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Francois Villon

Francois Villon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing a person can’t shy away from in the poetic world, or the literary world at large, is a bit of scandal. The human creature is a complex thing, and has a knack for it. I say this as preface to the figure of today’s spotlight: Francois Villon, one of the most famous French realists of his time, a renowned poet, and yet, a man that would become a murderer and a vagabond.

How does one appreciate so deeply the art, and the greatest beauties mankind can craft, and still commit himself to the darkness? Let it not be said that Villon was not a man of contrasts. On the one hand, Villon was a master reformer of his art. His dedication to the word, and his honing of it, would go on to be very innovative in the development of poetic style, particularly in his bravery to stand up against “accepted” forms. His use of diction and dialect would have been such to make even Mark Twain proud. So too did he masterfully capture the distraught nature of poverty, mortality, and the trouble that stalked world he–so far removed from the often well-to-do pots of his time–knew so well. His work has inspired dozens of other artists across the artistic spectrum throughout the ages, and yet…

…on the other hand? His personal life was fraught with strife, to put it mildly. He had powerful benefactors, but he often wore his welcomes quickly. He quarreled in bar fights. Stole, lied, cheated, and killed a man by way of duel (or cold-blooded murder, depending on who took up the tale), and such were his crimes, that he was nearly executed for them…only to have his sentence commuted to banishment, and death in exile. Much of his life was spent in prison, or being hounded by authorities, and there is little evidence he ever made an effort at reform.

So what do we make of him? Certainly the man, the personal being, was dark, but can other worth be found in the famous words? Words like these: “Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear”, which have become some of the most repeated throughout poetic history? I leave it to you…

~Chris Galford

Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past

Dictes moy où, n’en quel pays, Tell me where, in which country
Est Flora, la belle Romaine; Is Flora, the beautiful Roman;
Archipiada, ne Thaïs, Archipiada (Alcibiades[2] ?), and Thaïs
Qui fut sa cousine germaine; Who was her first cousin;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on Maine Echo, speaking when one makes noise
Dessus rivière ou sus estan, Over river or on pond,
Qui beaulté ot trop plus qu’humaine? Who had a beauty too much more than human?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan! Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!
Où est la très sage Helloïs, Where is the very wise Heloise,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne For whom was castrated, and then (made) a monk,
Pierre Esbaillart à Saint-Denis? Pierre Esbaillart (Abelard) in Saint-Denis ?
Pour son amour ot cest essoyne. For his love he suffered this sentence.
Semblablement, où est la royne Similarly, where is the Queen (Marguerite de Bourgogne)
Qui commanda que Buridan Who ordered that Buridan
Fust gecté en ung sac en Saine? Be thrown in a sack into the Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan! Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!
La royne Blanche comme lis, The queen “blanche” (white) as lily (Blanche de Castille)
Qui chantoit à voix de seraine; Who sang with a Siren’s voice;
Berte au grant pié, Bietris, Allis; Bertha of the Big Foot, Beatrix, Aelis;
Haremburgis qui tint le Maine, Erembourge who ruled over the Maine,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine, And Joan (Joan of Arc), the good (woman from) Lorraine
Qu’Englois brulerent à Rouan; Whom the English burned in Rouen;
Où sont elles, Vierge souvraine? Where are they, oh sovereign Virgin?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan! Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!
Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine Prince, do not ask me in the whole week
Où elles sont, ne de cest an, Where they are – neither in this whole year,
Qu’à ce reffrain ne vous remaine: Lest I bring you back to this refrain:
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan! Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!

~Francois Villon