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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
François Villon (1431–1463?)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WHEN Wordsworth wrote in ‘The Leech-Gatherer’ of “mighty poets in their misery dead,” he was thinking more of Marlowe and Burns and Chatterton than of Villon, if indeed the name ever caught his attention in his visits to the French capital. The French themselves at that time attached little importance to it; and were far from suspecting that the title “Father of French Poetry” would ever be taken from the courtly Ronsard—himself hardly yet seen in his true significance—and bestowed upon François Villon, “Student, Poet, and House-breaker,” as Mr. Stevenson candidly calls him.  1
  Now, even London has its Villon Society, which in 1874 printed the first edition of Mr. John Payne’s English version of Villon’s poems. The revised and definitive edition, with its fascinating introduction, biographically and critically exhaustive, appeared in 1892,—the same year that saw the publication of M. Longnon’s complete edition based on the earliest known texts and various manuscripts. Happily the English translation did not follow this edition too soon to be brought into accordance with it wherever it was not in error: Payne profited by the labors of scholars who began their researches before and after the significant spark struck in 1887 by M. Gaston Paris in his brief article, ‘Une Question Biographique sur Villon.’ This article—by one who, according to M. Longrion, knows and appreciates Villon’s verse better than any one else—led to the discovery of several documents in the national archives, consisting mainly of judicial processes against Villon and his boon companions. It remained for M. Marcel Schwob to bring to light the picturesque document of the Pet-au-déable (Devil’s Stone), on which the poet founded a romance he seems never to have published, though it figures among the bequests of his ‘Greater Testament’:—

  “I do bequeath my library:
  The ‘Devil’s Crake’ Romaunt, whilere
By Messire Guy de Tabarie—
  A right trustworthy man—writ fair.
  Beneath a bench it lies somewhere,
In quires. Though crudely it be writ,
  The matter’s so beyond compare
  That it redeems the style of it.”
  
  (…… ma librairie,
  Et le Rommant du Pet au Déable,
  Lequel Maistre Guy Tabarie
  Grossa, qui est homs veritable.
  Par cayers est soubz une table.
  Combien qu’il soit rudement fait,
  La matiere est si tres notable,
  Qu’elle amende tout le mesfait.)
  2
 
  It is interesting to note the likeness to English in the nebulous French of a people whose national existence had not yet become wholly uncontested. So librairie means the poet’s own books—not the place where he bought them; and in more than one passage he calls himself le poure (not le pauvre) Villon.  3
  The Pet-au-déable was a huge monolith attached to a tavern on the right bank of the Seine, and serving partly as a boundary-stone, to mark the limits of the property. A gang of students belonging to the university, who had been going from bad to worse, had been further demoralized in 1453 by contentions between the city authorities and the rector of the Sorbonne,—the latter going so far as to close the university for a period of six months in the middle of the term. Not content with stealing the meat-hooks from the market of Saint Geneviève,—a prank the butchers, when questioned, were disposed to forgive, declaring that they and the students were very well together; not content with stealing twenty-five hens from the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près, nor even with robbing a passing wagon of its cargo of choice wine,—the ring contrived with much mock ceremony to remove the formidable Devil’s Stone, tugging it over the river, and setting it up on the hillside behind the Place Maubert; whence to this day the worst riots of the Latin Quarter take their rise. In vain did the authorities transport the stone to the Palais Royal: the students recaptured and returned it to the chosen site. Another great stone with which the mistress of the hotel had supplied the place of the Pet-au-déable was likewise wrenched away and set up on the hillside. That done, passers-by—above all, the king’s officers—were compelled to take an oath to respect the privileges of the Pet-au-déable and its companion: the latter wore every Sunday a fresh garland of rosemary; and on moonlight nights a merry band, with the love-locks and short cloaks that have never ceased to be characteristic of the pays latin, danced around the object of their whimsical devotion. A few steps from the sinister spot, where continued orgies gave rise to repeated brawlings, on a strip of turf hard by Houdon’s statue of Voltaire, stands the childish figure of François Montcorbier, alias François Villon, alias François des Loges, alias Michel Mouton, who was twenty years old when the theft he endeavored to celebrate “in double quires”—and in which he evidently took a lively interest, if not a leading part—was perpetrated.  4
