Printer Friendly

Problematic genealogies: Algernon Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the discovery of Francois Villon.

The fifteenth-century French poet, Francois Villon, is notable for the frequency with which his poetry has been translated into English, a preference that has claimed for Villon a place in English canonical history. Whether as a result of the tantalising biographical facts surrounding his life (from his acquaintance with the criminal underworld of medieval Paris, to his success at the court of Charles D'Orleans, his numerous brushes with the hangman's noose, and his eventual disappearance in 1463), the grittiness and apparent realism of his themes, the appeal of his mask-wearing narrative persona, or the formal dexterity of his ballades and rondeaux, Villon's poetry has served as creative fodder to English and American poet-translators from the nineteenth century onwards. While, in France, a resurgence of interest in the medieval poet can be traced to Theophile Gautier's inclusion of Villon in his 1844 work, Les Grotesques, the movements that instigated a canon of Villon on the other side of the Channel bear further scrutiny. (1)

Historically, critics have focused on the centrality of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in sparking the English and then the American interest in Villon, and to question his primacy as "founder" is to threaten the foundations upon which the English canon of Villon has been erected. However, while Rossetti's 1870 translation of the "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" is arguably the most canonical of the Villon translations to date, including as it does the oft-quoted line "But where are the snows of yester-year?," it was not the first extended attempt at translating his work. (2) This study will challenge critical assumptions by rewriting the genealogy of the English Villon to show that it was Algernon Charles Swinburne--and not Rossetti--who first discovered Villon, a poet for whom Swinburne had conceived a profound admiration since his boyhood, whose work he had been translating since at least as early as 1860, and to whose poetry he ultimately led Rossetti.

It is useful here to draw a distinction between private and a public founding because, while Swinburne can be regarded as founder in terms of having been the first to seek an English readership for Villon through translation, the very fact that Rossetti has for so long been credited with introducing English readers to Villon and the canonicity of his translations themselves are issues that muddy the water. Whether the title of "founder" itself demands public recognition of the sort Rossetti's translations have generated, and whether Swinburne can be regarded as founder without having accomplished the same, is an objection that may be raised by some. That being said, the hope is that this article will go some way in readdressing this critical marginality, quashing semantic concerns by bringing the private founder into the public domain. Indeed, the fact that Swinburne's role in bringing Villon to the attention of English audiences has gone unnoticed, or been deemed unworthy of critical attention until now, perhaps says more about his position in the English canon than that of Villon, the latter having been taken up by the likes of Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and Robert Lowell, and whose poetry and biography have graced the small screen, the stage, and even the opera house. By redefining the relationship between Swinburne, Rossetti, and Villon, this study seeks to redirect critical attitudes, preparing the way for future studies of the English translations of Villon on the one hand and questioning to what extent past studies need to be redrawn on the other.

An English Villon

Scholars studying Villon, both in England and in France, have often commented on the popularity of the medieval French poet among English audiences and translators, as translations and adaptations of the poet's life and works continue to filter into popular culture. For instance, Michael Freeman has argued that "Villon has earned a special place in English literary consciousness," while John Fox suggests "that it is doubtful whether any other French poet can boast of as much success in this country." (3) In fact, the surfeit of English translations of Villon mean that these English versions of his work can be examined against a canon of English, as well as French, literary precedents. The Villon translations are thus doubly intertextual, with Swinburne alluding to Rossetti in his 1878 publication, Pound referring to his Victorian predecessors in his work, and Robert Lowell taking his cue from Pound's "Villonauds" in his imitations. That the position of Villon in the English canon has puzzled critics on either side of the Channel is made evident by Gaston Paris, who commented that "la plus etonnante des fortunes posthumes de maitre Francois, c'est d'avoir ete adopte, il y a une quarantaine d'annees, par l'ecole anglaise qui, groupee autour de Rossetti, inaugurait en meme temps ou renouvelait le mysticisme, le symbolisme et l' 'esthetisme'" [the most surprising of Master Francois' posthumous adventures is to have been adopted, forty years ago, by the English school who, grouped around Rossetti, were inaugurating mysticism, symbolism and aestheticism at the same time]. (4) Similarly, Louis Cons describes how "sous l'influence de Banville, Villon devient pour toute la nouvelle ecole de poesie anglaise, qui revient a la rime et aux forme fixes, 'le Prince des rimeurs de ballades'" [under the influence of Banville, Villon becomes for all of the new school of English poets who are returning to rhyme and fixed forms, "the prince of ballad composers"]. (5) Cons likewise alludes to Villon's value to what James Robinson has called the "English Parnassian School," a movement headed by John Payne, author of the first complete edition of Villon in English. (6)

