François Villon (1431–1463?) is the quintessential Orphean poet, forever glancing back over his shoulder at what he is about to lose. Friends and enemies, lovers, his mother, his many persecutors (real and imagined), his colleagues in roguery, all step from his consummately sculpted verses in the lineaments of dismissal. It is only in bidding adieu that he fully acknowledges others. It is only in the bequeathing gesture that he claims what he has had. At the same time, Villon affects a drastic spontaneity; it is always the present instant in his verses; he seems to be scribbling the stanzas as we read. The most studious of craftsmen—is there a form, from rondeau to double ballade, he did not master?—he calibrates his impromptus so cleverly that his tirades sound virtually unrehearsed, his quips and squibs have an off-the-cuff quality that startles, even after five-hundred years. He is a soliloquist whose repertoire ranges from scorching denunciations to the gentlest and most moving supplications. Consider his ballade to the Virgin Mary which begins “Lady in heaven, Empress here on earth” and which he places in the mouth of his own mother; it is a hymn easily the equal of the verses Dante has St. Bernard sing in the final canto of the Paradiso (“Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio”).
In Louis Simpson’s new translation the celebrated third stanza reads:
I am a poor woman and very old.
I cannot read and I know nothing.
At the church I belong to, I behold
Heaven painted, harps and lutes are playing,
And a Hell where the damned are boiling.
Heaven gives me joy, Hell great distress.
Let me have the joy, heavenly Goddess
To whose mercy all sinners must apply,
Filled with their faith, not faintheartedness.
In this faith I desire to live and die.
The marvel of the original is that we have the illusion that we are hearing the old mother—povrette et ancienne—actually speaking while at the same time cadences and rhymes fall with apparently effortless aplomb, and Simpson manages to replicate this rather well. The rhyme of “distress” and “Goddess” (with the shift of accent that nicely roughens the euphony) and the faintly antiquated trouvaille of “faintheartedness” for the phrase “sans fainte ne paresse” show both skill and delicacy. These virtues are conspicuous throughout the translation, which must have presented formidable difficulties. It is a measure of Simpson’s success that the difficulties, without being glossed over, rarely obtrude; when they do, the faults of the translation usually arise from a failure to follow the tone of the original, rather than from lexical or semantic misunderstandings.
Both The Legacy and The Testament are poems much concerned with getting even. After Dante, Villon is the greatest poet of payback. But rancor sits uneasily with us. The ad hominem (or ad feminam) makes us squirm. Villon had no such scruples. He named his enemies as he damned them—over eighty-four are identified explicitly in The Testament—and he remained untroubled by the thought that he was being overly “personal” or (God help us!) “judgmental.” An Orpheus with arsenic, quicklime, and pitch, anathema was his native element; in its caustic currents he splashed with unslaked gusto:
In the brains of a cat that hates to fish,
Black, and with no teeth left in its gum,
In the saliva of an old hound which
Is raging with rabies, froth, and scum,
In the foam of a mule beaten like a drum,
Cut up with a scissors in little pieces,
In water in which rats swim with feces,
Frogs, toads, wild animals from far and wide,
Serpents, lizards, everything that pisses,
May those malicious tongues be fried.
In closing he subverted the traditional envoi to the prince with scabrous sublimity:
Prince, strain all these good things to eat.
If you don’t have a strainer, use the seat
Of an old pair of trousers, deep and wide.
First dip them in pig shit. Then see to it:
May those malicious tongues be fried.
Another blast aimed at the spice dealer Jehan de la Garde seems tepid by contrast, but it serves to demonstrate how well Villon’s denunciations, again and again, encapsulate characters as well as customs in their raving sweep:
Item: I leave The Golden Mortar
To Jehan, grocer, of the Guard;
One of the crutches of Saint Maur,
A pestle for a pot of mustard.
Spread it then, as thick as lard,
On him who caused my misery.
Burn, Saint Anthony, the bastard!
He’ll get no other legacy.
To have a miscreant slathered with hot mustard is a bequest perhaps only Villon (or Rabelais) might have envisaged: his legacies are at once cruel and cartoonish. With his own reprobate self he takes the same tone, using a final rhyme to cast a sardonic backglow on his own miseries:
Now after many moans and tears,
Anguished groaning and complaining,
Sadnesses and heavy cares,
Labors and grievous wandering,
My brain, made smooth by studying,
And round and empty as a bottle,
Was more improved by suffering
Than by Averroës on Aristotle.
