Getting the Hang of It

In late November of the Year of Our Lord 1462 the thirty-one-year-old François Villon, France’s original poète maudit, or accursed poet, is arrested and locked up in Paris’s Grand Châtelet. He has already tasted the dures crostes (hard crusts) and other far darker realities of prison life in the summer of 1461 in the Loire, and is coming off a second briefer stint for larceny at the start of the same month of November. Soon after his final arrest he is subjected to the question de l’eau (a medieval form of water torture). The Provost of Paris has doubtless grown tired of Villon; in his dry eyes Villon is not so much an accomplished versemonger as a recidivist pot poet and swan of the swill, past master in piss-artistry, roisterer, murderer (at age twenty-four in a tavern brawl, though he is found to have acted in self-defense) and repeat thief. He is condemned to be “hanged and strangled from the Paris gibbet.” Cold comfort for a poet, the sentence, “étrangler et pendu au gibet de Paris,” forms a perfect alexandrine, the leading twelve-syllable line of verse in French and equivalent to the English iambic pentameter.

Villon appeals his condemnation before the Parlement of Paris. Not surprisingly for a repeat offender, he considers himself to have been judged by “tricherie” (cozenage, deceit) in what most editions print as his last poem, “The Ballad of the Appeal,” with its eloquent refrain “Was it then time to hold my tongue?” (Étoit-il lors temps de moi taire?) The Parlement generally confirmed the sentences handed down by the Provosty.

Villon apparently composed three poems during this time, one of which is a simple quatrain, a bit of very real gallows humor – although it conceals something more than a mere joke – that has since become famous in French literature. In the first edition of the poems (Levet, 1489), the quatrain looks like this:

Je suis francois, dont ce me poise
Ne de paris empres pontoise
Qui dune corde dune toise
Saura mon col que mon cul poise

while modern editions, updating the punctuation and spelling, print it thus:

Je suis François, dont il me poise,
Né de Paris emprès Pontoise,
Et de la corde d'une toise
Saura mon col que mon cul poise.

Notice that the original edition, apart from the start of each verse, does not capitalize. It is a detail that allows for, and makes clear, an ambiguous reading of the poet’s name, generating one of the additional meanings and charms of the quatrain (also called a “rondeau” in that original edition, although formally it is not).

A straightforward prose translation in English today would read like this, “I am François, on me that burden weighs, born in Paris near Pontoise, and thanks to a six-foot length of rope, my neck will know what my arse weighs.”

Peter Dale devised two verse translations of these four lines; this is the better of the two:

Francis I am, which weighs me down,
Born in Paris near Pontoise town,
And with a stretch of rope my pate
Will learn for once my arse's weight.

This version is very good indeed. While in place of the original French monorhyme, that is, verse that has but one terminal rhyme (an aaaa rhyme pattern), Dale offers two rhyming couplets (aabb), it is understandable since English is a rhyme-poor language and the single rhyme is hard to bring off (it’s also hard to bring off in French). More perplexing is Dale’s decision to overlook the length of rope indicated in the poem (and at the rhyme no less – a toise was an old French measure of six French feet, just over six English feet, that is not entirely foreign to English: Byron rhymes “toises” with “noises” in Don Juan, for example, and there are several other rare quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary). All the more perplexing in that there is a solution that would work metrically and lexically, either “And with six feet of rope my pate” or, for a more informal, man-of-the-street echo, “And with six foot o’ rope my pate.” Given the context of Villon’s poetry, which has one poulained foot in popular verse and song, the latter is the better translation – but either would do, especially since “stretch” doesn’t resonate with any other words in the verse. (You can hear “wretch” in there but you have to cock an ear to catch it.) On the other hand, Dale is right: “stretch” is more menacing than, say, “length of rope” (“to stretch” has long been slang for “to kill” while “to stretch a person” means to hang him, also in slang).

It is a remarkable feat that Villon’s dark joke has survived nearly 560 years and shines through, as fresh as the day it was made, even in my plodding prose translation above and a range of verse ones. The punchline is that good. (By the way, punchline in French is chute, literally fall or drop, which is quite grimly appropriate for the last verse here.)

Villon’s original French actually holds several jokes and an eloquent ambiguity or two, which even modern French readers might miss, along with English translators, and if the latter do catch them, the clever play is very difficult to bring over into English. The French Wikipage devoted to Villon draws on several reliable sources, including the excellent commentary that Claude Thiry provided in his edition of Villon’s complete poems (Poésies complètes, ed. Claude Thiry, Le Livre de poche, 1991).

