That man has the horse of Seius

From Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights 3.9. Also reported in Erasmus’ Adagia 997 (citing Gellius).

The characteristics of the horse of Seius, which is mentioned in the proverb…

Gavius Bassus in his Commentaries, and Julius Modestus in the second book of his Miscellaneous Questions, tell the history of the horse of Seius, a tale wonderful and worthy of record. They say that there was a clerk called Gnaeus Seius, and that he had a horse foaled at Argos, in the land of Greece, about which there was a persistent tradition that it was sprung from the breed of horses that had belonged to the Thracian Diomedes, those which Hercules, after slaying Diomedes, had taken from Thrace to Argos. They say that this horse was of extraordinary size, with a lofty neck, bay in colour, with a thick, glossy mane, and that it was far superior to all horses in other points of excellence; but that same horse, they go on to say, was of such a fate or fortune, that whoever owned and possessed it came to utter ruin, as well as his whole house, his family and all his possessions. Thus, to begin with, that Gnaeus Seius who owned him was condemned and suffered a cruel death at the hands of Marcus Antonius, afterwards one of the triumvirs for setting the State in order. 1 At that same time Cornelius Dolabella, the consul, on his way to Syria, attracted by the renown of this horse, turned aside to Argos, was fired with a desire to own the animal, and bought it for a hundred thousand sesterces; but Dolabella in his turn was besieged in Syria during the civil war, and slain. And soon afterwards Gaius Cassius, who had besieged Dolabella, carried off this same horse, which had been Dolabella’s. It is notorious too that this Cassius, after his party had been vanquished and his army routed, met a wretched end. Then later, after the death of Cassius, Antonius, who had defeated him, sought for this famous horse of Cassius, and after getting possession of it was himself afterwards defeated and deserted in his turn, and died an ignominious death. Hence the proverb, applied to unfortunate men, arose and is current: “That man has the horse of Seius.”


Quis et cuiusmodi fuerit qui in proverbio fertur equus Seianus …

Gavius Bassus in commentariis suis, item Iulius Modestus in secundo Quaestionum Confusarum, historiam de equo Seiano tradunt dignam memoria atque admiratione: Gnaeum Seium quempiam scribam fuisse eumque habuisse equum natum Argis in terra Graecia, de quo fama constans esset tamquam de genere equorum progenitus foret qui Diomedis Thracis fuissent, quos Hercules, Diomede occiso, e Thracia Argos perduxisset. Eum equum fuisse dicunt magnitudine invisitata, cervice ardua, colore poeniceo, flora et comanti iuba, omnibusque aliis equorum laudibus quoque longe praestitisse; sed eundem equum tali fuisse fato sive fortuna ferunt, ut quisquis haberet eum possideretque, ut is cum omni domo, familia fortunisque omnibus suis ad internecionem deperiret. Itaque primum illum Gnaeum Seium, dominum eius, a M. Antonio, qui postea triumvirum reipublicae constituendae fuit, capitis damnatum, miserando supplicio affectum esse; eodem tempore Cornelium Dolabellam consulem, im Syriam proficiscentem, fama istius equi adductum Argos devertisse cupidineque habendi eius exarsisse emisseque eum sestertiis centum milibus; sed ipsum quoque Dolabellam in Syria bello civili obsessum atque interfectum esse; mox eundem equum, qui Dolabellae fuerat, C. Cassium, qui Dolabellam obsederat, abduxisse. Eum Cassium postea satis notum est victis partibus fusoque exercitu suo miseram mortem oppetisse, deinde post Antonium, post interitum Cassii parta victoria, equum illum nobilem Cassi requisisse et, cum eo potitus esset, ipsum quoque postea victum atque desertum, detestabili exitio interisse. Hinc proverbium de hominibus calamitosis ortum dicique solitum: “Ille homo habet equum Seianum.”

λεξιθηρέω – word-hunting

From Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights 2.9

In bringing this charge [of an incorrectly used word] against Epicurus Plutarch is “word-hunting” with excessive minuteness and almost with frigidity; for far from hunting up such verbal meticulousness and such refinements of diction, Epicurus hunts them down.

Nimis minute ac prope etiam subfrigide Plutarchus in Epicuro accusando λεξιθηρεῖ Has enim curas vocum verborumque elegantias non modo non sectatur Epicurus, sed etiam insectatur.

