- Problematic Genealogies: Algernon Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Discovery of François Villon
The fifteenth-century French poet, François 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’Orléans, 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 Théophile 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. [End Page 661]
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...