The story of Villon's "fortunes posthumes" in England and in English, therefore, extends from Swinburne and Rossetti to poets such as John Payne (1878), Andrew Lang (1872), and W. E. Henley (1881) in the nineteenth century, and Ezra Pound (1907, onwards), J. M. Synge (1909), Edmund Gosse (1910), Basil Bunting (1930), Tom Scott (1953), Robert Lowell (1958), Anthony Bonner (1960), Richard Wilbur (1969), Peter Dale (1973), and Galway Kinnell (1977) in the twentieth. In addition, Villon features as the protagonist in Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, A Lodging for the Night (1877), as well as in novels by Justin Huntly McCarthy (1901), Robert Gordon Anderson (1924), John Erskine (1937), and Babette Deutsch (1942), while Pound (1924) and Rupert Friml (1925) both set the story of his life to music. Villon has also graced the small screen in productions such as The Oubliette (1914), a silent film starring Lon Chaney, or The Vagabond King (1956), an adaptation of Rupert Friml's light opera. The latter included the popular song, "Only a Rose," made famous by Mario Lanza and likely inspired by Villon's reference to his lover as "m'amour, ma chere rose" [my love, my dear rose] in stanza XC of the Testantent. (7) The unexpected presence of a fifteenth-century French poet in contemporary English-speaking canons has led to a new branch of Villon scholarship, with Glen Omans, Michael Morsberger, and Robert D. Peckham publishing articles on the reception and dissemination of Villon's works in Britain and in the United States, while John Fox, Michael Freeman, and Jane Taylor have discussed his cross-cultural appeal in their books on the poet. (8) Nonetheless, in view of Villon's affect on the English canon and the fact that a wide host of translators have incorporated his work into their collections, anthologies, or original poems, it is perhaps surprising that no conclusive study tracing his entry into the English canon has been made. While there are numerous accounts of his presence in English, what studies there are of his English origins are either perfunctory or misleading, and it is this chasm in Villon studies that the present article aims to fill.

Critical Backdrop

Of the small number of critics to speculate on the genealogy of the English Villon, most hail Rossetti as founding father. While this assumption may be erroneous, it is understandable, particularly in view of the fact that Rossetti was first to publish his translations and that the translations themselves remain the most canonical versions of Villon to date, his "Ballad of Dead Ladies" both introducing the word "yester-year" into the English language and widening the reach of the ubi sunt. (9) The critical compunction to credit Rossetti with the discovery of Villon is exemplified by Morsberger, who claims that "Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the first and most successful translator of Villon" (p. 190). Similarly, Georges Lafourcade, Swinburne's acclaimed early biographer, is explicit in his discussion of the relationship between the three poets and argues that "c'est D. G. Rossetti qui, vers 1860, dut reveler a Swinburne l'oeuvre de Villon" [it was D.G. Rossetti who, around 1860, likely revealed to Swinburne the oeuvre of Villon]. (10) Freeman, too, focuses on the canonicity of Rossetti's Villon, stating that "Rossetti ... left an indelible mark by turning the refrain of Villon's most famous poem into something which may well be more 'poetic' than the author originally intended. He also contends that the '"snows of yester-year' has taken on a life of its own in English and is frequently quoted by people who have never read a line of Francois Villon's poetry" (p. 15).

Furthermore, as recently as in 2006 Jane Taylor argued that "Swinburne ne fut pas le premier de son cercle a ... traduire [Villon]. Son contemporain et ami Dante Gabriel Rossetti, celebre traducteur de Dante et de Calvacante, avait deja, en 1869, traduit et fait paraltre trois des pieces du poete medieval" [Swinburne was not the first of his circle to translate Villon. His contemporary and friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the famous translator of Dante and of Calvacanti, had already, in 1869, translated and published three works from the medieval poet]. (11) Moreover, in her discussion of Rossetti's method of translation ("Par fidelite, Rossetti, et apres lui Swinburne, entendait une sympathie non pas imitative, mais 're-creative'" [by fidelity, Rossetti, and Swinburne after him, meant a sympathy that was not imitative, but "re-creative"]) Taylor clearly places Swinburne after Rossetti. She justifies her position through the argument that translation came more naturally to Rossetti than to Swinburne, forming an integral part of his creative canon: "Swinburne a tres peu traduit: en fait, la seule traduction soutenue qu'il ait osee fut les villoneries" [Swinburne translated but very little: in fact, the only sustained translation that he attempted was the villoneries] (p. 330). While Taylor's analysis of Swinburne's villoneries is itself significant in illuminating that poet's relationship with his French source texts, in presenting Swinburne as successor to Rossetti, the article is not mindful of the fact that the latter was translating Villon before the former.

While the image of Rossetti as the central figure in the English renaissance of Villon is the canonical view, a minority of critics have speculated on the possibility of Swinburne's greater role in anglicizing Villon. For instance, in a footnote to his article on "A Neglected Phase of the Aesthetic Movement," James K. Robinson suggests that Swinburne may have been "the earliest reviver of Villon," citing Prof. P. F. Baum as his source, who voiced this idea in an unpublished letter to the author in 1951 (pp. 752, 753). However, the focus of his article not being whether this claim is true or on what findings Baum has based his opinion, Robinson's discussion of the origins of an English Villon remains apocryphal. A second allusion to Swinburne as canon-maker surfaces in Glen Omans's "The Villon Cult in England," an article that provides a slightly weightier discussion of Villon's English genealogy. Taking his dates from Lafourcade, Omans states that Swinburne began translating Villon in 1861, summarizing the subsequent development of the vogue of Villon in England as follows: "[Swinburne] apparently introduced Rossetti, a close friend of his at the time, to Villon's poetry, and Rossetti's translations, made in 1869 and published in Poems in 1870, in turn attracted the attention of Lang" (p. 19). He justifies this chronology by referring to comments made by William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's brother, although this evidence is confined to a footnote.

As the present article will show, while William Michael Rossetti's evidence is important, it is only one piece of the puzzle and cannot, in itself, constitute sufficient proof to settle the question of who introduced Villon to whom. While Omans and Robinson may share the conviction that it was Swinburne who led Rossetti to Villon, neither discuss the issue at length and both leave out much of the evidence that could finally resolve the matter of paternity. Therefore, despite the fact that themes such as Swinburne's access to his uncle Ashburnham's library, his interest in French literature, and his profound admiration for and affinity with Villon have variously been commented on, no critic has yet put these strands together or followed these lines of enquiry to their various conclusions. Furthermore, no article has yet explored the evidence of the Ashburnham library, or taken Rossetti's opinion of Villon and his use of the translations into account. By collating and examining these multiple factors, this article will justify the arguments made by Robinson and Omans, attempt to correct a canonical bias, and re-evaluate Swinburne's position in studies of Villon in English.

