Villon, the enfant terrible of medieval France, is best known for The Legacy and The Testament, two long lyrics that he completed just before being exiled from Paris in 1462 for stabbing an attorney. The facts of his life—his origins, his actual villainies, what became of him after his banishment—are still murky and apt to be confused by the quasi-autobiographical nature of his poetry. Simpson’s informative, if somewhat desultory introduction situates Villon at the origins of the lyric tradition in France, emphasizing his efforts to escape the constrictions of courtly poetry. His jailbreak was effected primarily through the drama of his voice, by turns savagely parodic, brimmed with bathos, or disarmingly colloquial. As Simpson puts it, “The man is the style,” and he has tried to clear up a few of the mysteries surrounding Villon the man by meticulously reproducing both the tone and formal rigor of his style. This means several hundred stanzas of ottavo rime, a feat of translation that Simpson performs with virtuosic gusto. He is not above the odd eye-rhyme (Jehanneton / cotton), or stirring in some anachronistic argot: Villon, keeping court in a whorehouse, fills a chamber pot with wine “on the q.t.” Here and there the balance and wit of Villon’s line is stretched or missed, but wherever the demands of rhymed translation overwhelm even Simpson’s inventiveness, there are compensatory pleasures in abundance. Not least of these are the annotations, which provide a who’s who of Villon’s verse and dip into the scholarly record where necessary. Any reader will be happy to have them.
An enjoyable romp through the mind of one of France’s funniest, most dissolute, and most affecting sons.