I enjoy Gellius’ verb here – λεξιθηρέω, a simple compound of ‘word’ (λέξις) and the verbal form of hunt (θήρα). It seems a near hapax in surviving works, though Clement uses a related noun λεξιθηρία in his Paedagogus (page 15 in this online version) and the grammarian Phrynicus Arabius (in Latin here) gives a few other related forms like λεξιθήρ and λεξιθήρας. For those two, Pape in his Greek-German dictionary gives the cleanest overall rendering of the idea with ein Wortjäger. The sense in Gellius and Clement (who denies he’s engaging in the activity) is fussy pedantism but we let that slide.

Fools praising fools and dunces praising dunces

From Erasmus’ Praise of Folly/Encomium Moriae (section 50), Folly speaking:

The daintiest thing is when they compliment each other, turn about, in an exchange of letters, verses, and puffs; fools praising fools and dunces praising dunces. The first, in the opinion of the second, is an Alcaeus; the second, in the opinion of the first, is a Callimachus. One puts another far above Cicero; the other then finds the one more learned than Plato. Or sometimes they will pick out a competitor and increase their reputation through rivalry with him. As a result, the doubtful public is split into opposing camps, until, when the battle is well over, each leaves the field as victor and each has a triumphal parade. Wise men deride all this as most foolish, as indeed it is. Who denies it? But meanwhile, by my boon our authors lead a sweet life, nor would they exchange their triumphs for those of the Scipios. And while the scholars indeed have a great deal of fun laughing at them, and savor to the full the madnesses of others, they themselves owe a good deal to me, which they cannot disavow without being the most ungrateful of men.


Illud autem lepidissimum, cum mutuis epistolis, carminibus, encomiis sese vicissim laudant, stulti stultos, indoctos indocti. Hic illius suffragio discedit Alceus, ille huius Callimachus: ile huic est M. Tullio superior, hic illi Platone doctior. Nonnumquam etiam antagonistam quaerunt, cuius aemulatione famam augeant. Hic scinditur incertum studia in contraria vulgus, donec uterque dux re bene gesta victor discedit, uterque triumphum agit. Rident haec sapientes, ut, veluti sunt, stultissima. Quis enim negat? Sed interim meo beneficio suavem vitam agunt, ne cum Scipionibus quidem suos triumphos commutari. Quamquam docti quoque interim dum haec magna cum animi voluptate rident, et aliena fruuntur insania, non paulum mihi debent et ipsi, quod inficari possunt, nisi sint omnium ingratissimi.

It is possibly uncharitable but all I see here is the carousel of reviewers and this year’s ‘revolutionary new voices.’

Robinson Crusoe and the double columns!

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box, the first of an eventual three novels co-written with his son-in-law Lloyd Osbourne. I never associate Stevenson with comedy but he pulls off a grand farce here.

And then a remark of his uncle’s flashed into his memory: If you want to think clearly, put it all down on paper. ‘Well, the old boy knew a thing or two,’ said Morris. ‘I will try; but I don’t believe the paper was ever made that will clear my mind.’

He entered a place of public entertainment, ordered bread and cheese, and writing materials, and sat down before them heavily. He tried the pen. It was an excellent pen, but what was he to write? ‘I have it,’ cried Morris. ‘Robinson Crusoe and the double columns!’ He prepared his paper after that classic model, and began as follows:

Bad. —— Good.
1. I have lost my uncle’s body.
1. But then Pitman has found it.

‘Stop a bit,’ said Morris. ‘I am letting the spirit of antithesis run away with me. Let’s start again.’

Bad. —— Good.
1. I have lost my uncle’s body.
1. But then I no longer require to bury it.

2. I have lost the tontine.
2.But I may still save that if Pitman disposes of the body, and
if I can find a physician who will stick at nothing.

3. I have lost the leather business and the rest of my uncle’s
succession.
3. But not if Pitman gives the body up to the police.

‘O, but in that case I go to gaol; I had forgot that,’ thought Morris. ‘Indeed, I don’t know that I had better dwell on that hypothesis at all; it’s all very well to talk of facing the worst; but in a case of this kind a man’s first duty is to his own nerve. Is there any answer to No. 3? Is there any possible good side to such a beastly bungle? There must be, of course, or where would be the use of this double-entry business? And—by George, I have it!’ he exclaimed; ‘it’s exactly the same as the last!’ And he hastily re-wrote the passage:

Bad. —— Good.
3. I have lost the leather business and the rest of my uncle’s
succession.
3. But not if I can find a physician who will stick at nothing.