In the first verse, for example, we have the poet introducing himself, but, as the very first edition points up with its absence of initial capitals, Villon could be saying both “I am François” and “I am françois,” which was the current spelling of modern French “français,” i.e., I am French. As the French Wikipage puts it, drawing on commentary by Claude Thiry and Marcel Schwob, “This double meaning is presented by Villon as a double blow of fate.” What is weighing on him (“me poise”) is the fact that he is who he is, a down-and-out wretch who has led a life of petty and not-so-petty crime. But the other burden is his nationality. Villon’s comrade in harms Robin Daugis, though much more involved in the affaire Ferrebouc (another street brawl and the final criminal straw that led to their arrest), was Savoyard, not French; the wheels of Justice proved more deliberate and one of her scales weighted much more in his favor. Daugis was pardoned when the Duke of Savoy visited Paris.

The dual reading of “François” and “French” is possibly available to an educated and very careful French reader; it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to convey in an English translation. If English readers think of the ambiguity the name Frank would introduce here, echoing the adjective “frank” and suggesting both “straightforward” and “evident, obvious,” they will begin to have an idea of what is going on beneath the surface in French. Finally, in a ditty about being hanged, Villon prepares the punchline – and we wouldn’t know this in a first reading – by stressing weight and gravity with me poise, from the verb poiser, modern French peser, to weigh physically, emotionally, or both.

It is in his second verse that Villon couches his first joke, one that works, as in Shakespeare’s best puns, on an immediate level but also much deeper, even perhaps for the joker alone to savor. Here’s how the joke works. The poet mentions Paris, a place that presumably all his readers would know, but goes on to situate the city in relation to a much smaller out-of-the-way town, Pontoise. It’s a bit like being presented to the Queen and exclaiming, “Oh, I know you! Every time I post a letter, I see your head!”

However, if we are to believe Thiry and his research, as the Wikipage puts it, Pontoise “isn’t chosen at random or for the rhyme,” or for its alliteration with Paris and emprès (near). “The provost of Paris who condemned Villon was Jacques de Villiers, Lord of L’Isle-Adam, near Pontoise.” Villon might even have been ruefully joking to himself that Pontoise was a bit too near Paris for the comfort of his windpipe. “I’m not at the end of my rope yet but soon enough, lads…” There is a slight chance, too, that Pontoise offers a distant ironic echo with a present form (pantoise) of the Old French verb pantoisier, which Frédéric Godefroy defines in his specialized dictionary of Old French as “to pant, be short of breath, have a hard time breathing” (“…haleter, avoir l’haleine courte, respirer avec peine”); derived from the same verb, the French adjective pantois(e) enters the language after Villon’s day – the first occurrence in print is in 1546 thanks to Rabelais (“couillon pantois,” which, leaping o’er several centuries and one ocean, one might translate as “winded schmuck”). There is finally a historical irony here; one of the poets that Verlaine includes in his 1884 Accursed Poets is Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, of the same family that four centuries before produced the man who condemned the poète maudit to hang by the neck!

In the final two verses, a number of purely musical and visual effects are going on that add to the charm of the punchline. The initial consonant and vowel of corde in line three is echoed in line four with col (neck). I should also point out that col is an old spelling of modern French cou, which is preserved in a few specialized terms and as a conscious throwback today to ye olde times (as we do – very lamely – in English to suggest quaint and quiet venerability, e.g., Ye Olde Tech Shoppe; one of those pseudo-archaisms that ought to be dubbed sarchaisms for their sarcastic vein). There is the visual and auditory echo, too, of mon col que mon cul… which is nearly impossible to reproduce in English (neck and nates sounds good, but the latter word is too rare to work here). I should note that the final el of cul was and is not pronounced, while in Villon’s day col was already on its way to its modern pronunciation, going from “coa” to “coo.” When we add in que (in modern French ce que), we have a vowel sound shifting from back to front while the initial consonant remains the same. A clever reader might even hear in that thrice-repeated consonantal sound k… k… k…, a grim gasping for breath (in those days, there was no drop and instantaneous death when the neck was broken; the hanged indeed “danced” beneath the gibbet).

