Academic journal article Chicago Review

"I Lie in Dawn's Great Faculty": Stephen Rodefer's Translation of François Villon

Academic journal article Chicago Review

"I Lie in Dawn's Great Faculty": Stephen Rodefer's Translation of François Villon

Article excerpt

First, Villon, for those who don't remember. One long poem, one only longish, and a handful of ballades, written in Middle French around 1460. "Thief, murderer, pander, bully to a whore, he is honored for a few score pages of unimaginative sincerity" in the words of a young Ezra Pound, who was a great admirer. Villon was educated at the Sorbonne to be a teacher or minor church functionary, but somewhere along the line things got a little out of hand. He was indicted for knifing a priest, arraigned for brawling, tossed in the municipal dungeon for robbing a theology school, and tortured for who knows what reason in the cellar of the bishop of Orléans. But if he had a pretty rough time, he kept a good sense of humor about it. The Paris streets of his poems have gutter wit flowing richly down both sides. His stanzas are full of hams and sausages, wine, turds, taverns, and whores. His two long works, The Legacy and The Testament, are both mock- wills, twisting the solemnity of the sick man's last official words into a wild carnival dance of poverty, decay, sex, and death. The poet laments his wasted youth and his broken health, and he names his heirs in a series of bequests, leaving them such things as his tattered boots, a fist in the eye, his farts and belches, his trenchant shaft, his breeches to wear as a headdress, and the rents from a house he doesn't own. The lucky beneficiaries are people who figured in Villon's life - his criminal life mostly: his attorney, prosecutors, investigating magistrates, Paris cops, and jail guards. Cotart, Cholet, Jehan Raguier, Perrenet Merchant, and so forth-Villon mentions them by name, but five and a half centuries later (or even a few generations later, as one Villon scholar remarked in the 1530s), the reader has no faces or stories to attach to the names. The effect is like overhearing an inside joke: you know that there is a joke there but you're not in on it.

Somehow, you don't really need to know the whole story. Villon's voice comes through, japing and scurrilous, tender, elegaic, and unsparingly graphie. It's the unruly combination that makes his work so engaging and so durable. In his long and prolific afterlife, Villon has been translated into lacy Victorian verse by Rossetti and Swinburne, set to music by Pound, adapted - in German - by Bertolt Brecht for The Threepenny Opera, and recast (more than once) as a Hollywood movie.

Stephen Rodefer belongs to aline of twentieth-century poets who looked to Villon as a model of freedom and directness in poetry. It is a literary genealogy that puts him in the company, one way or another, of Pound, Basil Bunting, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Lowell. For several of these modern heirs, Villon is a sort of tutelary spirit of the starting -place. At the beginning of along career of innovation, Pound invented the "villo naud" - an experiment in translation as impersonation - and his two villonauds were among his first published poems. Basil Bunting considered his own "Villon" his first poem "of any value at all" (as he described it in a letter to Pound in 1926). Rodefer's Villon was among his first published poetry as well; he begins his translator's preface with an allusion to Pound and borrows a line from Bunting as an epigraph.

For all three, Villon provided a space in which to find and test their own poetic voice. Writing alongside or through another text can be an incantatory gesture: the initiate invokes the ghost of the poet he hopes to become and summons it to speak through him, the dead poet in the live one's mouth. Yet the choice to work within a space cleared by an existing text is always an ambivalent one. It comes with permission to speak pre-approved, but the new poem that emerges is never quite free of the earlier text. Original and not original, a translation is always a peculiar double performance.

Stephen Rodefer's Villon, appropriately enough, came capering in with counterfeiting and mild larceny in its heart. …

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