A Review of the Evidence

In his authoritative biography of Swinburne and his works, Lajeunesse de Swinburne, Lafourcade shows that despite having been published mainly in Poems and Ballads, Second Series in 1878, the evidence of the extant manuscripts suggests that Swinburne was translating Villon from as early as 1861 (p. 100). From Lafourcade's study of the manuscripts we know that Swinburne wrote "The Complaint of the Fair Armouress," "The Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge," and "The Dispute of the Heart and Body of Francois Villon" (translations of "Les regrets de la belle Heaulmiere," "La ballade de la grosse Margot," and "Debat du cuer et du corps de Villon" respectively) during the period 1861-63. (12) During this period Swinburne also began an essay on Villon with the aim of incorporating his translations into a larger biographical study: "My Villon project.... is to incorporate all my yet unpublished translations--new and old--from that 'poet and pimp' into the body of an essay on his genius and position in literary history." (13)

In 1872 Swinburne composed "The ballad of the fair helmet-maker to the girls of joy," a translation of the "Ballade de la belle Heaulmiere aux filies de joie," and 1876-67 saw translations of the "Ballade de bon conseil" ("A Double ballad of Good Counsel"), sections XL and XLI of the Testament ("Fragment on Death"), the "Ballade des seigneurs de temps jadis" ("Ballad of the Lords of Old Time"), the "Ballade des dames de Paris" ("Ballad of the Women of Paris"), the "Ballade pour Robert D'Estouteville" ("Ballad Written for a Bridegroom"), the "Ballade contre les ennemis de la France" ("Ballad against the enemies of France"), "Epitre a ses amis" ("Epistle in Form of a Ballad to his Friends") and "L'Epitaphe Villon" or the "Ballade des Pendus" ("The Epitaph in Form of a Ballad"). In 1876-77 Swinburne also published "Ballad of Villon to his Mistress" on a limited print run, began work on a translation of the "Ballade que Villon fit a la requeste de sa mere," which remains unpublished, and wrote the "Ballad of Francois Villon. (14)

While Rossetti published his Villon in 1870, several years before Swinburne, a letter to the French poet Mallarme corroborates Lafourcade's dates. Written in 1876, the letter finds Swinburne bemoaning his numerous attempts to translate "L'Epitaphe Villon" as he states "j'ai essaye de mettre en vers anglais [L'Epitaphe] je ne sais combien de fois depuis le jour ou je suis sorti de college, c'est-a-dire depuis bientot seize ans" [I don't know how many times I have tried to translate the "Epitaph" into English verse from the day I left college, that is, almost sixteen years ago]. (15) This likewise implies that, while both Lafourcade and Gosse mention Swinburne's use of Paul Jannet's 1873 edition of Villon for his translations, he must have had access to an alternate, earlier edition for the translations predating 1873. (16) This brings us to the issue of his uncle the Earl of Ashburnham's library, which contained an impressive collection of medieval manuscripts and through which, it has been suggested, he may have first encountered Villon. (17)

We know that he spent long hours in the library as a boy and Gosse writes that "[Swinburne] once told me that the mediaeval and early French sections of his uncle's famous collection had been a source of unfailing enjoyment to him." (18) Similarly, Antony Harrison describes Swinburne "conscientiously studying] medieval texts, pursuing fidelity to original sources in his own creative efforts," while Rooksby writes that he "plunged into a detailed reading of medieval authors, pored over manuscripts in his uncle's library at Ashburnham Place during the vacations." (19) Furthermore, Taylor confirms that "il lisait parfaitement et ecrivait couramment le francais, pour avoir eu a sa disposition des son enfance la celebre bibliotheque de son onde maternel, la Bibliotheque Ashburnham" [he read and wrote French perfectly, as a result of his having the famous library of his maternal uncle, the Ashburnham library, at his disposition since childhood] (p. 323).

Thus, Swinburne used his uncle's library as a boy, enjoyed the medieval French manuscripts in particular, and was capable of reading French from an early age. However, in order to link Swinburne's discovery of Villon with his use of his uncle's library, the issue of whether the library did in fact contain manuscripts or editions of Villon needs to be resolved. A catalogue of the contents of the library, which was sold at auction in 1901, reveals that "Lot 44," described as "MS. of the eighteenth century on paper, ff. 114, in double columns. Half bound in old calf," was a work entitled "Balades, Chansons et Rondels, ou Poesies de Charles, Due d'Orleans, Pere de Louis XII, et de Plusieurs Poetes Contemporains." Villon is listed among the "poetes contemporains" enumerated at the start of the anthology, making the thesis that Swinburne could have gained access to Villon by means of his uncle's library more than just a supposition:
   The contemporary poets, as enumerated at the commencement of the
   volume are: Albret (ecrit le cadet Delebret); Benoist Amien, ou
   Damien; Blosseville; Boucicault, Philippe de Boulainvillier;
   Guillaume Cadier; Jean Caillau; Simonet Caillau; Pierre Chevallier;
   Le Comte de Clermont et Bourbon, jadis Clermont; Anthoine de Cuise;
   Faret; Fraigne; Fredet; Garencieres; George, vraisemblablement
   Chastelain; Estienne Le Goust; Jehan, Monseigneur de Lorraine;
   Anthoine de Lussay; Olivier de la Marche; Madame d'Orleans; Gilies
   des Ourmes; Gujut Pot; Messire Philippe Pot; Robertet; Le Grant
   Senechal; Tignonville; Le Seigneur de Torsy; Jacques, batard de la
   Trimoille; Berthaut de Villebresme; Villon; Hugues le Voys. (20)

This, in turn, allows us to locate his discovery of Villon in his boyhood in the 1850s, almost twenty years before Rossetti translated him.

