Three early translators of Francois Villon

Selections from Francois Villon’s first three English translators, or at least the earliest three I know of. This post began with a gripe against Robert Louis Stevenson’s opinion of Villon in his short story A Lodging for the Night (here) and essay in Familiar Studies of Men and Books (here) but took a more positive twist along the way. To keep some limit to length, I’m leaving out the French – since it’s easy enough to find elsewhere.

First up is Henry Cary – of Dante fame as a translator – who is generally given credit for introducing Villon to English speakers in an 1823 article. Here are his renderings of the Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballad of the Ladies of Time Long Past) and of the opening ten lines of the Ballade des pendus (Ballad of the Hanged Men).

Tell me where, or in what clime,
Is that mistress of the prime,
Roman Flora? she of Greece,
Thais? or that maid so fond,
Than, an ye shout o’er stream and pond,
Answering holdeth not here peace?
–Where are they? –Tell me, if ye know;
What is come of last year’s snow?

Where is Heloise the wise,
For whom Abelard was fain,
Mangled in such cruel wise,
To turn a monk instead of man?
Where the Queen, who into Seine
Bade them cast poor Buridan?
–Where are they? –Tell me, if ye know;
What is come of last year’s snow?

The Queen, that was as lily fiar,
Whose songs were sweet as linnets’ are,
Bertha, or she who govern’d Maine/
Alice, Beatrix, or Joan,
That good damsel of Loraine,
Whom the English burnt at Roan?
–Where are they? –Tell me, if ye know;
What is come of last year’s snow?

Prince, question by the month or year;
The burden of my song is here:
–Where are they? –Tell me, if ye know;
What is come of last year’s snow?

O brethren, ye who live when we are gone,
Let not your hearts against us harden’d be
For e’en as ye do pity us each one,
So gracious God be sure will pity ye
Here hangin g five or six of us you see ;
As to our flesh, which once too well we fed,
That now is rotten quite, and mouldered ;
And we, the bones, do turn to dust and clay
None laugh at us that are so ill bested,
But pray ye God to do our sins away.

Next are three selections by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his 1870 Poems (I give two but all three are online here).

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?

Lady of Heaven and earth, and therewithal
Crowned Empress of the nether clefts of Hell,—
I, thy poor Christian, on thy name do call,
Commending me to thee, with thee to dwell,
Albeit in nought I be commendable.
But all mine undeserving may not mar
Such mercies as thy sovereign mercies are;
Without the which (as true words testify)
No soul can reach thy Heaven so fair and far.
Even in this faith I choose to live and die.

Unto thy Son say thou that I am His,
And to me graceless make Him gracious.
Sad Mary of Egypt lacked not of that bliss,
Nor yet the sorrowful clerk Theophilus,
Whose bitter sins were set aside even thus
Though to the Fiend his bounden service was.
Oh help me, lest in vain for me should pass
(Sweet Virgin that shalt have no loss thereby!)
The blessed Host and sacring of the Mass.
Even in this faith I choose to live and die.

A pitiful poor woman, shrunk and old,
I am, and nothing learn’d in letter-lore.
Within my parish-cloister I behold
A painted Heaven where harps and lutes adore,
And eke an Hell whose damned folk seethe full sore:
One bringeth fear, the other joy to me.
That joy, great Goddess, make thou mine to be,—
Thou of whom all must ask it even as I;
And that which faith desires, that let it see.
For in this faith I choose to live and die.

O excellent Virgin Princess! thou didst bear
King Jesus, the most excellent comforter,
Who even of this our weakness craved a share
And for our sake stooped to us from on high,
Offering to death His young life sweet and fair.
Such as He is, Our Lord, I Him declare,
And in this faith I choose to live and die.

Next is Algernon Swinburne. His selections were more extensive and can all be found here (when the site is up). Here are his versions of the Ballade de la Grosse Margot (Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge, in his version) and of what he titles Fragment of Death (the stanzas preceding the Ballade des dames du temps jadis).

‘’Tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.’ -Falstaff
‘The night cometh, when no man can work.’

What though the beauty I love and serve be cheap,
Ought you to take me for a beast or fool?
All things a man could wish are in her keep;
For her I turn swashbuckler in love’s school.
When folk drop in, I take my pot and stool
And fall to drinking with no more ado.
I fetch them bread, fruit, cheese, and water, too;
I say all’s right so long as I’m well paid;
‘Look in again when your flesh troubles you,
Inside this brothel where we drive our trade.’

But soon the devil’s among us flesh and fell,
When penniless to bed comes Madge my whore;
I loathe the very sight of her like hell.
I snatch gown, girdle, surcoat, all she wore,
And tell her, these shall stand against her score.
She grips her hips with both hands, cursing God,
Swearing by Jesus’ body, bones, and blood,
That they shall not. Then I, no whit dismayed,
Cross her cracked nose with some stray shiver of wood
Inside this brothel where we drive our trade.

When all’s made up she drops me a windy word,
Bloat like a beetle puffed and poisonous:
Grins, thumps my pate, and calls me dickey-bird,
And cuffs me with a fist that’s ponderous.
We sleep like logs, being drunken both of us;
Then when we wake her womb begins to stir;
To save her seed she gets me under her
Wheezing and whining, flat as planks are laid:
And thus she spoils me for a whoremonger
Inside this brothel where we drive our trade.

Blow, hail or freeze, I’ve bread here baked rent free!
Whoring’s my trade, and my whore pleases me;
Bad cat, bad rat; we’re just the same if weighed.
We that love filth, filth follows us, you see;
Honour flies from us, as from her we flee
Inside this brothel where we drive our trade.

I bequeath likewise to fat Madge
This little song to learn and study;
By god’s head she’s a sweet fat fadge,
Devout and soft of flesh and ruddy;
I love her with my soul and body,
So doth she me, sweet dainty thing.
If you fall in with such a lady,
Read it, and give it her to sing.

AND Paris be it or Helen dying,
Who dies soever, dies with pain.
He that lacks breath and wind for sighing,
His gall bursts on his heart; and then
He sweats, God knows what sweat! again,
No man may ease him of his grief;
Child, brother, sister, none were fain
To bail him thence for his relief.

Death makes him shudder, swoon, wax pale,
Nose bend, veins stretch, and breath surrender,
Neck swell, flesh soften, joints that fail
Crack their strained nerves and arteries slender.
O Woman’s body found so tender,
Smooth, sweet, so precious to men’s eyes,
Must thou too bear such count to render?
Yes; or pass quick into the skies.

One thought on “Three early translators of Francois Villon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s