Francois Villon, Poete Maudit

Francois Villon by David Richardson


(Thanks to Brain Pickings, 3 Quarks Daily, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and many others for noticing Mike Norris and David Richardson’s “Beholding Holden” last month. The writer/artist team is back here today with a look at a famous transgressive French poet from half a millennium ago. — Levi)

I can’t remember when exactly, in some long ago French class, that I first read a poem entitled “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis”. In English this translates as “Ballad of the Ladies of Times Gone By”.

This poem contains the haunting refrain: “mais où sont les neiges d’antan”. This was translated brilliantly by the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “but where are the snows of yesteryear”. Rossetti coined the word “yesteryear”, which is still in use today.

The ballade itself comes from a long poem called “The Testament”, written by a French poet of the 15th century: François Villon. In the middle ages, mock testaments, as in Last Will and Testament, were a common form of literary expression. These were satiric verses, often obscene, in which a dying person or more often, an animal, leaves parts of his body to different individuals. In one Testament, a dying pig leaves his bones to a gambler to be made into dice, and his penis to the priest.

Villon had written an earlier, shorter piece called “The Legacy”, in which he used the legal framework of the Last Will and Testament to leave comic bequests to his friends. These were often things which he didn’t own. He left well-known Paris taverns to his drinking buddies. To another friend he left a pair of pants to be redeemed for payment due.

“The Legacy” was written in 1456, upon the occasion of Villon leaving Paris for Angers. The invocation of death is used in a mocking tone, as he declares he has been martyred by his cruel mistress, and is thus bequeathing his earthly possessions while he becomes “one of the Saints of love”.

Five years later, in 1461, he composed “The Testament”. This time the reality of death is much closer, and the poem, although still satirical and scatological in parts, is much deeper. After a long opening passage in which he mourns his lost youth and contemplates death, he then ponders age and the destruction of beauty. This leads into the “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis”. The Rossetti version, although not a strict translation, keeps Villon’s rhyme scheme, a difficult thing to do when translating from Middle French to English. Rossetti titled his translation “The Ballad of Dead Ladies”:

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman? (a Roman courtesan)
Where’s Hipparchia, and where is Thais, (a Thracian courtesan, a courtesan of Alexander )
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,
She whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Where’s Héloise, the learned nun, (Pierre Abelard and Héloise)
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween, (Abelard was castrated by Héloise’s relatives)
Lost manhood and put priesthood on? (and became a monk)
(From Love he won such dule and teen!) (dule and teen – pain and suffering)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen (The Queen of Burgundy had Buridan, a Paris
Who willed that Buridan should steer. (philosopher, bound in a sack
Sewed in a sack’s mouth down the Seine? (and drowned in the Seine)
But where are the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies, (Blanche of Castille)
With a voice like any mermaiden,
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice, (Mother of Charlemagne, characters in old stories)
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,
And that good Joan whom Englishmen. (Joan of Arc)
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,
Mother of God, where are they then?
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with this much for an overword, (overword – a refrain)
But where are the snows of yester-year?

* * * * *

François de Montcorbier was born in 1431 in Auvers, north of Paris, near Pontoise:

“FRANCOIS am I woe worth it me
At Paris born near Pontoise citie
Whose neck in the bight of a rope of three
Must prove how heavy my buttocks be”

* * * * *

His parents were poor, and he was adopted by Guillaume de Villon, the chaplain of Saint-Benoit-le-Bétourné, a church in the Latin Quarter of Paris. He took the name of his benefactor, becoming Francois Villon, and he received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in arts from the University of Paris.

Paris in the time of Villon, the late Middle Ages, was a circular, walled city, protected from invasion by ramparts that focused the city inward and led to intensive land use. The city rose in height since it couldn’t expand in breadth, and the streets were narrow and crooked, towered over by buildings that stood cheek by jowl to each other and blocked out the sun.

Under the rule of Phillipe-Auguste, Paris became the administrative center for the court. The founding of the University of Paris in the 13th century made Paris into one of the great intellectual centers of Europe. Paris was thus a city of officials, lawyers, and students; all ruled by the watchful eye of the Church.

The administrative and commercial district occupied the right bank of the Seine. The church occupied the Isle de la Cité, dominated by the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The left bank formed the Latin Quarter, where 700 “petits escoliers” — scholars — studied and taught at the more than 30 colleges in the University compound.

