“Poems” A book by François Villon, translated from the French by David Georgi

“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.Villon knew them; no poet has ever written of the refuse of society with such compassion. Truman Capote opened “In Cold Blood” with Rossetti’s translation of the first four lines of “Ballade of the Hanged Man.” (“For if you take pity on wretches like us/the sooner will God have mercy on you.”)

Most of Villon’s poetry was written over a short span, from December 1461 through the spring of 1462, after his crimes earned him a five-year exile from his beloved Paris. If he wrote more, it is lost to us.

His last entry in the public records came after a street fight that ended with the pope’s Paris notary stabbed to death. Villon, who may have been only peripherally involved, was sentenced to hang. In January 1463, he made his appeal to the court in verse, which Georgi calls “The Praise That Villon Gave to the Court”:

“ … and you my body (vile as you are) lower

than a bear or pig that nests in the mud.

praise the court, before you slip from bad to worse:

mother of good men, sister of blessed angels!”

He won his appeal. The sentence was commuted to 10 years’ banishment from Paris. And that is the last we know of him.

“We strain our eyes into the dark,” wrote biographer D.B. Wyndham Lewis in 1928 in his “François Villon — A Documented Survey,” “but he has vanished utterly.”

Villon could never have imagined that his brief, disreputable life and a handful of poems would reverberate through the ages. In 1500 a collection of anonymous poems, “Les Repues de François Villon et des Compagnons — Free Meals of François Villon and His Companions” — made Villon into a roguish thief, like the Italian commedia dell’arte’s Scaramouche. Around 1530 in “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel,” Rabelais, a kindred soul, created adventures for him in Belgium and at Edward V’s court in England.

In the 19th century Villon’s influence was heavy upon Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, and later on symbolist poets such as Valéry. In England the pre-Raphaelites — take a bow, Mr. Rossetti — formed the Villon Society and took turns translating his poetry into English. A devout member, Swinburne wrote an homage, “Ballade of Françoise Villon, Prince of all Ballade-Makers.” One line would surely have made the Frenchman smile: “Villon, our sad bad glad brother’s name.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, however, did not regard Villon as his brother and was uncomfortable with his attraction to Villon’s poetry. In Stevenson’s “A Lodging For The Night” (1882), a desperate Villon, seeking shelter, passes the frozen body of a prostitute as a wolf howls. He pities all: “This is a hard world in winter for wolves and wenches and poor rogues like me … The whole city was sleeted up … High overhead the snow settled among the tracery of the cathedral towers …”

The poet is given refuge by a kindly man who hopes that “Francis” will reform himself: “ ‘You may still repent and change.’ ‘I repent daily,’ ” says Villon.

Stevenson was both fascinated and repelled by Villon’s “evil, ironical temper,” but as he wrote in his essay, “A Student, Poet and Housebreaker,” “If we measure him not by priority of merit, but living duration on influence … we shall install this ragged and disreputable figure in a far higher niche in glory’s temple than was ever dreamed of by the critic.”

Stevenson would not have approved of the bowdlerization of Villon by Irish novelist Justin McCarthy. In “If I Were King” (1901), McCarthy’s François charms Louis XI, who makes the lovable rogue king of France for a week — in which time he not only saves his country but finds love. McCarthy’s romantic fluff was hugely popular — it’s the novel that Francie Nolan keeps checking out of the library in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” — and was made into a successful play that begat two film versions, and in 1925, the ultimate abomination, an operetta, “The Vagabond King,” which begat two more terrible films.

In the film version of Robert E. Sherwood’s play, “The Petrified Forest” (1936), Leslie Howard’s vagabond, Alan Squier, is cast as a modern incarnation of Villon. To emphasize the point, Bette Davis’ waitress, Gabrielle, is reading Villon’s poetry when Howard walks into her cafe.

In the 20th century, Villon aroused music both secular and profane. In 1910, a concert of songs, Debussy’s “Trois Ballades,” including the gorgeous “Ballade que Villon faitàla requeste de samère pour prier Nostre Dame” — “Ballad made by Villon at his mother’s request as a prayer to Our Lady” — brought audiences to tears. In the 1920s, Ezra Pound adapted Villon’s “The Testament” into an opera libretto. In 1928, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera,” the lyrics of which borrowed freely from Villon, made its debut in Berlin.

In America, Villon’s mark is everywhere, from Williams and Pound to Kerouac and the Beats, including the “laureate of American low-life,” Charles Bukowski. Bob Dylan is the most prominent songwriter of the rock era to acknowledge Villon’s influence. (Unless one counts the Rolling Stones’ “Flowers of Evil,” which filters Villon through Baudelaire.)

More than any translation, David Georgi’s emphasizes Villon’s humor — not just his famous gallows humor, but his word play, jokes and puns. Georgi, a superb critic as well as translator, sees in Villon “an author in whom the accumulated impulses of a whole period seem to concentrate themselves and transform into something different, sending poetry off in a new direction.”

Once again, with Georgi’s new translation, François Villon is in the room with us, his poetry “swerving from solemnity to biting sarcasm to outright filth in the space of a few lines.” Georgi helps us understand that Villon is eternally modern.

To see long excerpts from “Poems” at Google Books, click here.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.