No man who has ever written has so cunningly mingled joy-bells and death-bells in his music. Here is a realism of damned souls—damned in their merry sins—at which the writer of Ecclesiastes merely seems to hint like a detached philosopher. Villon may never have achieved the last faith of the penitent thief. But he was a penitent thief at least in his disillusion. If he continues to sing Carpe diem when at the age of thirty he is already an old, diseased man, he sings it almost with a sneer of hatred. It is from the lips of a grinning death’s-head—not of a jovial roysterer, as Henley makes it seem in his slang translation—that the Ballade de bonne Doctrine a ceux de mauvaise Vie falls, with its refrain of destiny:
Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.
And the Ballade de la Belle Heaulmiere aux Filles de Joie, in which Age counsels Youth to take its pleasure and its fee before the evil days come, expresses no more joy of living than the dismallest memento mori.
One must admit, of course, that the obsession of vice is strong in Villon’s work. In this he is prophetic of much of the greatest French literature of the nineteenth century. He had consorted with criminals beyond most poets. It is not only that he indulged in the sins of the flesh. It is difficult to imagine that there exists any sin of which he and his companions were not capable. He was apparently a member of the famous band of thieves called the Coquillards, the sign of which was a cockle-shell in the cap, “which was the sign of the Pilgrim.” “It was a large business,” Mr. Stacpoole says of this organization in his popular life of Villon, “with as many departments as a New York store, and, to extend the simile, its chief aim and object was to make money. Coining, burglary, highway robbery, selling indulgences and false jewellery, card-sharping, and dice-playing with loaded dice, were chief among its industries.” Mr. Stacpoole goes on to tone down this catalogue of iniquity with the explanation that the Coquillards were, after all, not nearly such villains as our contemporary milk-adulterators and sweaters of women. He is inclined to think they may have been good fellows, like Robin Hood and his men or the gentlemen of the road in a later century. This may well be, but a gang of Robin Hoods, infesting a hundred taverns in the town and quarrelling in the streets over loose women, is dangerous company for an impressionable young man who had never been taught the Shorter Catechism. Paris, even in the twentieth century, is alleged to be a city of temptation. Paris, in the fifteenth century, must have been as tumultuous with the seven deadly sins as the world before the Flood. Joan of Arc had been burned in the year in which Villon was born, but her death had not made saints of the students of Paris. Living more or less beyond the reach of the civil law, they made a duty of riot, and counted insolence and wine to themselves for righteousness. Villon, we are reminded, had good influences in his life, which might have been expected to moderate the appeal of wildness and folly. He had his dear, illiterate mother, for whom, and at whose request, he wrote that unexpected ballade of prayer to the Mother of God. He had, too, that good man who adopted him, Guillaume de Villon, chaplain of Saint Benoist—