  Just who Villon’s parents were, and just where he was born,—despite the persistency with which he called himself Parisian,—is so uncertain that his own suggestion,—
  “Comme extraict que ie suis de fée,”
which Mr. Payne translates—
  “As sure as I’m a fairy’s son,”—
is perhaps as satisfactory as any conclusion that can be reached. The dare-deviltry of the defiant little sculptured figure, its jaunty cloak and steeple-crowned hat and feather, its look of the goblin page with a dash of sweetness, suggesting the classic faun, carry out the uncanny impression. These neighboring statues bear a certain relation to each other. Some one said of Voltaire, who was called the “spoiled child,” “It was not Christianity that he attacked.” Voltaire denounced celibacy and priestcraft, and Villon lost no opportunity to expose the hypocrisy and misdoings of monks and abbesses; but the mocking statue does not mock at religion. It only seems on the point of repeating, with birdlike sputter (gazouillement), some bit of robbers’ jargon, picked up even at that early period, or flinging the challenging line—
  “Mais que te nuysoit-elle en vie,
                    Mort?”
(What harm did she in life to thee,
                    Death?)
or that other challenge—
  “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?”
  5
  If one were asked to search English literature for a single example of felicitous translation, leaving nothing to be desired, one might go far afield ere finding a better than Rossetti’s rendering—
  “But where are the snows of yester-year?”
of the pathetic refrain of the ‘Ballad of Old-Time Ladies.’ Were this favorite ballad the only surviving portion of Villon’s ‘Greater Testament’ (his most considerable production), it would be almost enough to establish his claim to be regarded as a master. It shows also the most obvious limitations of his genius: he was without the modern feeling for nature; in this he falls far behind Ronsard. He clung to Paris as Lamb clung to London, and like Alphonse Daudet was uneasy away from it. He thought of the country as a place where—
  “De gros pain bis viuent, d’orge, d’auoine,
Et boiuent eau, tout au long de l’année;”
(They eat coarse bread of barley, sooth to say,
And drink but water from the heavens shed;)
of winter as a time when one stays in the house:—
  “Sur le Noël, morte saison
Que les loups se viuent de vent,
Et qu’on se tient en sa maison.”
Hence he has left us many portraits but no landscape. The rigid requirements of the ballad form do not fully account for the bare mention of names,—showing, it is true, how much may be done with slight material, but showing how little the poet cared for natural objects, unless in chance comparison with human beings. But there is plenty of heart in the ballad, nor does it appear that all the heart he had went into his verse. The man who could devote a ballad to the miseries of chimney-sweeps—“Poor chimney-sweeps have toil enough” (Poures housseurs ont assez peine)—was not without a flicker of sympathy for a fellow-being; and it is hardly possible to read in a candid spirit the beautiful ballad to the Virgin Mary, written at his mother’s request, without the conviction that he felt the strength of that tie which in France, if anywhere, unites mother and son. The same ballad, and other noble passages, looked at in a first-hand way, prove that Villon was capable of no small degree of religious fervor. We have witnessed within the last decade the spectacle of a poet in the depths of self-indulgence turning eagerly to the consolations of religion,—and Paul Verlaine was a true child of the boulevards. Why assume that there was no sincerity in the prayers the fifteenth-century poet offered when the bell of the Sorbonne, striking the Angelus, bade him set aside for a moment the writing of the ‘Lesser Testament’? Why attempt to prove, with M. Longnon, that Villon’s three orphans, “hungry,” “shoeless,” “naked as a worm,” whom he harbored and endeavored to provide for in every way, were after all young people of means, who employed him as a tutor? Is it quite safe to condemn in toto that which openly and repeatedly and permanently criminates itself,—that which like Héloïse has dared call itself impure? On the other hand, M. Longnon’s view of Villon, and even Mr. Payne’s, often seems almost too indulgent; but the aim set forth in the latter’s introduction has been nobly fulfilled. In his own words, he has “set ajar one more door, long sadly moss-grown and ivy-hidden, into that enchanted wonderland of French poetry, which glows with such springtide glory of many-colored bloom, such autumn majesty of matured fruit.”