As I mentioned above, Villon’s “rondeau” is a monorhyme over four verses. This is fairly rare in English and modern French poetry, and tends to be perceived as boring and not terribly sophisticated in terms of technique, or as the 18th-century Encyclopédie puts it, “…if one has a delicate ear, one wearies of this perpetual return of the same sounds” (some “serious” poetry in medieval Latin and Old French was written in monorimes or using recurring assonance (same or similar vowel sound) but it was never a dominant verse form, and by Villon’s time, this was already long-established). It continues to burst forth though, particularly in popular poetry (here in hip-hop):

Brain cells are lit, ideas start to hit,
Next the formation of words that fit,
At the table I sit, making it legit,
And when my pen hits the paper, ahh shit!
– Big Daddy Kane, "Ain't No Half-Steppin'"

Finally, the rhymes in the first and fourth lines are on the exact same word (the obsolete form of the verb peser in poiser), although the sense is slightly different, dont il me poise and [ce] que mon cul poise. This is normally very verboten in succeeding terminal rhymes in French and English prosody, although French does allow homophones (English poetry looks down – terminally – on rhyming, say, knight and night; or cope, the verb, and cope, the noun, which could cover the knight while darkly covering for the night). Benoît de Cornulier points out in his study of Villon’s “Quatrain”( “‘Je suis F/françois’ de Villon comme espèce de rondeau,” that this might be why the original Levet edition speaks of a “rondeau.” The fixed form that is the rondeau repeats all or the first part (hemistich) of the first verse at two or more verses later in the poem. More significantly, Cornulier draws a parallel between Villon’s “rondeau” here and children’s counting out rhymes, quoting this famous one in English:

Eeny meeny miney mo
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny meeny miney mo

“…the four ‘verses’ of which display the same aaaa rhyme sequence,” Cornulier stresses, providing an example from French as well. Villon is making a joke at his own expense and the form of his quatrain may well be consciously playing up the light-heartedness as a rather brave way of making even darker fun of his impending doom. As Cornulier reminds us, the rope, the “hemp,” brings to mind something else that is suspended, the scales of Divine Justice; Christendom uniformly and firmly believed that all souls were weighed after death (“…ordinarily the archangel Saint Michael… acted as the so-called ‘ponderator’”). Villon knew his soul would be weighed soon and knew all too well that it was especially heavy.

How do the translators who respect the monorhyme do? John Payne (1842-1916) respects the single rhyme, but his version leaves a lot to be desired:

I’m Francis, ill avails it me,
Born near Pontoise, in Paris see:
Whose neck, at the end of a rope of three,
Must feel how heavy my buttocks be.

He misses the allusion to weight in the first verse. He doesn’t catch the Paris-to-Pontoise joke and therefore flubs it in his translation. Our corde d’une toise (the toise was an old French measure of six French feet, just over six English feet) seems to be halved for the sake of the rhyme, although Payne may have been using a poetic shortcut to allude to a length of strong rope; I can find no instances of “rope of three” or “cord of three,” but Ecclesiastes 4:12 in the King James translation asserts that a “three-fold cord is not quickly broken.” It’s a stretch. (Oddly enough, Christians of a conservative stripe, it would seem, in the United States have taken this Bible verse, not as a divinely sanctioned invitation to threesomes, say, but as a divinely inspired symbol for a strong traditional marriage.) And why buttocks? Was our poet too prudish to consider arse/ass, which is what cul is lexically and in terms of appropriate register? Did he prefer the alliteration and rhythm of “my buttocks be,” which forces him to count “heavy” as a single syllable at the caesura? Whatever his reasons, he weakens Villon’s punchline by choosing a term from a higher register than arse/ass. That’s unforgivable.

Peter Dale’s other version of the quatrain reproduces the aaaa rhyme scheme and like his version above fundamentally gets Villon’s humor:

I’m Frank, which weighs me down of late,
Born in Paris  by Pontoise situate.
And from a rope, six foot to eight,
My neck will know my arse's weight. 

Dale properly sets up the punchline in the first verse and suggests a deeper reading of the poet’s name with “Frank.” He could arguably justify “by Pontoise situate” with the inversion and rare adjective “situate” as reproducing the effect on a French reader today of the now obsolete term emprès (it would be just près de in modern French). But what about drawing out the toise to up to eight feet? It’s a detail that fellow translators wink at. Dale definitely knows the ropes.

H.B. McCaskie also chose to keep the monorhyme:

I’m Frances, I regret to say,
Paris born (that's Pontoise way)
So in six-foot of rope one day
Neck must learn what buttocks weigh.