‘This venal doctor seems quite a desideratum,’ he reflected. ‘I want him first to give me a certificate that my uncle is dead, so that I may get the leather business; and then that he’s alive—but here we are again at the incompatible interests!’ And he returned to his tabulation:

Bad. —— Good.
4. I have almost no money.
4. But there is plenty in the bank.

5. Yes, but I can’t get the money in the bank.
5. But—well, that seems unhappily to be the case.

6. I have left the bill for eight hundred pounds in Uncle
Joseph’s pocket.
6. But if Pitman is only a dishonest man, the presence of this
bill may lead him to keep the whole thing dark and throw the body
into the New Cut.

7. Yes, but if Pitman is dishonest and finds the bill, he will
know who Joseph is, and he may blackmail me.
7. Yes, but if I am right about Uncle Masterman, I can blackmail
Michael.

8. But I can’t blackmail Michael (which is, besides, a very
dangerous thing to do) until I find out.
8. Worse luck!

9. The leather business will soon want money for current
expenses, and I have none to give.
9. But the leather business is a sinking ship.

10. Yes, but it’s all the ship I have.
10. A fact.

11. John will soon want money, and I have none to give.
11.

12. And the venal doctor will want money down.
12.

13. And if Pitman is dishonest and don’t send me to gaol, he will
want a fortune.
13.

‘O, this seems to be a very one-sided business,’ exclaimed Morris. ‘There’s not so much in this method as I was led to think.’

The Crusoe reference is to an early episode in the novel (ch 4) when Robinson sits down to map out his situation – it was a long favorite of enlightenment readers but really does leave a large window for the grotesque-ing above.

I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me—for I was likely to have but few heirs—as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered, thus:—

Evil.Good.
I am cast upon a horrible, desolate island, void of all hope of recovery.But I am alive; and not drowned, as all my ship’s company were.
I am singled out and separated, as it were, from all the world, to be miserable.But I am singled out, too, from all the ship’s crew, to be spared from death; and He that miraculously saved me from death can deliver me from this condition.
I am divided from mankind—a solitaire; one banished from human society.But I am not starved, and perishing on a barren place, affording no sustenance.
I have no clothes to cover me.But I am in a hot climate, where, if I had clothes, I could hardly wear them.
I am without any defence, or means to resist any violence of man or beast.But I am cast on an island where I see no wild beasts to hurt me, as I saw on the coast of Africa; and what if I had been shipwrecked there?
I have no soul to speak to or relieve me.But God wonderfully sent the ship in near enough to the shore, that I have got out as many necessary things as will either supply my wants or enable me to supply myself, even as long as I live.

Upon the whole, here was an undoubted testimony that there was scarce any condition in the world so miserable but there was something negative or something positive to be thankful for in it; and let this stand as a direction from the experience of the most miserable of all conditions in this world: that we may always find in it something to comfort ourselves from, and to set, in the description of good and evil, on the credit side of the account.

And she turned from the picture at night to scheme of tearing it out for herself next sun.

From Robert Browning’s The Statue and The Bust (142-153), online in full here.

Meantime, worse fates than a lover’s fate,
Who daily may ride and pass and look
Where his lady watches behind the grate!

And she — she watched the square like a book
Holding one picture and only one,
Which daily to find she undertook:

When the picture was reached the book was done,
And she turned from the picture at night to scheme
Of tearing it out for herself next sun.

So weeks grew months, years; gleam by gleam
The glory dropped from their youth and love,
And both perceived they had dreamed a dream;

I give four stanzas for more stable context but it’s really only the image in the second and third that I’m especially struck by. Browning was always tinkering with his work and this one had a couple of small but possibly significant tweaks along the way. The 1855 proofs of Men and Women read:

When the picture came the book was done,
And she turned from it all night to scheme
Of tearing it out for herself next sun.

