‘Le lesserez la, le povre Villon?’ – Will you leave poor Villon here? – the poet asks in an appeal from Meung-sur-Loire, near Orléans, where he was detained at the Bishop’s pleasure, probably in 1461. ‘Epistre a ses amis’ reads now, in the light of so much scholarship, translation, loose-clad homage and general ventriloquism on the part of a wide and posthumous circle of acquaintance from Swinburne to Lowell and beyond, like a request to be left in peace – Villon is something of a cottage industry and the generator has been whirring fairly constantly beside the mallow patch. But it’s the translators most of us have to thank for knowing him at all.
‘It goes without saying that faithful translation of poetry is a contradiction in terms,’ Barbara Sargent-Bauer writes in the Introduction to her ‘complete’ edition (based on four manuscript sources and one imprint of the ‘Legacy’ and the ‘Testament’, and a further seven variants for shorter works). One way to resolve that contradiction is to opt for meaning of a narrow kind and ferry it into English in the hope that nothing perishes in the hold. This is Sargent-Bauer’s policy. ‘I’ve attempted to convey, line by line, my understanding of the sense of the original texts while at the same time retaining their formal character.’ A pedestrian agenda that nonetheless involves some walking on water. Like many of her predecessors, she concedes the remendous entanglement of the life with the verse by setting down the biographical details early on in her Introduction.
Most of the little that’s known about Villon comes from state archives – police and judiciary, parliament and crown – but there is also plenty of biographical material in the poetry. Villon studied at the Faculty of Arts in Paris and received a licence in 1452. He was patronised by a Burgundian law professor whose name he adopted and proceeded to drag through the watering holes, brothels, law courts and jails of Paris, the Loire valley and other parts of France. In his early thirties he was charged with the murder of a priest in the course of a quarrel. He went into hiding and appealed to the courts for remission, which was granted. The following year – 1456 – there was a robbery at the theology faculty of the Collège de Navarre in the rue Sainte-Geneviève. A gang of loubards, or low-life gentlemen, or gentlemen-loubards, had helped themselves to the faculty strongbox. It was Christmas and the haul was plentiful: Villon and his friends got away with five or six hundred écus, whatever that was worth, and he left the capital in short order. Before his departure, he drafted his Lais, or ‘Legacy’, a series of sardonic bequests, roughly three hundred lines long, prompted by a jilting and ending with a parody of Aristotelian composure.
In 1457, Guy Tabarie, one of Villon’s accomplices, was remanded in connection with the robbery and supplied names to the authorities, but Villon was already out of reach. After a few years wandering in the provinces he was detained in Meung for some unspecified offence. The ‘Epistre a ses amis’ – a mob of gallants, bards and girls with pristine voices (‘gousiers tintans cler comme cascaveaux’: ‘gullets tinkling clear as little bells’) – was composed at Meung. In 1461, having obtained a royal pardon when the new king rode through Orléans, Villon returned to Paris. The ‘Testament’ was written here, ‘en l’ an de mon trentiesme age’. It’s richer and longer than the ‘Legacy’, full of lower blows and better comedy, but its worldliness is offset by the unearthly descant of a very naughty boy, tired of wrongdoing and of being wronged, who no longer cares to play the game. The 186 stanzas of the ‘Testament’ are interspersed with songs, letters and ballads, some of which may not belong; in these, the voice of resignation, of the angel succumbing to his fall, is at its clearest. So is the sense of loss. The Villon we hear, even in translation, is debarred from two cities – 15th-cenrury clerical Paris and the City of God, a double exile which loads this poetry with aspiration and strips it of pretension. Sooner or later, its only recourse is to sue for clemency.
Not long after he got back to Paris, Villon was in jail again on a robbery charge. The theology faculty objected to his release, which was made conditional on repayment of his share of the Christmas takings six years earlier. Within a few days of leaving jail, Villon was involved in a stabbing, arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged. He appealed from the Châtelet prison and in 1463 the sentence was commuted, on Parliamentary authority, to ten years’ exile from the city of Paris.
Of Villon’s shorter pieces, known as ‘Les Poèmes variés’, three at the end of Sargent-Bauer’s running order are typical, respectively, of the poet’s talent for gallows threnody, his sportsman’s pleasure in reprieve and his petitioner’s talent for cravenness, which took its cue from the ingratiating styles of the period. The most striking is the famous quatrain which could well have been composed in the Châtelet, before the pardon. It begins with the customary ID tag (‘Je suis François’) and an aside (‘no source of cheer’) and continues in the manner of a statement by the arraigned: ‘Né de Paris, enprés Pontoise’; then, rhetorically, perhaps to an absent fraternity of villains: ‘And from the six-foot rope, I fear/My neck will know the weight of my rear.’
