warning of these verses. Africanus, in a slightly comedic passage, says that, while the dreamer is dull and not a participant in the affairs of Love, he can, like an infirm man who can enjoy watching a wrestling match, at least witness and record the events of Love, which would give him at least something to write about later.
Africanus takes the dreamer by the hand and draws him into the garden. The garden is supernaturally beautiful, sporting every kind of tree. By a river in a green meadow, there are many birds and beasts of the forest. It is a sort of Shangri-La, where no one can age or sicken. Cupid, the god of love, is forging arrows under a tree beside a spring. Several allegorical characters pass the dreamer–Pleasure, Fair Array, Courtesy, Joy, Deception, Delight, Gentle Breeding, Beauty, Youth, Foolhardiness, Flattery, Desire, Message-sending, and Bribery–in short, all the elements of love and love affairs are here, embodied allegorically.
A temple of brass stands on pillars of jasper. There are dancers around it as well as many pairs of doves. Lady Peace is there along with Lady Patience, Promise, and Cunning. The temple is filled with sounds of lovers sighing, and Priapus. the god of fertility, is within. Venus, in a corner, lounges with her porter Riches. She is reclining on a couch and wearing only a very transparent drape. Stories of many classical characters who remained virgins are painted on the wall, and so are the stories of some who lived lives of debauchery.
The dreamer leaves and returns to the garden, where he sees Dame Nature, the most beautiful allegorical personage he has seen so far, seated on a flowery hill in a grove. She is surrounded by all the birds in the world, and the scene is so crowded that the dreamer barely has a place to stand. Because it is Saint Valentine's Day, the birds are there to choose their mates in the presence of their sovereign lady.
Dame Nature is carrying a particularly beautiful formel (a female eagle), which is being romantically pursued by three tercels (male eagles). Dame Nature hears each of them in turn. First a royal tercel, then two tercels of lower orders, speak of their love and regard for the formel. Each one pledges to be faithful to her and to worship her more as his sovereign lady than as a mate. The debate is inconclusive, and it cannot be determined who loves the formel the best.
The other birds are impatient to leave, and they grow tired of the long-winded discussion. The goose, cuckoo, and duck particularly object, saying that the love affairs of the nobility are not something they should have to hang around and listen to when they have their own mates. The turtledove speaks up, telling the fowls that they shouldn't meddle. Nature replies and calls for the assembled birds to choose a judge.
The tercel-falcon is chosen to be the judge among the tercels for the formel. He determines that the contest cannot be decided by debate; there must be a battle. Though the tercels are ready to fight, a battle does not take place because the goose intervenes and says that the formel herself should choose. Much hilarity ensues as the various species of birds argue. The duck, once again, rails against fidelity in love. The cuckoo, an "unkynde" ("unnatural," line 358) bird, says that all birds should remain single, but the merlin disagrees. After this cacophony, Dame Nature commands silence. Nature decides that the formel must choose for herself.
The formel, in maidenly fashion, says that she cannot make a choice, and she asks for another year to decide. Dame Nature agrees, and the tercels are told to remain faithful to her in hopes of pressing their suits again next year. The other birds all pair off with their mates, and they sing a roundel. This noise wakes the dreamer, and he goes back to his books, hoping to learn something better from them.
While the meaning of the poetry in lines 127-140 is somewhat obscure, we are to believe that Africanus and the dreamer are entering a garden that somehow represents romantic love. Simply by entering, some people will begin to find their greatest joy, but others will find nothing but unhappiness. Again, the conflicting possibilities are Chaucer's gentle irony as he points out the vagaries of human emotion.
The bumbling, unlucky-in-love narrator is not necessarily anything like Chaucer himself; this was a stock character of the unattractive, unfortunate, bookish poet, common in the dream-vision poems of the period. Chaucer uses the character to introduce some light humor. Scipio Africanus himself, a noted lecher in his own time, tells the narrator that he is so far off the charts because of dullness that he is simply disqualified from having to worry about happiness or unhappiness in love. This humorous observation may be to the good, however, because it makes the narrator a more objective observer and, besides, what has a good stoic philosopher to do with the passions? As in The House of Fame, the guide is showing the dreamer-poet some of the affairs and exploits of love so that he gains material to write poems about later.
Though Chaucer has prayed earnestly to Venus many times in his poems, in this poem he makes fun of her as a lazy person and an exhibitionist whose servant is Riches. This is part of a recurring Chaucerian theme, the vanity of human pursuits, here with the twist that the pursuit of human love is often bound up with the pursuit of earthly riches. Chaucer makes clear that he does not approve.
As for the birds, they are distinguished by rank (such as noble and royal, based in large measure on their feeding habits, with the seed-eating birds at the bottom), just as medieval society was divided by rank. Since birds of prey (goshawks, merlins, gerfalcons, and eagles) were used in falconry as hunting birds by the nobility, while certain species (some eagles and gerfalcons) were reserved for use by people only of the highest rank, it is not surprising that Chaucer would put the birds of prey in the top rank of birds. Taken literally, ranking birds would seem a bit ridiculous (compare the machinations of the lords of the pond in another work filled with animal characters, The Frogs by Aristophanes), but mirroring human social gradations among animals was a recognizable literary trope with some precedent, clearly meant as allegory.
It is not surprising that the tercel-falcon, another bird of prey used in falconry, is chosen as the judge. All the proceedings before Dame Nature are meant, somewhat, to mock the workings of the real English Parliament, which at this time was often engaged in a struggle between the commons and the aristocracy. The speeches and deliberations of the birds do not really change anything. Note that the English term “parliament,” based on a root word meaning “talk,” was new in the 13th century. Rhetoric, as valuable as it is, has usually been subordinated to philosophy.
Meanwhile, in a strong statement of women’s rights, or at least a woman’s rights in love, the conclusion of all the bellyaching is that the formel may choose her mate for herself. No external judge can make the decision. The formel takes the upper hand by saying, like Odysseus’s longsuffering wife Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, that she is not ready to choose. She thus retains control and keeps the males in good form. This maidenly deferment leaves the story unresolved.