Villon: Ballade des Pendus

An illustration for: Nine Maxims On Translation
E Bruce Brooks / University of Massachusetts / 5 Dec 2002

We need to identify the key line in a poem, in order to get it right. And we need to identify the key poem in a writer's whole output, so as to get the writer right. Here is a case where that job has been done for us, at least to the satisfaction of some, by the poet's own posterity.

Around the corner from the Collège de France, and a little up the Rue St-Jacques, is a marker where the Church of the Return used to be. Here it was that François Villon, who had been adopted by Guillaume Villon, the priest of that church, grew up and became a refugee from conventional belief. The marker represents Villon and all his work by one single stanza which it quotes from the Ballade des Pendus. Here then, in that one stanza, at least in the judgement of his home city, is the essence, the centerpoint, of Villon's life and expression.

Ballade of the Hanged

What do these lines mean, to Villon's posterity? He is himself the speaker in most of his poems, but on rare occasions he writes in the voice of another. Those others tend to be the humble folk of the world. In those poems, he enters into the common humanity in all its variety, including its most wretched extremes. In this stanza, he ostensibly addresses the literal spectators, moments after the execution has been carried out. And it turns out that he also address a longer audience, one spanning some six centuries and running into the present moment. He implores the sympathy of that audience, and its sense of identification with its brothers in all ages.

For all the other places in the poetic legacy of Villon, and they are many, which may kindle the enthusiasm of a modern reader, it is hard to deny that Villon here addresses his largest public, in the most fundamental terms. Never have corpses rotting in the wind been more fully redeemed as a poetic subject. Never has age been so compassionately been joined to age.


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