Villon’s Straight Tip to All Cross Coves

A Brief Biography of the Poet

François Villon (1431 – 1463) was a French poet, raconteur and criminal. It has become a cliché for poets to lead a wild life of drunken womanizing, but Villon went beyond the call — he was also a gambler, thief and murderer.

A depiction of François Villon.

A depiction of François Villon.

Little is known of Villon’s early life. He is thought to have been born in Paris to poor parents, and to have started his education at the age of twelve. He is known to have received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the arts, but the first well-documented event of his adult life is a knife fight — seemingly over a woman named Isabeau — outside a tavern in June of 1455 that ended when Villon grabbed a cobblestone in his off hand and used it to smash his opponent’s head. The man later died from his wounds, whereas Villon — after being patched up by a barber-surgeon — skipped town.

Villon was sentenced to banishment from Paris, then pardoned in 1456 by King Charles VII. When he returned to Paris, he was — as a convicted murderer — no longer eligible for his old job as a teacher at the Collège de Navarre, nor for most other forms of polite employment. His answer to this predicament was to begin singing for money at inns and taverns.

Predictably, it didn’t take long before he saw more trouble. At the end of 1456, he got into another fight — this time over a woman called Catherine de Vaucelles11. About whom we hear a great deal in his poetry. — in which he was beaten so badly that he left town to avoid ridicule, staying with an uncle at Angers.

During the Christmas holiday of the same year, the chapel at the Collège de Navarre was burgled of five hundred gold crowns. The loss wasn’t noticed until early spring, but after that it only took the police a couple of months to find the gang of students who had committed the crime because one of them, Guy Tabarie, couldn’t get his mouth shut or his purse closed. Tabarie turned King’s evidence, and fingered Villon as the ringleader, going so far as to testify that Villon had gone to Angers primarily to arrange similar burglaries there. The court once more passed a sentence of banishment.

Over the next four years, Villon wandered from town to town. It’s not clear what he was doing during this period, but two of his close friends — Regnier de Montigny and Colin des Cayeux — were members of a wandering gang of thieves and highwaymen, and some speculate that he was in the same line of work. It is known that he managed to parlay his charm and poetic disposition into temporary lodging with a number of noblemen during this period, including two princes of the blood.

Villon spent the summer of 1461 in the bishop's prison at Meung-sur-Loire. His crime is not known, but is thought to have been church-robbing. He was released when a general clemency was announced at the accession of King Louis XI on October 2, 1461.

In the November of 1462, Villon was imprisoned for theft in the fortress that stood at what is now the Place du Châtelet in Paris. There was limited evidence with which to convict him, but the court revived the old burglary case, and even a royal pardon did not protect him from a demand for restitution. Villon made bail, but got into another brawl while waiting for his next court appearance. He was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged, but the sentence was commuted to banishment by the parlement on January 5, 1463.

No one knows what happened to Villon after that. He left Paris and disappeared from recorded history. His poetry would likely be lost to us if not for the efforts of Clément Marot22. In fact, it was in Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot that I first read this poem., who compiled and edited Villon’s work in the following century.

The Poem Itself

Shortly before his last imprisonment, Villon wrote his Grand Testament, which was a collection of ballads. My favorite is De bonne doctrine a ceux de mauvaise vie, loosely A Good Doctrine for a Bad Life, written in the slang-ridden underworld cant of 15th century France. The original is nearly unreadable, even for those fluent in modern French, because of Villon’s use of period jargon. A quick English gloss of the poem — created with the help of period French dictionaries — runs something like:

Whether you smuggle papal bulls,
Or hazard a cheat while playing dice,
Or burn yourself shaping fake coins,
Like those who’re boiled in oil for their felonies.33. A fine comparison between a man burning himself while melting metal to mint fake coins and the experience of being boiled in oil as punishment for same.,
Perjurious traitors;44. A jab at Guy Tabarie?, empty of faith;
Stealing jewels, perfume and pearls,
Where do your winnings go?
All to the taverns and the girls.

Rhyme, rail, crash or fight,
Like a fool or a shameless tout,
Bullshit and battle, or play the flute.
Do, in towns and cities,
Play farces, games and masquerades,
Win at cards or ninepins.
It all goes — and listen —
All to the taverns and the girls.

From this stink you recoil?
Then work hard in fields and meadows,
Turn your thoughts to horses and mules.55. The original is written in a way as to suggest “You don’t like the smell of this life? Try the smell of farm animals and manure.”.
If you lack an education,
You’ll still have enough coin.
But whether you plough or till your fields,
Your labor and your work:
All to the taverns and the girls.

The Message

Shoes, embroidered doublets,
Dresses, and all your drapes:
Before you do worse, just carry them
All to the taverns and the girls.

To get the real flavor of the piece, though, requires a translation that preserves the original character. The most successful attempt I’ve seen is William Ernest Henley’s 1887 version, titled Villon's Straight Tip to All Cross Coves. Mr Henley66. Remembered today as a poet, he was also the editor of London-based literary paper The National Observer, an early publisher of Rudyard Kipling and W. B. Yeats. had collaborated with J.S. Farmer on the Dictionary of Slang and It's Analogues, which gave him the vocabulary to produce this delightful version:

Suppose you screeve77. Forgery.? or go cheap-jack88. A seller of low-priced, shoddy, or second goods; a hawker.?

Or fake the broads99. Stack the deck at cards.? or fig a nag1010. Apply a fig of ginger to a horse’s arsehole, causing it to lift its tail and thus appear more healthy.?

Or thimble-rig1111. The shell game.? or knap a yack1212. Steal a watch.?

Or pitch a snide1313. Pass a false coin.? or smash a rag1414. Pass a false bill.?

Suppose you duff1515. Sell fake goods.? or nose and lag1616. Work undercover for the police.?

Or get the straight1717. Back a winner at the track., and land your pot1818. Collect your payoff.?

How do you melt1919. Spend. the multy2020. Bloody. swag?

Booze and the blowens cop the lot2121. “All to the taverns and the girls.”.

Fiddle2222. Swindle., or fence2323. Still means the same thing., or mace2424. Welsh a debt., or mack2525. Pimp.;

Or moskeneer2626. To pawn something for more than it’s worth., or flash the drag2727. Same sense as “in drag” today.;

Dead-lurk a crib2828. Case a house., or do a crack2929. Break and enter, with violence; home invasion.;

Pad with a slang3030. Travel with a show or carnival., or chuck a fag3131. Highway robbery.;

Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag3232. Beg and talk.;

Rattle the tats3333. Roll the dice., or mark the spot3434. At billiards.;

You can not bank a single stag3535. Stag = shilling.;

Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Suppose you try a different tack,

And on the square you flash your flag3636. Show your ass.?

At penny-a-lining make your whack3737. Noise.,

Or with the mummers mug3838. Make a fool of yourself. and gag?

For nix3939. Nothing, for nix the dibbs you bag4040. Money you make.!

At any graft4141. Any game, any trade., no matter what,

Your merry goblins4242. =Sovereigns, coins of the realm, via rhyming slang. soon stravag4343. Go astray, inversion slang (as per Pig Latin, Lunfardo and Verlan).:

Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

The Moral

It's up the spout and Charley Wag4444. Gone and lost.

With wipes4545. Handkerchiefs. and tickers4646. Watches. and what not.

Until the squeezer4747. The collar of the stocks. nips your scrag4848. Neck.,

Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

It is my fond wish that Tom Waits record a Brechtian interpretation of this poem in the musical style of Kurt Weill.

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