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Doomed but indomitable


"WHEN a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight," said Johnson, "it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Francois Villon lived most of his adult life in such a frame of mind. His 2,200- line poem, The Testament, was written the year after one prison sentence had been fortunately commuted. In less than another year he was in prison for robbery, and once again got off lightly. Almost immediately he was imprisoned again, and sentenced to be hanged. This time, too, he escaped with a sentence of banishment. Testament must have literally flowed from his pen, but it is not flawed for all that. It is wonderfully concentrated.

The year was 1461. Villon was thirty. The Renaissance, as we know with hindsight, was beginning, and all over Europe the vernaculars were gleefully displacing Latin as the medium of expression. But France, which since Charlemagne had been the political and cultural node of the continent, was finding itself only just another nation-state. Less than fifty years earlier the English - feeling towards their own Englishness: Chaucer was then a decade dead - had thrashed the French at Agincourt and played merry hell with their politics. Within a century the cultural focus of Europe would shift to the city-states of Italy. In France as elsewhere the merchant-bankers were starting to influence the fates of dynasties. It was a wild time, a rootless era even within the Church; and it needed a chronicler.

Villon did not bother much about kings and bankers, except to mock them in passing. He writes of innkeepers and cutpurses, bawds and brawls, the riotous undercurrents of a great city. An earlier poem, The Legacy (written under threat of prison) was full of sardonic bequests, such as a few hairs to his barber. Testament too makes bequests, but these are weightier: Villon after a long prologue leaves his body to earth, a prayer to the Virgin to his mother. And running through the poem is a sincere lament for a wasted youth and a squandered talent.

Bad men may be good poets; good poets are often bad men. But Villon was not the "lost child", the "accursed poet" that the Bohemian poets of late 19th Century France attempted to claim. He was a man of learning: he took his bachelor's degree from the University of Paris at 18 and his master's at 21. Recent research seems to show that Testament is not just hotchpotch autobiography; there is a subtle rhythm, perhaps even a "cosmic significance", to the ordering of the stanzas. Their rhyme and metre are precise; the great craftsman Ezra Pound early this century pointed out how Villon rhymes on the exact and concrete word. The eight-line stanzas are interspersed with a number of formal ballads. Some have complex double rhymes, such as the one which immediately follows this selection, a paean to dead beauty with the famous refrain "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?" (But where are the snows of the bygone year?)

I have in this column often dwelled upon the perils of taking a translation for the poem itself. What makes great French poetry is not at all what makes great English poetry. I have however chosen an excerpt that has power even in translation and the locus of whose message is all of Time. Villon foresees a death by hanging, and it has terrors for him. But he is no maudlin drunk drowning in guilt. He admits in Testament that he has sinned and deserves no mercy from God. But, he asks, who are his fellowmen to judge him when they are all as guilty of being human? If they are forgiven above, he prays humbly but with a strong sense of self-worth, so may he be.

Villon disappears from recorded history after 1463. He probably died in a brawl, or was executed; a ripe old age is unlikely for such a man. The first edition of his poems appeared as early as 1489, and there were twenty more in the next century. Though not all his work survives, Villon is still considered one of the great French lyric poets, and his careless humanity brings him very close to us. He took confession out of the confessional.

A word about the translator: what I have is a 1978 edition, and I have no idea what Peter Dale has been up to since then. But it is possible that some readers of this newspaper do, for among Dale's credits is a book, The Seasons of Cankam, translated from the Tamil with Kokilam Subbiah. A poet and editor as well, his translation of Villon is skilful and muscular, and stays close, as I judge - I don't read French - to the original.

* * *

From The Testament

...I know I'm not, I quite agree,
an angel's son in an aureole
of stars and galaxies, not me.
My father's dead, God rest his soul,
his body in a stone-flagged hole.
My mother's dying, that I know
and she, poor woman, knows the whole.
Nor has her son so far to go.

I know that rich or poor, the wise or foolish, parishioner or priest, nobles or peasants, prince and miser, high or low, beauty or beast, ladies in high-turned collars, least and last whatever their conception, high hat or headscarf, west or east - Death seizes all without exception.

Though Paris dies and Helen dies, whoever dies must die in pain: a hollow in the breath that dries;

spleen bursts upon the heart to drain; he sweats, my God, he sweats in vain. For now no brother, sister, son would take his place and bear that pain moments before his life is done.

Death trembles him and bleeds him pale, the nostrils pinch, the veins distend, the neck is gorged, skin limp and frail. Joints knot and sinews draw and rend. O Woman's body, so suave and tender, so trim and dear, must you arrive at such an agony in the end? Oh yes, or rise to Heaven live.

translated by Peter Dale

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