03.05.01, Taylor, The Poetry of Francois Villon

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Norris Lacy

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.001


Taylor, Jane H. M.. The Poetry of Francois Villon: Text and Context. Cambridge Studies in French. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 234. ISBN: 0521792703.

Reviewed by:
Norris Lacy
Pennsylvania State University

This is a fascinating, intelligent, and important book. Indeed, it is in many ways an astonishing book that combines brilliant analyses of texts with an impressive command of late-medieval poetic traditions. Jane Taylor takes a fresh and original look at the poetry (primarily the Testament) of Francois Villon. Most Villon scholars -- though not most other readers -- have long since abandoned the notion that his poetry expresses the unmediated angst of a person whose efforts to repent and put his life in order are repeatedly disrupted by his rebellious spirit and his often unsavory pursuits. This book, however, takes us several steps farther in our understanding of the extent to which Villon's project was literary and cultural rather than autobiographical.

Specifically, Taylor emphasizes the ways in which parts of Villon's work engage in a dialogue with other parts, and in which the Testament as a whole stands in a dialogic relationship to a good many other medieval texts, from the Roman de la Rose to the works of Villon's own contemporaries. Taylor begins by offering examples of the way late medieval texts (e.g., by Chartier) connect to other texts -- and their readers -- by recycling motifs, conceits, even rhymes. The result is active participation in a "closed and complicit circle," a "network of cultural practices" that presupposes "the reader's textual and intertextual expertise" (11). In poetic circles of the time, "textual autonomy is neither a goal nor a condition of poetic excellence; what is aesthetically pleasing derives from the collective production of literary pleasure" (58). Such a contention would no longer surprise us if made in regard to earlier courtly lyric; it should not at all surprise us when applied to the fifteenth century, but perhaps it does, conditioned as we are to see Villon's poetry in particular as a highly original, indeed nearly unique, enterprise. Taylor's demonstration is however thoroughly persuasive, and her analyses are perceptive and instructive. I suspect that the reaction of some readers will be to wonder why we did not see this all the time; such a reaction is, after all, a frequent response to the best literary criticism.

Her project may be summarized, however incompletely, by several "theses" or principles stated over the first fifty pages or so. In addition to the idea of lyric as a collaborative endeavor within a closed cultural circle, Taylor argues that Villon's pervasive engagement with the Rose (and with other texts) requires and presupposes, as noted above, a reader who is particularly "textually and intertextually expert" (23). She further contends that the "speaking self" in Villon's work is not fragmented but "rather held in place by the multiplicity of competing discourses" (30). Moreover, "intratextuality [and not just intertextuality] is a condition of reading the Testament" (43), and as a result, a good part of her analysis consists of strikingly fresh readings of juxtaposed portions of Villon's poem. A number of these passages figure among those in which few if any previous critics have seen the connections she points out. For example, she insists that three discrete and practically ignored lyric sections (the Bergeronnecte, vv. 1784-95; the Lay left to Ythier Marchant, vv. 978-89; and the Verset, vv. 1892-903) are related "on thematic, lexical, phonetic and metrical -- even musical -- grounds" (42-43). Here and through much of the remainder of the book, she concentrates on the fixed-form poems, considering each of them to be "a prism through which our reading of the poem as a whole shifts and changes" (45). Following a detailed examination of the three poems in question, Taylor devotes her third chapter to a discussion of the three poems known generally as the "ballades du temps jadis." Her insistence that all three of the ballades must be read together is entirely correct (and is a point that has been made by others), but the chapter is important for Taylor's sensitive reading and her demonstration of Villon's clear poetic superiority over others who had treated the same theme. Particularly striking is her suggestion (81) that the ou of the third ballade ("Car ou soit . . .") does not mean "where"; instead, it is a conjunction meaning "whether" or "either . . . or." This reinterpretation transforms the third ballade into a response to the first two, rather than a continuation of the ubi sunt motif elaborated in the others. Moreover, this third ballade is related by "multiple echoes" (82) to the Testament's much later "Ballade de bonne doctrine," but whereas the three grouped ballades convey a sense of emptiness and weariness, the "Ballade de bonne doctrine" displays an exuberant delight in verbal inventiveness and exhibitionism.