And an 1863 Selections alters the second line above to:

And she turned from the picture all night

I somewhat like the 1855 proof version more than the final. The picture is of course the Duke Ferdinand and his actively riding by is what puts an end to the unnamed lady’s ‘reading’ each day (since the picture can’t ‘be reached’ without his ‘coming’). Then ‘all night’ over ‘at night’ seems better to hit the lady’s subjective sense of their separation’s painful duration .

But if the final reading loses something inside the image, it seems better to blend with the poem overall. The grammatical passivity of ‘was reached’ can be aligned with the moral failing of characters who continue waiting for a resolution to ‘be presented’ to them. ‘Was reached’ then contributes to what feels a meaningful splitting of verbs throughout the stanza – two passives (was reached, was done) and one active with a negative value (turn from). Given the nature of the characters, it is appropriate both that passivity would dominate and that the single action actively taken would move not towards resolution but a resetting and perpetuation of the situation. That line of reasoning pushes further if you include the negative values of the nonfinite verbals ‘to scheme’ and ‘tearing it out.’ Finally, ‘at night’ over ‘all night’ I take as emphasizing the iterative element – that by the time of narration the action is a routine one that has somewhere lost the pain and become so sadly – because simply accepted – neutral.

See me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself

Some closing wit of Thomas More on his way to execution. This has been mangled into several versions over the years so I’m giving what I believe is the original – from The Life of Sir Thomas More by his son-in-law William Roper:

And so was he brought by Mr. Lieutenant out of the Tower, and from thence led towards the place of execution, where going up the scaffold, which was so weak that it was ready to fall, he said to Mr. Lieutenant, “I pray you, I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself.”

I still think Paolo Sarpi’s Agnosco stylum Curiae Romanae wins for quality, but I doubt it was as impromptu.

Nor hope rekindling at the end descried, so much as gladness that some end might be

The second, third, and fourth stanzas of Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, after Roland encounters the ‘hoary cripple, with malicious eye’ who points the way to the tower:

What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guess’d what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
What with my search drawn out thro’ years, my hope
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring,—
I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
My heart made, finding failure in its scope.

Louise Macneice – who did a radio play adaptation of the poem in the mid 40s – said of its meaning:

‘a work which does not admit of a completely rational analysis and [one which] still less adds up to any clear moral or message. This poem has the solidity of a dream; the writer of such a poem, though he may be aware of the “meanings” implicit in his dream, must not take the dream to pieces, … must allow the story to persist as a story and not dwindle into a diagram.

Several decades later Harold Bloom – who, in my experience, never refused his intellect the delight of diagramming – had this opening to his article How to Read a Poem: Browning’s Childe Rolande (Georgia Review 28.3):

The reader, like Browning’s belated quester, might wish to separate origins like from Browning’s aims, but the price of internalization in poetic as in human romance, is that aims wander back towards origins. A study of misprision allows the reader to see that interpretation of Browning’s great poem is mocked by the poem itself, since Roland’s monologue is his sublime and grotesque exercise of the will-to-power over the interpretation of his own text. Roland rides with us as interpreter; his every interpretation is a powerful misreading; and yet the union of those misreadings enables him to accept destruction in the triumphant realization that his ordeal, his trial by landscape, has provided us with one of the most powerful of texts that any hero-villain since Milton’s Satan has given us.

The poem’s opening swerve is marked rhetorically by the trope of irony, imagistically by an interplay of presence and absence, and psychologically by Roland’s reaction-formation against his own destructive impulses. All this is as might be expected, but Browning’s enormous skill at substitution is evident as his poem gets underway, for the strong poet shows his saving difference from himself as well as others even in his initial phrases. Roland says one thing and means another, and both the saying and the meaning seek to void a now intolerable presence. For a Post-Enlightment poem to begin, it must know and demonstrate that nothing is in its right place. Displacement affects at once the precursor and the poet’s own earlier or idealized self, as these were a near-identity. But the precursor, like the idealized self, does not locate only in the superego or ego ideal. For a poet, both the youth he was and his imaginative father reside also in the poetic equivalent of the id. In Romantic quest or internalized romance, an object of desire or even a sublimated devotion to an abstract idea cannot replace the precursor-element in the id, but it does replace the ego ideal, as Freud posited. For Roland, the Dark Tower has been put in the place of the ego ideal of traditional quest, but the obsessed Childe remains haunted by precursor-forces and traces of his own former self in the id. Against these forces, his psyche has defended itself by the cramping reaction-the formation of his will-to-fail, his perverse and negative stance that begins the poem.

