Osip Mandelshtam

Francois Villon

François Villon

‘François Villon’
Library of the World's Best Literature, Ancient and Modern (p329, 1902)
Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900), Hamilton Wright Mabie (1846-1916) and Lucia Isabella (Gilbert) Runkle (1844-)
Internet Archive Book Images

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2022 All Rights Reserved

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On Villon: I

Astronomers can accurately predict the return of a comet after a long period of time. For those who know Villon, the phenomenon called Verlaine seems to be just such an astronomical miracle. The vibration of those two voices is remarkably similar. But besides their timbre, and their biography, the poets are connected by an almost identical mission in the literature of their times. Both were destined to create their works in an era of artificial, hothouse poetry, and just as Verlaine shattered the Symbolism of Maeterlinck’s Serres Chaudes (Hothouses, 1899), Villon challenged the powerful school of rhetoric, which may rightly be considered to be the Symbolist school of the Fifteenth century. The famous Romance of the Rose was the first to build an impenetrable barrier, within which its hothouse atmosphere continued to thicken, so necessary for the proper breathing of allegories created by that novel mode, in which Love, Danger, Hatred, Cunning were not dead abstractions, were not incorporeal. Medieval poetry gives these ghosts, as it were, an astral body and tenderly takes care of the artificial air so needful to maintaining their fragile existence. The garden within which these peculiar characters dwell is surrounded by a high wall. The lover, as the beginning of the Romance of the Rose tells us, wanders around this fence, searching, for a long time in vain, for its inconspicuous entrance.

Poetry and life in the Fifteenth century are two independent and hostile dimensions. It is hard to believe that Maistre Alain Chartier was subjected to real persecution, and endured daily troubles, the public opinion of his age pronouncing too harsh a sentence on his Cruel Lady (cf. his poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, and the ensuing literary Querelle which consumed a deal of energy), whom it drowned in a well of tears, after a brilliant trial, observing all the subtleties of medieval legal proceedings. The poetry of the Fifteenth century is autonomous; it occupies a place in the culture of its time, like a state within a state. Let us recall the Court of Love of Charles VI: its various ranks comprise some several hundred folk ranging from the highest lords to the petty bourgeoisie and the minor clerics. The exclusively literary nature of this institution explains the neglect of class division. The hypnosis of literature was so strong that members of such associations walked the streets, decorated with green wreaths – a symbol of love – in their desire to extend their literary dream to the reality.

On Villon: II

François Montcorbier (de Loges) was born in Paris in 1431, during the period of English rule. The poverty that surrounded his cradle was related to the misfortunes of the people and, in particular, the misfortunes of the capital city. It might be expected that the literature of the time would be filled with patriotic pathos and the thirst for revenge prompted by the offended dignity of a nation. Yet, neither in Villon, nor among his contemporaries, do we find such feelings. France, occupied by foreigners, showed herself to be truly feminine. Like any woman in captivity, she gave her main attention to the minutiae of her cultural and domestic toilette, gazing on the conquerors with curiosity. Noble society, following the path of its poets, was still carried away by the vision, in four dimensions, of their Gardens of Love and Gardens of Delight, while amongst the people the tavern lights were lit in the evenings, and farces and mysteries were performed on feast days.

This femininely passive era left a deep imprint on the character and fate of Villon. Throughout his dissolute life, he bore an unshakable conviction that someone ought to take care of him, take charge of his affairs and rescue him from difficult situations. Already a mature man, thrown by the Bishop of Orleans into the prison of Meung sur Loire, he plaintively appeals to his friends: ‘Le laisserez-vous là, le pauvre Villon? (Will you leave him, there, poor Villon’).  François Montcorbier’s career in society began with the fact that he was placed under the guardianship of Guillaume Villon, a venerable canon of the Parisian church of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné. By Villon's own admission, the old canon was ‘more than a mother’ to him.

In 1449 he received a bachelor’s degree; in 1452 – a licence to practise as a master. ‘O Lord, if I had studied in the days of my reckless youth and conformed to decent moral behaviour, I would have acquired a house and a soft bed. But, what can I say! I evaded school like a cunning boy: as I write these words, my heart bleeds.’ Oddly enough, the master, Francois Villon, had at one time several pupils and taught them, as best he could, the wisdom of the schools. But, with his characteristically honest attitude towards himself, he realized that he had no right to be titled a master, and preferred to call himself ‘a poor little schoolboy’ in his ballads. Indeed, it was especially difficult for Villon to study, since, as if by destiny, the student unrest of 1451 to 1453 occurred during the years of his education. Medieval people liked to think of themselves as children of the city, the church, the university... But these ‘children of the university’ had a taste only for pranks. A heroic hunt was organized for the most popular tavern signs of the Parisian markets. It was proposed that the Deer marry the Goat, and the Bear be presented with the Parrot, as a gift from youth. Students stole a stone from the possessions of Mademoiselle La Bruyère, and hoisted it to the top of Mont St. Genevieve, naming it ‘La Vesse’ (‘the Bowels’) and, having beaten off the authorities by force fixed it in place with iron hoops. On the one round stone they placed another, oblong, one – the ‘Pêt au Diable’ (‘The Devil’s Fart’) and worshipped them at night, showering them with flowers, dancing around them to the sounds of flutes and tambourines. Enraged butchers and the offended lady, started a lawsuit. The Prévôt of Paris declared war on the students. The two jurisdictions clashed – and the sergeants-at-arms had to kneel, with lighted candles in their hands, to ask the Rector for forgiveness. Villon, who was undoubtedly at the centre of these events, captured them in a novel, Pêt au Diable, which is not extant.