Francois Villon’s milieu was thus the cramped and dirty streets of the Latin Quarter, where institutions of learning occupied the open squares, and the narrow side streets were filled with taverns, houses of prostitution, and student quarters.

Little is known of this “pauvre petit escolier” until he enters the Parisian police records in 1455.

* * * * *

In May of 1455, Villon was involved in a brawl with a priest named Philippe Chermoye. Daggers were drawn, and Villon killed the priest. He then fled Paris to avoid being tried for murder. A few months passed by, and the stabbing was ruled self-defense. Villon was acquitted and he returned to Paris, but the taint of murder caused him to lose his post at the College of Navarre. Legend has it that he was reduced to singing in inns and taverns to earn his keep. It is at this point that his pursuit of “la vie de bohème” turned to a life of crime.

In 1456, the same year in which he wrote “The Legacy”, Villon and four other accomplices broke into the College of Navarre and made off with a considerable sum of money. He wrote in “The Legacy” that he was leaving Paris for Anger to escape an unhappy love affair, but the real reason was probably to escape arrest for the robbery at the College of Navarre.

In the five years that passed between the writing of “The Legacy” and “The Testament”, Villon seems to have travelled extensively. He visited Blois, where he participated in one of Charles d’Orléans poetry contests. He was also imprisoned at Meung-sur-Loire, and badly treated there until he and his fellow prisoners were released on the occasion of the new King Louis XI passing through the town on his way from Paris to Touraine.

For a time, Villon stayed in hiding, fearing capture for his role in the College of Navarre burglary. It was at this time that he wrote “The Testament”, in which he bitterly denounced his captors at Meung, and bemoaned his ill health and premature aging.

When he finally returned to Paris in 1462, he was arrested for his part in the robbery, but was released when he promised to repay his share of the money to the College. His luck did not hold. In 1463 he was involved in another street brawl, although perhaps only as a bystander. Nonetheless, he was thrown in prison and sentenced to be hanged.

While awaiting the gallows, he wrote the remarkable ballad “Epitaphe Villon”, also known as “Ballade des Pendus” (“Ballad of the Hanged”). Francois Villon’s sentence, however, was commuted to banishment from Paris. He wrote a ballade celebrating this unexpected turn of events, and this is the last record we have of him. How he passed the rest of his life is unknown.

* * * * *

We are thus left with the sparse output of a carouser and ne’er-do-well, wanted by the police and living most of his life in prison or in hiding. Yet Villon’s verses hold up today, while those of his contemporaries languish in the depths of the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, visited only by scholars of the middle ages.

It is said that Villon was the first modern poet. Although he was aware of the aristocratic tradition of courtly love that permeated earlier French lyrics, Villon, through the use of the testament form and the ballade brought an urban sensibility to his verse. In addition, the emotion expressed in his poetry went beyond mere pathos to the expression of true despair in portions of “The Testament” and in the gripping “Ballade des Pendus”:

“The rain has rinsed and washed us
The sun dried us and turned us black
Magpies and ravens have pecked out our eyes
And plucked our beards and eyebrows
Never ever can we stand still
Now here, now there, as the wind shifts
At its whim it keeps swinging us
Pocked by birds worse than a sewing thimble …”
From The Poems of Francois Villon, translated by Galway Kinnell.

Villon used the common themes of the day: “ubi sunt” — where are they now, as exemplified by “Ballade des Dames de Temps Jadis”; “carpe diem” — live today for tomorrow we may die; and “memento mori” — remember that death is always with us. Villon used these subjects, especially in his meditations on mortality, in a more immediate and emotional way than the empty forms of the more stylized poets. His ”Legacy” and “Testament” are largely autobiographical, and we can get a sense of the fleeting joys and persistent despair of his outlaw existence.

Throughout history we have seen examples of the poète maudit — the poet who lives outside the norms of society, and even outside the law. Certainly Villon was the prototype. He was followed by others: Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine. Even the Italian painter Caravaggio, although not a poet, fits this mold of artist and brawler, wanted by the police, who fled to Naples from Rome after murdering a man.