Indeed, the evidence of his brother William Rossetti places Rossetti's translations of Villon in the period of 1869 to 1870: "After 1853, or so, [Dante Gabriel Rossetti] did but little translating. The translations from Villon, and the one from verses which he found in Leopardi, may have been done in 1869-70." (21) [William] Rossetti is more emphatic in dating the three translations as issuing from that period in his 1911 edition of his brother's works, citing the 'date of writing' for "The Ballad of the Dead Ladies" and "To Death, of his Lady" as 1869, and 1870 for "His Mother's Service to Our Lady." (22) These dates, moreover, can be further corroborated by referring to Rossetti's correspondence with his editor, Frederick Startridge Ellis. For instance, in a letter from Monday April 4, 1870, Rossetti writes: "I have been up for a day in town, and with this return the last proof to the printers (sheet N). You will see that I have not adopted the Francesca [da Rimini] after all to fill the gap, but have done another bit from Villon." (23) Rossetti's comments refer to an earlier letter in which he writes to Ellis of his intention to insert a translation of Dante's "Francesa da Rimini" into "sheet N," the final proof sheet of the manuscript of Poems, to fill a the gap left by the transfer of "Aspecta Medusa" to sheet M. (24) From this discussion and the evidence of William Rossetti we learn the following: that the Villon translations were "done" in 1869-70; and that Rossetti's Villon seems only to have been inserted into Poems to fill a gap in the manuscript, and not as the result of any longstanding agenda on the part of the translator.

That it was Swinburne, and not Rossetti, who nurtured a fascination for French literature is no secret and further supports our thesis that he introduced Villon to Rossetti. In a letter to J. C. Hotten in 1867 Swinburne writes: "I should be further obliged if you could get me a copy ... of Theophile Gautier's book--Les Grotesques-one Franc, Michel Levy; a common book, but I have mislaid my copy, and want it for immediate use." (25) This correspondence is particularly significant because Les Grotesques, a series of essays on "anti-canonical" writers whose literary reputations were deserving of critical reappraisal according to Gautier, was instrumental in renewing interest in Villon in nineteenth-century France. The "Michel Levy edition" to which Swinburne refers was published in 1853 and in view of his categorisation of the text as "common" and his comment that he had "mislaid [his] copy," we can assume that Swinburne had been familiar with the work before 1867. I offer this evidence to show that Swinburne could likewise have come to Villon via Gautier--his could have been the voice who directed him to search his uncle's library for that particular poet--and that, considering the year Les Grotesques was published, it is reasonable to suggest that he had access to the text prior to 1861. For example, on visiting with Swinburne in 1859, William Bell-Scott wrote: "I enjoyed him here very much, and heard all his poetry. But at present there seem only two people in the world to him, Topsy [William Morris] and Rossetti, and only those books or things they admire or appropriate will he entertain. The only exception to this is unhappily French literature." (26) Thus, Bell's letter documents Swinburne's early interest in "French literature" and separates this strand out from the influence of Morris and, more crucially, Rossetti.

To this evidence we may add the difference between the attitudes of both translators in regard to the source poet: for Swinburne alone Villon held a pivotal position in the Western canon, prompting Lafourcade to suggest that he felt "un sentiment de quasi-tendresse, et surtout d'affinite, de fraternelle ressemblance" [a feeling akin to tenderness, and affinity especially, of fraternal resemblance] for Villon (p. 98). Villon's importance to Swinburne's conception of literary history is evident in his oft-repeated theory of the "Three Persons of the Medieval Trinity," taken below from a letter to John Nichols written in 1876:
   It has always struck me that each of the the Three Persons of the
   Mediaeval Trinity of poets represented not only his nation, but his
   class, as it then showed itself for good or evil; Dante the
   aristocratic class as it ruled in Italy, none the less essentially
   and typically aristocratic for being municipal in form; Chaucer the
   English gentry or prosperous middle class of scholars and
   professional men, burgesses and small proprietors, or such men as
   Boccaccio in Italy; Villon, the commons of France, especially the
   people or populace, if you like, of Paris. Reluctantly, in the
   teeth of patriotism and prepossession, I have long since come to
   the conclusion that though third in date he is beyond all question
   second in rank of these three; as indisputably greater than Chaucer
   as lesser than Dante in natural gift of poetic genius. (27)

He voiced the same idea to Mallarme in his 1876 letter, to Edmund Gosse in 1873, and in a speech to the Royal Literary Fund in 1866. (28)

To collate the available evidence is to present a decisive picture of Swinburne as the founder of the English Villon. The dates from Lafourcade's study of the extant manuscripts show that the majority of Swinburne's translations of Villon were begun prior to 1870 and from his letter to Mallarme it is probable that Swinburne was dabbling in translation before even 1861. From statements made by Edmund Gosse and by Swinburne himself the latter seems to have been an ardent medievalist from boyhood, and the new evidence of the Ashburnham collection permits us to posit that it was during one of his many visits to his uncle's library that Swinburne discovered Villon. We have likewise seen that Rossetti translated Villon in 1869-70 and that his translations, in part, were undertaken solely for the purpose of filling a gap in his manuscript. If we add to this Swinburne's documented Francophilia, along with his veneration for Villon as "third singer" of the Medieval Trinity, it is clear that it was he who discovered, championed, and likely educated Rossetti in Villon, and not the reverse.