On Villon: III

Villon was a Parisian. He loved the city, and a life of idleness. He shows little liking for Nature and even mocked the concept. Already in the Fifteenth century, Paris was a sea in which one could swim without experiencing ennui, and while ignoring the rest of the universe. But how easy it is to shipwreck on one of the innumerable reefs of an idle existence! Villon commits a murder. The passivity of his fate is remarkable. It is, as it were, waiting to be nourished by chance, whether for good or evil. In a ridiculous street fight on June 5th 1455, Villon kills a priest, Chermoie, with a heavy stone. Sentenced to hang, he lodges an appeal and, being pardoned, goes into exile.

Vagrancy wholly undermines his morals, drawing him to the criminal gang La Coquille, of which he becomes a member. On his return to Paris, he is involved in a major theft at the College de Navarre and immediately flees to Angers – because of an unhappy love affair, he assures us; in fact, so as to plan the robbery of his rich uncle. Hidden from the Parisian scene, Villon publishes his Petit Testament. Years of disorderly wandering follow, interspersed with sessions before the feudal courts, and periods of imprisonment. Amnestied by Louis XI on October 2nd, 1461, Villon experiences a deep creative excitement, his thoughts and feelings rendered unusually acute, and he creates the Grand Testament – his monument for the ages. In November 1463, one François Villon was an uninvolved witness to a quarrel and a murder at 5 Rue Saint Jacques. Here, his obscure biography and our information about his life end.

On Villon: IV

The 15th century was harsh as regards personal destiny. It turned many decent and sober people into Biblical Jobs, complaining in the depths of their foul dungeons, and accusing God of injustice. A unique kind of poetry of incarceration was created, imbued with a biblical bitterness and severity, to the degree that such was compatible with a polite Romanesque soul. But Villon’s voice stands out sharply from the choir of prisoners. His rebellion is more akin to a process than a rebellion. He manages to combine the plaintiff and the defendant in one person.

Villon’s attitude towards himself never crosses the known boundaries of intimacy. He is kindly, attentive, caring for himself no more than a good lawyer cares for his client. Self-pity is a parasitic feeling that is harmful to the soul and the body; but the dry, legalistic pity that Villon bestows upon himself is, for him, a source of cheerfulness and grants him an unshakable confidence in the rightness of his ‘cause’. A most immoral, ‘amoral’, person, like some true descendant of the Romans, he lives entirely within the legal framework, and cannot think of any relations outside of jurisdiction and the law. The lyric poet, by nature, is a bisexual being, capable of innumerable divisions in the name of internal dialogue. This ‘lyrical hermaphroditism’ was never more pronounced than in Villon. What a diverse selection of charming duets he sings: distressed victim and comforter, mother and child…

Ownership of property tempted Villon all life long, like the song of a Siren, and made him a thief...and a poet. A wretched vagabond, he appropriates to himself blessings inaccessible to him, with the aid of acute irony.

Modern French Symbolists are in love with things, as if they owned them. Perhaps the very ‘soul of things’ is nothing but the feeling of ownership, spiritualized and ennobled in the laboratory of successive generations. Villon was well aware of the difference between subject and object, but understood it in terms of the possibility or impossibility of personal possession. The moon and other neutral ‘objects’ are irrevocably excluded from his poetic use. But he is immediately aroused when it is a matter of fried duck in sauce, or eternal bliss, which he never loses hope of acquiring.

Villon paints a charming ‘interieure’ in Dutch style, while peeping through the keyhole.

On Villon: V

His sympathy for the dregs of society, for everything suspicious and criminal, is by no means demonic. The shadowy company with which he was so quickly and intimately involved, captivated his feminine nature with its grand character, its powerful rhythm of life, which he could not find in any other strata of society. One must listen to the manner in which Villon speaks in his ‘Ballade de la Grosse Margot’ about the pimp’s profession, which he clearly was no stranger to: ‘When clients come, I run, and grab a jug of wine.’ Neither bloodless feudalism, nor the new-found bourgeoisie, with its inclination towards Flemish heaviness and importance, could give rise to the vast dynamic ability somehow miraculously accumulated and concentrated in this Parisian clerk. Dry and sunburnt, lacking eyebrows, thin as a chimera, with a head that, by his own admission, resembled a peeled and roasted nut, concealing his sword beneath partly-feminine student’s attire, Villon existed in Paris like a squirrel in a wheel, never knowing a moment’s rest. He loved the predatory, lean animal in himself, and valued his coarse skin: ‘Did I not do well to appeal, Garnier?’ he writes to his prosecutor, having escaped the gallows, ‘not every animal could win free like this.’

