Guest poem submitted by Vikram Doctor:
(Poem #556) Ballade of the Hanged (Villon's Epitaph)
Brothers that live when we are dead, don't set yourself against us too. If you could pity us instead, then God may sooner pity you. We five or six strung up to view, dangling the flesh we fed so well, are eaten piecemeal, rot and smell. We bones in a fine dust shall fall. No one make that a laugh to tell: pray God may save us one and all. Brothers, if that's the word we said, it's no disparagement to you although in justice we hang dead. Yet all the same you know how few are men of sense in all they do. Pray now we're dead that Jesu's well of grace shall not run dry - nor Hell open in thunder as we fall. We're dead don't harry us as well: pray God may save us one and all. Showered and rinsed with rain, we dead the sun has dried out black and blue. Magpie and crow gouge out each head for eyes and pluck the hair. On view, never at rest a moment of two, winds blow us here or there a spell; more pricked than a tailor's thumb could tell we're needled by the birds. Don't fall then for our brotherhood and cell: pray God may save us one and all. Prince, Lord of Men, oh keep us well beyond the sovereignty of Hell. On him we've no business to call. And, men, it's no joke now I tell: pray God may save us one and all.
tr. Peter Dale. There is no poet quite like Villon, which is why we have to have something by him, though the problem is immediately obvious: Villon does not translate well at all. 'Where are the snows of yesteryear' for 'Ou sont les neiges d'antan' is a fluke; apart from that I've never seen any translation that quite does justice to his tone. And that tone is so unmistakeable, even to someone like me whose French is only passable. Witty, pithy, sad, romantic, vituperative, street-smart, crude and yet refined, it simply reeks from every line of Villon's colourful life. (There's a biographical sketch after this, also the original for those who know some French. It's medieval French, but can still be understood to some extent by speakers of current French). Perhaps it's this legend that colours the reading, but then one has to accept that there are poets whose lives and verse cannot be separated (for some reason it's the French poets like Villon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine who come most immediately to mind, though of course it's also true of Byron, Shelley and others). And of all the poems Villon wrote, none carries more emotional impact than this. Villon was imprisoned and very definitely facing execution when he wrote this, and this expectation hugely fills every syllable of this poem. That cliche of never being more aware of life at the point of death is no cliche here, its what the poem is all about. There is an agonising awareness of life in his precise description of the corpses hung up in the wind and how their bodies rot. And the plea for mercy is agonisingly real too. For all his quarrels with the Church, there is no doubt that Villon was a believer, and that faith - or horror, the two seem to be the same for him - aches through this poem. This is also an example of a poetic form that fits the purpose brilliantly. In English the ballade often seems an artificial form: the fixed rhymes, the strict number of verses and the poet's address to himself or a superior at the end (which always reminds me of the ghazal, the last couplet of which also starts with such an address to someone). In English it seems to work best in comic verse. But not in French. Ballades are among the best poems in French, and in Villon's hand reached a level no one else ever really did. Villon's handling of the technical constraints is so easy and skillful, one almost never becomes aware of them. And in this poem, the address in last quatrain comes in all too appropriately for Villon to beg Jesus for mercy. Vikram. "Ballade des Pendus (L'Epitaphe Villon)" Freres humains qui après nous vivez N'ayez les cuers contre nous endurcis Cas se pitié de nous povres avez Dieu en aura plus tost de vous mercis. Vous nous voiez cy attachez cinq, six. Quant de la chair que trop avons nourrie, Elle est pieça devorée et pourrie, Et nous, les os, devenons cendre et pouldre. De nostre mal personne ne s'en rie Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre. Se freres vous clamons, pas n'en devez Avoir desdaing, quoy que fusmes occis Par justice. Toutesfois, vous sçavez Qua tous hommes n'ont pas bon sens rassis. Excusez nous, puis que sommes transsis, Envers le fils de la Vierge Marie Que sa grace ne soit pour nous tarie Nous sommes mors; ame ne nous harie Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre. La pluye nous a debuez et lavez Et le soleil dessechiez et noircis. Pies, corbeaulx, nous ont les yeux cavez Et arrachié la barbe et les sourcis. Jamais nul temps nous ne sommes assis; Puis ça, puis la, comme le vent varie A son plaisir sans cesser nous charie, Plus becquetez d'oiseaulx que dez a couldre. Ne soiez donc de nostre confrarie Mis priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre. Prince Jesus qui sur tous a maistrie Garde qu'Enfer n'ait de nous seigneurie. A luy n'ayons que faire ne que souldre. Hommes, icy n'a point de mocquerie; Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre. -- Francois Villon [Bio] Francois Villon was born Francois Montcorbier or Francois des Loges in 1431. He took his surname, Villon, from his guardian and benefactor, Guillaume de Villon, chaplain of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné, a man of whom he speaks well, in both Le Lais and Le Testament. He took his baccalauréat from the University of Paris in 1449. Around 1451, he was probably involved in a student rag which removed a landmark (le Pet au Diable: The Devil's Fart) from the front of Mademoiselle de Bruyère's house. He himself mentions a poem, Le Roman du Pet au Diable, in Le Testament. However, in 1452, he received his licence and maire ès arts from the University of Paris. His first clash with the law occurred in 1455 when he was involved in a fight with a priest who was killed An eye-witness, admittedly a friend of Villon's, maintains he acted in self-defence. Though pardoned for the murder in 1456, that same year he was implicated in the famous robbery of five hundred golden écus from the College of Navarre. Guy Tabary and Colin de Cayeux are two of his confederates mentioned in Le Testament. In this year he wrote, presumably in some haste, Le Lais. Tabary's confession to the robbery in 1457 made Villon leave Paris and go on the run. Much of the rest of the detail of his life comes from Le Testament, on the assumption that it is truly autobiographical. According to this he was imprisoned, somewhat unjustly or pettily if his mood is anything to judge from, by the Bishop of Orleans in his palace-dungeons at Meung. He was set free to celebrate King Louis IX's progress through the town., In this year he wrote Le Testament in which he speaks of his wanderings and various towns that must have been his itinerary between, say, 1456 and 1461. In 1462, he is again in prison, the Châtelet, charged with robbery of the College of Navarre. He was released quickly on promising to repay the money. The last real fact we have about Villon is his arrest for brawling later in 1462... He had been imprisoned for a minor brawling incident with a papal scribe Ferrebouc who, unluckily, had influence. He was tortured and sentenced to be strangled and hanged... Parliament set aside the sentence, imposing banishment from Paris. -- from Francois Villon: Selected Poems. [EndNote] I forgot to add that the one English poet who Villon reminds me of a bit is John Skelton. Skelton's short, rapid lines, are very different technically, but there is a bit of Villon in his street wise cocky quality. I might be going out on a bit of a limb here, since I just consulted my local Eng. Litt. expert who sort of kindly told me this was a bit far fetched, Villon being part of the courtly love tradition. But reading Le Testament again for this I was struck by how much of it is simply making fun of and abusing random people who seem to have annoyed him, and for some reason it made me think of Skelton. Anyway, the only thing to result from this is the suggestion that we have some Skelton sometime since he's fun and very distinctive. Vikram.