The other two may also have been written at this time, but if so, after news of the pardon. One is addressed to Etienne Garnier, the clerk of the Châtelet prison, who, as Sargent-Bauer says, seems to have advised Villon against an appeal. ‘What d’you think of my appeal, / Garnier?’ Did the clerk really think Villon hadn’t enough ‘philosophy beneath my cap to make me utter, “I appeal?” ’ It is these verses which tell us that Villon was abused in prison, – suffocation torture with wet cloth (‘Were I one of Hugh Capet’s heirs ... they wouldn’t have forced me to drink through that cloth, in that slaughterhouse’); and that the poet could turn his outrage to poignant advantage, catching the association of asphyxiation with denial of speech (‘Was that the time to hold my tongue?’)
The third poem is in praise of Parliament, the supreme court of the day, for commuting Villon’s death sentence. It’s in quite another tone, unctuous and lavish. It deploys a familiar, extended metaphor in which the poet’s faculties and ‘all my parts’ become ambassadors of his gratitude and loyalty: eyes, ears, mouth, nose, sense of touch, tongue, ‘humble’ heart, teeth, liver, lungs and spleen parade the poet’s debt to the court. Very likely, on the evidence of the lager works, Villon had to resist the impulse to ruin his prospects by way of a joke (sending thanks via his bladder, say, or his arsehole) at the expense of his benefactors. But more pressing considerations keep his praise of Parliament on course. He makes them plain in the envoi: a request for three days’ grace to hustle some cash in the city before his banishment takes effect. This and the reproach to Garnier are the last of the ‘Poèmes variés’ in Sargent-Bauer’s edition. After 1463, there are no further recorded works and no traces of Villon himself, apart from a couple of teasers in Rabelais, one of which has him taking ship to England.
As a package, Villon is quite manageable. The poet disappears at the age of 32, leaving two great monuments, some fifteen shorter poems and a dozen ballads in thieves’ jargon, which Sargent-Bauer has also translated. Most common knowledge of Villon is more portable still, because of the ‘Epitaphe’, also known as the ‘Ballade des pendus’, in which a decomposing chorus from the gibbet regales the living with salutary descriptions of death and corruption and the warning not to ‘be of our brotherhood’. The ‘Epitaphe’ has tended to delegate for much of Villon’s work and to become the emblem of an already emblematic life, ‘star-crossed’, lovelorn, criminal. The poem itself and the knowledge we have of Villon’s near-escapes from the hangman take on a livid glow in an otherwise mysterious firmament, which makes it easier to assign the whole Villon Thing to a single house – the eighth, or the house of death – when in fact it knocks at several doors in the neighbourhood. In particular at No 1 (‘life’) and No 11 (‘friends and benefactors’) and regularly at No 12 (‘uncertainty’). The parochial, precisely awful interest in death that transfixed some forms of Modernism is absent in Villon; he is no latecomer’s semblable. Though it may not subscribe to them entirely, his verse is full of period pieties, including a powerful sense of transience and after-life, in which the stylisations of the danse macabre fit chastely enough.
The bigger issue is probably Villon’s attraction to difficulty, which Guy Debord touched on in Panegyric when he conceived the poet as a ‘devotee of the dangerous life’. This has to do with more than mortal injury and the risks of bad company. Villon tested his fortune to the limit, put upon the good and the great in ruinous ways and gave the Christian ethic of the day such a complex run for its money that the Last Judgment would have had to adjourn for some time to consider whether his criminal career was pure villainy or a form of renunciation, in which the faculty sable was exchanged for the soiled armour of Christ – the abject stuff that gave Lazarus his edge over Dives, the rich man ‘ensevely en feu’: IL DONNA TOUT, the poet suggests as part of the inscription on his grave, CHASCUN LE SCET.
But everyone knows, too, that Villon was on the take; he even helped himself to the trappings of perdition in an elaborate game of sin and redemption which satisfied his taste for transcendent stakes and honoured his loyalty to paradox. To imagine Villon now is to postulate a gambler and provocateur, who turned heaven and hell into a game of hazard. The longer his conduct stretched the odds, the more fervently he dreamed of winning, and the harder it was to tell a winner from a dead loss. ‘Je gagne tout et demeure perdent,’ he sings in the ‘Ballade des contradictions’, and the solution cannot have been simple. To lose at the hands of Fortune was perhaps to win in heaven, but heaven looked askance at winners; it may even have preferred the fallible candidate – but how to tell the difference between the sin that gained admission and the damnable offence? The question kept Villon alert, even in over-indulgence, and gave his pilgrimage of disorder a devout, fatalistic cast. Running scared, he proclaims in the ‘Ballade des contre-vérités’, is the only peace of mind; and then, spelling out his position, which divine and temporal powers alike were liable to misconstrue unless he set the record straight: no ‘faith but of the faithless one’.
