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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Number 104: Francois Villon "Ballade"


I know flies in milk
I know the man by his clothes
I know fair weather from foul
I know the apple by the tree
I know the tree when I see the sap
I know when all is one
I know who labors and who loafs
I know everything but myself.

I know the coat by the collar
I know the monk by the cowl
I know the master by the servant
I know the nun by the veil
I know when a hustler rattles on
I know fools raised on whipped cream
I know the wine by the barrel
I know everything but myself.

I know the horse and the mule
I know their loads and their limits
I know Beatrice and Belle
I know the beads that count and add
I know nightmare and sleep
I know the Bohemians' error
I know the power of Rome
I know everything but myself.

Prince I know all things
I know the rosy-cheeked and the pale
I know death who devours all
I know everything but myself.

--François Villon

Translated by Galway Kinnell

Hap Notes: I once knew a guy whose band (of sorts) was called Illya Kuryakin. This is back in the 90s and has nothing to do with the rap group in Argentina and yeah, the band name was in tribute to the David McCallum character in the television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Anyway, he was a scholar of Medieval French and he once read me some Francois Villon (1432-1463?) over the phone, with his translation. I knew who Villon was but frankly, I didn't understand the draw. That is, until he read the poem to me. He had a depth of understanding of the work that came through in his reading and I understood the fevered, slangy, sensitive, somewhat misunderstood, wild creature that Villon was. (Some people remember guy's names- I just remember the poetry they introduced to me- I apologize for this but one has to have some priorities.) The band, by the way, was good- pity I don't know where he headed with his music- he was gifted.

Anyhow, this Ballade (which is the French form of the ballad- something the French practically invented as a form) is an easy read and Villon's repetition makes his final statement in each stanza more and more heartbreaking and brilliant, I think. It's no wonder Villon knew everything but himself- he had a crazy patchwork of a life and then, poof! (or in French pouf!) he disappears. Born into poverty, he was guided by an uncle and attended the University of Paris where he received both a bachelors and masters degree (what the French in the 1400s called them- don't know how equivalent they are to ours.) He ran around with a wild crowd and at one time was attacked by a priest (!), knives were drawn, and he inadvertently killed the priest when defending himself. So he flees the city (he had to do this a lot.) He's exonerated for the murder as defensible homicide.

Back he comes to Paris and he gets into another brawl in which he is beaten so severely, he flees in shame. It is during this time he writes his "little testament" in verses.

Back he comes to Paris and he and his merry band of bad companions steal some money from a college- the Collège de Navarre. One of his companions is arrested a year later and he rats on Villon. Again he flees. He's sentenced to banishment from Paris.

He gets into some trouble again and ends up in jail, gets released, gets into trouble again and this time is sentenced to be hanged. He writes his most famous work his big "testament" in which he allots his belongings (mostly imagined and often sarcastic in nature) to various people in verse form. He seems doomed and somehow makes bail and gets out.

Lessons learned? Uh. No. He gets into a street fight, gets arrested and again he lands in jail where is sentenced to be hanged (he writes the amazing Ballade of the Hanged Man) and the sentence gets commuted to banishment. It is said that he then moves to Italy where he settles down with a wife and kids... I don't think this seems very much in character but I'm not a 14th century scholar so I'm forced to take their word for it. He was 34. His poetry had a certain popularity at the time.

Villon's work is raw, riveting, occasionally wise, very earthy, amusing and above all, compelling. There is the shadow of the noose, doom, lost love and hunger around this fella all the time. It makes for extraordinary reading- this voice echoing down through the centuries explaining his life, his loves, his troubles. His work was not particularly popular in his lifetime but it had a resurgence in popularity 200 years later in the 1600s. (That's a lot of time to get a grasp on, isn't it?)

Translation is everything and I favor the Galway Kinnell translations. Ezra Pound also translated his work. The poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti also translated his work and coined in translation the famous "where are the snows of yesteryear" - a phrase you may see used or hear even today.

The black and white drawing at the top is the picture always used for Villon but I've always seen him as the "Hanged Man" in the tarot deck.

You can find more Villon here:

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