In the original, where Villon piles up the terms of woe—plainz et pleurs, angoisseux gemissemens, tristesses et douleurs—the effect is even more disconcerting when we land, with a thump, on Aristote, but Simpson acquits himself well here too, even if he cannot muster all the fulsome timbres of lamentation Villon made so signally his own. Thankfully, Simpson has not tried to smooth over Villon’s violence of tongue or camouflage it beneath archaicisms, as, say, Rossetti tended to do; nor has he exaggerated the poet’s already quite uproarious bawdiness, as Swinburne did. Simpson has achieved an uncommon sympathy with his author; the success of his translation is not solely a matter of craft and skill: Rossetti, Swinburne, and Robert Lowell are all more skillful. Simpson, by contrast, seems somehow to have entered into Villon’s own spirit.
Readers will be curious to know how this translator handles the most famous poems, such as the “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” whose refrain (“Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?”) has become proverbial. Simpson translates the line as “But where are the snows of yesterday?” This strikes me as superior to the usual “snows of yesteryear” (from Rossetti’s translation), though I doubt that Simpson’s version will catch on. The transience of snow comes through more dramatically in Simpson: the snow vanished in a day, not a year, but the archaicizing adverb “yesteryear,” while it hazes over the abrupt fleetingness of the snow, does echo the antiquated d’antan of the original. Villon himself imparted a slight but definite distancing to the phrase; it is, after all, a ballade, a sung poem, not an apothegm. Transience must be balanced by the sturdiness of song. It is in precisely such tenuous equipoise—between the ribald and the rueful, the elegaic and the expletive—that Villon’s genius resided.
Unfortunately—in one of his few lapses —Simpson bungles the opening stanza; the original is clear and yet, after the third line, the translation becomes muddled:
Tell me in what country is
Flora the beautiful Roman,
Archipiada, or Thais.
Echo who speaks to no man
Unless he speaks first, then she can
Over a river, lake, or bay,
Was too beautiful to be human.
But where are the snows of yesterday?
Echo has here betrayed Simpson by seducing him to chase after a rhyme (“Roman/ man/can/human”) that wreaks havoc with his syntax.
Of all versions of this famous poem the Scots translation by the (aptly named) Tom Scott strikes me as the most successful, perhaps because his dialect stands at an angle to English in a way suggestive of how Villon’s language stands to modern French. Here is Scott’s rendition of the same stanza:
Tell me whaur, in whit countrie
Bides Flora nou, yon Roman belle?
Whaur Thais, Alcibiades be,
Thon sibbit cuisins: can ye tell
Whaur clettaran Echo draws pell-mell
Abuin some burn owrehung wi bine
Her beautie’s mair nor human spell—
Ay, whaur are the snaws of langsyne?
Villon clearly loved women, for whom he had a surprisingly subtle and sympathetic regard; they are certainly the dominant figures in his testamentary poetry: not only his own mother or the Virgin Mary, but also the various lovers he alternately excoriates, cajoles, and caresses. His masterpiece in this genre is undoubtedly the long lament usually known as “La Belle Heaulmière,” or “The Beautiful Helmet Maker,” after its protagonist. Villon’s poem is an extended illustration, if one were needed, of Baudelaire’s line four-hundred years later that “c’est un dur métier d’être belle femme” (“It’s hard work being a bombshell”). An old woman, la Belle Heaulmière, catalogues her charms as they once were and as they are now; like Villon, she grasps herself only in the backward glance. The poem is remarkable in that its compassion is tacit and arises from the unflinching scrutiny of a woman’s body in decline. Unlike other compositions of the time, it is not prompted by malicious delight or the kind of Tartuffian schadenfreude that seems to have motivated so many medieval denunciations of the female form. Instead, pity and terror are aroused.
Pretty shoulders, long and slender
Arms; beautiful hands and wrists,
That my fate seemed to intend for
Heated tourneys in the lists
Of passion … small, tilting breasts,
Rounded thighs, wide loins, and then
The vulva in its little nest
In the middle of the garden.
Horribly, these have now become:
Wrinkled forehead and gray hair,
Sunken eyebrows, and the eyes
Whose laughter drove men to despair,
Clouding … again to itemize.
The nose that was a perfect size,
Hooked. Two hairy ears hang down.
