Monday, November 3, 2014

Francois Villon 1463 ". . . the snows of yesteryear

Villon I fell into early, he was my first serious poet.
Imagine! falling into Villon.
I never really understood Villon nor that period of time.
Anyway there it is.

(dostoevski, villon, dylan thomas, the beat poet allen ginsberg,
henry miller, jack kerouac, mailer, et al  . . .

                                                        francois villon

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

The refrain "Where are the snows of yester-year?" is one of the most famous lines of translated poetry in the English-speaking world. It comes fromThe Ballad of Dead Ladies, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's[7] translation of Villon's Ballade des dames du temps jadis, where the line is: "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?"

Mysteries in Villon

Villon's poems are sprinkled with mysteries and hidden jokes: they are peppered with the slang of the time and the underworld subculture in which Villon moved,[5] replete with private jokes, and full of the names of real people (rich men, royal officials, lawyers, prostitutes, and policemen) from medieval Paris.[6]

Le testament, 1461
The next date for which there are recorded whereabouts for Villon is the summer of 1461; Villon wrote that he spent that summer in the bishop's prison at Meung-sur-Loire. His crime is not known, but in Le Testament ("The Testament") dated that year he inveighs bitterly against Bishop Thibault d'Aussigny, who held the see of Orléans. Villon may have been released as part of a general jail-delivery at the accession of King Louis XI and became a free man again on 2 October 1461.

In 1461, he wrote his most famous work, Le Testament (or Le Grand Testament, as it is also known). In the autumn of 1462, he was once more living in the cloisters of Saint-Benoît and in November, he was imprisoned for theft in the fortress that stood at what is now Place du Châtelet in Paris. 

In default of evidence, the old charge of burgling the college of Navarre was revived, and no royal pardon arrived to counter the demand for restitution. Bail was accepted; however, Villon fell promptly into a street quarrel. He was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged ("pendu et étranglé"), but the sentence was commuted to banishment by the parlement on 5 January 1463.

Villon's fate after January 1463 is unknown. Rabelais retells two stories about him which are usually dismissed as without any basis in fact. Anthony Bonner speculated the poet, as he left Paris, was "broken in health and spirit." Bonner writes further:

He might have died on a mat of straw in some cheap tavern, or in a cold, dank cell; or in a fight in some dark street with another Coquillard (fr); or perhaps, as he always feared, on a gallows in a little town in France. We will probably never know.

Scrapes with the law

On 5 June 1455, the first major recorded incident of his life occurred. In the company of a priest named Giles and a girl named Isabeau, he met, in the Rue Saint-Jacques, a Breton, Jean le Hardi, a master of arts, who was also with a priest, Philippe Chermoye (or Sermoise or Sermaise). A scuffle broke out, daggers were drawn and Sermaise, who is accused of having threatened and attacked Villon and drawn the first blood, not only received a dagger-thrust in return, but a blow from a stone, which struck him down. He died of his wounds. Villon fled, and was sentenced to banishment – a sentence which was remitted in January 1456 by a pardon from King Charles VII after he received the second of two petitions which made the claim that Sermoise had forgiven Villon before he died.

Two different versions of the formal pardon exist; in one, the culprit is identified as "François des Loges, autrement dit Villon" ("François des Loges, otherwise called Villon"), in the other as "François de Montcorbier." He is also said to have named himself to the barber-surgeon who dressed his wounds as "Michel Mouton." The documents of this affair at least confirm the date of his birth, by presenting him as twenty-six years old or thereabouts.

Around Christmas 1456, the chapel of the Collège de Navarre was broken open and five hundred gold crowns stolen. Villon was involved in the robbery and many scholars believe that he fled from Paris soon afterward and that this is when he composed what is now known as the Petit Testament ("The Smaller Testament") or Lais ("Legacy" or "Bequests").

The robbery was not discovered until March of the next year, and it was not until May that the police came on the track of a gang of student-robbers, owing to the indiscretion of one of them, Guy Tabarie. A year more passed, when Tabarie, after being arrested, turned king's evidence and accused the absent Villon of being the ringleader, and of having gone to Angers, partly at least, to arrange similar burglaries there. Villon, for either this or another crime, was sentenced to banishment; he did not attempt to return to Paris.

For four years, he was a wanderer. He may have been, as his friends Regnier de Montigny and Colin des Cayeux were, a member of a wandering gang of thieves.

Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times

Tell me where, or in what land
is Flora, the lovely Roman,
or Archipiades, or Thaïs,
who was her first cousin;
or Echo, replying whenever called
across river or pool,
and whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Where is that brilliant lady Heloise,
for whose sake Peter Abelard was castrated
and became a monk at Saint-Denis?
He suffered that misfortune because of his love for her.
And where is that queen who
ordered that Buridan 
be thrown into the Seine in a sack?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Queen Blanche, white as a lily,
who sang with a siren’s voice;
Big-footed Bertha, Beatrice, Alice,
Arembourg who ruled over Maine;
and Joan, the good maiden of Lorraine
who was burned by the English at Rouen —
where are they, where, O sovereign Virgin?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Prince, do not ask in a week
where they are, or in a year.
The only answer you will get is this refrain:
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

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