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The reading of Villon poems at West Berlin's Free University during the 1957-58 Winter Semester

The reading of Villon poems at West Berlin’s Free University, Winter Semester 1957-58 for Fleur Adcock (b. February 10, 1934) The hall was packed full, and the audience seemed particularly restless. No announcement was made from the stage, and the programme spelt out Villon’s rather sleazy background: a string of poems to be read, together with some excerpts. That was all. (We) were to listen to the work of a great fifteenth century French murderer and thief turned into one of the finest lyric poets. He was banished from Paris where he was a student reading for his Master’s degree at the Sorbonne, for having killed a priest in a street brawl. He then roved all over France. On being pardoned, he returned to Paris, only to be sentenced to death after being found near where a serious offence had been committed. The theft of five hundred “crowns” earned him also a prison sentence. He was then banished from Paris again and was never heard of thereafter. He is however admired for his frankness about himself and his times, and for his ballades and rondeaux. Scheduled to start at six-thirty, the rather youngish audience began to fidget and chat out loud. Students rose from their seats and hailed others in other rows. Some turned around and leant over their seats to chat with some others. A good many were making their way up and down the aisles. The stage remained cloaked in darkness. Then, without any warning, a voice from the audience rose above all the cacophony. A young man in a long white overhanging shirt and brown tight drain-pipe hose(s), his long straggly hair tied roughly over his nape, a leather pouch hanging from a stick over his shoulder, rose from his seat, or perhaps from the steps in the aisle, quoting a Villon ballade and made his way to the front. Lights dimmed. Piped background instrumental music was turned on. Everyone was caught in mid-conversation. Every eye followed the speaker. He virtually sang Villon’s lyrics. A great hush descended on the hall like when a Tube/Metro comes to a sudden halt in-between stations. ………………………………………………. Everyone there was quite obviously struck by the dramatic opening scene. The man playing Villon then moved up stage, continued his recitation, then went up the opposite aisle, right to the back of the hall as the entire audience – apiece - turned their heads to follow his movements. He never let up. He recited from the little and the great Testaments. And the background accompaniment of organ and some stringed classical instrument rose and fell with his voice, in unison. Some parts of his recitation were followed by German translations in another voice. Even if those present could hardly follow every word or line, they appeared to register the soul-stirring performance, something to stoke their minds with and let their spirits wander away in a rigidly measured rhythmic world of iambics and anapaests in tetrameters. The sound of florid persuasive language soon relaxed and alternatively electrified their bodies, the fluctuating vowels spinning torrid scenes of squalor and prayer as they let themselves be permeated by torrents of words without immediate meaning, a virtual frontal assault on their sensibilities and consciousness. …………………………………………………………. …me a murderer murdered in my tongue in my steps in my rovings beyond words lost in the bylanes of history my death unknown my life interred in the bones of a jean genet from hotel bed to prison bed my story rolled in toilet rolls i go unrecognised in my garb of a trouvère my bag of musical words blowing in the gusts of backtracked time through drinking hovels among hail-fellow-mets my stolen crowns all five hundred of them clinking through the veins of my rondeaux lines straining into ballades my eye on the envoi my mental feet tapping to the tetrameter en cette foi je veuil vivre et mourir tell your son o maria up high in heaven de lui soient mes péchés absolus the almighty son taking on our weakness laissa les cieux et nous vint secourir and gave to death his very dear youthfulness en cette foi je veuil vivre et mourir et Jeanne la bonne lorraine que les anglais brûlèrent à rouen où sont-elles où vierge souveraine mais où sont les neiges d’antan mais où est le preux Charlemagne prince vous ne sauriez chercher de toute la semaine ni de toute cette année or all your life where they are sans qu’à ce refrain je vous ramène but where are they gone the snows of yesteryear where true may he have gone the valiant charlemagne now alas my song is done ici se clôt le testament et finit du pauvre villon come ye all to his burial when you hear the carillion dressed red like vermillion car en amour mourut martyr ce jura-t-il sur son couillon quand de ce monde vout partir and do you know what he did when it was time at last to go un trait but de vin morillon this villon this villainous villon this villonous villain but where are they gone the snows of yesteryear Abstracted from T. Wignesan. Ice in my Eyes Smoke in yours. (A Novel). Allahabad:, 2016, pp. 317-320. © T. Wignesan – Paris, 2016

Copyright © | Year Posted 2016

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