In observance of National Poetry Month, every Friday of April Micah Mattix will be examining one great line of verse. -Ed.
That one of the most striking lines of poetry on beauty’s impermanence was written by a priest-killer and a thief is among literary history’s many seeming incongruencies. “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” (“Mais où sont les neiges d’anten?” in the original medieval French) appears in a ballade in the middle of François Villon’s Testament—a long, otherwise irreverent poem skewering French noblemen, priests, and prostitutes.
Villon wrote the poem in a Paris prison following his implication in a second death. Originally sentenced to hang, he was instead banished from Paris in 1463 for ten years. He was never heard from again. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the first to translate the famous ballade into English, coining the word “yesteryear” to capture the sense of the French “anten” or “antan,” which means “last year” but also “once” or “in the past.”
The ballade uses the ubi sunt motif. Common in medieval literature, it is a motif in which the speaker considers the shortness and fragility of life by asking: “Where are they now?” Villon’s line laments the death of some of the great beauties of the past. There is Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Joan of Arc. But we also have lesser-known figures, such as Flora, a onetime mistress of Pompey, and a certain Heloise—a Parisian beauty whose affair with the philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard resulted in the latter’s castration. The ballade is a reminder that earthly beauty is always temporary. Death strips us all of whatever we possess of beauty or power (a topic to which Villon turns in the subsequent ballade). “The wind,” he writes, “bears them all away.”
Death is a frequent topic of verse. This is partly because of its universality. But I also wonder if verse’s dependence on the constraints of time itself, in its use of measured accents or syllables, pushes poets in particular to reflect on death. Working under such constraints causes them, more so than painters, it seems, to gorge themselves on the present or to dream of transcendence.
Like most great poets, Villon does both. His initial response is: “let me have my fill of pleasure, / and I won’t mind a decent death.” And much of the Testament is preoccupied with recounting the pleasures of fast living in which the poet regularly complains that his poverty and bad luck have prevented him from living as fast as he had wished.
But even Villon recognizes that more “women, wine and snuff,” as Keats would later put it, cannot postpone death. In “Villon’s Debate with his Heart,” he writes: “What’s the problem? You’re a fool for pleasure. / What’s it to you? I’m the one who suffers.”
In short, death makes a mockery of our “devices,” as Baudelaire put it in his “Danse macabre,” leading us not only to temporal but eternal suffering:
From the Seine’s cold quays to the Ganges’ burning shores,
The human troupe skips and swoons with delight, sees not
In a hole in the ceiling the Angel’s trumpet
Gaping ominously like a black blunderbuss.
In all climes, under every sun, Death admires you
At your antics, ridiculous Humanity,
And frequently, like you, scenting herself with myrrh,
Mingles her irony with your insanity!
In “Ballade of the Hanged Men,” Villon recognizes that perfuming our lives with more pleasure does little to mask our rotting, damned souls. What we need is divine intervention:
Jesus, our Prince, who reigns over us all,
let hell have no hold over us sinners,
let us owe it no debt or allegiance.
Fellow men, don’t laugh at our fate,
but pray to God that he absolve us all.
And so one might take “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” as a neat expression of Villon’s extant oeuvre. On the one hand, it refers to the faded white beauties of yesteryear as Villon laments the bitter shortness of life and points to the folly of living for the present. On the other, in calling on the “Holy Virgin,” as he does in the penultimate stanza of the ballade, Villon allows the line to point to a future, unfading beauty, embodied in Mary for Villon, and open to us by virtue of God’s cleansing and life-giving grace.
“Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Villon asks. Perhaps his answer is: “Nowhere but in eternity.”
Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.
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