Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ballade des Pendus

Even the experience of studying a poem for school or university often fails to dilute its potency, and such was the case for me with François Villon's "Ballade des pendus," or "Ballad of the Hanged." (In Georges Pompidou's Anthologie de la Poésie française, which I have at hand, it is entitled, "L'Epitaphe Villon.") Though I may have analyzed the structure and extracted themes, the poem was, and is, still painful and striking to read. At the time I came across a recording where someone (Louis Jouvet?) recites it in a mournful, aged and broken tone, like what I imagine the literary "mendicants' whine" must be, and it deepened the impression. Anyway, while it is not precisely uplifting, the theme of death and the afterlife is timely given that today is Pentecost Sunday.

* * *

Villon is one of the interesting villains of French literature. [N.B. I'm taking the following information from an eminently readable article on Villon available here.] Born in Paris, 1431, he lost his father at an early age, and thereafter his name and education were bestowed upon him by the canon Guillaume de Villon. In university, though intended to study theology, he became enmeshed not only in the turbulent politics of that setting but also, apparently, in the circle of the criminal "Coquillards," who marauded certain regions of France in that day. In 1455 he fatally wounded a priest, presumably of similarly dubious piety, in some dispute, and fled Paris only to return when his friends procured two royal pardons on his behalf. Upon his return he alternately dabbled in burglary, to some effect, and poetized, principally for an ethically undemanding audience of adolescent criminals. In 1457 he was established in Charles of Orleans's court, writing milder verses in honour of his host's newly-born daughter and then writing less mild verses in dishonour of his host's poetic pen-pal, the latter of which caused his swift ejection.

Long story short, he spent a couple of years being in fair or foul favour with divers authorities and writing reams of ballads, one of which was often the consequence of the other. Then at last he returned to Paris, professing much remorse likewise expressed in the form of ballads, which did not prevent him from dabbling in burglary again, albeit more modestly. The upshot of this lifestyle was that he was condemned to be hanged at the approximate age of thirty-two, after a brawl in which he ironically appears to have been an innocent bystander. Whilst thus imprisoned he wrote the "Ballade des pendus." Then, in a surprising act of mercy, the court commuted his sentence to ten years' banishment. He wrote two final poems, went out into the countryside in the midst of winter in early 1463, and was never heard from again as far as posterity is concerned.

The ballad is spoken by gibbeted corpses to passersby, describing in graphic detail the decay of the hung bodies, which seems to metaphorically express the poet's profound feeling of debasement, and pleading for pity. At least the sense that I have is that the narrators are metaphorically tugging at strangers' clothes, to force them to look at them and recognize that they are also humans, as they repeatedly invoke the doctrine that we are all sinners and all in need of divine mercy. The refrain is "Pray to God that He might absolve us all."

The idea that the society of Villon's time would manifest consideration toward dead, convicted criminals may seem implausible given the judiciary system before the Enlightenment. But one of the more gruesome tales of the Grimm brothers, "Die beiden Wanderer," indicates that a superstitious respect was accorded to the gibbet and its occupants; the dew that falls on hanged men restores the sight of a tailor whose eyes had been gouged out (by a psychopathic cobbler who didn't like the cut of his jib). Of course this tale was published much later, in the 19th century, so it is unlikely that it would faithfully depict the situation in France five hundred years earlier. In the ballad itself, the narrators' fear of laughter, harassment and mockery is not promising.

