EP&M Poetry Book Review

Sing, Muse

Review of: The Legacy & Testament by François Villon
Translator:  Louis Simpson
Ashland, Oregon:  Story Line Press, 2000 ($17.95)
ISBN: 1-885266-99-5

reviewed by
Helen Palma

        American poetry has lost its bearings. While the disciples of Pound and Eliot continue to write free verse, the New Formalists are using rhyme and meter with the exactitude of Pope. Those who seek a third alternative write verse that is sometimes described as "loosely metered," but which is, in fact, accentual. All three groups avoid rhetoric and are locked inside a lyric cage; all three are producing bland, private mutterings that are forgotten as soon as they are read.

        Louis Simpson's translation of Villon's two longest poems, The Legacy and The Testament, published by Story Line Press, is symptomatic of this state of poetic malaise. He has translated Villon into contemporary accentual verse, which is to say that his lines are composed around stresses, with a variable number of syllables between each stress, and that he has expanded the definition of rhyme to include full rhyme, slant rhyme, and slant rhyme so farfetched it can only be registered orthographically. While such a technique has certain disadvantages when applied to Villon, Simpson has compounded its difficulties by forcing his verses into the huitain, Villon's octosyllabic stanza rhymed ABABBCBC. The result is disastrous.

        The magnitude of Simpson's mistake can be measured by comparing his translation with the excellent free verse translation by Galway Kinnell (Houghton Mifflin, 1977). Whereas Kinnell was able to exploit the flexibility of free verse in order to capture Villon's tone and meaning, if not his form, Simpson provides a visual approximation of the form but mangles the tone and meaning. His irregular, accent-based rhythms, together with the paucity of rhymes in English, render him incapable of achieving the constant, ringing contrast between the anguished voice of the persona and the end-stopped perfectly rhymed stanzas, which is the essence of Villon in the original.

        Consider the opening stanza of The Testament, the first line of which ranks with Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan? as among Villon's most widely remembered. What follows is Villon's original, then Kinnell's translation, then Simpson's.

En l'an de mon trentiesme aage
Que toutes mes hontes j'eus beues
Ne de tout fol ne de tout sage
Non obstant maintes peines eues
Lesquelles j'ay toutes receues
Soubz la main Thibault d'Aussigny
S'evesque il est, seignant les rues
Qu'il soit le mien je le regny.

                        (Le Testament, I)

In my thirtieth year of life
When I had drunk down all my disgrace
Neither altogether a fool nor altogether wise
Despite the many blows I had
Every one of which I took
At Thibault d'Aussigny's hand
Bishop he may be as he signs the cross
Through the streets, but I deny he is mine.

                           (Kinnell, p. 27)

At thirty I am not quite sane,
And not quite insane. Finally
I have drunk up all the pain
That Bishop Thibault d'Aussigny
Made me suffer. The man may be
"Bishop of the Streets." That's fine.
The bishop of the whole blessed see,
Provided that he isn't mine.

                                        (Simpson, p. 23)

        Simpson's version is inferior to Kinnell's for several reasons. First, not only does he compress the reader-grabbing first line into two words, he mistranslates honte (shame) as "pain," (presumably because it rhymes with "sane") and thereby omits the initial statement of what is to become one of Villon's preoccupations in this poem, namely, his feelings of guilt and remorse for a misspent life. Second, Simpson's over-punctuated, frequently enjambed lines hobble the stately pace of the end-stopped original. Third and most damning, Simpson misses the larger significance of the last four lines. His phrase, "Bishop of the Streets," sounds like the soubriquet of a hoodlum kingpin. It has no counterpart in the original. Villon, in this passage, isn't simply denigrating a corrupt member of the clergy. Thibault d'Aussigny, the poet admits, does indeed represent the spiritual and temporal power of the Roman Catholic Church, and he, Villon, is rejecting it. Simpson's "That's fine ... Provided that he isn't mine," is too mild. It suggests a live-and-let-live attitude which is the very opposite of Villon's emotionally engaged assertion of defiance.

        Similarly tone-deaf inaccuracies are strewn throughout Simpson's translation. Straitjacketed by his huitains, Simpson is forced into the usual expedient of omitting whatever can't be made to fit his rhyme scheme and dragging in extraneous matter because it does. At times this produces a wholly inappropriate tone of Byronic cleverness, as in the following stanza from The Legacy. Again, it is instructive to compare Kinnell.

Item ma nominacion
Que j'ay de l'Université
Laisse par resignacion
Pour seclurre d'aversité
Povres clers de ceste cité
Soubz cest intendit contenus
Charité m'y a incité
Et Nature, les voiant nus.

                        (Le Lais, XXVII)

Item the nomination
I have at the University
I resign from and transfer it
To protect from hardship
The poor clerks of this city
Covered by this provision
Charity has put me to it
And Nature, seeing them naked.

                        (Kinnell, p. 15)

Item: the Master of the Arts,
Bestowed by blockheads equally
On scholars and -- what rhymes with Arts? --
Was never any use to me.
Auction it off and give the money
To the poor clerks named below.
This I am doing out of pity
On seeing them denuded so.
                                    (Simpson, p. 15)

        The first half of Simpson's stanza, including the Byronic tic of inviting the reader to help compose the poem, has no equivalent in Villon's text; the second half translates the matter but misses the tone. Here Simpson might argue, probably correctly, that Villon is being ironic and that the jaunty tone of the translation is intended to convey this. But Villon's method is to sound sincere and let the other levels of meaning exist for those who are able to recognize them. Indeed, Villon's depiction of pathos is so convincing that his irony was not suspected until modern research into the archives of fifteenth-century France identified some of his destitutes as well-to-do Parisians. To place Villon's tongue so obviously in his cheek, as Simpson does, is to falsify and oversimplify the texture of his poem.

        The possibility of hidden meanings raises the issue of the importance of annotations in any edition of Villon. The translations done by John Heron Lepper (1924), Anthony Bonner (1960), and Peter Dale (1973) all provide excellent notes, keyed to individual stanzas of the poems. But Simpson's translation disappoints in this respect as well. He places no indications in the body of the text to alert the reader to the existence of a pertinent endnote. Moreover, since his endnotes are numbered chronologically, rather than with reference to a line or page number, they are difficult and frustrating to use.

        Other infelicities include confusion over the pronunciation of French names, as when, recalling Byron again, Laurens is rhymed with "parents" (p. 15), but Saint-Denis is rhymed with "three" (p. 61); anachronistic references to academe, as when "He's a true fool when he's present/And an amusing one when he's not"(Kinnell, p. 95) is rendered by Simpson, "You could appoint him Professor/Of Foolishness in Residence" (p. 91); and a compulsive dulling of Villon's most vivid images, as when "Trying to quench love's flames/Hotter than Saint Anthony's fire" (Kinnell, p. 65) becomes "...to put out the flame/Of love. It was hot but honest work" (p. 61).

        The flaws in Simpson's translation are endemic to contemporary American verse. Its preference for the irregular, conversational rhythms of the lyric and its sense that traditional rhetorical devices are bombastic and out of place, mark it as the product of a period in which the literary imagination is shackled by bookishness and silent reading. Villon's poetry, by contrast, is aural. It uses rhyme, meter, alliteration, exempla, antithetical balance and all the resources of rhetoric to create a rich, polysemous work of art that sings as well as reads off a page. Any translation that, like Simpson's, attempts to do less, will be feeble and inadequate.

                                   Helen Palma

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