The Question of Authority in the English Canon of Villon

If, as we have seen, Swinburne was the first and the foremost English poet to champion and to translate Villon, why is it Rossetti rather than he whose translations of the French poet have permeated the English canon? For instance, Lang argues that Swinburne's translations "still seem to be all but unknown," a double irony in view of the fact that Swinburne not only introduced Rossetti to Villon but translated eleven of his poems compared to Rossetti's meagre three. (29) One explanation for this canonical marginality lies rooted in the relationship between the two poets. Rossetti served as mentor to Swinburne: it was the older poet who helped to introduce the younger to the medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1857 and to harness and nurture his poetic abilities. Rooksby affirms that "in the early 1860s [Swinburne's friendship with Rossetti] was probably his closest friendship outside of his family," and that "Rossetti recognised Swinburne's genius without being swept away by it. He attempted to nurture and stimulate it by the example of his own art and through introducing Swinburne to books he had not read" (p. 69). Furthermore, the two poets lived together for a time at Cheyne Walk, collaborated on "border ballads" such as "The Laird of Waristoun," and even composed lyrics around the subject of Villon together:
   Did I ever tell you the parody of Cowley's elegiac lines on Crashaw
   that Rossetti once made at my instigation for the opening couplet
   of an Epicede on Francois Villon, poet, pimp and pickpocket? You
   will remember the original:--'Poet and Saint! to whom alone are
   given/ The two most sacred names of Earth and Heaven!' Thus altered
   for application to one considerably greater than Crashaw:--'Poet
   and Pimp! to whom we know was given / The pox by earth,--we guess
   the sack by heaven.' The epigrammatic form is Rossetti's, hut I
   supplied him with the opening apostrophe and the biographic fact
   derived from a lyric of much pathos in which the Bard describes his
   moral and physical condition at the age of thirty. (30)

The collaborative relationship between the two poets is here evinced, as Swinburne describes lines composed by Rossetti "at my instigation" while likewise furthering our thesis that he led the latter to Villon, or "supplied [Rossetti] with the ... biographical fact."

Thus, a picture emerges of Swinburne providing the content or the source text for Rossetti, before trusting the older poet to impose form and structure on his matiere. That Swinburne had a high regard for Rossetti's poetic abilities, often painting them as greater than his own, is clear from his remarks on the poet. In fact, he repeatedly compared Rossetti's translations of Villon against his own and Rossetti's prowess as a translator with his own perceived inadequacy. For example, in his letter to Theodore Watts on the subject of his 1876 Villon translations, Swinburne sets his new translations up against those of Rossetti: "I think they are at least as well done as my old versions (in which as in DGR's no attempt was made to reproduce the exact metre by adherence to the limited number of rhymes throughout now first observed)." Moreover, he describes his own talent as translator as subordinate to Rossetti's greater skill, writing to Watts that "it is inexplicable to me how more than difficult, how impossible, I often (even generally) find it to translate (which Rossetti can always do with such consummate ease and mastery)." (31) Therefore, prior to the 1878 publication of his translations of Villon Swinburne's comments reveal a palpable anxiety, as the poet continually compared his work to that of his friend and mentor.

The extent of Swinburne's admiration for Rossetti is also in evidence in his review of Poems, which lavishes praise on the talents of the latter: "the miraculous faculty of transfusion which enables the cupbearer to pour this wine of verse from the golden into the silver cup without spilling was never before given to man." Of Rossetti's translations of Villon in particular, Swinburne exclaims that "the very cadence of Villon's matchless ballad of the ladies of old time is caught and returned," and in so doing applauds the fidelity of the famous translation. (32) Furthermore, Thomas Hall Caine, a friend and contemporary of both, comments on the debt owed by Rossetti to Swinburne for having shaped the reception of his Poems with his review:
   we must conclude that Mr. Swinburne accounted more satisfactorily
   for the instant popularity of Rossetti's poetry when he claimed for
   it those innate utmost qualities of beauty and strength which are
   always the first and last constituents of poetry that abides. (33)

In view of his overwhelming veneration of Rossetti and his oeuvre and his respect for his talents as a translator, it seems only natural that Swinburne would have waited until Rossetti had published his Villon before publishing his own. (34) In fact, in the letter to Mallarme in which Swinburne confesses to having begun translating Villon as long ago as in his boyhood, he simultaneously locates Rossetti as being the authoritative Villon translator, writing "vous devez sans doute connaitre les trois admirables traductions de Rossetti, a cette epoque mon frere aine en poesie" [you will no doubt be familiar with the three praise-worthy translations by Rossetti, who was at that time my older brother in poetry]. (35)

Rossetti thus owes much of his acclaim as a translator of Villon to Swinburne, and Swinburne certainly built his own canon of Villon to support Rossetti's apparatus. For instance, he prefaces his "Ballad of the Lords of Old Time" with the following epigraph:
   In the original here follows Villon's masterpiece, the matchless
   Ballad of the Ladies of Old Time, so incomparably rendered in the
   marvellous version of D. G. Rossetti; followed in its turn by the
   succeeding poem, as inferior to its companion as is my attempt at
   translation of it to his triumph in that higher and harder field.

The statement both situates his translation within an English canon of Villon as defined by Rossetti and sets up an intertext between the work of the two translators. While his professions of inferiority here could be a play on the humility topos or a reiteration of the self-effacement so often expressed by translators of antiquity, the fact remains that Swinburne used his own translations of Villon as a means of strengthening a textual apparatus whose themes and perimeters had already been set. In so doing, his translations implicitly canonize those of Rossetti, referring the reader to an English canon of Villon with "The Ballad of the Ladies of Old Time" at its centre.

