François Villon: a documented survey

D B Wyndham-Lewis

I have decided to stop kidding myself about going into Berkelouw’s on Oxford Street and “just having a look around before the movie.” What I will say from now on is that I am going to buy a very good secondhand book, because, Hume be damned, this is what has always happened in the past.

D B Wyndham-Lewis was the happy Wyndham-Lewis; not Percy Wyndham Lewis, the painter and novelist, but the light humourist and editor of the marvellous anthology of bad verse The Stuffed Owl. In this biography of the 15th-century French poet, he’s in a somewhat crankier mood, although nowhere near as stroppy as his near namesake – who gets a mention, I believe, in the book’s dedication, as “The Frothing Vorticist”.

The book is peppered with jibes at those of the author’s contemporaries who despised religion and the medieval; these give it a rather sulky tone at times. Wyndham-Lewis, like Chesterton and Belloc, was one of those belles-lettrestical defenders of the reputation of the Middle Ages and Catholicism against the contempt of the Modernist and the Whig. I don’t know if this movement has a name; I find it fascinating, and somewhat disturbing, mostly because Chesterton and Belloc could be hair-raisingly anti-semitic. Their apologists are always swift to point out that they were never anti-semitic in person – the “some of my best friends are Jews” defense, which is not in fact a defense at all. Wyndham-Lewis seems to be not altogether free from this prejudice, but in the Villon study he limits it to a completely gratuitous poke at Freud.

In his spare time from being a poet, Villon was a convicted thief and full-dress roisterer, and I found it impossible not to share Wyndham-Lewis’ enthusiasm for him, despite the fact that I can only pretend to read French. Because of this sad limitation, I can’t comment on the poetry, except to say that reading the Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis in this volume and following along with Swinburne’s English translation is the closest I’ve come to appreciating the beauty of a poem in another language. This is like being locked outside a stately home while a civilised entertainment, full of beautiful women and the aroma of fine wines and delicious foods, is proceeding within; but it’s better than nothing.

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