Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Bird of Paradise

The Art of Ugly Animals: Medieval Monstrosities - Parrot

In medieval Europe parrots were known only as delicate household birds from the parched orient. Obviously, then, they could not be expected to stand rain: as was proved by the racket they made during a downpour. 'For the parrot swiftly dies,' decided Alexander Neckam (1157-1217, English scholar and teacher) 'when its skin is much moistened by water.' 
To Neckam, therefore, it was plain that such a bird must live in an area of complete drought. Of these there were comparatively few; and Neckam himself plumps for Gilboa. Gilboa was forever dry because of David's curse after the death of Jonathan: 'Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain upon you!' 
But Neckam had overlooked Paradise. That mount too had no dew or rain upon it; and it was doubtless for this reason that English poetic tradition, at least, maintained the parrot's home to be Paradise.
Since no living thing could die in Paradise, the parrot was immortal. Parrot, in fact, was now qualified for the grander regions of mythology. But parrots have an inconvenient habit of actually existing. And a second layer of natural observation thus arose, which added its own curious flavour to the one above. 
Long ago Aristotle noted that the bird had a weakness for wine; and an echo of the tradition lingers on, half consciously, as late as Othello: 'Drunk? and speak parrot? and squabble? swagger? swear?... oh thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!' But Shakespeare has named it already: Parrot, the spirit of bacchic enthusiasm  The bird's aimless prattle had long linked it with the demented liberation of alcohol; with the frenzy of Dionysus - or the Devil. And side by side with this avatar, there was also the spoilt domestic clown of so many wealthy and aristocratic households. 'It's cleverness is amazing,' comments Neckam on this point, 'and it is better than a troupe of actors at raising a laugh. 

John Skelton (1460–1529) was tutor to Henry VIII, priest and poet laureate. He is the first major Tudor poet, writing during the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III, and (for most of his career) Henry VII and Henry VIII. His poem Speke Parrot, written in 1521, is a satire narrated by a parrot who often makes crude remarks about Cardinal Wolsey. Many of the satirical hints have insinuation to Wolsey's political mission. Here is an extract from it:

My name is Parrot, a bird of Paradise,
By nature devised of a wonderous kind,
Deintily dieted with divers delicate spice,
Til Euphrates, that flod, driveth me into Inde,
Where men of that countrey by fortune me find
And send me to great ladies of estate:
Then Parot must have an almon or a date,

A cage curiously carven, with silver pin,
Properly painted, to be my covertour,
A mirror of glass, that I may toot therin.
These maidens full merily, with many a diverse flowere
Fleshly they dress and make swete my bowre,
With 'Speke, Parrot, I pray you!' full curtsey they say,
'Parrot is goodly bird, a prety popagey!'

With my beck bent, my litle wanton eye,
My fedders fresh as is the em'rawd grene,
About my neck a circulet like the rich ruby,
My little legges, my feet both fete and clene,
I am a minion to wait upon the queene.
'My proper parrot, my litel prety fole!'
With ladies I lern, and go with them to scole.'

Bestand:John Skelton.jpg
John Skelton
Sources: Skelton, H.L.R. Edwards.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful and unexpected post Mary. I shouldn't say unexpected as there is lots to do with the Tudors. Liked the references to John Skelton and Alexander Neckam, not heard of him. I'll look him up!