A Pardon for Villon
by Arthur Rimbaud
(Letter from Charles d'Orléans to Louis XI)
Sire, Time has left behind his cloak of rain, the harbingers of Spring have come: We slam the door in Melancholy's face! Long live the ballads and lays! Morality plays and merriment! Let the clerks of the Paris Law Court mount crazy farces for us: We'd like to see Thoughtful and Thoughtless, and the conversion of Theophilus the Clerk, and how Saints Peter and Paul both came to Rome and were martyred there! Long live the ladies in double collars wearing lace and embroidery! Isn't it good, Sire, under the trees, when the skies are dressed in blue, when the sun is brightly shining, to hear sweet roundelays and ballads sung out high and clear? I've got a tree from the Garden of Love, or Just once, tell me Yes, Milady, or The Rich Lover always gets his way... But I've gotten myself worked up, Sire, and you'll find yourself just like me: Master François Villon, happy-go-lucky, the elegant scoffer who rhymes with everything, is a captive cricket nourished on crumbs and water, weeping and lamenting now in the depths of prison Châtelet! "Hanged you shall be!" so the lawyers told him. And the poor troublemaker, chilled to the bone, has made his epitaph for himself and his companions: These gracious gallants whom you loved for their rhymes get ready to dance at Montfaulcon, pecked at by the birds until they're more pitted than a thimble, in drizzle and sunshine.
Oh, Sire, it's not for some kind of madcap joke that Villon is there. Poor dusters, they suffer too. Little deacons awaiting their nomination to the University, layabouts, ape-sellers, rebec-players who pay their way in song, stable-jockeys, two-penny lords, mercenaries hiding their noses in pewter mugs more than war-helmets-all of the poor children as dry and dirty as a cannon-swab, who only see bread through windows, whose fingers make for mittens in winter, have chosen Master François for a nourishing mother!
But necessity can make for misunderstanding, and hunger sometimes drives the wolf out of the woods. So perhaps the Scholar, one hungry day, has taken tripes from the butcher's bin for a fricassée at Popin's Trough or Pestel's Tavern? Or perhaps he swiped a dozen loaves from a baker, or switched a bottle of water for a bottle of Baigneux wine at the Pinecone Inn? Maybe one terrifically wicked evening at Pewter Flats he'd dodged an ambush upon his arrival, or they took him by surprise near Montfaulcon during a rowdy supper with a dozen bawds? These are the misdeeds of Master François! Because he has shown us the fat priest toying with his lady-friend, happily intertwined in her chamber, because he's told us the chaplain can't be bothered with confession--except for chambermaids and ladies--in good mockery, talking contemplation under court order, the foolish probationer, so happily laughing, singing, pert as a little bird, he trembles under the claws of the High Judges, those terrible black birds who attend the raven and the magpie! He and his poor, pitiful companions! They'll add a new garland of hanging ornaments to the arms of the forest: the wind arrays them in soft, sonorous leaves. And you, Sire, and those who love the poet, who can't help laughing till they weep while reading those joyous ballads, they'll dream they've left the sweet-natured clerk to die, he who sings so madly, and that they'll never go hunting after Melancholy.
Piper, sneakthief, Master François is nevertheless best among the sons of the world: He laughs at Fat Jacobean stews--for he honors the Church of God and Milady Virgin, and the very Holy Trinity! He honors the Parliamentary Court, mother of the good and sister of the blessed angels; to the nay-sayers to the kingdom of France he wishes as much evil as he does to taverners who boil their wine. By God! He well knows that he was a fool in his youth. In winter, in evenings of hunger, near the Maubray fountain or in some ruin of a bath-house, he squats before a fire of helm-twigs, the flames of which momentarily redden his gaunt face. He dreams of having a house and a soft bed, if only he'd studied!... Often, as dark and dim as a lookout on horseback, he peers into houses through the windows:--"Oh, these savory, delicate morsels! Those tarts, these custards, those golden fat jellyrolls!--I'm hungrier than Tantalus!--Some roast! A bit of roast! --Oh! It smells sweeter than ambergris and civet!--Some wine from Beaulne in great silver beakers!--Whewee, my throat is burning!... Oh if only I'd studied!... And my slippers hang their tongue out, and my cloak is as open as any window, and my saw-tooth hatbrim--!--If I should meet with a compassionate Alexander--the which I might wish for--I'd happily stand before him, singing as fluently as Orpheus the dulcet fiddler! If only I'd live with honor once before I die!..." But there it is: supping on roundelays, the effects of moonlight on olden rooftops, the effects of lanterns on the ground, this is pretty meager, so very meager. Then strolling along in tight little outfits, cute harlots promise insincere pleasures to attract the passers-by. Then fond memories of flamboyant taverns full of the shouts of drinkers hurling their tankards and, as often, their daggers; the sniggering of bawds, the yearning of songs of beggars' rebecs, the memory of old dark side streets where the upper storeys and huge beams of houses lean out crazily as if to kiss; or in thick night, passing by with the sounds of rapiers drawn, laughter and abominable yowling... And the bird returns to its old nest, Everything for taverns and girls!...
