"Au moins, sera de moy memoire": Reception History and the Société François Villon

(TennesseeBob Peckham, UT Martin, bobp@utm.edu)

[Play MIDI file for "Mort, j'appelle de ta rigueur" (15th century melody)...some explanation]

With slightly over 3300 lines of canonically accepted poetry and a  historical existence attested by less than a dozen police and university documents, we can honestly say that François Villon is more the man in the eye and heart of his reader than he is a human being of record.

The complexity of the nearly 450 years of reception history for Villon is that it must account internationally for a wide range of reader reactions, biography drawn from implicit or explicit autobiographical discourse in his work or falsely attributed works, legends, imitation and works inspired by all of these, illustrations, music,etc.

In my bibliographic study of Villon, published in 1990, I listed 141 works "inspired by Villon"  This was at the time a sizable contribution to reception history, even in the wake  of what had already been published by Louis Cons, Jean Dufournet, and Georg Roellenbleck.  However, no matter what the size of the sample, the scope of Villon's reception has always been hard to grasp in print studies.  Straddling countries and continents, it also spans genres, levels of culture, and quite simply escapes the limits of theory and most taxonomies.

Web evidence of Villon's reception, from the Société François Villon site:

        * Société François Villon

though still a limited sample (nearly 150 examples), differs markedly from what we find in print.  We will have time only for highlights from this part of the web site.

Print studies of reception history analyze and cite evidence,

        * La Société François Villon, Bulletin (all online issues)

The web can do this too, but is more likely to present supporting documents as whole artifacts, through hypertext links. This dynamically citable or representable evidence can include a variety of electronically scannable text, graphics, audio and even video files. Barring specific legal restrictions, all available documents can be accessed freely from a single point, duplicatable to the number of web clients a single server can handle.   Finally the dynamics of the web can allow for documents that have a participatory or interactive aspect; in other words, they are seminal in the creation of still more reception history.  Such is the case within the "Poésie française" site, where there is a collective writing game, with a results page, where you can look for poems "à la manière de Villon":

        * Poésie française: Composez votre poème

        Poésie française: Les poèmes terminés sont

A similar interactive poetry game is sponsored by Radio France:

        Vous prendrez bien un demi-vers ? [jeu de Radio France sur le 1er vers de PVxi]

Translations are among the most basic evidence of reception history.  They point to an active readership, an expanding base of readers, personal and cultural interpretations of the original.  My book lists translations into 25 languages. The web site links to translations in 15 languages.

Related to translations are imitations

        * Henley, William Ernest, "VILLON'S STRAIGHT TIP TO ALL CROSS COVES" (imitation of T1692-1719)

        Robert Lowell, "From the Gibbet" [imitation of PVxi]

        Zygmunt Frankel, "The Ballad of the Highway Gallows (after Villon) " In COLLECTED POEMS -
        Other  Poems (1997) [imitation of PVxi]

There is another layer of imitation even further from the original, but which seems to draw many practitioners.  This is the case with the theme and discourse imitation stemming from Rossetti's translation of Villon's testamentary "Ballade des dames du temps jadis".  I have begun a web project revolving around this phenomenon:

        * Flesh of Snow, Words of Iron: The Fortunes of Villon's Dead Ladies in American Culture

At this point, the page is simply an anthology of American poems which seem to imitate Rossetti's translation of Villon or which cite the poem in a significant way.  While the quality of the verse is uneven, with elegiac litanies of steam boats, men's suits and former baseball players in the same basket with works by Robert Dupree, William Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound. Wlliam Carlos Williams, the collection demonstrates a cultural, and stylistic wideness resulting from the reading, not of the French poem, but of an artistic interpretation, which became more famous than the poem itself.

There are French immitators too:

        Théodore de Banville ,TRENTE-SIX BALLADES JOYEUSES (plusieurs imitent Villon)

Banville publicly acknowledges his indebtedness to Villon, whom hails as  "Poëte farouche et divin" and " Père de la sainte Ballade" in:

        Ballade de Banville, à son maître

Surprisingly, there exist links to some of the earliest evidence of Villon's reception history.

        * Mort, j'appelle de ta rigueur (John Cowels MIDI)

This anonymous 15th century rondeau appears in at least 3 notational chansonniers of the period, with scribal attribution of the song (presumably the lyrics) to François Villon.  Additional links to late medieval and early Renaissance reception history include

         Les Repues Franches
         Eloy d'Amerval. Livre de la deablerie: ...
         Monologue du Franc Archier de Baignollet
         Le Dyalogue des seigneurs de Mallepaye et Baillevent
         Rabelais, PANTAGRUEL - Chapitre XX
         Rabelais, QUART LIVRE - Chapitre XIII.
         Rabelais, QUART LIVRE - Chapitre LXVII.