There is more intensity in the passion of cold, remorse, hunger, and the fetid damp of the mediaeval dungeon than in eating water melons

Robert Louis Stevenson’s verdict on Francois Villon vs. Ezra Pound’s. Differences of personal temperament aside, I think I’ve rarely seen so good a snapshot of a generational shift in tastes and values. Stevenson’s essay is from his 1882 Familiar Studies of Men and Books (online here). Pound’s is from his 1910 The Spirit of Romance (online here).

And while I don’t necessarily agree with Pound’s line I’ve used as a title, I do appreciate the delivery.

Stevenson:

Of this capital achievement and, with it, of Villon’s style in general, it is here the place to speak. The Large Testament is a hurly-burly of cynical and sentimental reflections about life, jesting legacies to friends and enemies, and, interspersed among these many admirable ballades, both serious and absurd. With so free a design, no thought that occurred to him would need to be dismissed without expression; and he could draw at full length the portrait of his own bedevilled soul, and of the bleak and blackguardly world which was the theatre of his exploits and sufferings. If the reader can conceive something between the slap-dash inconsequence of Byron’s Don Juan and the racy humorous gravity and brief noble touches that distinguish the vernacular poems of Burns, he will have formed some idea of Villon’s style. To the latter writer—except in the ballades, which are quite his own, and can be paralleled from no other language known to me—he bears a particular resemblance. In common with Burns he has a certain rugged compression, a brutal vivacity of epithet, a homely vigour, a delight in local personalities, and an interest in many sides of life, that are often despised and passed over by more effete and cultured poets. Both also, in their strong, easy colloquial way, tend to become difficult and obscure; the obscurity in the case of Villon passing at times into the absolute darkness of cant language. They are perhaps the only two great masters of expression who keep sending their readers to a glossary.

“Shall we not dare to say of a thief,” asks Montaigne, “that he has a handsome leg?” It is a far more serious claim that we have to put forward in behalf of Villon. Beside that of his contemporaries, his writing, so full of colour, so eloquent, so picturesque, stands out in an almost miraculous isolation. If only one or two of the chroniclers could have taken a leaf out of his book, history would have been a pastime, and the fifteenth century as present to our minds as the age of Charles Second. This gallows-bird was the one great writer of his age and country, and initiated modern literature for France. Boileau, long ago, in the period of perukes and snuff-boxes, recognised him as the first articulate poet in the language; and if we measure him, not by priority of merit, but living duration of influence, not on a comparison with obscure forerunners, but with great and famous successors, we shall instal this ragged and disreputable figure in a far higher niche in glory’s temple than was ever dreamed of by the critic. It is, in itself, a memorable fact that, before 1542, in the very dawn of printing, and while modern France was in the making, the works of Villon ran through seven different editions. Out of him flows much of Rabelais; and through Rabelais, directly and indirectly, a deep, permanent, and growing inspiration. Not only his style, but his callous pertinent way of looking upon the sordid and ugly sides of life, becomes every day a more specific feature in the literature of France. And only the other year, a work of some power appeared in Paris, and appeared with infinite scandal, which owed its whole inner significance and much of its outward form to the study of our rhyming thief.

The world to which he introduces us is, as before said, blackguardly and bleak. Paris swarms before us, full of famine, shame, and death; monks and the servants of great lords hold high wassail upon cakes and pastry; the poor man licks his lips before the baker’s window; people with patched eyes sprawl all night under the stalls; chuckling Tabary transcribes an improper romance; bare-bosomed lasses and ruffling students swagger in the streets; the drunkard goes stumbling homewards; the graveyard is full of bones; and away on Montfaucon, Colin de Cayeux and Montigny hang draggled in the rain. Is there nothing better to be seen than sordid misery and worthless joys? Only where the poor old mother of the poet kneels in church below painted windows, and makes tremulous supplication to the Mother of God.

