The Minimalist Poet | The Beauty of Villainy

220px-Francois_Villon_1489I’m going to essentially repeat a passage from another post, but it fits so beautifully in the context of minimalist poetry that I thought I should make it a post of its own. Little known, I think, is that the English word villain largely arose from the last name of the medieval French Poet Francois Villon. The OED defines the villain as “a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man unnaturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes.” One might wonder how France’s equivalent of Geoffrey Chaucer, at least it terms of time period and genius, inspired the word villainy.

As it turns out, Villon, like many living and dead rapper of our own age, had a taste for gang-life and criminality. The author of danse Macabre: Poetry & Murder in Medieval France, Aubrey Burl, writes that after his death he became known as a sort of French Robin Hood.

“Almost in his own lifetime, by the end of the fifteenth century, there was a popular book of thefts and swindles attributed to him, the Recueil des Repues Franches de Maître François Villon et de ses Campagnons. ‘The Free Feeds’ went into many editions. The stories were old, derived from earlier scamps and rascals like Til Eulenspiel but their adapted association with Villon’s name shows how strong his reputation became as as trickster. Suavely, slyly, he cheated shopkeepers, substituting a flagon of water for one of wine; distracting a merchant while  friends stole bread, fish, cheese, meat; pretending to quarrel violently with a ‘stranger’ so that the alarmed tradesman rushed out to fetch the police leaving his wares unguarded. Much of its was exaggerated or simply untrue but its very existence shows what a celebrity Villon was, a laughing rogue, a scallywag. ¶ Villon himself subscribed to the notoriety, writing that after his death:

At least there will be a memory of me
As one who was a merry madcap. [T. 177]

Long before Villon’s birth, ‘villon’ had meant ‘to insult’ but the poet’s fame modified it into a ‘cunning rogue, a pleasant thief’. Words like villon, villonerie, villoniser, all carried the implication of someone who took property without payment. [p. 30]


Aubrey Burl further quotes writers from Villon’s own lifetime:

“He was as very proper looking fellow, but for the fact that he was a bit of a lecher and naturally subject to a malady that was called at that time, ‘the lack of money, pain incomparably’. However, he had sixty-three ways of finding it at a pinch, the commonest and most honest of which was by means of cunningly perpetrated larceny. He was a mischievous rogue, a cheat, a boozer, a roysterer, and vagabond if ever there was one in Paris, but otherwise the best fellow in the world; and he was always perpetrating some trick against the sergeants and the watch.”

Villon was exiled from Paris three times and was imprisoned, tortured, and nearly executed by peeved adversaries in positions of power. To Villon’s credit, he had little patience for the hypocrisies and cruelties of those in power, including among the Church, the aristocracy, police and military. In that sense, he was a defender of the common people, much like Robin Hood.

But it’s not primarily for his reputation as a trickster that Villon’s reputation survives. He was also a poetic genius who far outstripped his peers in France or England. Aubrey Burl succinctly describes one of Villon’s surpassing abilities as a poet:

Poetic shorthand was one of Villon’s strengths. Where contemporaries were sincere but long-winded he was sincere but succinct, stripping a thought to its essence. A typical example of this was how contemporaries expressed the idea of laughing through ones tears. Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote:

Je ris des yeulx, et mon coeur place
I laugh with eyes and my heart cries

Alain Chartier wrote:

le pleure ens, et me ry par dehors
crying within, and laughing outside:

Jean Molinet wrote:

Ma bouche rie at mon povre cueur pleure
My mouth laughs and my poor heart cries

Villon wrote:

je rie en pleurs
I laugh in tears.

[danse Macabre: Francois Villon: Poetry & Murder in Medieval France p. 93-94]

Understand stripping a thought to its essence as a kind of minimalism, then it’s something worth the minimalist poet striving for. An example from Keats, also mentioned in the linked post above, comes from his fragment This living hand now warm and capable:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is —
I hold it towards you.

The powerful collocation, red life, can be read as a synecdoche for blood, life, heartbeat and even consciousness in Keats’ fragment. An image succinctly stripped to its essence, decluttered as it were, can produce a more visceral reaction because it engages the imagination in a way that more verbose specificity doesn’t. Less really can be more.

As mentioned in the previous post, Shakespeare’s imagery also underwent a transformation over the course of his career, from the extravagance of youth to the stripped essence of age and experience. In Act V of Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale, he can reduce an idea and connotation to a single image:

············The blessed gods
Purge all infection from our air whilst you
Do climate here.

Climate evokes, in a single word and image (also being a beautiful example of anthimerea) the intent behind Leontes wish—a wish that might otherwise have taken many more words to express. Earlier in the play Florizel famously compares Perdita to a wave:

············when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function:

When another poet might have gone on to compare the particulars of Perdita’s movement to the particulars of the wave, Shakespeare gives that all over to the playgoer’s imagination. That is, he adds nothing further to the image but invites the auditor to play on that single image, a wave o’ the sea, saying she might do nothing but that—leaving that to the imagination—and saying that she might move still, still so, still adding nothing more to the image but for the rhythm, the ebb and flow, of the language itself. The economy of Shakespeare’s imagery lends to his later verse a force and evocative immediacy that is more diffuse in his earlier poetry.

In some later posts, I hope to look at more modern examples.

upinVermont | January 20th 2020