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MLN 117.4 (2002) 932-936

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Book Review

The Poetry of François Villon:
Text and Context

Jane H. M. Taylor, The Poetry of François Villon: Text and Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 234 pages.

In this study, Jane Taylor puts forward two key ideas concerning François Villon and the literary context in which he functioned. Foremost is her assertion that Villon was not the outcast, marginal writer that modern critics would make him out to be. At the same time, she insists that those poems in his œuvre that are most often set aside as being tiresome products typical of his time are, in fact, coherent with the brilliance of the rest of his work. Second, and an argument fundamental to proving the first, is Taylor's affirmation—one that she appears to see as contrary to the prevailing view— that the poetry of the fifteenth century is more than the result of uninspired writers merely illustrating their technical savoir faire in a stagnant literary environment. In point of fact, she argues, it is the product of an informed writing community engaging in political and social debates and, moreover, that Villon participated fully in this practice.

To support her assertion that fifteenth century poets were engaged in dialogue and debates with their contemporaries as well as their predecessors, Taylor gives a general introduction to poetic practices of this time. She [End Page 932] focuses in particular on the debate that developed out of Alain Chartier's Belle Dame sans mercy and on the influence that the Roman de la Rose had on the literature of the late Middle Ages. Once developed, both of these explications lead nicely to a close analysis of many of Villon's less known or less appreciated poems from his Lais and Testament. While this may appear at first to be a fairly straightforward task, we quickly realize that in order to fully understand the significance of the different huitains and ballades it is absolutely necessary to become an "informed reader," as Taylor terms it: a reader able not only to recognize the other literary productions that influenced Villon's work, but also to detect how Villon transformed them in order to communicate with his source material. Taylor frequently refers to this "informed public" that she insists was present in the fifteenth century, however she fails to supply any concrete examples or proof of its existence. Nevertheless, she carefully and meticulously leads us to see the associations such an expert audience would have been able to make, thus elucidating and enhancing poems that elsewhere have been termed mundane and lacking in originality. It is our anachronistic insistance on the importance of originality that has prohibited us from grasping the true value of the poetry of Villon's time. Indeed, as Taylor reminds us, in the fifteenth century poets were not looked down upon for borrowing material or ideas from contemporary vernacular texts; instead, they were admired when they succeeded in making subtle and adept manipulations of those recognizable elements to convey a specific argument or critique.

A close look at excerpts from poems by numerous poets such as Martin le Franc, Alain Chartier, Achille Caulier—to name but a few—gives us an idea of the extent to which these works were interrelated in theme as well as in choice of rhyme schemes, lexical fields, form, etc. It becomes obvious that these poets were not merely recycling old texts out of lack of inspiration, but were actually engaging in dialogue with them—either to comment on or, more often, to argue against their advocacy of various social or political points of view. Surprisingly enough, "Villon, like every other poet of the later Middle Ages, mobilizes this sense of excitement: in other words, he is not Villon-the-outsider, the exiled genius that all literary manuals tend to dramatize, he is rather, disconcertingly, at home in a literary and intertextual mainstream, and profoundly engaged—even, in some senses, competitively engaged—with the work of his predecessors and contemporaries" (15). Examining Pierre Chastellain's dit, Le...


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