Oh, Sire! We cannot wish to put helm against the wind in this time of joy! The noose is sad enough in May, when everyone sings, when everyone laughs, when the sun shines on the most leprous wall! Men will be hanged but for an honest reprieve! Villon is in the hands of the Parliamentary Court: the raven doesn't listen to the little bird! Sire, it would be truly wrong to hang those goodly clerks. Those poets there, you see, are not from here below: let them live their strange life. Let them have their hunger and cold. Let them run, love and sing. They're as rich as Jack Hearty, all these mad passionate children, because they have rhyme filling their souls. rhymes that laugh and weep, they make us laugh and wee. Let them live. God blesses all the merciful, and the world blesses the poets.
A Note on A Pardon for Villon
This long prose piece, written in pseudo-15th century French, was an extra-curricular assignment from his teacher Georges Izambard while Rimbaud was a student at the College de Charleville. This task required a degree of stylistic imitation along with a knowledge of archaic spelling, and, of course, an overview of the historical situation.
Rimbaud, at age fifteen, manages this with a high degree of skill and colorful detail. This is his first complete original work in prose. Villon was not part of the school's regular course of study and Rimbaud had borrowed from his teacher's personal copy of the poet's works.
François Villon, one of France's greatest poets, was born in Paris in 1431, within a few weeks or days of the martyrdom of Joan of Arc at Rouen. While he was a student, he fell in with bad company, and in 1455 he fled Paris after killing a priest in a quarrel over a woman. He joined a gang of thieves and brigands called The Brotherhood of the Cockleshell.
He was pardoned on grounds of self-defense in 1456 and returned to Paris. That same year, he and four accomplices burglarized the College de Navarre and made off with a large amount of money. He spent the summer of 1461 in prison at Meung in the Duchy of Orléans, his crime unspecified. He was released in October of that year by order of Louis XI, just recently crowned. Villon, despite his criminal activities, was known to Charles d'Orléans (also a poet) and Louis XI, both of whom admired his poetry. This biographical detail is the inspiration for Rimbaud's "Letter" from the Duke of Orléans to the King.
In 1463 he was arrested yet again, this time for being present in a street brawl. He was sentenced to hang, but at the last minute, the sentence was commuted to banishment from Paris for ten years. He left Paris again and there is no record of what befell him after 1463.
Villon revitalized the outworn forms of medieval verse - the ballad, lay, and roundelay - with stark realism and ironic wit. Wyndham Lewis once rhapsodized on the life and character of Villon: "He was as weak as water, as variable as weathercock, mercurial, impulsive, idle, mocking, childlike, egoistic, warm-hearted, sensual, careless, driven before every gust of desire... worshipping beauty... producing from the dregs of his life an exquisite flower of pure poetry."
Je suis Françoys, dont il me poise,
Né de Paris emprès Pontois,
Et de la corde d'une toise
Sçaura mon col que mon cul poise.
I'm the poet burdened François,
Born in Paris close by Pontoise;
Two yards of rope at length will say
To my neck just what my ass weighs. (1)
Notes for the text:
MORALITY PLAYS: An allegorical dramatic form popular from the 14th to the 16th centuries; the vices and virtues were personified, with virtue triumphant in the end. In English, Everyman is the most-often revived morality play. Every spring, the clerks of the Paris Court of Justice would present a cycle of morality plays and farces for the city.
SWEET ROUNDELAYS: "I've Got a Tree"... and other quoted lines are from now popular love-songs of the late Middle Ages.
MONTFAULCON: This was the location of the public gallows, to the north of Paris just outside the city walls.
REBEC: A small 3-stringed instrument played with a bow.
POPIN'S TROUGH, etc.: The names of taverns of those actual establishments in medieval Paris; some of them are mentioned in Villon's The Testament.
FAT JACOBEAN STEWS: In Rimbaud's medieval this is "grasses souppes Jacobine," literally "thick Jacobine soup (or stew)." The nickname "Jacobins" was a popular term for the Dominican Order which had its mother-establishment in Paris on the Rue St. Jacques." The Dominicans were considered intellectual pillars of the Church, on account of their distinguished member, St. Thomas Aquinas. Hence, Villon does not get involved in religio-intellectual disputes or stews. The phrase "c'est un soupe au lait" is a common French expression meaning "he has a quick temper." Another punning reference in both French and English (souppe/stew) may also glance briefly at Genesis 25 where Esau sells his birthright (as eldest son) to his younger sibling Jacob in exchange for a meal or vegetables, or both. This act eventuates the brothers's enmity for many years after.
COMPASSIONATE ALEXANDER: Alexander III (356-323 B.C.) King of Macedon, called The Great. Reigned in 336-323, world conquerer, patron of the arts.
ORPHEUS: The legendary Greek musician whose playing and singing enchanted all; the animals, rocks and trees, even Hell itself.
JACK HEARTY: This is a loose translation of "Jacques Coeur," the wealthy patriot who, along with Joan of Arc, was instrumental in placing Louis XI's father, Charles VII, on the throne of France.