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Full Online Book HomeEssaysOld And New Masters - Chapter 9. Villon: The Genius Of The Tavern
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Old And New Masters - Chapter 9. Villon: The Genius Of The Tavern Post by :cormad Category :Essays Author :Robert Lynd Date :May 2012 Read :3112

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Old And New Masters - Chapter 9. Villon: The Genius Of The Tavern


It is to Stevenson's credit that he was rather sorry that he had ever written his essay on Villon. He explains that this was due to the fact that he "regarded Villon as a bad fellow," but one likes to think that his conscience was also a little troubled because through lack of sympathy he had failed to paint a just portrait of a man of genius. Villon was a bad fellow enough in all conscience. He was not so bad, however, as Stevenson made him out. He was, no doubt, a thief; he had killed a man; and it may even be (if we are to read autobiography into one of the most shocking portions of the _Grand Testament_) that he lived for a time on the earnings of "la grosse Margot." But, for all this, he was not the utterly vile person that Stevenson believed. His poetry is not mere whining and whimpering of genius which occasionally changes its mood and sticks its fingers to its nose. It is rather the confession of a man who had wandered over the "crooked hills of delicious pleasure," and had arrived in rags and filth in the famous city of Hell. It is a map of disaster and a chronicle of lost souls. Swinburne defined the genius of Villon more imaginatively than Stevenson when he addressed him in a paradoxical line as:

Bird of the bitter bright grey golden morn,

and spoke of his "poor, perfect voice,"

That rings athwart the sea whence no man steers,
Like joy-bells crossed with death-bells in our ears.

No man who has ever written has so cunningly mingled joy-bells and death-bells in his music. Here is a realism of damned souls--damned in their merry sins--at which the writer of _Ecclesiastes merely seems to hint like a detached philosopher. Villon may never have achieved the last faith of the penitent thief. But he was a penitent thief at least in his disillusion. If he continues to sing _Carpe diem when at the age of thirty he is already an old, diseased man, he sings it almost with a sneer of hatred. It is from the lips of a grinning death's-head--not of a jovial roysterer, as Henley makes it seem in his slang translation--that the _Ballade de bonne Doctrine a ceux de mauvaise Vie falls, with its refrain of destiny:

Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.

And the _Ballade de la Belle Heaulmiere aux Filles de Joie_, in which Age counsels Youth to take its pleasure and its fee before the evil days come, expresses no more joy of living than the dismallest _memento mori._

One must admit, of course, that the obsession of vice is strong in Villon's work. In this he is prophetic of much of the greatest French literature of the nineteenth century. He had consorted with criminals beyond most poets. It is not only that he indulged in the sins of the flesh. It is difficult to imagine that there exists any sin of which he and his companions were not capable. He was apparently a member of the famous band of thieves called the Coquillards, the sign of which was a cockle-shell in the cap, "which was the sign of the Pilgrim." "It was a large business," Mr. Stacpoole says of this organization in his popular life of Villon, "with as many departments as a New York store, and, to extend the simile, its chief aim and object was to make money. Coining, burglary, highway robbery, selling indulgences and false jewellery, card-sharping, and dice-playing with loaded dice, were chief among its industries." Mr. Stacpoole goes on to tone down this catalogue of iniquity with the explanation that the Coquillards were, after all, not nearly such villains as our contemporary milk-adulterators and sweaters of women. He is inclined to think they may have been good fellows, like Robin Hood and his men or the gentlemen of the road in a later century. This may well be, but a gang of Robin Hoods, infesting a hundred taverns in the town and quarrelling in the streets over loose women, is dangerous company for an impressionable young man who had never been taught the Shorter Catechism. Paris, even in the twentieth century, is alleged to be a city of temptation. Paris, in the fifteenth century, must have been as tumultuous with the seven deadly sins as the world before the Flood. Joan of Arc had been burned in the year in which Villon was born, but her death had not made saints of the students of Paris. Living more or less beyond the reach of the civil law, they made a duty of riot, and counted insolence and wine to themselves for righteousness. Villon, we are reminded, had good influences in his life, which might have been expected to moderate the appeal of wildness and folly. He had his dear, illiterate mother, for whom, and at whose request, he wrote that unexpected ballade of prayer to the Mother of God. He had, too, that good man who adopted him, Guillaume de Villon, chaplain of Saint Benoist--

mon plus que pere
Maistre Guillaume de Villon,
Qui m'a este plus doux que mere;