Du mouvement avant toute chose!

(‘Movement before everything!’ cf. Verlaine’s ‘Ars Poetica’: ‘De la musique avant toute chose’)

A powerful visionary, he dreams of his own hanging on the eve of probable execution. But, strangely, with incomprehensible bitterness yet rhythmic enthusiasm, he depicts in his ballad how the wind sways the bodies of the unfortunates, back and forth, at will... He endows death with dynamic properties and succeeds in showing his love for rhythm and movement... I think it was not demonism that captivated Villon, but the dynamics of crime. Is there perhaps an inverse relationship between the moral and dynamic development of the soul? In any case, the Testaments of Villon, both large and small – that celebration of magnificent rhythms, which French poetry still lacks – are incurably immoral. The wretched vagabond writes his will twice, distributing his imaginary property right and left, like a poet, ironically asserting dominion over all the things he would like to possess; if Villon's emotional experiences, for all their originality, did not particularly differ in depth, his everyday relationships – an intricate tangle of acquaintances, connections, dealings – represent a network of ingenious complexity. The man contrived to establish lively, vital relationships with a huge number of people of the most diverse ranks, at all levels of the social ladder – from thief to bishop, from tavern-keeper to prince. With what pleasure he tells of all their comings and goings! How accurately and precisely! Villon’s Testaments are captivating simply because they contain a wealth of accurate information. It seems to the reader that he can enter them, and feel himself a contemporary of the poet. The present moment can withstand the pressure of centuries and retain its integrity, remain the same ‘Now’. You just need to be able to tear it out of the soil of time without damaging its roots, otherwise it will wither. Villon knew how to do it. The bell of the Sorbonne, which interrupted his work on the ‘Petit Testament’, still sounds.

Like the troubadour princes, Villon ‘sang in his Latin’: once, as a schoolboy, he had heard about Alcibiades – and as a result of that, perhaps, a less familiar Archipiades joins the grand procession of Ladies of bygone times.

On Villon: VI

The Middle Ages tenaciously held on to their children and did not yield them voluntarily to the Renaissance. The blood of the true Middle Ages flowed in the veins of Villon. To it he owes his wholeness, his temperament, his spiritual originality. The physiology of the Gothic – for such was the Middle Ages precisely, a physiologically brilliant era – provided Villon’s worldview and abundantly rewarded him for his lack of connection with the historical tradition. Moreover, it secured a place of honour for him in the future, since French poetry of the Nineteenth century draws its strength from the same national treasury – Gothic. It may be said: what does the splendid rhythm of his Testaments, now conjuring like a cup-and-ball game, now slowed to the smoothness of a church cantilena, have in common with the masterworks of Gothic architects? But is Gothic not a triumph of dynamics? Another question might be which is more mobile, more fluid – a gothic cathedral or an ocean swell? What, if not a sense of architectonics, explains the wondrous balance of the stanza in which Villon entrusts his soul to the Trinity through Our Lady – La Chambre de la Divinité – and the nine heavenly legions. This is not an anaemic flight on the wax wings of immortality, but an architecturally sound ascent, corresponding to the tiers of a Gothic cathedral. Whoever was the first to proclaim in architecture the dynamic balancing of masses, and built the cross-vault – brilliantly expressed the psychological essence of feudalism.

Medieval man considered himself as necessary, and as bound in to, the edifice of the world as any stone in a Gothic structure, bearing with dignity the pressure of its neighbours and having a destined stake in the general play of forces. To serve was not only to be active for the common good. Unconsciously, medieval citizens considered service, a kind of feat, the unvarnished fact of their existence. Villon, the last follower of the feudal world-view, turned out to be immune to its ethical side, mutual responsibility. The moral stability present in the Gothic mode, was quite alien to him. On the other hand, not indifferent to its dynamics, he elevated immorality to the same level. Villon twice received pardons – ‘lettres de remission’ – from royalty: from Charles VII and from Louis XI. He was firmly convinced that he would receive the same pardon from God, with a complete forgiveness of his sins. Perhaps, in the spirit of his dry and rational mysticism, he extended the ladder of feudal jurisdiction to infinity, and some wild, deeply feudal, feeling occupied his soul: that there was a God above God...

I know very well that I am not the son of an angel, crowned with the diadem of a star or another planet’ said the poor Parisian schoolboy of himself – though capable of much for a good dinner.

Such denials are tantamount to positive certainty.

Written 1910-1927