Many of these early legends support the argument that Villon's fictional work is seeded with his own organic, multifaceted myth, with the possibility of unlimited mutant strains. One of those mutant strains is very much in evidence through the internet, appealing particularly to generation X and Y. This  set of legends features Villon as a vampire prince of Paris, and materializes in a White Wolf's World of Darkness card game, web pages and role playing scenarios, sometimes called "mind's-eye theater".  I have selected only a few examples of this surprisingly wide-spread phenomenon:

        * "Du Sang et du Sang" (a tale where François Villon is the protagonist)

        Chronicle: Paris la Nuit

However, even basic evidence of reception history would hardly exist for one period without the web. 18th century reception history has been poorly and somewhat inaccurately represented in print.  I began a project in the late 1980s ("Villon Unsung" in English, and "A la Recherche d'un Villon perdu" in French) which was to uncover hidden evidence of reception history during the age of Enlightenment.  Some of the results will be published soon in a Colloques Congrès et Conférences volume with Champion. Part of what I found is outlined in a partial restitution of an unfinished 18th-century edition of Villon's works, which I discovered to be split between the Arsenal Library in Paris and the British Library in London.  My web edition is copiously annotated, its origins explained, and 18th-century reception history outlined with a bibliography.

        * Le Lais Villon retrouvé par Nicolas Lenglet Dufresnoy

Music inspired by Villon, dating from the 15th century composition which I mentioned and played, through an Anomoanon CD ("Envoi Villon"), recorded by Galaxia studios, Santa Cruz,  in 2002

        Clip from Anomoanon, "Ballad of Good Doctrine - Envoi Villon"

In between is a very wide range of material

         The Vagabond King (with audio files)
         "François Villon, Poème de Louis Pergaud. (musique téléchargeable)
         Claude Debussy, "Trois ballades de François Villon" (1910  MIDI)
         Ezra Pound's opera "Le Testament Villon"  (Realaudio)
         Ballade des dames du temps jadis (MIDI of Brassens melody)

        Xavier Dayer, Hommage à François Villon, pour choeur et orchestre de chambre (1998)
        Sheilagh Hunt, "François Villon: Poet & Thief" (summary of musical play)

        Ballade des femmes de Paris (Realaudio)

Films, television and  made-for-TV movies about Villon are, in our post-reading age,  a significant witness and maker of Villon's reception.  Below is a list of productions covered by reviews, summaries and dedicated web pages

              The Higher Law (film-1914)  Lon Chaney
              The Oubliette (film-1914) Lon Chaney
              If I were King (film-1920) Justin Huntley McCarthy novel & play
              The Beloved Rogue (1927)  John Barrymore
              Vagabond King (film-1930) from Rudolf Friml operetta
              If I Were King (film-1938) JH McCarthy
              François Villon (French film-1945) directed by André Zwoboda
              Vagabond King (film-1956) remake of Friml operetta
              The Sword of Villon (1956 Screen Director's Playhouse TV movie)
              "The Frenchman" (BONANZA, Season 3, Debut December 10,1961)
              The Testament of François Villon (TV film-1976)
              François Villon - Poetul vagabond (Rumanian film-1987)

Anyone engaged in web research on Villon is likely to have seen digital reproductions of gothic edition woodcuts.  While I am not satisfied with my the site's representation of illustration in reception history, I should point out that many research libraries in this country have not make a point of collecting editions of Villon for the sake of their illustrations.  What we do have should be of interest:

        * La Belle Heaulmière (The Old Courtesan, by Rodin) - 1885 (inspred by T453-532)

        * Ballade en Vieil Langage François (ill. de Paul Weber)

         Aquarelle. François Villon (Christian Verdun)
         Patricia Erbelding, "Ballade des dames du temps jadis"
         A Vagabond Klara Tamas, "François Villon" (drowing on Japan paper)
         François Villon (1431-1489) [sur un timbre]

Finally, I would like to indicate a kind of reception history which may at first seem frivolous, unless you consider how few place names reflect our enthusiasm for own own poets.

        * Pour un Villon Toponymique

The fact that Villon, with his criminal record, veiled references to the theft of signs and a confession of being a bad student, would have scores of streets named after him, and at least two dozen schools, demonstrates for us, and especially for American students, the intensity and seriousness of admiration for poets in countries other than our own.

To conclude, let me simply observe that instead of narrowing reception history with theoretical statements about a set body of documents and artifacts intended for a group of academicians, this web site widens it, allowing a more general and evolving public, common and direct experience with a changing body of documents from which both discussion and theory can be derived.