Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Francois Villon: Jan. 5, 1463?

I have found Francois Villon to be a fascinating character, and even more fascinating, or perhaps mysterious would be a better word, his fate. No one knows what happened to him. (For the full article which I've quoted from, see the link at the end of the post). He was sentenced to be hanged in late 1462, but this was commuted to banishment on January 5, 1463. He was never heard of again.

"Francois Villon (1431-after 1463) was a French poet, thief, and general vagabond. He is perhaps best known for his Testaments and his Ballade des Pendus, written while in prison. He is one of the most influential secular poets of fifteenth-century European literature. Villon freely integrated his experiences from his life of crime into his poetry, and the result was some of the first poetry to present, in unflinching terms, the lives of the peasant classes. He became something of a "patron saint" for those who would use their art to criticize power. Whether his roguish life was an extension of his critique, or the other way around, Villon's attitude is the embodiment of an anti-social perspective that would become popular with artists in the modern and post-modern era.

In 1461, at the age of only thirty years old, Villon wrote the Grand testament, the work which has immortalized him. Despite having composed a literary masterpiece, Villon couldn't keep himself away from a life of crime. In the autumn of 1462 he had fled to the cloisters of Saint-Benoit to escape the authorities, and in November he was in prison once again for theft. The old charge of stealing from the College of Navarre was revived, and even a royal pardon did not bar the demand for restitution. Bail was accepted, however, Villon fell promptly into a street quarrel, was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged, but the sentence was commuted to banishment. What happened to Villon after this event is unknown—from this point on there exists no further record of Villon's biography. "

This is my favorite poem of his, and it contains what is probably one of the most famous lines in poetry: "But where are the snows of yester-year?" This poem could easily be placed in an themed anthology with Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It has that same feel of past glories that are gone forever.

The Ballad of Dead Ladies

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,—
She whose beauty was more than human? . . .
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Where's Héloise, the learned nun,
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen
Who willed that Buridan should steer
Sewed in a sack's mouth down the Seine? . . .
But where are the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden,—
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,—
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,—
Mother of God, where are they then? . . .
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Except with this for an overword,—
But where are the snows of yester-year?

(trans. by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)



  1. Fred,

    At the risk of sounding stupid ( but how else am I to learn?) . . .
    Could you explain the meaning of the line
    "But where are the snows of yester-year?" Why snows?


  2. Cheryl,

    I think "snow" has traditionally been a symbol for transience. It's beautiful, but it lasts only for a few days before it melts. One of the quatrains in the Rubaiyat talks about the way things go like snow.

    Another possibility is that "yester-year" refers to his own past when he was a child. Snowdrifts were always bigger and whiter and prettier when he was a child and now . . .?

    The ladies are like the snows of yester-year--they are gone and will never return. They had their day and then passed on.