In addition, while we have seen how critics have continuously represented Rossetti as the discoverer of Villon and the first translator of his works, for fellow poets and Villon enthusiasts his translations have also often been regarded as authoritative. Ezra Pound, for example, was morbidly aware of the presence of Rossetti when he came to write his own translations and adaptations of Villon. (37) He remarked on being "obfuscated" less by the source language, but by "the crust of dead English," a reference to the presence of Rossetti as his predecessor in translation in both Guido Calvacanti and Villon. (38) An anxiety of influence in Bloom's sense of the term is here evinced, and the "crust of dead English" has obvious parallels with "A pophrades, or the return of the dead." (39) Furthermore, while Pound may have been ahead of his time in his praise of Swinburne's translations of Villon ("Swinburne's Villon is not Villon very exactly, but it is perhaps the best Swinburne we have"), he too shaped his criticism within a canon of Villon translation whose boundaries he defined by Rossetti: "the Villon translations stand with Rossetti's." (40) Therefore, Pound and Swinburne do not merely reveal an inferiority complex vis-a-vis Rossetti, but both also invested his translations of Villon with authority. Swinburne, then, may owe his subsidiary--or, at least, his private--position in the canon of Villon translation to the efforts of no other than himself. Indeed, had he not been so strenuous in his support of Rossetti, readily yielding the position of "first translator of Villon" to his friend, the shape of the English canon of Villon might today be very different.

Conclusion: New Ways of Reading Swinburne and Rossetti?

This article has been written in an attempt to present several important conclusions and to thereby make the case for an alternative genealogy for the English Villon. However, while the discovery of Swinburne as forerunner to Rossetti in translating Villon must affect our understanding of the process through which the French poet entered the English canon, should this discovery alter our readings of the translations themselves? This conclusion will suggest that a revised genealogy for Villon in English opens the field for new textual and intertextual lines of enquiry and offer an example as to how this revision might impact on our understanding of translations of his poetry by the Victorian poets and their successors.

For instance, the marked disparity between Swinburne's characterisation of Villon pre and post 1870 can now be understood in terms of Rossetti's entry into the field of Villon translation and is revelatory of the influence of the latter on the existing canon (that is, the canon of Villon translation as defined by Swinburne). In fact, prior to the publication of Rossetti's Poems in 1870, the Swinburnian Villon is not the "sad bad glad mad" incarnation of his 1878 poem, "A Ballad of Francois Villon, Prince of All Ballad-Makers," but seemingly just "bad." (41) The pre-1870 translations suggest that Swinburne sought to integrate his conception of Villon within a broader agenda of subversion and radicalism as exemplified by his 1866 Poems and Ballads, a collection dealing with overtly sexual and sadomasochistic themes. (42) It is significant that his most "fleshly" translations of Villon (to borrow Robert Buchanan's infamous term) date from this period: "Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge" and "The Complaint of the Fair Armouress." (43) The former describes an often physically abusive relationship with a prostitute, while the latter dwells on the grotesque physical decay that age wreaks on women. These early translations can be read alongside the young poet's desire to shock and outrage a conservative Victorian public and Swinburne is careful to present his Villon as a poete maudit.

For example, in the "Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge" Swinburne portrays the following unsavoury scene:
   But soon the devil's among us flesh and fell,
   When penniless to bed comes Madge my whore;
   I loathe the very sight of her like hell.
   I snatch gown, girdle, surcoat, all she wore,
   And tell her, these shall stand against her score. (ll. 11-15)

Female decay--in the physical rather than the moral sense--is likewise at the forefront of "The Complaint of the Fair Armouress," as Swinburne writes:
   The breasts, alack! all fallen in;
   The flanks too, like the breasts, grown thin;
   For the lank thighs, no thighs but skin,
   They are speckled with spots like sausage-meat. (44)

The delight in grotesque imagery and subversive motifs that these excerpts suggest provides a stark contrast with his treatment of Villon post 1870, a collection of translations that, as we have seen, the translator himself encouraged readers to approach with the existence of Rossetti's translations in mind.

For instance, the pathos and sensitivity of the Rossettian Villon is mirrored by Swinburne's choice of source texts, as he abandons his bawdy themes in favour of meditations on love:
   I am fired with hope of true love's meed to get;
   Know that Love writes it in his book; for why,
   This is the end for which we twain are met. (45)

Further, his "Ballad of the Lords of Old Time" provides an intertextual response to the "Ballad of the Dead Ladies" in more than just the epigraph: Swinburne answers Rossetti's "Where are the snows of yester-year?" with his own refrain, "Even with the good knight Charlemain." (46) The line, it should be noted, also provides an aural echo to Rossetti's four-stressed refrain--if "even" is read as "e'vn" so as to fit with the octosyllabic metre of Swinburne's translation, both can be scanned xu ux ux ux. In our readings of Swinburne's Villon therefore, it is necessary to separate out his early translations from the later texts, as the first incarnation of the French poet in his works bears little resemblance to the emotive and nostalgic voice he would become, a voice in tune with that of Rossetti.

The shift in focus within the corpus of Swinburne's translations may consequently stem less from the desire to portray a well-rounded Villon and more from an extratextual awareness of and deference to the success of the Rossettian incarnation. To continue to characterize the French poet as the hedonistic and immoral persona of "Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge" would not only have undermined Rossetti's romantic imagining of the poet, but fractured the progress of the Villon myth in England by providing too stark an opposition to Rossetti. In point of fact, while the portrayal of female physical degradation in "The Complaint of the Fair Armouress" could be reframed as "lament," the ribaldry of the "Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge" could not be masked if the translation was to remain faithful to the source text. Consequently, while the former was included in the 1878 collection (albeit with six of its lines substituted by asterisks) the latter had to wait until 1909 for publication.

