October 10, 2015
The Poems of François Villon
Posted on Jan 17, 2014
By Allen Barra
“By a single line of verse,” wrote William Carlos Williams about his favorite poet and mine, “in an almost forgotten language, Medieval French, the name of [François] Villon goes on living defiantly.”
That single line of verse was transformed, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of Villon’s first English translators, into the most famous French poetry known to English readers, from the poem Rossetti called “The Ballad of Dead Ladies”:
“But where are the snows of yester-year?”
Rossetti was so inspired that he coined a new word, “yester-year.”
The line has been parodied (most notably in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” when Yossarian laments the death of an airman, “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?”) and alluded to (Quentin Tarantino worked “The snows of yesteryear” into his script for “Inglourious Basterds”) countless times since.
In a lucid and lovely new translation of François Villon’s poems, David Georgi gives Rossetti a run for his money, rendering the famous line from the poem he calls “Ballade of The Ladies of Times Long Past,” as “And where is the snow that fell last year?”
In any translation, Williams asks, “What is that secret that has escaped with a mere question, deftly phrased, the profundity of the ages: Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?”
There are as many answers to that question as there are readers. Mine is this: This beautiful and enigmatic line of poetry is a window into all of Villon’s work. At the core of his poetry is a mourning over the briefness of time, of beauty, of life. In “Ballade of The Ladies of Times Long Past,” he regrets the passing of Joan of Arc, Abelard’s Heloise and legendary courtesans such as Thais.
The essence of Villon, I think, comes in the “Ballade’s” final stanza:
“If you ask again in a week, my Prince,
or again in another year,
you’ll only get this same refrain:
Where’s the snow that fell last year?” (translation Georgi)
Never in the history of literature have so many been influenced by so few words. Villon’s entire body of known work consists of one long poem of 2,000 lines, another of 40 stanzas, and 16 short poems. The impact of that slim collection is almost incalculable.
Twenty-six years after he disappeared forever, “The Works of François Villon” was one of the first printed books to reach the public. (Did Villon live to see it?) Within a few decades, Villon’s poetry was among the most popular vernacular works printed in France. Despite its popularity, the significance of the work wasn’t apparent for centuries. Most classical poetry lacks what modern critics would call the personal note, but as Williams wrote, “Villon’s only subject was himself.”
To Cyril Connolly, Villon was both a “most Catholic poet” and “an inspired gangster,” but above all, he was “an absolutely personal poet. When we read him, he is with us in the room.” Or we are with him in his room—a drafty garret in the student ghetto of still medieval Paris. In some cases we even know when. “Bequests,” Villon tells us, was written “at Christmastime, the dead season/When wolves live on wind alone. …” Villon’s vision of his city’s demimonde is a nightmare that would reverberate down through the centuries to Baudelaire’s “Paris Spleen.”
François de Montcorbier was born in Paris, probably in 1431. We know little of his childhood. We do know that Paris was occupied by the English and that before he was 7, François had been exposed to bitter cold (one snow lasted 40 days), a famine that reduced some Parisians to cannibalism, and a smallpox epidemic. Packs of wolves roamed the streets. We don’t know when his father died. When he was 7, Francois was boarded with a chaplain, Guillaume de Villon, who gave him food, education and his last name. Francois repaid him for his kindness by making him immortal in “The Testament.”
He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree—perhaps the equivalent of a high school diploma today—at the University of Paris and later a Master of Arts. But as one critic wrote, “He had the learning of the schools and the wisdom of the gutter.”
From his school years to the end of his recorded life, our only information about Villon came from his poetry and police records— if he had not been a criminal we might know nothing about him today. There was one scrape after another—petty thefts, brawls, involvement with a murder. His companions were “Coquillards”—street thugs who wore scarlet cloaks and had their own slang. Their ranks included bastard sons of nobility, smugglers, pimps, gamblers, pickpockets, maimed ex-soldiers and prostitutes.
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