In our mixed world, full of green fields and happy lovers, where not long before, Joan of Arc had led one of the highest and noblest lives in the whole story of mankind, this was all worth chronicling that our poet could perceive. His eyes were indeed sealed with his own filth. He dwelt all his life in a pit more noisome than the dungeon at Méun. In the moral world, also, there are large phenomena not cognisable out of holes and corners. Loud winds blow, speeding home deep-laden ships and sweeping rubbish from the earth; the lightning leaps and cleans the face of heaven; high purposes and brave passions shake and sublimate men’s spirits; and meanwhile, in the narrow dungeon of his soul, Villon is mumbling crusts and picking vermin.

Along with this deadly gloom of outlook, we must take another characteristic of his work: its unrivalled insincerity. I can give no better similitude of this quality than I have given already: that he comes up with a whine, and runs away with a whoop and his finger to his nose. His pathos is that of a professional mendicant who should happen to be a man of genius; his levity that of a bitter street arab, full of bread. On a first reading, the pathetic passages preoccupy the reader, and he is cheated out of an alms in the shape of sympathy. But when the thing is studied the illusion fades away: in the transitions, above all, we can detect the evil, ironical temper of the man; and instead of a flighty work, where many crude but genuine feelings tumble together for the mastery as in the lists of tournament, we are tempted to think of the Large Testament as of one long-drawn epical grimace, pulled by a merry-andrew, who has found a certain despicable eminence over human respect and human affections by perching himself astride upon the gallows. Between these two views, at best, all temperate judgments will be found to fall; and rather, as I imagine, towards the last.

And Pound (skipping about more):

Villon never forgets his fascinating, revolting self. If, however, he sings the song of himself he is, thank God, free from that horrible air of rectitude with which Whitman rejoices in being Whitman. Villon’s song is selfish through self-absorption; he does not, as Whitman, pretend to be conferring a philanthropic benefit on the race by recording his own self-complacency. Human misery is more stable than human dignity ; there is more intensity in the passion of cold, remorse, hunger, and the fetid damp of the mediaeval dungeon than in eating water melons. Villon is a voice of suffering, of mockery, of irrevocable fact ; Whitman is the voice of one who saith :
” Lo, behold, I eat water melons. When I eat water melons
the world eats water melons through me.

They call it optimism, and breadth of vision. There is, in the poetry of Francois Villon, neither optimism nor breadth of vision. Villon is shameless. Whitman, having decided that it is disgraceful to be ashamed, rejoices in having attained nudity.
….

Much of both the Lesser and the Greater Testaments is in no sense poetry ; the wit is of the crudest ; thief, murderer, 1 pander, bully to a whore, he is honoured for a few score pages of unimaginative sincerity; he sings of things as they are. He dares to show himself. His depravity is not a pose cultivated for literary effect. He never makes the fatal mistake of glorifying his sin, of rejoicing in it, or of pretending to despise its opposite. His
” Ne voient pan qu’aux fenestres”
is no weak moralizing on the spiritual benefits of fasting.
….
Many have attempted to follow Villon, mistaking a pose for his reality. These searchers for sensation, self-conscious sensualists and experimenters, have, I think, proved that the ” taverns and the whores ” are no more capable of producing poetry than are philosophy, culture, art, philology, noble character, conscientious effort, or any other panacea. If persistent effort and a desire to leave the world a beautiful heritage, were greatly availing, Ronsard, who is still under-rated, and Petrarch, who is not, would be among the highest masters. Villon’s greatness is that he unconsciously proclaims man’s divine right to be himself, the only one of the so-called “rights of man” which is not an artificial product. Villon js no theorist, he is an objective fact. He makes no apology; herein lies his strength ; Burns is weaker, because he is in harmony with doctrines that have been preached, and his ideas of equality are derivative. Villon never wrote anything so didactic in spirit as the ” man’s a man for a’ that.” He is scarcely affected by the thought of his time, because he scarcely thinks ; speculation, at any rate, is far from him. But I may be wrong here. If Villon speculates, the end of his speculation is Omar’s age-old ending :
” Come out by the same door wherein I went.” – ” Rubiyat,” xxvii.
At any rate, Villon’s actions are the result of his passions and his weaknesses. Nothing is ” sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
As a type of debauchee he is eternal. He has sunk to the gutter, knowing life a little above it ; thus he is able to realize his condition, to see it objectively, instead of insensibly taking it for granted.

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).

THE BALLAD OF DEAD LADIES.
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?


HIS MOTHER’S SERVICE TO OUR LADY.
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.


FRAGMENT OF DEATH.
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.