All this gives Villon his sense that the lowliest man or woman can be lifted up into the city – his politics, presumably – and serves to deepen, rather than diminish, the comic quality of the work, for taking heavy losses in the hope of winning was a tiresome affair and the woes of the poet show as much exasperation as self-pity. Occasionally they are played for laughs in the spirit of the good clown (‘le bon follastre’), one of the ways Villon imagined he would be remembered, whereupon complaint gives way to bathos. In the inscription, he urges a commemorative verse to be spoken at his graveside: whoever passes by should recall, among the poet’s many sufferings, that he was shaved like a ‘turnip’ and whacked on the arse with a shovel. The sardonic passage from lamentation to grievous literary harm of others is taken via love. Drubbed and disabused, Villon spices the miseries of the rejected lover with stern maledictions against the woman in question (‘A time will come that will quite desiccate,/ Yellow and wither that full-blown flower of yours’). He consigns his erstwhile partner to the attentions of a celebrated lecher known as ‘le Bon Foutteur’ – ‘the illustrious fucker’, or more politely, since Sargent-Bauer is always eager to correct Villon’s manners, the ‘champion in bed’. Beyond the belle dame sans merci stands a congregation of rogues, hypocrites, prelates, fools, bullies and opportunists, to whom the poet tosses stinking posies like a holy man bestowing pardons. Friends and acquaintances are also hailed with a joke at their expense. What Villon will not stand for, in accomplices or enemies, is the guise of respectability. Doing away with it is a routine chore, which is why he bears some of his grudges, at least, with the equanimity of a donkey under a light load.
Sargent-Bauer’s translations, and her helpful notes, give all of this a hearing. Her only formal guideline is to translate into octosyllabic or decasyllabic lines, like Villon’s, with additions and subtractions here and there. Like Galway Kinnell, who made two attempts at Villon in the Sixties and Seventies, she thinks that rhyming English would have been pointless, and Peter Dale’s rather desperate versions (Penguin, 1978) surely prove the point. To the povre Villon, importuned, resurrected, sanctified in heretical pantheons, Sargent-Bauer is a dependable ally. No dutiful translation like hers can hope to ride with the turbulence of the work but it does give us those moments of last resort that are among the best in Villon:
I’m not a judge, nor am I charged
To punish or absolve misdeeds.
I’m the least perfect one of all
(Praised be the gentle Jesus Christ!);
Let this make my amends to them.
What I have written, I have written.
The poets have often commemorated Villon, and kept him close to the gibbet. Pound’s Villon, portrayed by one of his companions in a bawdy house – ‘ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat’ – is a lounge lizard in a period tavern scene complete with wenches, overflowing tankards and ‘lusty’ customers. But even here the hangman presides and the poem steps up smartly for the danse macabre, evoking the blackened dead, ‘lips shrunk back for the wind’s caress’, from the third stanza of the ‘Epitaphe’. It’s that wind, buffeting the corpses, which seems to haunt the poets:
Puis ça, puis la, comme le vent varie,
A son plaisir sans cesse nous charie.
It gusts through the envoi and into the valleys of literary succession, carrying a faint scent of carrion which, when he followed his nose to Cythera, led Baudelaire to a ragged side pourriture hung on a three-pronged gallows under cerulean skies. In English, however, the ‘Epitaphe’ doesn’t always sound well, and the wind – which gives way to an Ionian calm in ‘Un Voyage à Cythère’ – is no more than a faint breeze around the ankles. Richard Aldington, who could often be found sucking where the bee sucks, produced an unfortunate version that does much the same: ‘Now here, now there, as the wind sways, sway we.’ And Peter Dale, always pushed for rhymes, has the bodies on his gibbets turn black and blue, which goes with ‘on view’ and in turn requires that the dead grumble like busy cabin stewardesses, ‘never at rest a moment or two’. Kinnell is better; so is Jean Calais (Pick Pocket, 1976), who writes out the wind altogether and simply has the corpses pecked by ‘crows and shrikes’.
Jean Calais – a pseudonym for Stephen Rodefer – is Villon’s most interesting ‘translator’. Running casually between version and imitation, Rodefer makes every tactical misprision that it’s possible to make. The result feels faithful in the broadest sense. Where, at the end of Villon’s showy catalogue-search for belles and heroines long deceased, Rossetti has him asking:
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,
Mother of God, where are they then?
