Nov 18, 2010

Famous Poets - Part Three

Francois Villon (1431 - 1474)

Francois Montcorbier (Villon) was born in 1431 in Paris. His father died when the he was very young and Guillaume de Villon, a well to do chaplain who was a professor of ecclesiastical law at the University of Paris, took him in. He became a student of the arts at the age of 12, earning both a bachelor (1449) and masters degree (1452), though he seemed to spend more time enjoying the liberal freedoms that students were allowed at the time.

Villon was drawn toward the sordid element - thieves, defrocked priests and revolutionary student groups. He became bitter toward the rich and was driven deeper into his involvement with the criminal contingent. In June 1455 he fatally wounded a priest who had entered a tavern denying God and began quarreling with Villon and his drinking companions. He was banished from Paris for the crime allowed to return in 1456 after being pardoned on grounds of self defense.

The next year Villon was banished again for stealing from the College of Navarre with his criminal compatriots who had formed Coquille, something akin to a small Mafia. Before fleeing Paris, Villon wrote The Legacy, a tongue in cheek poem bequeathing his real and imaginary wealth to various 'deserving' people and institutions. The Coquille conducted a crime spree throughout the north of France, robbing mainly churches and clergy, including Villon's own wealthy uncle. At the same time, Villon continued writing poetry that became popular among his criminal friends because of its use of their lingo and its attacks on many well known people and institutions. However, the authorities began arresting and hanging many of his compatriots so, in 1457, Villon sought refuge with the Duke of Orleans, a fellow poet and admirer of Villon's work. Villon was again sent to prison for theft, but he was quickly pardoned on the occasion of the birth of the Duke's daughter several months later. Four the next four years, Villon lived a vagabond existence of petty theft while wandering through the French countryside.

He returned to his benefactor the Duke in 1861. As usual, his freedom did not last long. He was imprisoned for a minor crime and yet again pardoned a few months later when the newly crowned King passed through the town where he was imprisoned. Villon returned to Paris where he was arrested several more times for theft and brawling, but was soon released by virtue of some fortunate circumstance. His luck finally ran out when he was arrested for fighting and sentenced to the gallows. While awaiting the noose, Villon composed a brilliant poem about his own execution and the injustice of man. However, a last minute appeal to Parliament got his sentenced reduced to 10 years banishment from Paris in 1863. He was never heard from again. He was 34 years old. His poetry continued to gain popularity in Paris and throughout France where it went into seven printings.

Epitaph In The Form Of A Ballade

Freres humains qui apres nous vivez,
N'ayez les coeurs contre nous endurcis ...
Men, brother men, that after us yet live,
Let not your hearts too hard against us be;
For if some pity of us poor men ye give,
The sooner God shall take of you pity.
Here are we five or six strung up, you see,
And here the flesh that all too well we fed
Bit by bit eaten and rotten, rent and shred,
And we the bones grow dust and ash withal;
Let no man laugh at us discomforted,
But pray to God that he forgive us all.
If we call on you, brothers, to forgive,

Ye should not hold our prayer in scorn, though we
Were slain by law; ye know that all alive
Have not wit always to walk righteously;
Make therefore intercession heartily
With him that of a virgin's womb was bred,
That his grace be not as a dr-y well-head
For us, nor let hell's thunder on us fall;
We are dead, let no man harry or vex us dead,
But pray to God that he forgive us all.

The rain has washed and laundered us all five,
And the sun dried and blackened; yea, perdie,
Ravens and pies with beaks that rend and rive
Have dug our eyes out, and plucked off for fee
Our beards and eyebrows; never we are free,
Not once, to rest; but here and there still sped,
Driven at its wild will by the wind's change led,
More pecked of birds than fruits on garden-wall;
Men, for God's love, let no gibe here be said,
But pray to God that he forgive us all.
Prince Jesus, that of all art lord and head,
Keep us, that hell be not our bitter bed;
We have nought to do in such a master's hall.
Be not ye therefore of our fellowhead,
But pray to God that he forgive us all.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, trans.

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