The poet here leaves out the important though not absolutely necessary allusion to weight in line one, at least makes possible the joke of line two, and fits in the more or less correct length of the rope. On the other hand, “one day” tends to retard Villon’s date with the hangman, and while Villon never specifies how long he has, the last two verses in French read with the finality, and imminence, of a death sentence. The absence of possessive adjectives in the final English verse does lend it a kind of stern inevitability (that eternal practical joker, the Grim Reaper, sends out Save the date! cards with no return address – so even if you wanted to send your regrets…), but the expression remains odd. And Villon’s “my neck… my arse” adds a wryly personal note that is missing in McCaskie’s version. But why didn’t the translator here use the alliterative, and lexically accurate, “Neck will know what buttocks weigh”? Lost opportunity. McCaskie does, however, introduce a different metrical pattern, perhaps to counter the possible monotony of the rhyme sequence, alternating eight-syllable lines with seven (octosyllables with heptasyllables). Every even line begins then on a strong beat.

David Georgi, also respecting the single rhyme scheme, comes up with this for his English version of Villon’s complete poems (Northwestern University Press, 2013):

I am François, alack, alas!
Born in Paris (south of Arras)
And from the six-foot rope at last
My neck will learn the weight of my ass.

Alack? Alas? What gives, Georgi? And why the new georgraphy? It rhymes. It lilts. You get a pass. But faithful to Villon? My ass.

Abandoning strict adherence to one rhyme ought to make it easier in turn to recreate more of the original sense. Here is what Lewis Wharton made of the poem (his translation of the complete poems appeared in the 1930s):

I am François, luckless jay,
Born at Paris, Pontoise way,
My neck, looped up beneath the tree,
Will learn how heavy buttocks be.

It seems Wharton didn’t grasp or didn’t care that the French poet was stressing weight in the very first line, going so far as to use the very same word at the rhyme in the crucial fourth verse. Hard to ignore the poet’s insistence but Wharton did. And he shows – what is it? Squeamishness before the word arse? He could have preserved the meter and the correct register by writing, “Will learn how heavy my arse be.” Finally, “tree” is not a mistranslation for the sake of the rhyme; alone or in such expressions as “dry tree” and “Tyburn tree, “ not to mention “fatal tree,” the word could mean a gallows.

The American poet Galway Kinnell (1927-2014) in his translation of the poems (University Press of New England, 1965) rejects rhyme but it’s hard to tell if he did so in the name of greater fidelity:

I am François which is my cross
Born in Paris near Pontoise
From a fathom of rope my neck
Will learn the weight of my ass.

Where has the connotation of weight, a moral burden, gone in the first verse? The poet-translator’s use of the expression “one’s cross to bear” is a bit of a misrendering of Villon. True, the biblical reference does imply a heavy physical burden, but the underlying sense, at least for Christian readers, would be a physical or moral burden that is exterior to the person named, along with the clear allusion, in terms of Christian belief, to an inevitable and necessary, albeit utterly unjust, execution. That is not what one would understand with a first reading of Villon’s first line of verse. Another problem, of word choice in this case, probably leaps out to most readers, i.e., “fathom,” right length, wrong element – at least nowadays. The Oxford English Dictionary does cite five authors writing well before, around the same time as, and shortly after Villon in which the six feet of “fathom” are applied to dry-land measure, so to speak, but after 1500, save in one occurrence, fathom is used to gauge the depth of a body of water. Galway might have argued that his is an old usage that is contemporaneous with Villon’s verse, but that is not immediately apparent to today’s readers. They are stuck with an image of “full fathom five” and sailing ships. Interestingly, Galway the poet consciously or “naturally” also falls into using a varied metrical pattern, 8-7-8-7.

Finally, I stumbled on this attempt by Bob Zisk, which also uses a brace of rhyming couplets:

I am François: on me that burden weighs.
I was born at Paris, not far from Pontoise.
Soon from the loop of a hangman's knot
My neck will know how big an ass I've got.

As Zisk points out, the rhyme weighs/Pontoise does indeed return the pronunciation of ois(e) to an earlier day. In the Middle Ages toise would have been a homophone, it’s generally thought, with our English “toys”; sometime later, it broadly shifted to rhyming with “weighs,” then finally to what is currently accepted as standard pronunciation, a diphthong that gives the American piehole such a hard time – for a reader of a certain age, Patty Duke’s Helen Keller trying to pronounce the stuff that fish swim in offers a good idea of the contortions the Anglophone mouth not schooled in French seems to put itself in. By the way, while “crescent,” making its way from Middle French into English in the 14th and 15th centuries, poses no problem – it came from creissant – “croissant,” same word really but enjoying much more wide-spread popularity only recently, becomes crew-sant in American mouths.

