parrot promotes incarnate love in medieval lyric

The ancient Sanskrit masterpiece Seventy Tales of the Parrot {Shuka Saptati} features a parrot shrewd enough to deter a passionate wife from pursuing adultery in her husband’s absence. The parrot, who voices experience in human society and tells earthy stories, challenges simplistic love abstractions.[1] Incarnating love in ordinary life requires extraordinary poetic grace.

The thirteenth-century Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti influentially depicted abstract, gyno-idolatrous love. For example. one of Guido’s pastourelles begins with male gaze upon a woman in tune with nature:

Once within a little grove a shepherdess I spied —
more than any star of sky beauteous did she prove.

Ringlets she had, blonde and curly locks,
eyes filled with love, a face of rosy hue,
and with her staff she led her gentle flocks,
barefoot, with her feet bathed in the dew.
She sang, indeed, as if she were enamored,
and had the glamour of every pleasing art.

I greeted her and asked her then at once
if she had any company that day.
She answered sweetly, “Only now
alone throughout this grove I make me way.”
She added, “Listen, but when the gentle bird is heard,
a lover man should have my heart.”

{ In un boschetto trova’ pasturella
più che la stella – bella, al mi’ parere.

Cavelli avea biondetti e ricciutelli,
e gli occhi pien’ d’amor, cera rosata;
con sua verghetta pasturav’ agnelli;
discalza, di rugiada era bagnata;
cantava come fosse ’namorata:
er’ adornata – di tutto piacere.

D’amor la saluta’ imantenente
e domandai s’avesse compagnia;
ed ella mi rispose dolzemente
che sola sola per lo bosco gia,
e disse: “Sacci, quando l’augel pia,
allor disïa – ’l me’ cor drudo avere.” }[2]

Unlearned and lowly, this woman certainly lacks contempt for male worker bees typed as merely drones. She undoubtedly understands that sweetly singing nightingales are actually male. She wouldn’t have sought to be an epic hero by attacking a snail.

In the context of the sordid history of disparaging men’s penises, the gentle bird is an extraordinary figure of nature’s seminal blessing. The man-narrator understands the shepherdess and hears nature’s call:

And when she told me of her state of mind,
suddenly I heard birdsong in the wood.
I said to myself, “This surely would be the time
to have from this shepherdess what joy I could.”
Favor I requested — just to kiss her face —
and then embrace if she should feel like me.

She took my hand, seized with love’s old power,
and said she’d give me her heart, too.
She led me then into a fresh green bower,
and there I saw flowers of every hue.
And I was filled so full of sweetened joy,
the god of love there too I seemed to see.

{ Po’ che mi disse di sua condizione
e per lo bosco augelli audìo cantare,
fra me stesso diss’ i’: “Or è stagione
di questa pasturella gio’ pigliare.”
Merzé le chiesi sol che di basciare
ed abracciar, – se le fosse ’n volere.

Per man mi prese, d’amorosa voglia,
e disse che donato m’avea ’l core;
menòmmi sott’ una freschetta foglia,
là dov’i’ vidi fior’ d’ogni colore;
e tanto vi sentìo gioia e dolzore,
che ’l die d’amore – mi parea vedere. }

The god of love is a classical personification of sexual desire. The concluding epiphany swerves from the naturalness of sexual intercourse. Incarnate love evanesces into classical abstraction. Their dignity as human beings vanishes.

Guido Cavalcanti wrote many bloodless poems of gyno-idolatry. Not surprisingly, his poetry lacks the sense of the real presence of a beloved woman:

When I am in her presence, something happens
that I cannot tell to the intellect.
I seem to see outgoing from her lips
a lady so beautiful that the mind
cannot comprehend her, so that at once
another is born of her, of new beauty,
from whom it seems a star moves out
and says, “Your salvation has appeared.”

{ Cosa m’aven, quand’ i’ le son presente,
ch’i’ no la posso a lo ‘ntelletto dire:
veder mi par de la sua labbia uscire
una sì bella donna, che la mente
comprender no la può, che ‘mmantenente
ne nasce un’altra di bellezza nova,
da la qual par ch’una stella si mova
e dica: “La salute tua è apparita.” }[3]

In Christian understanding, Mary, the most beautiful of all women, gave birth to the fully masculine Jesus. Then a star appeared and guided wise men to Jesus. The narrator replaces his beloved woman with Mary. Mary then implies that his beloved woman, whom he no longer sees, is his salvation. That’s gyno-idolatry. Moreover, it’s gyno-idolatry that effaces the flesh-and-blood woman right there in his presence.

parrot (head photo)

Dinis, who reigned as king of Portugal from 1279 to 1325, wrote a pastourelle that reverses the abstracting of Guido Cavalcanti’s poetry. A shepherdess carries a parrot, but she speaks to her absent boyfriend:

A shapely shepherd girl
was thinking about her boyfriend
and she was, I’m telling you
from what I saw, very sad.
And she said, “From now on
no woman in love
should ever trust her boyfriend
since mine has wronged me.”

She was carrying in her hand
a very lovely parrot,
singing very lushly,
for the spring was coming in.
And she said, “Handsome boyfriend,
what should I do about love,
since you wronged me so senselessly?”
And she fell among some flowers.