Rodefer has already shut down the terminal and caught the dying moments of the happy hour. He slams his dollars on the counter in anticipation of a long night:
And where is the bonnie Joan of Lorraine
whom the English fucking burned at Rouen?
Holy Jesus mother of God where did they go?
Rodefer’s slim volume is a piece of punk ventriloquy and Villon sometimes sounds like an American in Paris, but for all the irony of its posture, including the crucial gag about whose hand is wagging whose jaws, it seldom modulates the tone of open confession, which can be heard in the ‘Epitaphe’ once the weather has improved:
here at the point of annihilation,
all our brothers and sisters,
We ask Lord God to acquit us all.
Pound, too, at the end of his ‘personification’, gets Villon’s drift quite beautifully, in a prayer for the poet and his friends which draws directly on the same envoi:
God damn his hell out speedily
And bring their souls to his ‘Haulte Citée’.
Lines like these give the poetry back to the two places Villon always had in mind: the courts of heaven, attainable by stealth or purity of heart – he never could decide – and Paris, where his fall from grace began. To strand him at a junction, singing gallows songs, is not quite right.
Detained in Paris in the early Twenties for assaulting a police officer, Basil Bunting found himself ‘in the room where Villon had awaited examination five hundred years earlier’. Peter Makin, in Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse (1992), retells this story from Bunting’s account and Pound’s – it was Pound who rode to something resembling the rescue of this ‘Northumbrian intellectual’ in distress. Bunting would work at his poetry for another forty years before he gained wide recognition with his last ‘sonata’, ‘Briggflatts’. He learned by dint of translation, reading and experimenting with a set of ideas that ran poetry as close to its basis in music as he could get it without capsizing. The episode in Paris was not Bunting’s first experience of prison. As a conscientious objector, he had spent nearly two years in jails and guard houses in Britain. He was detained in 1918, about the time of his 18th birthday, and released towards the end of the following year. He told Victoria Forde, whose book The Poetry of Basil Bunting is laden with the fruits of his conversation and correspondence, that when he refused to eat for a part of his term, the Governor of Winchester jail had a roast chicken delivered to his cell ‘every morning’ of his fast. Pound telegrams the same story in Canto 74: ‘Bunting/ doing six months after that war was over/as pacifist tempted with chicken.’
Although Bunting gave more and more hints about the biographical gist of his poetry, he said little about his time in jail. But this is retold in ‘Villon’, the poem that gets him started and identifies the way in which he went on to write, setting what became of him and who he became – all the lived stuff – on a ground of cherished acquaintance, mainly with music and poetry. The process is so thorough in ‘Villon’ and the later poems that little of a purely personal nature is recognisable; it’s all re-embodied, surrendered up to other terms or braced across Bunting’s passions – for history, myth, the Classical and Renaissance canons, Persian verse, a variety of music (but particularly Scarlatti’s) and the cold reaches of Northumbria. The ‘I’ of a Bunting poem is usually displaced or transposed in some way, or it is something diffuse; he translated and, though he denied it, ‘personified’ in a fragmentary way, during much of his life, gaining his own voice in the company, and through the medium, of other voices.
That’s how it is with the persona in ‘Villon’, ‘fettered to a post in the damp cellarage’, cursing the Bishop who put him there, captive all the while to a ghostly review of things lost and things apparent within the walls. He scratches Villon’s verses like graffiti, adding his own embellishments – ‘the good Lorraine/whom English burned at Rouen/the day’s bones whitening in the centuries’ dust’. The whole undertaking is more complex than the familiar sorts of personification in which a poet borrows the voice, or the attitude, or the well-known work of another poet and simply drives it away like a hire car, filling the interior with his own plausible smell. Bunting’s poem is restless and protean: a line of Villon rehearsed or restated bears it off at an angle, whereupon the form has to be recast. If the diction is not always nimble, the poem itself has real agility. It gets Bunting from a blast against the scholarly dissection of Villon (‘He whom we anatomised’) into a dismissal of the image (‘Vision is lies’), an appeal to language (‘Naked speech!’) and from there to a virtuoso transposition, mostly in octosyllabic lines, of a famous mortuary passage from the ‘Testament’ (‘povres et riches ... mort saisit sans exception’), which he cuts into quatrains:
Remember, imbeciles and wits,
sots and ascetics, fair and foul,
young girls with little tender tits,
that DEATH is written all over.