Croissant moon up in that dark sky,
Dark as my cup o' joe,
I feel so down, I wanna die,
Dark as my cup o' joe,
Sunny side up three hour away,
Dark as my cup o' joe,
My sugar gone went just yesterday,
Dark as my cup o' joe.
– Ed Hopper Blues 

The main drawback with Zisk’s version, though, is that metrically it’s all over the damn place. The first verse sets up a standard iambic pentameter line, but unless you pronounce “Paris” as a single syllable, line two has eleven syllables – and they are limping to Parnassus. You could fix the problem simply enough by an inversion and a better choice of words, “At Paris was I born, close to Pontoise,” but the third verse has only nine syllables. Also, although it follows that a big ass would weigh more than a smaller one, weight, heaviness, gravity are what the quatrain wants to whisper in readers’ ears, for physical and moral reasons. The first verse in this bad English version correctly introduces the theme, even insists on it with both “burden” and “weighs.” The translator, however, squanders that in the punchline verse. I could also quibble with “loop.” The Oxford English Dictionary gives just one quotation – from 1944, moreover – for the word in the sense of a noose and hanging. The word Zisk wants is “halter”; it has a long history of meaning “noose” and the Oxford lists a half-dozen quotations beginning with Craxton in 1481.

Here’s my go at it:

I’m François – Frank – and grave’s my fate,
Paris born (you know, near Pontoise),
And thanks t'a hemp of one good toise,
My neck will know my arse's weight.

My version doesn’t quite bounce lightly along enough on its way to the punchline, as light verse should, and I opt for an easier abba stanza, but it does have a few features worth crowing about. The traditional apostrophe to indicate the elision of a vowel in English poetry (“t’ a hemp” for “to a hemp”) and the use of the rare word toise (Byron uses “toises” in Don Juan, rhyming it with “noises”), along with several other word choices (hemp and, for American readers especially, arse), are enough to tip off readers that they are in a different world and earlier age. Second, the interjection of the French poet’s name in good old English, like Moby-Dick’s “Call me Ishmael,” sets a particular conversational tone while hinting that there is another less obvious reading hovering around the speaker’s own name in French, along with the soupçon of a certain character trait or even self-justifying reason for the fix the speaker finds himself in. Moreover, I work in the “weighs me down/weighs on me” of Villon’s first verse indirectly with “grave,” from the Latin gravis, meaning heavy (plus the great Shakespearean pun on “grave”: “Look for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” – Mercutio and the Villon profiled in his own poetry would have gotten along like two rascals with a corporate credit card until they ended up fatally stabbing each other). Finally, “hemp” for “rope” is your only choice since that is the term poets and prose writers used in centuries past when talking about the suspended sentence. The Oxford English Dictionary provides six quotations while recording the existence of such gems as “stretchhemp” (“a person worthy of the gallows”) and “to wag hemp” (“to be hanged”). It is a sign of human progress that practically all these hangman terms have disappeared from the language. It is equally a sign of just how brutally backwards part of the electorate in the United States has become when we are forced to talk about a gibbet and American Presidential politics.

Today’s editions of Villon’s poetry place “Quatrain” as one of the last three poems in the collection. This is not for reasons the above discussion and the content of the four verses would lead us to believe: “Until the squeezer nips your scrag,” that is, until the halter nips your neck, according to the brilliant 19th-century “canting” adaptation by William Ernest Henley of a Villon ballade, his famous “Ballade de bonne doctrine à ceux de mauvaise vie” with its well-known refrain “Tout aux tavernes et aux filles,” which Henley translates as “Villon’s Straight Tip to All Cross Coves” and “Booze and the blowens cop the lot” respectively – the English here surpasses the French in the familiarly exotic (see – the entire site is absolutely irresistible:!

No, Villon did not “wag hemp,” did not die on the gallows, at least not according to official records. On the eve of the Epiphany, January 5, 1463, the Parlement of Paris met and quashed the earlier ruling, banishing Villon from the capital for ten years. Soon after, François Villon leaves Paris, disappears from the record, and enters legend and literary history. If he composed any verses after this date, they have been lost forever.

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