CREATIVE PROJECT BY TONY TANG (’25)
The Butterfly Knight
Literary Art (Poetry)
An Interpretation of The Parliament of Fowls
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
I brush my way past dandelion roads
Swooning in descent. The earth surges up
As I dance to winds of silvery notes.
He floats in dreams atop a bed of mud;
Enclothed in chainmail rusted by the bite
Of summer rain that stings his fresh cuts sharp.
Nay! A thousand arrows rouse me from flight:
I stand on stained leaves in the shade of Fall,
With honour I shall yet reverse my plight.
But a wandering guest jolts my recall;
These wings of snow in light divine! I freeze;
Rise and relent to timeless evermore.
For long the night eludes our days of seize;
I trudge and hover, folding as I breathe.
Summary of “The Butterfly Knight”
In the poem, the persona is a knight exhausted from long days of adventuring. The poem begins in the dream of the persona where he navigates a surreal landscape through the lenses of a butterfly. He then awakens from the dream to the realities of his plight and resolves to continue his journey with stoic determination. However, a butterfly flits past the persona and recalls his earlier dream. The persona slips into a state of dual consciousness, allowing him to recognise his human insignificance in relation to time and God, where he continues his journey with an added appreciation for his vulnerabilities.
Reimagining Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls”
In “The Parliament of Fowls”, Chaucer uses a dreaming persona to ascribe anthropomorphic qualities to birds. The birds literally form a parliament of different classes like that in a human society, demonstrating human rationality in choosing a suitor for a female eagle, and displaying “lively, raucous, and comical” speech in their arguments. The setting of the dream is crucial, for it allows the persona to understand the birds even though they are at times depicted with animal noises, such as when they “So cryden, ‘Kek, kek!’ ‘Kukkow!’ ‘Quek, quek!’ hye” (Line 499). As the simultaneous creator and observer of the dream, the persona ascribes human thought and speech to the birds. In my creative project, I aim to adopt the dream setting not for the same purpose of anthropomorphism, but to unsettle the notions of identity itself. In a tale recounted in Zhuangzi, the philosopher dreams of being a butterfly, and awakes from the dream wondering if he had dreamed of being a butterfly as a man, or if he is a butterfly presently dreaming of being a man. Like Zhuangzi’s tale, I adopt a dream landscape for the persona himself to adopt the consciousness of an animal. Accordingly, while Chaucer depicts the love between the birds in an attempt to match a human understanding of love to non-human beings, I depict love in the form of self-reconciliation where the persona learns to embrace a consciousness that takes on both human and animal qualities.
Notably, as Michael Warren argues in Birds in Medieval English Poetry: Metaphors, Realities, Transformations, a divine quality is attributed to winged creatures who occupy an aerial space “mankind is denied” (12), and whose flight makes them “incorporeal” (12), as their motion is incomprehensible to the wingless human. In Chaucer’s poem, the birds talk about love in the Garden of Nature, an allusion perhaps to the Garden of Eden, and they interact with the goddesses Nature and Venus as though they themselves are divine beings, while the persona is only granted a presence there as an observer by virtue of his dream. Furthermore, the female eagle is allowed to “control the time and manner of her union with her male counterpart” (Chaucer 96), demonstrating a power that supersedes time itself. In my poem, I will emphasise the aerial and unpredictable quality of the butterfly’s movement, where it serves as a divine messenger that reminds the human persona of his subjection to a fast-flowing and linear temporality.