You’d have to look hard to realize
This death’s-head is a face you’ve known.
The end of beauty isn’t good:
Shoulders pulled into a hump,
Arms short, fingers stiff as wood.
The breasts? Shrunk, scarcely a bump.
The same goes for the lips and rump.
The vulva? Ugh! The rounded thigh is
A thigh no more, a shriveled stump
Covered with spots, like sausages.
Simpson even partially succeeds in suggesting that notorious rhyme of “thighs” with “sausages” (cuisses/saulcisses). Only in remembering how her body once appeared is the Beautiful Helmet Maker able to capture its full charm and beauty; even the description of her sadinet in its “little garden” (son petit jardinet) is intensely feminine. It is the way a woman rather than a man might regard her intimate anatomy (as is her later unswerving self-disgust). Villon has taken the commonplace of the medieval ubi sunt? theme—it is in fact his own most obsessive theme—with its often monotonous litanies of pleasures, powers, and personalities to be forsworn, and made it shockingly individual. Instead of lamenting the vanished glories of Alexander or Caesar, it is the empire of a woman’s body whose fallen splendors he mourns; because he is specific—nose and ears and lips, shoulders, arms, and hands as well as what E. E. Cummings once called “your sweet et cetera”—the poem is deeply moving. It could be a lament for any of us and so becomes a lament for us all.
In one of the later ballades of The Testament, Villon’s extraordinary joie de vivre surpasses itself and all his characteristic themes collide in a rollicking panegyric to his disreputable life with Fat Margot. Villon is her pimp and when Margot “comes to bed moneyless,” he threatens to beat her, but:
Then we make peace, and she, inflated
More than a poisonous dung beetle,
Farts. She puts a fist to my forehead.
“Gogo,” she says. Then we get drunk until
We fall asleep. When we wake up she’ll
Have a rumbling belly. So the fruit won’t drop
And be wasted, she says, and climbs on top.
This screwing is cutting my life span short.
I’m groaning underneath, and it doesn’t stop
In this brothel where we are holding court.
Compare this to Swinburne’s version of the same stanza, done a century before:
When all’s up she drops me a windy word,
Bloat like a beetle puffed and poisonous:
Grins, thumps my pate, and calls me
And cuffs me with a fist that’s ponderous.
We sleep like logs, being drunken both of us;
Then when we wake her womb begins to stir;
To save her seed she gets me under her
Wheezing and whining, flat as planks are laid:
And thus she spoils me for a whoremonger
Inside this brothel where we drive our trade.
Swinburne achieves a momentum which is admirable but at the same time his rendition is slyly periphrastic; it is not immediately obvious what he means by “a windy word.” Villon was blunt: “et me fait ung gros pet,” and Simpson captures this pungent bluntness. Swinburne’s rhymes are certainly superior but he finds them too often at the expense of the original. If Swinburne’s version is more memorable, Simpson’s is ruder and knottier and so, in my view, more faithful to Villon.
We know what life holds in store for Fat Margot, as for her poet-pimp: if not the gallows or the block, the pitiless depredations of age, already so gruesomely depicted. Villon’s memento mori is inscribed not on monitory tablets but in the flesh of his personages; when he revels, as here, in the present instant, even wallowing in a love of filth—“ordure amons” (“we love filth”), he declares—it is the nakedness and the mire of our common humanity he both mourns and celebrates: inter faeces et urinam nascimur, as the medieval church so aptly phrased it.
There is a relentlessness in Villon that will echo throughout later French art and poetry, and not only in such obvious heirs as Rimbaud. The Beautiful Helmet Maker inspired Rodin to one of his most vivid and forceful bronzes (now in the Metropolitan Museum); a naked hag with greasy, disheveled locks, drooping dugs, and pleated belly stands bereft, her very stance a spasm of grief, and yet there is a disturbing dignity even in her ruin. Her nakedness, undeflected by the mirage of beauty, has become absolute, as though she could be reduced no further. It is her unexpected nobility in decay that both appalls and touches us.