* * *

Frères humains qui après nous vivez,
N'ayez les coeurs contre nous endurcis,
Car, si pitié de nous pauvres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tôt de vous mercis.
Vous nous voyez ci attachés cinq, six:
Quant à la chair que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est piéça dévorée et pourrie,
Et nous, les os, devenons cendre et poudre.
De notre mal personne ne s'en rie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

Si frères vous clamons, pas n'en devez
Avoir dédain, quoique fûmes occis
Par justice. Toutefois, vous savez
Que tous hommes n'ont pas bon sens rassis;
Excusez-nous, puisque sommes transis,
Envers le fils de la Vierge Marie,
Que sa grâce ne soit pour nous tarie,
Nous préservant de l'infernale foudre.
Nous sommes morts, âme ne nous harie,
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

La pluie nous a débués et lavés,
Et le soleil desséchés et noircis;
Pies, corbeaux, nous ont les yeux cavés,
Et arraché la barbe et les sourcils.
Jamais nul temps nous ne sommes assis;
Puis çà, puis là, comme le vent varie,
A son plaisir sans cesser nous charrie,
Plus becquetés d'oiseaux que dés à coudre.
Ne soyez donc de notre confrérie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

Prince Jésus, qui sur tous a maistrie,
Garde qu'enfer n'ait de nous seigneurie:
A lui n'ayons que faire ni que soudre
Hommes, ici n'a point de moquerie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

* * *

Here is what Pompidou has to say on the subject of Villon:
Le XVe siècle est un siècle triste. Comme toutes les civilisations à leur déclin, le Moyen Age s'attarde désespérément à ce qui fit sa grandeur ou son charme, et qui va mourir. De l'homme du Moyen Age, la poésie nous fournit deux types exemplaires. [. . .] Si Charles d'Orléans a toutes les grâces du Moyen Age, Villon en incarne les angoisses et les remords. Plus qu'une banale préfiguration des poètes maudits, cet étudiant bourgeois devenu bandit exprime la grande terreur du peuple médiéval en proie à la misère et à la maladie, angoissé par la mort et l'audelà, réconforté par les plaisirs élémentaires de la table et du lit et, parfois, par l'espérance. Il a peu écrit et encore y a-t-il dans son oeuvre beaucoup de vers inutiles. Mais les quelques centaines de vers qui comptent [. . .] suffisent à faire de lui l'un des grands parmi les grands, avant et avec Baudelaire, celui qui a su le mieux parler de la mort.
In English: "The fifteenth century is a sorrowful century. Like all civilizations at their decline, the Middle Ages linger desperately at that which constituted their greatness or their charm, and which will perish. Of the man of the Middle Ages, poetry furnishes us with two exemplary types. [. . .] If Charles of Orleans possesses all the graces of the Middle Ages, Villon incarnates its anguish and remorse. More than a banal prefiguration of the accursed poets, this bourgeois student turned bandit expresses the great terror of the medieval people — preyed on by misery and maladies, anguished by death and the beyond, comforted by the elementary pleasures of the table and the bed and, at times, by hope. He wrote little and in his work there are many useless verses still. But the several hundreds of verses which count [. . .] suffice to make of him one of the great ones among the great, before and with Baudelaire — he who knew best how to speak of death."

Source: Anthologie de la Poésie française, Georges Pompidou, ed. (Hachette: 1961), pp. 22-23

* * *

François Villon []
Collected works of Villon (French)

"Ballade des Pendus" [Textatelier Hess von Biberstein]
The French text of the poem, followed by a German, Basle-region dialect, and English translation, and then a biography of the poet.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual

"The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual"
(From: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes)
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

First published: 1893

Among my favourite works, the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes have figured for a very long time. To the devotee of Victorian (or Edwardian) England it is of course fascinating in every respect. To the non-devotee, the yarns are often rippingly good, the characters and style of course well fleshed out and distinctive, and as a treasury of zeitgeisty detail it is scarcely surpassable. What helps preserve the illusions of the fine Victorian order is that colonialism is relegated to a distance, spatially and temporally,* and that the criminal underworld is held firmly in its place.
[* I am thinking especially of The Sign of the Four, in which the scenes on the Andaman Islands are depicted as flashbacks.]