On the other hand, the legacy of Swinburne's pre-1870 Villon is not without influence and, in fact, Swinburne's championing of the French poet as subversive tool likely contributed to Rossetti's decision to translate him. Like Swinburne, Rossetti should be viewed as progressive and his Villon must be placed within the larger context of artistic rebellion against a mechanized Victorian society. Furthermore, this subversive agenda was in part enacted through a return to medieval themes and forms in both poetry and the visual arts, a scheme that readily accommodates the translations of Villon. (47) It is then probable that Rossetti was led by Swinburne in his decision to apply Villon to a radical agenda and both poets seem to have perceived an opportunity for cultural commentary and revolt in the activity of translation. More recently, poets such as Bunting, Lowell, and Peter Dale have also favoured renderings of Villon as poete maudit, thereby translating for contemporary audiences the aura of subversiveness and rebellion that first accompanied the French poet's entry into the English canon in the 1860s.

A new understanding of the process through which Villon entered the English canon does not solely right a historical wrong and help to award Swinburne the title of founder--it likewise sheds light on the intricacies belying the textual and extra-textual relationship between Swinburne and Rossetti's translations and how this relationship has helped to define the English canon of Villon. This revised genealogy can influence our reading of the texts and allow us to study how Rossetti impacted on Swinburne's choices as a translator by comparing the pre 1870 with the post-1870 translations. Moreover, this genealogical survey illuminates some of the modulations and coincidences that come to determine the manner through which a text migrates. While Swinburne was first to champion Villon and to attempt to canonize him through translation, had he not shared his interest with Rossetti who in his turn created a Villon more palatable to nineteenth-century readers, we cannot know whether the French poet would have permeated the English canon in the manner he has.


(1) Theophile Gautier, Les Grotesques, Nouvelle edition (Paris: Bibliotheque-Charpentier, 1914). In this anthology, first published 1844, Gautier provided selections from and a discussion of several "anti-canonical" poets whom he felt were deserving of critical attention. His discussion of Villon in Les Grotesques triggered a renaissance of that poet's reputation in France, with Paul Lacroix and Pierre Jannet publishing new editions of his poetry (1854 and 1876), Antoine Campaux producing a new study on Villon's life and works (1859), and Theodore de Banville popularizing his compositional methods among French "Parnassiens" through his Trente-stx ballades joyeuses pour passer le temps composees a la maniere de Francois Villon (1873).

(2) Louisa Stuart Costello precedes both Swinburne and Rossetti, providing the first translation of Villon on record as part of her 1835 anthology, Specimens of the Poetry of Early France. That being said, her single translation (written in the context of a brief and unfavourable discussion of the poet) did little to promote the poet to English audiences and as such cannot be credited with triggering a canonicity and a readership for Villon in England.

(3) Michael Freeman, Francois Villon in his Works: The Villain's Tale (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), p. 14; John Fox, The Poetry of Villon (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962), p. 13.

(4) Gaston Paris, Villon (Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1901), p. 185.

(5) Louis Cons, Etat present des etudes sur Villon (Paris: Societe d'Edition "Les Belles Lettres," 1936), p. 101.

(6) See James K. Robinson, "A Neglected Phase of the Aesthetic Movement: English Parnassianism," PMLA 68 (1953): pp. 733-754; Payne's 1878 edition excluded the "Ballades en jargon."

(7) Francois Villon, "Testament," Poesies Completes, ed. Claude Thiry (Paris: Librairie Generale Francaise, 1991), XC, 1. 910, p. 163.

(8) Glen Omans, "The Villon Cult in England," Comparative Literature 18 (1966): pp. 16-35; Michael Morsberger, "Villon and the Victorians: The Influence and the Legend," The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association 23 (1969): pp. 189-96; Robert D. Peckham, "Dark Laughter in the Chambers of the King: Francois Villon in America," Studies in Medievalism 6 (1994): pp. 123-42; Fox, The Poetry of Villon-, Michael Freeman, Francois Villon in his Works: The Villain's Tale (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000); Michael Freeman and Jane Taylor, eds., Villon at Oxford: The Drama of the Text (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999).

(9) The OED states that yester-year was "coined by D. G. Rossetti to render French antan (< Latin ante annum) in Francois Villon's Grand Testament, Ball, i." "yester-year, n.," OED Online, June 2012, Oxford University Press, /231656?redirectedFrom=yester-year (accessed November 2012).

(10) Georges Lafourcade, La Jeunesse de Swinburne II (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1928), p. 99.

(11) Jane Taylor, "Les Villoneries D'Algernon Charles Swinburne: Villon Traduit par un Pre-Raphaelite," in Villon entre mythe et poesie. Actes du colloque organise les 15, 16 et 17 decernbre 2006 a la Bibliothetjue historique de la Ville de Paris par Michael Freeman, Jean Derens et Jean D ufoumet, ed. Jean Dufournet and Marcei Faure (Paris: Honore Champion, 2011), p. 324.

(12) This evidence is in contrast to the information provided by Edmund Gosse who, in his preface to "Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge" in 1909, states that "it was written in 1877, at the same time as the rest of the versions of Villon's poems published in the volume called Poems and Ballads : Second Series (1878)." Lafourcade's study has long been considered authoritative however, and it is likely that Gosse's statement as to probable composition date is an assumption based on the publication date of Poems and Ballads. See Edmund Gosse, preface to Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge, by Charles Algernon Swinburne (London: Printed for private circulation, 1910), p. 5.