Chapter 4 studies Villon's Belle Hëaulmiere, particularly in relation to La Vieille of the Rose. Taylor emphasizes that Villon's created character here is honest and straightforward, never contending that sexuality is anything more than a commodity, with money as "the medium of amorous exchange" (92). La Vieille, on the other hand, "confounds sentiment with sex and sex with money" (93). Taylor then offers a particularly subtle and useful analysis of the "Double ballade" beginning at v. 625; she draws provocative conclusions from the absence of a refrain (which absence deprives the piece of the customary summary or distillation of meaning and also of the formal boundary that separates the double ballade from what she calls the "recitative" of the text.) She also discusses the misogynist topos of the double ballade, the irony of its presentation, and even the conclusions to be drawn from its rhyme scheme.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 take similar approaches, combining a close reading of texts with the identification of intra- and intertextual links. Chapter 5 takes as its focus "Les Contredictz Franc Gontier." Taylor reads this text against two earlier Gontier poems (by Philippe de Vitry and Pierre d'Ailly) that also treat pastoral themes; she demonstrates how Villon's response to them is deliberating "subverting and banalising the debate," transforming warnings about the dangers of court life into questions of physical comfort and discomfort (122).

Chapter 6, one of the richest and most provocative chapters of the book, treats the notorious "Gross Margot" ballade, connecting it to other texts and to a broader tradition. In this case, she points especially to the sotte chanson and sotte ballade, lyrics in which the speaker is "hopelessly devoted to a woman of unparalleled ugliness, vulgarity and bad temper" (143). In this ballade, "Villon" presents himself as sexually submissive, a posture that suggests a degree of "cross-gendering" (148). Moreover, the acrostic "VJLLONE," which Karl Uitti called a "feminized form," disrupts gender roles and calls for us, perhaps surprisingly, to cross-read this ballade with another one featuring the same acrostic: "La Ballade pour prier Nostre Dame."

The seventh and last chapter before the conclusion takes aim at the "Ballade pour Robert d'Estouteville," a composition most often either maligned or ignored by readers who have not known what to make of it. Taylor, however, considers it central to the Testament, analyzes it against the backdrop of the Rose, and concludes that Villon offers us two perspectives on love: the "misogynist and dismissive" and the "celebratory and encomiastic" (170). The "Ballade pour Robert d'Estouteville" offers a "validation of sexuality" that serves as a counterpoise to the "sexual degradation" that characterizes the Gross Margot poem, and the result is that we must see the poet's view of sexuality as more complex and ambivalent than traditional readings have suggested. This chapter is the book's shortest, but it is among the most important, as it -- along with Taylor's brief and elegant conclusion (and indeed, the entire book) -- resists reductive readings, refuses to discount any part of Villon's Testament as an unfortunate lapse, and emphasizes both the necessity of a meticulous reading of his work and the pleasure that such an effort will yield.

Every review needs a quibble, however, so here is mine. Jane Taylor comes very close to being -- or perhaps she is -- the "model reader" that her study posits, but I wonder how many of Villon's contemporaries, even in his closed and complicit network, would really qualify. Some doubtless would, but I suspect that many if not most would fall somewhat short. Of course, the inadequacies of particular readers do not invalidate textual connections, however subtle. However, there are several occasions on which, in my view, Taylor emphasizes the repetition of a rhyme or a lexical item, either in a single text (Villon's or another) or across textual boundaries, and perhaps attributes to it a greater significance than it may be able to sustain.

Examples might include the Rose's "ton cuer frire et larder" and its later echo, "plus art son queur et frit et larde" (see Taylor 22); the duplication is entirely conspicuous, of course, when the two phrases are juxtaposed as they are here, but in the Rose they are separated by almost 20,000 lines. Or consider the fact that Villon not only refers twice to himself as a martyr to love -- at the beginning of the Lais and, five years later, at the end of the Testament ("Car en amours mourut martir") -- but also makes both occurrences of "martir" rhyme with "partir" (35-36). There are other examples (though they are not numerous), and some readers may not agree that they constitute interpretive overreaching. In any event, this is quibbling over the limits of readerly recognition, and not over the principle adduced. Moreover, the critical point is that Taylor's effort sensitizes us to such echoes and repetitions in ways that few Villon scholars have done or could do. As a result of her close readings of Villon's own texts and her masterly treatment of the much larger tradition, she makes it impossible for us to continue to read him selectively, as too many of us have done until now.

There is a point in this book at which Taylor draws attention to an element of Villon's poem that "promises rather more than it performs" (78). I believe it fair to say that her book instead performs more than its title promises. It goes far beyond a consideration of Villon's work, and it instructs us about poetic creation, literary language, and interpretive communities attuned to poetic echoes, responses, borrowings, and competitions. This is a rich, densely textured, elegant, and always perceptive study. It offers consistently perceptive and most often brilliant readings, and I do not think it hyperbolic to describe it as the most important study of Villon since the 1967 publication of David Kuhn's book.[[1]]

[[1]] David Kuhn. La poetique de Francois Villon. Paris: Armand Colin, 1967. [Later republished with author's name as David Mus.]

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Norris Lacy

Pennsylvania State University