  6
  Mr. Swinburne’s rendering of the famous and ghastly ‘Epitaph’ of Villon, made when he was expecting to be hung with five of his companions, is simpler and on the whole closer than Mr. Payne’s; with the exception of the line where the image—
  “More pecked of birds than fruit on garden-wall”—
is strangely substituted for the “dented thimble” of the original reproduced by Mr. Payne. The poet Théodore de Banville puts into the mouth of Pierre Gringoire a ‘Ballade des Pendus’ scarcely yielding in fascination to the familiar ‘Epitaph’ of Villon. But the real poet-rogue of the fifteenth century was not Pierre Gringoire, as Victor Hugo and Théodore de Banville have led or misled us to think. A glance at the didactic verse and irreproachable life of the well-connected moralist Gringoire, makes it difficult to reconcile with his character the passages that represent him rolling in the mud of Montmartre or captivated by a pretty face at a window. Plain facts can never destroy the inimitable charm of passages that are their own excuse; but an observation attributed to Louis XI.—and it is not unlikely that he made it—shows that the scapegrace whose usual signature gave birth to the expression villonnerie bore off the palm from all other vagabond minstrels. The King declared that he could not afford to hang Villon; as the kingdom could boast of a hundred thousand rascals of equal eminence, but not of one other poet so accomplished in elegant speech and ingenious reasoning.
  7
  Undoubtedly the words were uttered at the most miserable moment in Villon’s whole wretched career; when, if ever, he had literally touched bottom, let down by ropes to lie during the whole summer of 1461 in a reeking den, or rather ditch, of the castle of Mehun or Meung-sur-Loire, subjected to torture, and fed only on dry bread and water. The offense for which Thibault, Archbishop of Orléans, had caused him to be thus confined and corrected, seems to have been his implication in the theft of a silver lamp from a church in his diocese.  8
  It was in this cul-de-basse-fosse that Villon is thought to have composed his ‘Dialogue between the Heart and Body of François Villon,’—a ballad worthy to rank with Shakespeare’s sonnet, ‘Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth!’ reminding us that Shakespeare and his Henry V. traditionally passed through a period of wild-oat sowing that Villon never outgrew. Had we only this ballad, instead of the considerable body of work he has left, we should hardly see less clearly into his real state of mind,—his horror and disgust at losing his moral footing, his sound judgment betrayed and belied by a fatal weakness of purpose and want of self-control. Certainly the words—
        “We poets in our youth begin in gladness,
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness,”
apply at least as well to Villon and Verlaine as to
  “Him who walked in glory and in joy,
Following his plow upon the mountain-side.”
  9
  Villon’s life had begun in 1431—in the very month (May), it would seem, when the great soul of Jeanne d’Arc went out; an event that drew from him the laconic and otherwise characteristic comment:—
  “Et Iehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’ Englois brulerent à Rouen.”
“The good Lorrainer the English bare
Captive to Rouen and burned her there.”
He had taken the degree of M. A. in the University of Paris. Twice sentenced to the gallows, he had escaped it only to enter upon a course of dissipation which confirmed him in the companionship of sneak-thieves, highwaymen, and women of the most depraved and abandoned class. He had certainly killed his man,—a priest, who however had dealt the first blow, compelling him to draw in self-defense, and who made intercession for him with his dying breath.