and who gave him the name that he has made immortal. That he was not altogether unresponsive to these good influences is shown by his references to them in his _Grand Testament_, though Stevenson was inclined to read into the lines on Guillaume the most infernal kind of mockery and derision. One of Villon's bequests to the old man, it will be remembered, was the _Rommant du Pet au Diable_, which Stevenson refers to again and again as an "improper romance." Mr. Stacpoole has done a service to English readers interested in Villon by showing that the _Rommant was nothing of the sort, but was a little epic--possibly witty enough--on a notorious conflict between the students and civilians of Paris. One may accept the vindication of Villon's goodness of heart, however, without falling in at all points with Mr. Stacpoole's tendency to justify his hero. When, for instance, in the account of Villon's only known act of homicide, the fact that after he had stabbed the priest, Sermoise, he crushed in his head with a stone, is used to prove that he must have been acting on the defensive, because, "since the earliest times, the stone is the weapon used by man to repel attack--chiefly the attack of wolves and dogs"--one cannot quite repress a sceptical smile. I admit that, in the absence of evidence, we have no right to accuse Villon of deliberate murder. But it is the absence of evidence that acquits him, not the fact that he killed his victim with a stone as well as a dagger. Nor does it seem to, me quite fair to blame, as Mr. Stacpoole does by implication, the cold and beautiful Katherine de Vaucelles for Villon's moral downfall. Katherine de Vaucelles--what a poem her very name is!-may, for all one knows, have had the best of reasons for sending her bully to beat the poet "like dirty linen on the washing-board." We do not know, and it is better to leave the matter a mystery than to sentimentalize like Mr. Stacpoole:--

Had he come across just now one of those creative women, one of those women who by the alchemy that lives alone in love can bend a man's character, even though the bending had been ever so little, she might have saved him from the catastrophe towards which he was moving, and which took place in the following December.

All we know is that the lady of miracles did not arrive, and that in her absence Villon and a member of companion gallows-birds occupied the dark of one winter's night in robbing the chapel of the College de Navarre. This was in 1456, and not long afterwards Villon wrote his _Petit Testament_, and skipped from Paris.

We know little of his wanderings in the next five years, nor do we know whether the greater part of them was spent in crimes or in reputable idleness. Mr. Stacpoole writes a chapter on his visit to Charles of Orleans, but there are few facts for a biographer to go upon during this period. Nothing with a date happened to Villon till the summer of 1461, when Thibault d'Aussigny, Bishop of Orleans, for some cause or other, real or imaginary, had him cast into a pit so deep that he "could not even see the lightning of a thunderstorm," and kept him there for three months with "neither stool to sit nor bed to lie on, and nothing to eat but bits of bread flung down to him by his gaolers." Here, during his three months' imprisonment in the pit, he experienced all that bitterness of life which makes his _Grand Testament a "De Profundis" without parallel in scapegrace literature. Here, we may imagine with Mr. Stacpoole, his soul grew in the grace of suffering, and the death-bells began to bring a solemn music among the joy-bells of his earlier follies. He is henceforth the companion of lost souls. He is the most melancholy of cynics in the kingdom of death. He has ever before him the vision of men hanging on gibbets. He has all the hatreds of a man tortured and haunted and old.

Not that he ever entirely resigns his carnality. His only complaint against the flesh is that it perishes like the snows of last year. But to recognize even this is to have begun to have a just view of life. He knows that in the tavern is to be found no continuing city. He becomes the servant of truth and beauty as he writes the most revealing and tragic satires on the population of the tavern in the world's literature. What more horrible portrait exists in poetry than that of "la belle Heaulmiere" grown old, as she contemplates her beauty turned to hideousness--her once fair limbs become "speckled like sausages"? "La Grosse Margot" alone is more horrible, and her bully utters his and her doom in the last three awful lines of the ballade which links her name with Villon's:--

Ordure amons, ordure nous affuyt;
Nous deffuyons honneur, il nous deffuyt,
En ce bordeau, ou tenons nostre estat.

But there is more than the truth of ugliness in these amazing ballads of which the _Grand Testament is full. Villon was by nature a worshipper of beauty. The lament over the defeat of his dream of fair lords and ladies by the reality of a withered and dissatisfying world runs like a torment through his verse. No one has ever celebrated the inevitable passing of loveliness in lovelier verse than Villon has done in the _Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis. I have heard it maintained that Rossetti has translated the radiant beauty of this ballade into his _Ballad of Dead Ladies. I cannot agree. Even his beautiful translation of the refrain,

But where are the snows of yesteryear,

seems to me to injure simplicity with an ornament, and to turn natural into artificial music. Compare the opening lines in the original and in the translation, and you will see the difference between the sincere expression of a vision and the beautiful writing of an exercise. Here is Villon's beginning:--

Dictes-moy ou, n'en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine?
Archipiade, ne Thais,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine?

And here is Rossetti's jaunty English:--

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora, the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?

One sees how Rossetti is inclined to romanticize that which is already romantic beyond one's dreams in its naked and golden simplicity. I would not quarrel with Rossetti's version, however, if it had not been often put forward as an example of a translation which was equal to the original. It is certainly a wonderful version if we compare it with most of those that have been made from Villon. Mr. Stacpoole's, I fear, have no rivulets of music running through them to make up for their want of prose exactitude. Admittedly, however, translation of Villon is difficult. Some of his most beautiful poems are simple as catalogues of names, and the secret of their beauty is a secret elusive as a fragrance borne on the wind. Mr. Stacpoole may be congratulated on his courage in undertaking an impossible task--a task, moreover, in which he challenges comparison with Rossetti, Swinburne, and Andrew Lang. His book, however, is meant for the general public rather than for poets and scholars--at least, for that intelligent portion of the general public which is interested in literature without being over-critical. For its purpose it may be recommended as an interesting, picturesque, and judicious book. The Villon of Stevenson is little better than a criminal monkey of genius. The Villon of Mr. Stacpoole is at least the makings of a man.

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