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.


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.

I have sung women in three cities but it is all one

Because Cino’s sonnet put me in mind of it, here is Ezra Pound’s Browning-esque Cino:

Italian Campagna 1309, the open road

Bah! I have sung women in three cities,
But it is all the same;
And I will sing of the sun.

Lips, words, and you snare them,
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
Strange spells of old deity,
Ravens, nights, allurement:
And they are not;
Having become the souls of song.

Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.
Being upon the road once more,
They are not.
Forgetful in their towers of our tuneing
Once for Wind-runeing
They dream us-toward and
Sighing, say, “Would Cino,
Passionate Cino, of the wrinkling eyes,
Gay Cino, of quick laughter,
Cino, of the dare, the jibe,
Frail Cino, strongest of his tribe
That tramp old ways beneath the sun-light,
Would Cino of the Luth were here!”

Once, twice, a year—
Vaguely thus word they:
“Cino?” “Oh, eh, Cino Polnesi
The singer is’t you mean?”
“Ah yes, passed once our way,
A saucy fellow, but …
(Oh they are all one these vagabonds),
Peste! ’tis his own songs?
Or some other’s that he sings?
But you, My Lord, how with your city?”

But you “My Lord,” God’s pity!
And all I knew were out, My Lord, you
Were Lack-land Cino, e’en as I am,
O Sinistro.

I have sung women in three cities.
But it is all one.
I will sing of the sun.
… eh? … they mostly had grey eyes,
But it is all one, I will sing of the sun.

“’Polio Phoibee, old tin pan, you
Glory to Zeus’ aegis-day,
Shield o’ steel-blue, th’ heaven o’er us
Hath for boss thy lustre gay!

’Polio Phoibee, to our way-fare
Make thy laugh our wander-lied;
Bid thy ‘fulgence bear away care.
Cloud and rain-tears pass they fleet!

Seeking e’er the new-laid rast-way

To the gardens of the sun …”
I have sung women in three cities
But it is all one.

I will sing of the white birds
In the blue waters of heaven,
The clouds that are spray to its sea.

I stood still and was a tree amid the wood

I’ve been watching the Lord of the Rings for the first time in a decade and am remembering how grand the Ents are. Related by association, here is The Tree from Ezra Pound’s Personae

I stood still and was a tree amid the wood,
Knowing the truth of things unseen before;
Of Daphne and the laurel bow
And that god-feasting couple old
that grew elm-oak amid the wold.
‘Twas not until the gods had been
Kindly entreated, and been brought within
Unto the hearth of their heart’s home
That they might do this wonder thing;
Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood
And many a new thing understood
That was rank folly to my head before.

Read seeds not twigs

From W.S. Merwin’s The Mays of Ventadorn – his meeting Ezra Pound as a young college student (with Pound still locked in St. Elizabeth’s).

He told me he imagined I was serious, and that if I was I should learn languages, “so as not to be at the mercy of translators.” And then I should translate, myself. “If you’re going to be a poet,” he said, “you have to work at it every day. You should write about seventy-five lines a day. But at your age you don’t have anything to write about. You may think you do, but you don’t. So get to work translating. The Provencal is the real source. The poets are closest to music. They hear it. They write to it. Try to learn the Provencal, at least some of it, if you can. Meanwhile, the others. Spanish is all right. The Romancero is what you want there. Get as close to the original as you can. It will make you use your English and find out what you can do with it.”
[afterwards] we managed to maintain a flurry of correspondence for a while. He sent me bits of gnomic instruction on post cards, always scrawled in pencil, the handwriting clearly reflecting his quick impulsiveness. The most memorable of them read, in full, “Read seeds not twigs EP.”

Fifine Answers

Fifine Answers, from Ezra Pound’s A Lume Spento

“Why is it that, disgraced they seem to relish life
the more?”—FIFINE AT THE FAIR, VII, 5.

Sharing his exile that hath borne the flame,
Joining his freedom that hath drunk the shame
And known the torture of the Skull-place hours
Free and so bound, that mingled with the powers
Of air and sea and light his soul’s far reach
Yet strictured did the body-lips beseech
“To drink” “I thirst.” And then the sponge of gall.

Wherefore we wastrels that the grey road’s call
Doth master and make slaves and yet make free,
Drink all of life and quaffing lustily
Take bitter with the sweet without complain
And sharers in his drink defy the pain
That makes you fearful to unfurl your souls.

We claim no glory. If the tempest rolls
About us we have fear, and then
Having so small a stake grow bold again.
We know not definitely even this
But ’cause some vague half knowing half doth miss
Our consciousness and leaves us feeling
That somehow all is well, that sober, reeling
From the last carouse, or in what measure
Of so called right or so damned wrong our leisure
Runs out uncounted sand beneath the sun,
That, spite your carping, still the thing is done
With some deep sanction, that, we know not how,
Sans thought gives us this feeling; you allow
That this not need we know our every thought
Or see the work shop where each mask is wrought
Wherefrom we view the world of box and pit,
Careless of wear, just so the mask shall fit
And serve our jape’s turn for a night or two.

Call! eh bye! the little door at twelve!

I meet you there myself