Nor are the Sherlock Holmes tales especially unsettling, despite the pervasiveness of crime in Conan Doyle's society – the perpetrators are beggars and baronets, country mice and city mice (or, as the unkinder French has it, rats), gentlemen and ladies, circus folk to bank clerks. In inviting contrast to the murder and mayhem that are beamed into our living rooms by the television nowadays, the reader is spared tales of sexual violence (which is at least in my view nastier than the other kind), nor is he requested to inspect maggots or attend post-mortems, nor are all possible pains taken to make the crime real to him. The hero, heroine, victim, and perpetrator are set up as reliably and distinctly as the dramatis personae in a play, and this play is fitted out with a scenic backdrop, a declaration of chronological and geographical setting, costumes, and extras with conscientious regularity. Then the recounting of the events is filtered through the sensible and stolid perspective of Watson, or the analytically detached and cool one of Holmes. In short, there is a formula. So one never forgets it is fiction.

If there is any agenda underlying the tales, I have failed to discern it. Clearly Conan Doyle was not opposed to capital punishment, as the deaths of many a culprit show, though neither death row nor the gallows appear anywhere, and it seems that a swift demise by gunshot is the preferred mode of disposal. Of course it is implicitly clear that crime does not pay, that retribution may be slow on its feet but is heavy on its impact, and (despite Holmes's amused contempt for the blundering policeman) that the law enforcement system works decently. Only when he writes of international crime organizations, like the sinister American freemasonry or the Italian mafia of his day, does Conan Doyle posit that there are forces against which individual resistance and the criminal justice system are impotent.

Among the screen versions of the tales, Jeremy Brett's television Sherlock Holmes is, of course, a classic, though to my recollection it is a little tedious in its relentless lack of true humour. I saw a portion of a recent film with Rupert Everett and thought it too self-conscious and sensationalist. Basil Rathbone oddly enough has left no impression whatsoever, perhaps due to my bad taste or to the fallacious tendency to expect absolute fidelity to the original character. My youngest brothers have watched the Russian Hound of the Baskervilles and evidently liked it; for a while afterwards they would greet each other with hearty slaps on the back, in imitation of the overly effusive Sir Henry character (whose manners were apparently formed in the Canadian logging industry), and exclaim, "Sir Genry!" The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which is of course a modern psychoanalytical take on the franchise, I liked, though at present I only remember the scene where Holmes is locked in a ring with the threateningly advancing Lippizaner horses. The Dudley Moore take on The Hound of the Baskervilles was diluted Monty Python for me, meandering and self-indulgent and not especially hilarious. But British humour is an acquired taste, after all. As for the animated series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, my family used to watch it regularly and it was very entertaining if not eminently intellectual. Its premise: the detective, having been pickled in honey, is revived in the far future, in a London where cars fly and women work at New Scotland Yard.

At any rate, to turn from generalities to specifics, the Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual is one of Sherlock Holmes's earliest cases, "before Watson's time" as he likes to put it. The detective visits a college chum at his countryside seat, and this chum, Reginald Musgrave, promptly presents him a riddle in the shape of a disappeared butler and maid. At the unsuspected heart of the issue is the Musgrave family ritual, in which each heir must recite a string of questions and answers:
"Whose was it?"
"His who is gone."
"Who shall have it?"
"He who will come."
"What was the month?"
"The sixth from the first."
"Where was the sun?"
"Over the oak."

Since the lineage has not borne the brightest bulbs, it is Holmes who (aside from the butler) first recognizes that the ritual is an enigma that points to the location of a treasure. A thorough session of triangulation and rapid deduction later – mathematics are apparently a useful life skill after all – a corpse has been discovered, the flight of a further person clarified, and the superficially anticlimactic booty duly retrieved from its hiding-place. This is what happens when servants Forget Their Place! (I'm joking, obviously.)

Last but not least, this story contains one of my favourite passages in Sherlock Holmes, which I and those of my siblings who have read the tale enjoy (partially) quoting at each other:
I have always held, too, that pistol practice should distinctly be an open-air pastime; and when Holmes in one of his queer humours would sit in an armchair, with his hairtrigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.
Illustration by Sidney Paget, taken from Wikimedia Commons. The quotations are taken from a Penguin edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1976). The story is likewise available at