He then proceeds to raise desire from its captivity. ‘And Circe ... lay with me in that dungeon for a year.’ Masturbation is the figure here, as it is in Genet, another of Villon’s progeny, and indeed in Villon, at the end of the ‘Legacy’. But visiting-time is curtailed by the pedant, Ronsard, who caps Circe’s tongue with a thimble. The poem embarks on a quarrel with quantification, information-gathering and scientism (‘they have ... run the white moon to a schedule’) and ends, near enough, with a return to the idea of language, speech itself, as the medium of authenticity – the ‘chisel voice’ that taps out sense at the face of things.
In the four decades between ‘Villon’ and ‘Briggflatts’, the achievement for which Bunting is most admired, the life stands well back from the work. The longer poems, all but one under the rubric, ‘Sonatas’, make their way through a field of reference and allusion – works encountered, things held dear – much as the Cantos do, although in Bunting, the journey is better planned and the sense of the poem, from line to entirety, more precise. Allegiances too, are more discreetly signalled: to Dante, Villon, Chapman’s Homer, among others; to the King James Bible and, in ‘The Spoils’, his last big poem before ‘Briggflatts’, to an array of Arabic, Jewish and Persian materials – Bunting served in Persia during the war and later became the Times correspondent in Tehran, although he was expelled by Mossadeq in the mid-Fifties.
Some fifteen years separate ‘The Spoils’ from the next long poem. In that grim interval, grubbing work as a newspaper sub, Bunting dug thirty years of vagrancy, in Europe, the US and the Middle East, with all their accumulated knowledge, into the soil of Northumbria and waited. The result was ‘Briggflatts’, a poem that includes autobiography much as the Cantos were intended to include ‘history’. The facts and feelings of the poet’s life are lodged in a fastness of mythic and historical correlatives: Persian, Norse and Anglo-Celtic, Christian and pagan, sacred and profane – an edifice so sturdy and, on occasion, so impregnable that the help of friends and keepers is required to divulge the poem in its fullness.
In even the most thorough tours of the poem, by Peter Makin and Victoria Forde in particular, the life adheres to its minimal role. That is exactly how Bunting would have wanted it. It is also, as he must have known, a successful celebration of place, carefully summoning the past, and the poet’s own wayward itineraries to some credible location where they cohere.
Yet Bunting’s work remains imprisoned in literary circumstance. It has become a poetry of ‘the North’, partly because he was at odds with London literary life and believed that ‘southrons’ lacked the ear for his work, and partly because a number of commentaries have stressed this point. Bunting also suffered from the ascendancy of the Movement. There is no cult of disappointment in Bunting and none of the see-through brutalism (through, that is, to the sufferings of the poet) which helped Larkin in particular to close down that view of the poem, espoused by Pound and others, as a free-ranging, eclectic thing. ‘Chomei at Toyama’, the long Bunting poem that Larkin chose for his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973), represented this view very well, but it had been overshadowed already by Larkin’s brilliantly dissembled version of romanticism whose recourse to plain-speaking made it nearly unassailable.
Perhaps it was a relief, as well as an inspiration, to see England as a fading, dull grey Cythera and oneself suspended in the twilight of its ‘slow dying’. Bunting, however, believed a poem could go beyond the complex narcissism that brings it to fruition, which may be why, in his own version of the ‘Voyage à Cythère’, he makes light of the final quatrain, where the poet recognises his own body on the gallows and asks for the strength to look on without disgust:
bows to Baudelaire in the looking-glass.
It is good to get Bunting back again, in Richard Caddel’s Complete Poems, nine yean after the poet’s death, and, for Londoners and ‘southrons’ at any rate, to have a glimpse of something beyond our own reflection. After ‘Briggflatts’ Bunting never really needed London, but London could have done with more of him. The idea that he is a ‘northern nationalist’ whose writing is ‘profoundly subversive of the literary establishment’ – Peter Quartermain in 1990 – is too glib and too proprietorial. Bunting was not a parish chauvinist; his own uneasiness about a grand metropolitan project was more serious. The demise of Pound, the big metropolitan, must have been part of it; after all, there is no intellectual corruption quite like anti-semitism. (‘It makes me sick,’ he wrote to Pound at the end of the Thirties, ‘to see you covering yourself with that filth.’) Poverty, disparity, the ruinous world of the pits – these, too, were huge issues that bound Bunting to Northumbria and to difficulty, his straitened circumstances easing somewhat in the last years. Bunting didn’t live to see the ‘poetry revival’ of the Nineties, or its luminaries modelling designer outfits in Esquire magazine. He would have enjoyed the idea of a poet as someone who was worth the price of the clothes he stood in (Simon Armitage, £ 1055; Andrew Motion, £ 953; Glynn Maxwell, £520 – all totals excluding underwear). Villon, CHASCUN LE SCET, would have been unable to resist a flutter on the fate of his soul by offering to model everything, then nothing, in a centre-page spread.