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Villon: The First Modern Poet


Villon was the first modern poet; he remains the most modern of poets. One requires a certain amount of old French, together with some acquaintance with the argot of the time, to understand the words in which he has written down his poems; many allusions to people and things have only just begun to be cleared up, but, apart from these things, no poet has ever brought himself closer to us, taken us into his confidence more simply, than this personnage peu recommandable, fainéant, ivrogne, joueur, débauché, écornifleur, et, qui pis est, souteneur de filles, escroc, voleur, crocheteur de portes et de coffres. The most disreputable of poets, he confesses himself to us with a frankness in which shamelessness is difficult to distinguish from humility. M. Gaston Paris, who for the most part is content to take him as he is, for better for worse, finds it necessary to[Pg 38] apologise for him when he comes to the ballad of La Grosse Margot: this, he professes, we need not take as a personal confession, but as a mere exercise in composition! But if we are to understand Villon rightly, we must not reject even la grosse Margot from her place in his life. He was no dabbler in infamy, but one who loved infamous things for their own sake. He loved everything for its own sake: la grosse Margot in the flesh, les dames du temps jadis in the spirit,

Sausses, brouets et gros poissons,
Tartes, flaons, œfs frits et pochez,
Perdus, et en toutes façons,

his mother, le bon royaume de France, and above all, Paris. Il a parcouru toute la France sans rapporter une seule impression de campagne. C'est un poète de ville, plus encore: un poète de quartier. Il n'est vraiment chez lui que sur la Montague Sainte-Geneviève, entre le Palais, les collèges, le Châtelet, les tavernes, les rotisseries, les tripots et les rues où Marion l'Idole et la grande Jeanne de Bretagne tiennent leur 'publique école'. It is in this world that he lived, for this world that he wrote. Fils du peuple, entré par l'instruction dans la classe [Pg 39]lettrée, puis déclassé par ses vices, il dut à son humble origine de rester en communication constante avec les sources éternelles de toute vraie poésie. And so he came into a literature of formalists, like a child, a vigorous, unabashed, malicious child, into a company of greybeards.

Villon, before any one in French literature, called things by their names, made poetry as Homer made it, with words that meant facts. He was a thief and a vagabond who wrote in the 'grand style' by daring to be sincere to himself, to the aspect under which human things came to him, to the precise names of precise things. He had a sensitiveness in his soul which perhaps matched the deftness of his fingers, in their adroit, forbidden trade: his soul bent easily from his mother praying in the cloister to the fat Margot drinking in the tavern; he could dream exquisitely over the dead ladies who had once been young, and who had gone like last year's snow, and then turn to the account-book of his satirical malice against the clerks and usurers for whom he was making the testament of his poverty. He knew winter, 'when the wolves live on[Pg 40] wind,' and how the gallows looks when one stands under it. And he knew all the secrets of the art of verse-making which courtly poets, like the King, used for the stringing together of delicate trifles, ornamental evasions of facts. He was no poet of the people, but a scholar vagabond, loving the gutter; and so he has the sincerity of the artist as well as the only half-convincing sincerity of the man. There has been no greater artist in French verse, as there has been no greater poet; and the main part of the history of poetry in France is the record of a long forgetting of all that Villon found out for himself.