Despite their unhappy lives, the poètes maudits have created some of the most lasting art, because the intensity with which they lived flows through into their work. Looking back at “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis”, we see an invocation of the ancient world, where through the distance of time the women seem more beautiful, more alluring. We also see disturbing cruelty, as in the castration of Pierre Abelard. Woven through this is the refrain of regret and longing: “mais oú sont les neiges d’antan”. The juxtaposition of these elements makes for an almost perfect poem, a poem written by a man constantly under the threat of imprisonment, who vanished from history at the age of 32.

13 Responses

  1. Michael, what a wonderful
    Michael, what a wonderful essay on this great French poet, who is surprisingly modern for an early modern…

  2. I second Claudia’s comment
    I second Claudia’s comment Michael.

    Your essays are always beautifully written and informative. I learn things I am glad I learned.

    One thing, this sentence, near the beginning, threw me off

    “mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”

    There should be an accent grave over the u in ou — où.

    I was reading it as “but or they are….”

  3. TKG – it should be où sont
    TKG – it should be où sont les neiges d’antan” in other words “where are they” – accent grave over the u. I think when Levi posts the text it chops out accent marks – I’ve noticed this before.

  4. Yeah. I figured it was the
    Yeah. I figured it was the net — but then I saw other words had the proper accents.

    This was a minor comment that in no way detracts from your excellent piece!

  5. I finally fixed the accent
    I finally fixed the accent mark, Mike (sorry I’m slow).

    I don’t know how it got lost though, for the record, here’s my thinking on diacriticals and foreign characters: Speaking as a software developer: they’re a big pain in the ass, much more difficult for content management systems to work with than most people realize. I hope the world can adopt a more tech-friendly system of typographical character representation for the future.

  6. By the way, I want to call
    By the way, I want to call attention to David Richardson’s brilliant rendering of François Villon. Most of the old texts have him looking like a cross between a monk and a scholar, but here he looks like a real, flesh and blood outlaw poet. You can imagine the dagger hidden inside his doublet, and perhaps a flask of eau-de-vie or some other potent beverage hanging from his belt!

  7. I first discovered Villon
    I first discovered Villon when I was 14 (more than half a century ago) and thus began my weakness for the tradition of the poète maudit, but I knew little about his life. So this essay has been a delight to read and it has filled-in all the blanks. Thank you Michael.

    But David Richardson’s portrait is another matter altogether. Far from showing me anything I did not previously know, he has reproduced in every detail the François Villon that I’ve imagined and pictured all these years. The unkempt, half-hearted beard and grubby face of the street person; the scar of the unsuccessful brawler and the thin, half-smiling lips of the con-man. Richardson has captured Villon in all his feral furtiveness; those glittering eyes hinting at poetic violence. The grubby red cap hints of the Jacquerie while the bold yellow and blue coat suggest the troubadours and the combination places him firmly in medieval France. David, you’ve brought him back to life. Thank you.

  8. Thanks Michael. Two writers
    Thanks Michael. Two writers inspired my rendition of the original outlaw poet. François of course, but it was you who guided my brush.

    Some Dylan helped too. Reading the Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis these lines from the Ballad of Judas Priest and Frankie Lee kept running through my head…

    Well, Frankie Lee he trembled
    He soon lost all control
    Over ev’rything which he had made
    While the mission bells did toll
    He just stood there staring
    At that big house as bright as any sun
    With four and twenty windows
    And a woman’s face in ev’ry one.

    … and couldn’t help wondering how inspiration reappears so beautifully through cringing old Time.

  9. Thank you Patrick. Your words
    Thank you Patrick. Your words are very generous. Reading Villon one wonders what influence Villon had on Marcel Proust, and if there is anything new save the way it is said?

  10. Nice to see Villon here. I
    Nice to see Villon here. I have for a long time read his work and felt his genius. Nothing can better describe him and the original feeling of the rebel poet than his description in many biographies including wikipedia, “poet, thief and vagabond.” What else should a poet be?

    Villon not only inspired Rimbaud, Verlaine, all the French Symbolists, Artaud, Breton and all the Surrealists, but he perfectly depicts the soul of the French artist. In a way similar to that of the Spanish gypsy, or gitano.

    If you know his work and then read “Love and Maladies,” you can smell his weathered, leathery skin and feel the pang of hunger and the outrage of being an outcast in it. Promise.

    Great to see him here. You have a great blog Levi. Next thing you know I’ll be reading about Isidore Ducasse on your site!


  11. Patrick, I forgot to mention
    Patrick, I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed your book on Proust. Its sits on my shelf right next to the Carter biography.

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