  10
  According to Villon’s own asseverations, which must have had some foundation in fact, his rejection by the only woman he ever loved had been the beginning of all his troubles. He holds her responsible for his ruin; but turns her coldness and his chagrin to account by making them the motif of his ‘Lesser Testament,’ written at an earlier period than the ‘Greater,’ and representing him a martyr to love bequeathing real and imaginary treasures to a motley crowd of friends and enemies (all of them more or less notorious in their time), before taking flight from the scene of his disappointment.  11
  The young lady in question, whom Villon calls his rose, but whose name was Catherine de Vaucelles, is thought to have been a niece of Guillaume Villon, the canon of the cathedral church of Saint-Bénoit, who took the boy under his protection, if not into his residence,—the Hôtel de la Porte Rouge, adjoining the Sorbonne. Whether the young student adopted the surname of his patron; whether they were actual relatives, or only fellow-townsmen of the village of Villon, still existing,—according to M. Longnon it is certain that the older man, who is known to have been of a gentle disposition, never had the heart to turn away the younger; but continued to aid him, and to be more than a father to him, long after his behavior had forfeited all claim to forgiveness.  12
  In spite of the grave fissures in his character,—in a manner by reason of them,—he must at one time or another have enjoyed the favor of many far above him in rank. When the newly crowned monarch, Louis XI., passing through the town and stopping at the castle where Villon had been confined a whole summer, caused him to be set at liberty, he was only thirty years old. Yet the author of (Il n’est bon bec que de Paris’ (There’s no right speech out of Paris town), and other songs afterwards inserted in the ‘Greater Testament,’ already enjoyed a popularity seldom granted a poet in his lifetime. Hence it is generally believed that the King’s appreciation of good literature, coupled with Villon’s apparent claim (whether founded on distant kinship or otherwise) to the special favor of the Bourbon family,—disposing them to occasional good offices in his behalf,—had more to do with his release than had the custom of pardoning a certain number of criminals immediately after ascending the throne,—a custom however that Louis followed in many other instances. Thus the king and the beggar came together for a moment;—that Villon could beg beautifully in verse is evident from various ballads petitioning, now for a trifling sum of money, now for the repeal of a death sentence; and it was a king who less than a century later caused the complete works of Villon, so far as they could be recovered, to be collected into a volume. This edition, which the scholarly discrimination of Francis I. intrusted to the poet Clément Marot, continued to be widely read till doubly overlaid and obscured by the triumph of the seventeenth-century writers, succeeding that of the ‘Pléiade’ that Ronsard created. Even Scott,—who allowed few manifestations of genius or types of quaintness to escape him,—while regretting in the notes to ‘Quentin Durward’ that it would have seemed hardly wise to introduce D’Urfé, nowhere introduces Villon. One cannot help thinking that this is precisely what he would have done in that romance of the time of Louis XI. and the banks of the Loire,—the very river that gave to the castle where the poet was confined a portion of its name,—had Villon and his works come out of their chrysalis a half-century sooner. But Mr. Swinburne had not then sung of the
  “Poor splendid wings, so frayed and soiled and torn!”
  13
  The date of Villon’s death is obscure. It seems impossible that he could long have survived the completion of the ‘Greater Testament,’ at the close of which he bewails his bodily ills, brought on by inveterate indulgence at the table no less than by his summer of fasting in the dungeon of Meung-sur-Loire. His plundering and banqueting propensities were still further set forth in the ‘Repues Franches,’—a series of ribald rhymes by an unknown author, written while the exploits of François Villon were still fresh in the minds of the people.  14
  Vile as the language and imagery of Villon often are, it is worthy of note that nearly all his finest ballads are perfectly clean. The tree bore five or six noble apples. These, rather than the worm-eaten ones that weigh it to earth, have endeared themselves to modern readers.  15
  A contradiction to the world, an enigma to himself, declaring in his despair that he understood all things save himself alone,—
  “Ie congnois tout, fors que moy mesmes;”
in more than one ballad begging all men coming after him to have mercy on him; little dreaming how far his experimental methods, in a century when political disintegration and reunion kept the language in a state of fermentation, would determine the pitch of modern poetry,—he might almost have hurled the bitter antistrophe—
  “… a nameless life I lead,
  A nameless death I die;
The friend whose lantern lights the mead
  Were better mate than I.
And when I’m with my comrades met
  Beneath the greenwood bough,
What once we were we all forget,
  Nor think what we are now.”
  16
 
 
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