(13) Swinburne to Theodore Watts, March 24, 1877, in The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang, 6 vols (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), 3:305.

(14) Dates taken from Lafourcade, Lajeunesse de Swinburne, II, 100. Lafourcade bases these findings on the manuscript of Mr. Wise. The manuscript also contains two unpublished poems, "The Lay of Certain Thieves" and the "Ballad of Dead Creeds," both imitations of Villon.

(15) Swinburne to Mallarme, February 5, 1876, The Swinburne Letters, 3: 132.

(16) Lafourcade, La Jeunesse de Swinburne, 106; Gosse, preface, p. 7.

(17) Robinson remarks that "Certainly Swinburne could have discovered Villon at Oxford or in his uncle's, the Earl of Ashburnham's, famous collection of early French literature," but his statement remains conjecture. See Robinson, "A Neglected Phase of the Aesthetic Movement," p. 736 (footnote).

(18) Edmund Gosse, The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne (London: Macmillan, 1917), p. 80.

(19) Antony Harrison, Swinburne's Medievalism: A Study in Victorian Love Poetry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), p. 4; Rikky Rooksby, A. C. Swinburne (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997), p. 54.

(20) The Ashbumham Library, Catalogue of the portion of the famous collection of manuscripts, the property of the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Ashbumham, known as the Barrois Collection, to be sold at auction by Messrs. Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge (London, 1901), p. 18.

(21) William Rossetti, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Translator: Two Letters," The Sewanee Review 17 (1909): 407.

(22) William Michael Rossetti, ed., The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Ellis, 1911), p. xxxv.

(23) D. G. Rossetti to Frederick Startridge Ellis, Monday 4th of April 1870, in Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: 1861-1870, ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 834.

(24) Rossetti to Ellis, March 30, 1870, Letters, p. 829.

(25) Swinburne to J. C. Hotten, January 2, 1867, The Swinburne Letters, 1: 220.

(26) William Bell-Scott, in a letter dated "Wednesday Morning" (perhaps August 31, 1859), The Swinburne Letters, 1: 24-25.

(27) Swinburne to John Nichol, April 2, 1976, The Swinburne Letters, 3: 164.

(28) Swinburne to Mallarme, February 5, 1876, The Swinburne Letters, 3: 132; Gosse, preface to The Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge, p. 6; Rooksby, A. C. Swinburne, p. 130.

(29) Lang, introduction to The Swinburne Letters, l:xv.

(30) Swinburne to John Nichol, April 2, 1976, The Swinburne Letters, 3: 164-65.

(31) Swinburne to Theodore Watts, February 8, 1876, The Swinburne Letters, 3: 136, 137.

(33) Thomas Hall Caine, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Elliot Stock, 1882), p. 63.

(34) One further explanation for this delay is that following the publication of his scandalous 1866 Poems and Ballads, Swinburne may have found it difficult to find a publisher in England wilting to publish his works. See Robinson, p. 737

(35) Swinburne to Mallarme, February 5, 1876,The Swinburne Letters, 3: 132.

(36) A.C. Swinburne, Poems and Ballads, Second Series, The Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne in Six Volumes, vol. 3 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1904), p. 139.

(37) See Ezra Pound "Montcorbier, alias Villon" in The Spirit of Romance: an attempt to define somewhat the charm of pre-renaissance literature of Latin Europe (London: J. M. Dent, 1910); "A Villonaud for this Yule" and "Villonaud: The Ballad of the Gibbet" were first published in A Lume Spento (Venice: A. Antonini, 1908).

(38) "Calvacanti," Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (Norfolk: James Laughlin, 1954), p. 193.

(39) Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), p. 15.

(40) Pound, "How to Read," p. 36; "Swinburne Versus his Biographers," in Literary Essays, p. 293.

(41) Swinburne, "A Ballad of Francois Villon, Prince of All Ballad-Makers," in Major Poems and Selected Prose, ed. Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 171-172.

(42) Rooksby argues that "Swinburne challenged the sexual taboos of Victorian literature by writing poems not only about heterosexual love but lesbianism, hermaphroditism, necrophilia and sado-masochism" and, further, that the publication of Poems and Ballads made Swinburne "an international figurehead for sexual, religious and political radicalism." See Rooksby, A. C. Swinburne, pp. 133, 135.

(43) Robert Buchanan's infamous article, written under the pseudonym Thomas Maitland in 1872, was damning in its condemnation of poets of what he termed the "fleshly school," and particularly of Rossetti and Swinburne. See Thomas Maitland, The Fleshly School: Mr. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London, 1871). The Contemporary Review, p. 18.

(44) Swinburne, "The Complaint of the Fair Armouress," in Poems and Ballads, Second Series, 11. 68-72, 194-199. The line 'Du sadinet? Fy! Quant des cuisses' [That vagina? Pah! As for the thighs] was substituted by asterisks for publication.

(45) Ibid., "Ballad Written for a Bridegroom," in Poems and Ballads, Second Series, 11. 6-8, 210.

(46) Ibid., "Ballad of the Lords of Old Time," refrain, pp. 206-207.

(47) Rossetti was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, a movement formed by painters and poets seeking "to recover the sense of wonder and mystery, the dream beyond the commonplaces of an order increasingly devoted to the mechanisation of human life," see Joan Rees, The Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Modes of Self Expression (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), p. 2.
COPYRIGHT 2014 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Pascolini-Campbell, Claire
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Dec 22, 2014
Previous Article:Slavish poses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the aesthetics of abolition.
Next Article:Lionel Johnson's modern ruins.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters