Incorporational Mechanics for Patterns of Self Imaging Discourse in Villon's Testament

"Les autheurs se communiquent au peuple par quelque marque particulière et estrangère; moy, le premier, par mon estre universel, comme Michel de Montaigne, non comme grammarien, où poète, ou jurisconsulte." (Essais , III, ii, 782-83) [1]. In 1595, when Montaigne published these words, there was very little written in such an openly autobiographical vein. Yet the Essais , might not narrowly qualify as "autobiography" according to some modern definitions [2]. The fictionality of François Villon's Testament (=T.) [3], implicit in its verse form would, by itself, deny the work any possibility of establishing the author-reader understanding depicted by Philippe Lejeune [4] as a generic cornerstone. Its multi- formal variation and tonal alchemy would exclude it from modern taxonomical descriptions of autobiography [5]. Yet for positivist critics of the 19th and 20th centuries T. has yielded much of the poet's curriculum vitae [6].

Villon's multiple, open-ended and historicized poetic voice in T. is unique in French medieval literature. Far from being a sustained autobiography, T. intermittently conjures up the testator's elusive self image, sometimes through the grammatical distance of third person description and narration or the second person accusation of a hypothetical interlocutor. These autobiographical clips then become a seedbed of the poet's international and renewable existence as a character in popular fiction. Yet, having focussed largely on questions about the veracity, authenticity, consistency and sincerity of the autobiographical Villon, scholars have not made sufficient inquiry about its testamentary contexts or systematically charted the rhetoric of its incorporation into the poem's presumed fictionality.

The sheer volume of first person self imaging in T. defies even a summary analysis in so a limited a forum. I would like, however, to briefly describe three instances with similar incorporational mechanics, where the testator adds a first-person autobiographical clip to a third-person non- autobiographical context. To begin, T.161-68, directly after a retelling of the popular Alexander and Diomedes tale, link the poet to the story through his desire to find "another Alexander",

Se Dieu m'eust donné rencontrer
Ung autre piteux Alixandre
Qui m'eust fait en bon eur entrer,
Et lors qui m'eust veu condescendre
A mal, estre ars et mis en cendre
Jugié me feusse de ma voys.
Neccessité fait gens mesprendre
Et fain saillir le loup du boys.

one whose dual role of judge and patron in the tale strongly implies the testator's criminality. This is reinforced in the parallel of the poet's hypothetical self condemnation with the commuted sentence of Diomedes, a character claim nearly mirrored in the stanza immediately preceding the narrative, where the testator claims he would give up his life like a criminal if necessary for the common good (T.121-24). The third parallel is that of the two epiphonematic proverbs uttered by Diomedes in T.150-52 and by the testator in T.167-68, with nearly identical semantic functions. There is a fourth parallel in the topic words "fortune" for Diomedes and "eure" for the poet.

We may never know if this passage is a true indication that Villon, like his pirate counterpart, committed crimes because of his ill fortune, but we do know that by the time he wrote T. he had been the house guest of at least one man with the financial power to change that fortune: Charles d'Orléans [7]. It is not difficult to see Villonıs rendition of the above-mentioned story with his added personal concern at the origin of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, "A Lodging for the Night" [8], wherein a frostbitten and penniless Villon, fleeing the scene of a murder committed by one of his associates, finds a brave and generous old knight willing to feed and lodge him for the evening. During his stay he gets into a heated discussion with his host, who recognizes the thief in him and urges him to repentance. Villon argues with the man that soldiers are merely sanctioned thieves (as Diomedes had argued), and, before he and his host part company, he claims an obdurate attachment to his only permanent means of sustenance. Justin Huntly McCarthy, who had read Stevenson's tale, apparently decided to play out fully the "another Alexander" scenario, inventing a Villon who is critical of King Louis XI, but loyal to France. Louis imprisons the poet-thief for his insults only to release him for a one-week role as grand constable followed by a one-way trip to the gallows. After Villon saves the embattled capital from the Burgundians, a very untestementary Katherine de Vaucelles successfully pleads his case before the king who commutes his sentence, allowing him to marry the noblewoman and to retain his wealth and noble status as François de Montcorbier. Here Villon is allowed to do just as he promised in T. [9].

The next first person autobiographical clip, T.413-20, serves as a textual bridge between the lyric sequence ending the first discourse on death and another discourse on human aging:

Puisque pappes, roys, filz de roys
Et couceuz en ventre de roynes
Sont enseveliz mors et froys
-En aultruy mains passent leurs regnes-,
Moy, povre mercerot de regnes,
Morrai ge pas? Oy ... se Dieu plaist!
Mais que j'aye fait mes estraines,
Honneste mort ne me desplaist.

The initial coordinating conjunction "puisque" sets up a syllogism wherein the first four lines crudely summarize what Villon has been saying for over a hundred. In the fifth line he identifies his profession with consummate self irony "povre marcerot de regnes" (poor little word merchant), but he baptizes the powerful with a similarly undignified marker in the next stanza: "riche paillard". The rhyme of T.416 with T.417 reminds us that the rhymster has effectively reduced the glory of princes to mere words. Its petit bourgeois commercial extension in T.419's word "estraines" further trivializes that glory. In T.418, the testator becomes his own interlocutor asking an obvious question and giving an obvious answer "Morai ge pas? Oy ... se Dieu plaist!", but one that echoes a similar interchange in T.325- 28, directly before the three-ballade lyric sequence:

Corps feminin, qui tant est tendre,
Poly, souëf, si precïeux,
Te fauldra il ces maulx actendre?
OyŠ ou tout vif aler es cieulx.

T.419-20, at the end of the autobiographical clip, present an old man's philosophical acceptance of death, and ready us for the next stanza's third-person clip, the "povre vieillart", a buffoonish male shadow of Villon's aging "Belle Heaulmière".

The last of these instances, T.657-72, is bivocal, where first and third person singular voices split the end of the "Double Ballade":

De moy, povre, je vueil parler:
J'en fuz batu comme a ru telles,
Tout nu, ja ne le quiers celler.
Qui me fist macher ces groselles
Fors Katherine de Vauselles?
Noel le tiers ot qui fut la
Mitaines a ces nopces telles.
Bien eureux est qui rien n'y a!

The four preceding stanzas depict nine famous men whose fall Villon attributes to the machinations of women. In the fifth, a lyrico-narrative "I" is injected to sketch the circumstances of a personal humiliation at the hands of Katherine de Vaucelles. Villon's self portrait in this gallery of love's fools participates in the rhetoric of social leveling so common in T. In the next stanza, using a third person self reference marker: "ce jeune bachelier" in T.765 and claiming he would sooner die than switch, the testator brings himself grammatically back in line with his gallery of fools and dons the mask of the amant fol . His male solidarity, expressed in the proverb "toutefoys fol s'y fia" further blends the personal with the universal.

Bertolt Brecht seems to grasp Villon's spirit of autobiographical inclusionism, when he inserts an anachronistic self image into the fourth stanza of the Three Penney Opera 's "Solomon Song", imitating T:

You know the ever curious Brecht
Whose songs you liked to hum.
He asked, too often for your peace
Where rich men get their riches from.
So then you drove him overseas.
How curious was my mother's son!
But now that time is getting late
The world can see what followed on
Inquisitiveness brought him to this state-
How fortunate the man with none! [10]

The other stanzas attribute the downfall of Solomon to wisdom, that of Cleopatra to beauty, that of Caesar to courage, and finally that of Macheath to sexual urges.

Villon's "gracieux gallans" discussed at length in T.225-56, is a dynamic third person plural context for his self image; a cosmos which evolves from an egalitarian and unified past to a fragmented class dominated present, including the dead, great lords, cloistered monks and the rest who "mendient tous nus/Et pain ne voient qu'aux fenestres" (T.235-36). The testator identifies himself with the last group: the "povres qui n'ont de quoy/Comme moy" (T.245-46). This variety is impermanent because it constantly moves toward a monolithic statis through death, returning to egalitarian and skeletal anonymity in the Innocents Cemetary.

We encounter a polyphonic or multi-vocal self image in the counsel given the testator by his heart in T.281-92:

De povreté me grementant,
Souventeffoiz me dit le cueur:
"Homme, ne te doulouse tant
Et ne demaiune tel douleur!
Si tu n'as tant qu'eust Jacques Cueur,
Mieulx vault vivre soubz groz bureau
Povre, qu'avoir esté seigneur
Et pourrir soubz riche tumbeau."

Qu'avoir esté seigneur ... Que dis?
Seigneur, lasse! ne l'est il mais?
Selon les davitiques diz
Son lieu ne congnoistra jamaiz.

A Narrated second person singular pronouncement is followed by the testator's reaction to the demise of Jacques Cueur, resolved in a quotation from Psalm 103 [11]. Before the dark tone of a contemplation on death can grip readers, Villon makes a disruptive and digressive denial of his moral and intellectual powers to guide them in such a venture, claiming that he, a sinner, has no place in something which is the domain of theologians and preachers. The obvious rhetorical function of this polyphony is that of a bridge between Villon's discourses on poverty and death. It is also worth noting quite another attitude promoted in the poet's response to Franc Gontier. "Il n'est tresor que vivre à son aise" (T.1481, 1492, 1502 and 1506).

