Discuss Villon's treatment of
Woman and Love.
On his death bed, the narrator of Villon's Testament spends much time musing on his involvement with women. He believes that it is his physical relationships which have led to his early death. As well as discussing women of ill repute, he relates his feelings towards his mother, and towards the Virgin Mary. He even adopts the persona of an old woman; a strategy which gives us an insight into his view of women. One of Villon's most striking methods is to use the language of courtly love to add humour and irony to his tale.
The most obvious view of Villon's discussion of women says that he has a strong dislike of them. It is undoubtedly his romantic entanglements which have led to his slow death from a venereal disease. This explains the bitterness with which he regards most women. Physical love has brought him nothing but pain, so it is understandable that he should harbour resentment. Nevertheless, the narrator does happily hark back to the pleasure, however fleeting, which he gained from the romantic liaisons of his youth, saying,
"Bien est verté que j'ay amé
Et ameroie voulentiers"
Yet even this seemingly positive view is tainted by the lines which follow it, in which he speaks of his ‘triste cuer' and ‘ventre affamé', which he claims prevent him from loving any longer. A conflicting view is presented later in the poem. The narrator claims not only "...m'ont Amours m'abusé"(705), but even goes so far as to say "Je regnie amours et despite"(713). He seems even to have a certain pride in his dismissal of love:
"Amans ne suiveray jamais,
Se jadis je fus de leur ranc
Je desclare que n'en suis mais."
(718 - 720)
The language which Villon employs when writing of love
is often crude
, but at times strikingly violent. Such is the connection made between sex and death
in lines 713 - 716:
"Je regnie amours et despite
Et deffie a feu et a sang,
Mort par elles me precipite
Et ne leur en chault pas d'ung blanc"
There is a bitterness in these lines which is ironic in that the character speaking fails to acknowledge that he played any part in his own downfall. His view is that cunning women set about to destroy him with their feminine wiles. His role is nothing more than that of "L'amant remys et regnyé" (712). He slips into the persona of the ‘amant martyr' with great ease. It is natural that he should wish to free himself of any possible blame for his own demise. He repeatedly refers to himself as ‘povre', especially in reference to his purported ill-treatment at the hands of his lovers, as in line 657. The poet cleverly wins pity for himself with talk of Katherine de Vausselles' ‘las' (680), and his heart-rending lament of lines 686 - 688:
"Et ainsi m'aloit amusant
Et me souffroit tout raconter
Mais ce n'estoit qu'en m'abusant"
The poet has turned an apparent scorn for all women into a much more palatable plea for pity, which many female audience-members, who may otherwise feel offended, could not resist. In this way, he provides knowing winks for his male readers / listeners, whilst avoiding isolating too far his female audience.
It seems to me that the chief cause of Villon's disillusioned attitude to women is his artificial view of the feminine ideal. Lines 865 to 872 are interesting in that they present an apparent confusion between Villon's mother and the Virgin Mary. It is unclear which of these the poet is referring to when he says she has "pour moy ot douleur amer". He also says that it is with this lady only that he finds a refuge for his ‘corps' and his ‘ame'. One would expect the mother to provide physical comfort, and Mary to deal with the spiritual. The ambiguity of the ballade ensures that these two precious women in Villon's life appear closely intertwined. The two fuse into one single view of Woman which is positive and respectful. This is in stark contrast with the disdain the narrator has previously shown for the other women in his life - his many lovers. It is important to note that there is not even the slightest hint of innuendo in these lines. For him, physical love is too tainted to play a part in the idealistic view of Woman. In line 842, shortly before the introduction of the mother figure and the Virgin Mary, reference has been made to "nostre grant mere la terre", making in total three positive mother-figures who seem to have a genuinely positive image for the narrator.
There are hints of Villon's longing for the feminine ideal also in his ballade with the refrain "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?". The catalogue of great and beautiful women of the past suggests that the narrator finds the women with whom he has relations lacking something. He talks with wistful regret of "Flora la belle Rommaine" and Echo "Qui beaulté ot trop plus qu'humaine". The poet's vision of feminine perfection seems far too idealistic for him to be satisfied with the women around him.
The poetic method of adopting a different persona is one which Villon employs to great effect, most importantly in the case of his Belle Hëaulmiere, the old hag whose voice he adopts in lines 457 to 560 of the Testament. As well as the motif of ageing and decay, she serves to present Villon's largely negative image of women. There is a suggestion that women have collaborated to bring about the narrator's downfall in the lines
"Prenez a destre et a senestre,
N'espargnez homme, je vous prie"
(537 - 538)
This character's obsession with sex
is, as intended, repugnant, even though it mirrors the preoccupation of her creator. The main cause of concern for the Belle Hëaulmiere is her loss of beauty
with her increasing age, and the resulting disgust with which men
now view her. Villon describes her decrepit body in gruesome detail:
"Mamelles, quoy? toutes retraites,
Telles les hanches que les tetes,
Du sadinet, fy! quant les cuisses
Cuisses ne sont plus mais cuissettes
Grivelees comme saulcisses."
(Lines 520 - 524)
The old lady understands that her worth in the eyes of men is based solely on her appearance
and her usefulness in fulfilling their sexual desire
. There is a striking contrast here with one of the few favourable descriptions Villon gives us of the female body in lines 325 - 326:
"Corps femenin qui tent est tendre
Poly, souef, si precieux"
,even though this tender admiration is only used to contrast with what will happen to a woman's body with age.
It is clear that Villon, as an educated man, would be familiar with the traditional tales of fine amour, despite the fact that his poetry is far removed from it. He does, nevertheless, make use of his knowledge, with what Le Gentil calls "une intention surtout parodique". The irreverent poet borrows poetic styles from the ancient genre and, in juxtaposing them with his own, base language, creates a remarkable contrast. The lines towards the end of the Testament provide a good example of this:
"Car en amour mourut martyr,
Ce jura il sur son couillon,
Quand de ce monde voult partir!"
The romantic notions of the ‘amant martyr' and the poetic departure from this world are juxtaposed with the reference to the ‘couillon' in a way which makes the reader sit up and pay attention. Whereas line 2001 is familiar and comforting, the following line is abrupt and stark, making it both dramatic and humorous. A similarly uneasy relationship between the courtly and the base occurs as the narrator talks of his ‘chiere Rose'(lines 910 following). At the outset, he calls her ‘m'amour' and ‘chiere', but soon taints the image by describing his love's desire for "une grant bource de soye / ... parfonde et large" (914 - 915). The sexual references continue in line 918: "elle a sans moy assez", and in line 923 with talk of Michault who is known as "le Bon Fouterre". It seems that the poet finds it almost impossible to concentrate on love without slipping into the realm of the obscene. For him, love and sex are synonymous.
Villon's relationship with women is complex. He yearns for an ideal which, if it ever existed, no longer does. His disappointment turns to bitterness as the women he encounters leave him feeling betrayed. One cannot help but feel that the poet does not understand women, and does not wish to. As they fail to live up to his idealised view, he sees no other use for them than as sexual objects, and if they fail to satisfy him, then they have no use whatsoever. In some audiences this may evoke resentment towards the poet, whereas others may pity him as an amant martyr.
An essay written for Marianne Ailes of Wadham College, Oxford. I'm noding my homework again