#190. LOAVES LEFT FOR THE BELL-RINGERS. If your sense of the medieval period is formed by stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, sacred architecture, the beautiful Middle English verses and carols, and the lovely choral music, coming on the poetry of Francois Villon is going to pull you up short, rather like a concert of motets and madrigals finishing with a few songs by Kurt Weill, sung by someone with a real bottom-of-the-bottle voice, like Lotte Lenya or Marianne Faithfull. Rather than the world of liturgy and reverence—what Will Durant called the age of faith—Villon is closer to the bibulous tavern songs in the Carmina Burana, but ending in prospect not with a last round or with prayers at Compline, but something starker still—the end of a rope. We hear the beery joshing and the claws of his humor change into the felt threat of death, and it casts its shadow back over all he wrote. Villon always remembers the day is short.
Born in 1431, Villon took his degree from the University of Paris, and it is possible to sense him ghosting around the still-academic Latin Quarter. After that he shows up as part of the ruckus and roister of student tavern-haunting night life, where, as Stevenson nicely put it, “worldly and monkish elements were presented in a curious confusion.” He was arrested once for stabbing a priest (released on the grounds of its being self-defense) and thereafter ran up a long sheet of petty theft and misbehaving. In 1461 he was imprisoned again, the horrific, depleting experience that led to his great long poem, “Le Testament,” but was released on an amnesty from Louis XI, whom he later praised and thanked in verse (“Bienfait ne se doit oublier.”—“A good deed must not be forgotten”). In 1463, having narrowly escaped hanging, he was banished from Paris. It is the last we ever hear of him.
Compared to Charles d’Orleans or Pierre de Ronsard, not a huge amount of Villon’s verse survives: some dozen ballads in jargon, which get buried in annotation to be retrievable even by native French readers; sixteen ballads and epistles; and, the real meat of his work, two longer pieces, “Le Lais” (The Legacy) and “Le Testament.” These both present themselves as poetic wills, with their goods being distributed and, in the process, debts being paid off and, of course, injuries paid back. The first and shorter poem, “Le Lais” moves from being a farewell to love (to the woman “who sent me packing so cruelly” he leaves his heart in a casket), to a catalogue of a riotous life being left behind, filled with friends’ names, tavern addresses, bric-a-brac and private jokes, the send-off ending with a send-up, this time of academic language. The joke is never just a joke; behind the words, there is always the real melancholy of farewells.
But immediately, in the first lines of “Le Testament,” we hear the difference in tone: real anger, real hatred, true desperation, true despair, and, in the ballads and acrostics and once again, the verses of bequeathing, we hear the kingdom of death taking all, and, in Galway Kinnell’s apt phrase, “reality devouring the convention.” It is the document of a man who has survived, but just barely, a time in prison, and who has experienced hunger, thirst, abuse, and torture. The people sung of in the ballads are dead and gone. When the name of God appears in the poem, there is not a shred of mockery or irony; like the old World War II saying that there is no atheist in a foxhole, Villon has come a little too close to hell to doubt the flames. In those desperate moments, Villon convinces us he speaks his truth; we believe him as we do the greatest poets of the past. “Freres humains qui après nous vivez / N’ayez vos coeurs contre nous endurcis,” he writes. “Brother humans who live after us, do not have your hearts hardened against us.”
Very much the best Villon in English is the terse and convincing translation done by Galway Kinnell, which ranks with the best of his own verse: The Poems of Francois Villon, University Press of New England, 1977. It’s as recently as 2014 that Villon got an edition in the French scholarly series from Gallimard, La Pleiade, all to himself (992 pages! whoof!) but for the less ample budget, there is the Oeuvres Completes in the Lettres Gothiques series for Livre de Poche, edited by Claude Thiry and annotated to the teeth.