An interesting third person autobiographical vessel for the testator is his fictional scribe Fremin l'Estourdi. He is clearly identifiable with the poetic "I" through the reversed proverb "Selon le clerc est deu le maistre" in T.568. Fremin's fictional role of taking dictation from the testator and transcribing La Belle Heaulmière's monologue is a comedic strategy to divert blame for inevitable errors. Ironically, his very existence is made tenuous through his name and the imperfections alleged by a testator who wonders if he is even awake and who would readily curse him "s'il me dement" (T.587). In his first appearance, Fremin serves to draw the reader's attention away from a lengthy encounter with La Belle Heaulmière. Here, the scribe's alleged professional weaknesses create a dilemma for the reader, who is led to believe in T.453-56 that he is an ear witness along with the testator, and who now discovers his experience has been filtered through an unreliable transcription. The second appearance of Fremin occurs directly after Villon's announced intention to begin his bequests. The lengthy set of instructions is a procedural fanfare to set up the digressive and marvelously comedic false start that begins with an invocation of the Trinity in T.793.

Villon's instructions regarding his burial contain two intriguing instances of self representation. T.1868-75 clearly call for an artist's sketch or painting. The self irony that demands so impermanent and fragile a memorial is only partially revealed at this point. A more complete revelation comes when the testator orders his epitaph in the even more impermanent medium of charcoal. In the middle of his funeral planning, the poet orders an epitaph that is polyphonic in execution. A text commanding voices instead of a voice commanding a text, the huitain and accompanying rondeau seem to reverse the process of T. itself. The rondeau is a bitonal description of the testator coaxed from the throats of visitors, alternating liturgical, courtly, anatomical and culinary language. It is third person singular sung by third person plural; but what emerges is the testator's first person singular voice in his "J'en appelle" (T.1901).

Aside from the previously discussed interjection of the testator's heart, there are three other instances where he reports the biographical observations of a hypothetical interlocutor in a second person voice: T.572- 76, T1591-92 and T.808-12. The first two speakers accuse the poet of a weakness for women of ill-repute. He counters the first with a long scholastic-style argument of how honest women might come to this state, and the second with a pseudo-chivalric claim that he is nobly inspired to take up arms to protect Fat Margot. In the third, after the testator's near blasphemous allegation about the patriarchs couched in anatomical humor, a detractor attempts to weaken his argument with the observation that he is no theologian. Villon ripostes by offering scriptural proof from Jesus's parable of Lazarus and Dives in Luke 16: 19-31. In all three instances mentioned, the interlocutor momentarily becomes a straw man until contextual irony and tonal shifts deconstruct the testator's argument.

The "Ballade de conclusion" provides an important last example of self imaging discourse. Unlike the third-person clips I have discussed, it is textually dissociated from the first-person autobiographical voice, but is presented instead by a first-person biographical narrator. Was the otherness of this disembodied voice the reason for the ballad's exclusion from most of the text's reception history? We may never know. In focusing on the last two lines of the ballade: "Ung traict but de vin morillon/Quand de ce monde veult partir", I discern an epanadileptic symmetry in their match with the first two lines of T. "En l'an trentïesme de mon age,/ Que toutes mes ontes j'euz beues". An extension of this symmetry is suggested by the fact that the ballad discusses Villon after his death, while the same number of lines in the beginning of T. focus on his misery before his release from prison and recovery of life: "Et vie me recouvra", as he puts it. We also note that, like the "Ballade de merci" immediately preceding final ballad, what follows T.28 is a prayer beginning with a series of veiled curses against Thibaut d'Aussigny and resolved in a statement of good will toward the king and his family. The prayer in the "Ballade de merci" begins with an address to groups of people for whom Villon had relative good will and ends with an openly violent curse against the bishop and his men. Thus, in a limited sense, the end of T. is both joined to and reverses the process of the beginning.

In conclusion, I hope to have convinced readers that Villon's presentation of self in T. was at least as polyphonic as the music of his day, that its integration was purposefully crafted and that the testator identified himself with well-known figures whom he perceived to have problems similar to his own. It is significant that the most recent major research on Villon's persona is an literary typology study, linking Villon and Job, by Prof. Barbara N. Sargent-Baur [12]. Indeed the T. appears to be autobiographically a book of bad times. But we may be sure that the poetic voices struggling and evolving in the testamentary cocoon finally emerge free from the poet's somewhat tarnished "bien renommé" to be custodians and co-fashioners of his legend, which is popularly and canonically celebrated in 35 different languages.




Robert D. Peckham
presented at a regional MLA meeting in 1991