We know little of his wanderings in the next five years, nor do we know whether the greater part of them was spent in crimes or in reputable idleness. Mr. Stacpoole writes a chapter on his visit to Charles of Orleans, but there are few facts for a biographer to go upon during this period. Nothing with a date happened to Villon till the summer of 1461, when Thibault d’Aussigny, Bishop of Orleans, for some cause or other, real or imaginary, had him cast into a pit so deep that he “could not even see the lightning of a thunderstorm,” and kept him there for three months with “neither stool to sit nor bed to lie on, and nothing to eat but bits of bread flung down to him by his gaolers.” Here, during his three months’ imprisonment in the pit, he experienced all that bitterness of life which makes his Grand Testament a “De Profundis” without parallel in scapegrace literature. Here, we may imagine with Mr. Stacpoole, his soul grew in the grace of suffering, and the death-bells began to bring a solemn music among the joy-bells of his earlier follies. He is henceforth the companion of lost souls. He is the most melancholy of cynics in the kingdom of death. He has ever before him the vision of men hanging on gibbets. He has all the hatreds of a man tortured and haunted and old.
Not that he ever entirely resigns his carnality. His only complaint against the flesh is that it perishes like the snows of last year. But to recognize even this is to have begun to have a just view of life. He knows that in the tavern is to be found no continuing city. He becomes the servant of truth and beauty as he writes the most revealing and tragic satires on the population of the tavern in the world’s literature. What more horrible portrait exists in poetry than that of “la belle Heaulmiere” grown old, as she contemplates her beauty turned to hideousness—her once fair limbs become “speckled like sausages”? “La Grosse Margot” alone is more horrible, and her bully utters his and her doom in the last three awful lines of the ballade which links her name with Villon’s:—
Ordure amons, ordure nous
Nous deffuyons honneur, il nous deffuyt,
En ce bordeau, ou tenons nostre estat.
But there is more than the truth of ugliness in these amazing ballads of which the Grand Testament is full. Villon was by nature a worshipper of beauty. The lament over the defeat of his dream of fair lords and ladies by the reality of a withered and dissatisfying world runs like a torment through his verse. No one has ever celebrated the inevitable passing of loveliness in lovelier verse than Villon has done in the Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis. I have heard it maintained that Rossetti has translated the radiant beauty of this ballade into his Ballad of Dead Ladies. I cannot agree. Even his beautiful translation of the refrain,
But where are the snows of yesteryear,
seems to me to injure simplicity with an ornament, and to turn natural into artificial music. Compare the opening lines in the original and in the translation, and you will see the difference between the sincere expression of a vision and the beautiful writing of an exercise. Here is Villon’s beginning:—