Villon excelled at the rondeau as well. The rondeau that begins “Mort, j’appelle de ta rigueur,” and which is one of the most beautiful lyrics in French, seems untranslatable to me, but again, Simpson fashions a creditable version: “Death, I appeal your harsh decree/ That has taken my love away.” Of course, no translator can match the subtlety of the original in which the play of rhymes—the trio of rigueur/langueur/ vigueur positioned against the open vowels of ravie/assouvie/vie—enhances the threnody of lament. Villon’s version is eminently singable while Simpson’s is not and perhaps could not be. Here is a huge difference that stands between Villon and ourselves, and one that is beyond mere difference of language. The Testament is a long and intricate narrative in strict stanzas interrupted by— or better, graced with—songs in varying forms. The incursion of song, whether sorrowful, amorous, or obscene, softens the harshness of the narrative and sheds a kind of absolving luster over Villon’s otherwise quite desperate story of bitter poverty, persecution, and sinfulness. The Testament is a saga of redemption, or at least of the search for redemption, a saga in which the narrator suddenly steps forward and sings in his own voice and in accord with his various moods and states of mind.
In his short story “A Lodging for the Night,” Robert Louis Stevenson created an indelible imaginary portrait of Villon. The depiction is convincing because it accords so well with our impression of the poet as derived from his verse. Here is how Stevenson portrays him:
The poet was a rag of a man, dark, little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and thin black locks. He carried his four-and-twenty years with feverish animation. Greed had made folds about his eyes, evil smiles had puckered his mouth. The wolf and pig struggled together in his face. It was an eloquent, sharp, ugly, earthly countenance. His hands were small and prehensile, with fingers knotted like a cord; and they were continually flickering in front of him in violent and expressive pantomime.
In the story, Villon is a curious amalgam of rascality and ingenuousness. Stevenson’s is a romanticized portrait but one that has had a certain resonance not just in English but also in French literature. The myth of the vagabond and criminal with a poet’s sensibility, an explosive mixture of vehemence and an odd douceur, which we find re-enacted in Rimbaud, Céline, Jean Genet, and Louis Calaferte, among others, goes back to Villon. But is it true?
In his 1970 book Le Testament de Villon ou le gai savoir de la Basoche, the French philologist Pierre Guiraud argued convincingly that, far from being autobiographical, both The Legacy and The Testament were coded satires based on an elaborate verbal system and were in fact what he termed “judicial farces.” The poems arose, he argued, out of the dramatic performances staged in the close-knit world of “La Basoche,” the rather disreputable legal confraternities of Villon’s Paris. Having earlier deciphered Villon’s fiendishly difficult poems in argot, with their encoded references to sodomy, Guiraud applied his method to the seemingly more straightforward works and came up with startling results. He argued that not only were all the legatees’ names historically accurate but that each one when deciphered revealed a kind of hidden wordplay (calembour) of a fantastically elaborate sort; each name in effect carried in miniature the various wrangling judicial processes which the poem itself re-enacted. For example, the name of the merchant Jehan Cotart, according to Guiraud’s system, is to be broken down into the verb enjaner, meaning “to trick,” and into the verb coter, “to allege.” The poet’s name—he was born François de Montcorbier—too is subjected to this method: François means “to speak French in an extravagant manner” and Villon denotes “to vilify or outrage.” Similarly, la Grosse Margot comes from the words grouce, which means “growl or scold,” and margote, someone who “utters cries.”
Any disinterested reader of Guiraud’s treatise soon realizes that he has come into the orbit of a man gripped by an idée fixe; his explication of Villon’s code, complete with charts of vowels and learned dialectological divagations, stupefies. Guiraud’s method has the virtue of making sense of much that is otherwise incomprehensible in The Testament. But what does this make of the poem as poem?
Guiraud may be right about his codes, but it matters little except to historians and philologists. The freshness of the poems survives their annotators. Villon’s “epitaph,” a rondeau written in prison, still makes us smile, even as we take pleasure in its suavity:
Grant him, Lord, your peace eternal,
And your light perpetually,
Who had no plate or bowl that he
Could call his own. His head was all
Shaved like a turnip or a ball.
For what reason? Don’t ask me.
Grant him, Lord, your peace eternal.
In prison he was chained to the wall
And hit in the ass repeatedly.
He yelled “I appeal!” which could not be
Clearer, but had no effect at all.
Grant him, Lord, your peace eternal.
As this shows, Simpson’s translation—at once stately and slangy, hard-bitten and delicate—brings Villon’s swaggering accents back to vociferous life and that is what counts in the end.
- François Villon’s The Legacy & The Testament, translated by Louis Simpson; Story Line Press, 190 pages, $17.95. Go back to the text.