In the Châtelet

Jeremy Harding

  • François Villon: Complete Poems edited by Barbara Sargent-Bauer
    Toronto, 346 pp, £42.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 8020 2946 9
  • Basil Bunting: Complete Poems edited by Richard Caddel
    Oxford, 226 pp, £10.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 19 282282 9

‘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?’)

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