{ Ũa pastor ben talhada
cuidava en seu amigo
e estava, ben vos digo,
per quant’ eu vi, mui coitada,
e diss’: “Oi mais non é nada
de fiar per namorado
nunca molher namorada,
pois que mh o meu á errado”

Ela tragia na mão
un papagai mui fremoso,
cantando mui saboroso,
ca entrava o verão,
e diss’: “Amigo loução,
que faria por amores,
pois m’ errastes tan en vão?”
e caeu antr’ ũas flores }[4]

The specifically first-hand report of her emotional state contrasts with her totalizing anti-meninism in categorizing all men as untrustworthy. The lovely parrot singing lushly harmonizes with the flowers of spring. But she senselessly speaks to her absent boyfriend and collapses in grief into the flowers. The parrot insistently inhabits their existential world:

A good part of the day
she lay there, and didn’t speak,
and sometimes she’d awake,
sometimes she’d swoon,
and she said, “Oh holy Mary,
what will become of me now?”
And the parrot said:
“Far as I know, lady, you’ll be fine!”

“If you want to heal me,”
said the shepherd girl, “Tell the truth,
parrot, for goodness’s sake,
for this life of mine is death.”
And he said, “Lady, full
of goodness, don’t complain,
because the one that’s served you —
raise your eyes and you’ll see him now!”

{ Ũa gran peça do dia
jouv’ ali, que non falava,
e a vezes acordava,
e a vezes esmorecia,
e diss’: “Ai Santa Maria,
que será de min agora?”
e o papagai dizia:
“Ben, per quant’ eu sei, senhora”

“Se me queres dar guarida”
diss’ a pastor, “Di verdade,
papagai, por caridade,
ca morte m’ é esta vida”;
diss’ ele: “Senhor comprida
de ben, e non vos queixedes,
ca o que vos á servida,
erged’ olho e vee-lo edes” }

Telling a love-despairing woman lying in flowers that you think she’ll be fine is emotionally incongruous. It’s also a realistic evaluation in her physical circumstances. The parrot speaks puckishly. Editors of this song have declared that in the end the parrot “not only calms her down, but also finally announces, as if by magic, the arrival of her boyfriend {não só a acalma, como anuncia finalmente, e como por magia, a chegada do amigo}.”[5] That seems to me a poor reading. The one that has loyally served her is her parrot. If she raises her eyes, she will see him right there. The parrot reverses the birdsong epiphany of Guido Cavalcante’s pastourelle.

Incarnate love means seeing one’s beloved face to face in the full reality of the beloved’s being. Loving a parrot is better than turning life into death through despair.

* * * * *

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[1] For an English translation, Haksar (2009). For freely available selections from Shuka Saptati in English translation, Wortham (1911).

[2] Guido Cavalcanti, poem 46, “Once within a little grove a shepherdess I spied {In un boschetto trova’ pasturella},” vv. 1-14, Old Italian text from Letteratura italiana, English translation (modified) from Wilhelm (1990) p. 143. The subsequent quote above is similarly sourced. Frank Watson’s translation is freely available. For Pound’s translation, Pound (1912) pp. 114-7. For an English translation of all of Guido’s surviving poems, Mortimer (2010). Here are some of Pound’s and Rossetti’s translations of Guido’s sonnets.

[3] Guido Cavalcanti, poem 26 (25), “I see in the eyes of my lady {Veggio negli occhi de la donna mia},” vv. 5-12 (stanza 2), Old Italian text from Guido Cavalcanti – Opera Omnia, English translation (modified) from Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 152. Here’s A. S. Kline’s translation.

[4] D. Dinis 54 (pastorela 2), song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “A shapely shepherd girl {Ũa pastor ben talhada}” (B 534, V 137), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Universo Cantigas and at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

The thirteenth-century Provençal fabliau “Tale of the Parrot {Novas del papagai}” that Arnaut de Carcassé composed features a parrot acting as a go-between for a king’s son and a married lady in arranging an adulterous affair. For an English translation, Arthur (1989). The parrot of “Novas del papagai” has a similar character to the parrot of Shuka Saptati, but fosters adultery rather than prevents it. No direct evidence exists that Dinis knew Shuka Saptati or Guido’s “In un boschetto trova’ pasturella.”

[5] From the general notes for this song in the edition at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[image] Parrot (Black-capped Lory) on the Canary Islands in 2019. Source image thanks to H. Zell and Wikimedia Commons.


Arthur, Ross Gilbert, trans. 1989. Two Provençal Fabliaux: Castia gilos and Novas del papagai. Toronto: Alektryaina Press. Here are Arthur’s English translations of “The Chastising of the Jealous Man {Castía Gilos}” and “The Tale of the Parrot {Novas del papagai}.”

Cohen, Rip. 2003. 500 Cantigas d’Amigo. Porto: Campo das Letras.

Cohen, Rip. 2010. The Cantigas d’Amigo: An English Translation. Online. Quotes are based on the 2016 edition.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Haksar, A. N. D. 2009. Shuka Saptati: Seventy Tales of the Parrot. New Delhi: Rupa Co.

Mortimer, Anthony, trans. 2010. Guido Cavalcanti: Complete Poems. Richmond: OneWorld Classics. Jon Usher’s excellent review in Translation and Literature 20.2 (2011): 238-243.

Pound, Ezra. 1912. Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti: with translations of them and an introduction. Boston: Small, Maynard and Co.

Wilhelm, James J., ed. 1990. Lyrics of the Middle Ages: An Anthology. New York: Garland Publishing.

Wortham, Biscoe Hale, trans. 1911. The Enchanted Parrot: being a selection from the “Suka Saptati,” or, The Seventy Tales of a Parrot, translated from the Sanskrit text. London: Luzac & Co.

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