For this creative project, I have endeavoured to write poetry because the poetic form allows for an interweaving of distinct concepts via dynamic imagery, rhythm, rhyme, and diction. This allows concepts to be experienced rather than told, to be interpreted rather than displayed, allowing for an appreciation of their interconnectedness that may be lost in a more explicit analysis. Notably, Chaucer’s poem is written in rhyme royal, where the constant rhyme in narration reinforces the dream setting of the poem and the lyrical quality of birdsong. However, I intend to write a terza rima sonnet. The sonnet expresses self-reconciliation, while the terza rima allows for changing aspects of the persona’s consciousness to be depicted through each tercet. Furthermore, the tercets flow in a staggered rhyme scheme to indicate the subtle connections between seemingly discrete components of human and animal consciousness, of dreams and the real world. The terza rima sonnet also serves as a challenge to follow strict metre and rhyme. Ultimately, I aim to demonstrate that we cannot clearly distinguish human consciousness from that of an animal, and that an animal consciousness may grant perspectives that enrich human values.
Arguments Embedded in “The Butterfly Knight”
In the first tercet, I imagined the persona moving through the lenses of a butterfly, where he is airborne and travels with an uncertain, almost drunken quality conveyed by “swooning in descent”. To a butterfly, the floating heads of dandelions would seem sizeable and form an entire landscape such that the persona “[brushes]” past “dandelion roads” instead of a dirt part, the imagery evoking softness in the movement and depicting the directionless path of nature compared to man-made roads. I have further employed enjambments to produce a sense of continuous motion, and the phrase “surges up” deviates from an otherwise iambic pentameter to emphasise the erratic sense of the earth rising to greet the persona’s descent. As a butterfly, the persona is graceful and unshackled by nature.
The second tercet depicts the persona from an omniscient narrator’s perspective, where the personal pronouns are exchanged for third person pronouns for the only time in the poem. The persona is depicted to be sleeping in reality, where he “floats” in dreams with a sense of lightness that is juxtaposed by his body weighing into the mud and the heaviness of his armour that “[enclothes]” him like a steel trap. Nature is presented as a domesticating rather than liberating force, as the mud serves as the persona’s bed and the rain does not bring relief but “stings his fresh cuts sharp”.
The third tercet begins with a sharp call of anguish from the persona, marking the switch back to persona’s perspective when he awakens and realises his plight. The phrase “from flight” threatens to break away from the iambic pentameter, but may be forcefully curbed by the punctuation while the next line begins with the stress on “I stand”, marking the persona’s assertion of his human identity over animal. The tercet emphasises the persona’s preoccupation with chivalry, where he displays his valour in the face of adversity by romanticising the rain to be “arrows” and himself to stand upon blood-stained leaves.
Yet in the fourth tercet, the persona encounters a butterfly with wings pure like the “snow”, its whiteness made further “divine” by daylight. This stuns the persona in his enthralment to a dual consciousness, as simultaneously a motionless knight and the external butterfly that “[rises]” before him and “[relents]” the human quest. Still in the butterfly’s consciousness, the persona embraces a “timeless evermore”, a divine serenity where the human understanding of linear temporality does not apply. Notably, both the knight and the butterfly are never explicitly mentioned in the poem except for in the title; who is the butterfly and who is the knight thus remains an open question.
Throughout the poem, I attempted to depict seasonal imagery via the dandelions of spring, the “summer rain”, the Fall-coloured leaves, and snowy wings of the butterfly that makes the persona “freeze”. This pitches the fast-flowing linear narrative of time against the “timeless evermore” of divinity as represented by the butterfly. Through the butterfly, the persona realises in the concluding couplet that time slips by regardless of the speed of his journey, and the “night” –– symbolising one’s unconscious, animalistic instincts –– cannot be captured by a performative quest for chivalric honour. The persona thus trudges onwards while hovering without direction; he folds as a human body crumbles or like a pair of wings taking flight, where strength is derived from vulnerability, as one inhales a breath.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Parliament of Fowls.” Dream Visions and Other Poems, edited by Kathryn L Lynch, W.W. Norton, 2006, pp. 93-116.
Warren, Michael. “Introduction.” Birds in Medieval English Poetry: Metaphors, Realities, Transformations, Boydell & Brewer, 2018, pp. 1–23.
[Featured Image] https://www.medievalists.net/2014/12/chasing-butterflies-medieval-europe/