January 5

1463, 1856, 1922, 1979

A rather Rabelaisian figure, the one authentic portrait of François Villon that I have been able to find; the other, in the 1489 collection of his work, is most likely a piece of mediaeval clip-art, a template figure, and not him at all: cherub-cheeked, weak-lipped, with eyes that are both wry and awry: that fake-innocent look that high school students assume when sent to the Principal after being caught in flagrante with a reefer. 

I think it's the hat that makes me see Rabelais; a larger-than-usual Basque beret which, upon reflection, is also worn by Rembrandt in one of his self-portraits (actually in several, but they get worn flatter as he gets older; the one I was thinking of is called "Self Portrait With Shaded Eyes" - there, on the right, just below.

There are several versions of the Villon – sketch? painting? lithograph? woodcut? The one (above) which looks the most genuine has aged him, and fattened him, considerably, so that he looks less like a naughty poet or a penniless scholar than a complacent bourgeois (portraits of Shakespeare do the same, middle-classing him as much as they think they can get away with; and when they can't, they give up on Shakespeare and simply attribute his works to genuine aristocrats like Lord Oxford and Sir Francis Bacon, neither of whom had the talent to write their own shopping lists, let alone those plays and poems; but this is England; we can't have our greatest creative genius be working class. God forbid! Why, in High Church Anglicanism, everyone knows that Jesus wasn't a carpenter like his dad, but studying to be a lawyer, even at the age of twelve. Phew. What a relief! Hope he passed those Jewish Bar exams)...

Precisely the kind of digression on which Villon was known to embark, though he tended to make his through half-open windows and poorly-locked back doors, rather than straight through the front door of the establishment as I have just done. Villon detested the Establishment... but to return to the painting, which makes him look like someone who has gone to seed through serial venality. It is hard to imagine either the professional criminal or the amateur poet from this portrait; he seems too sallow, too plump, too softly fleshy, to have left a knife in a man's guts, let alone follow up with a stone; too portly to climb in and out that burglar's window; too bland to have written "The Testament", a work I can envisage from the pen of Lautréamont or Baudelaire, but not this man – though maybe this is also because the translations, which are all I have, are so unmonstrously bad (if they were monstrously bad, that would at least have the virtue of being apposite; but then maybe having any sort of virtue would itself be the opposite of apposite…)

A page from "The Testament"
in Villon's own hand
For some reason I have it in my head that he spelled his name Françoys, with a why, and that Villon was an adopted, or perhaps a stolen name (François de Montcorbier and François des Loges have both been suggested by historians as his birth-name); or was it he who was adopted? In English it would have to be Frankie Villain, though there is nothing of the poetry in that. He was banished from Paris, for the crime of murder, and later pardoned, because his victim allegedly forgave him (it is unclear from the histories whether he managed this before dying, and before witnesses, or in some ghostly manner through a medium after dying), before dying himself in a rather Marlovian brawl, aged only thirty-two, today in 1463.

Below is Richard Wilbur's translation of Villon's Epitaph, "The Ballade Of The Hanged Men".

               O brother men who after us remain,
               Do not look coldly on the scene you view,
               For if you pity wretchedness and pain,
               God will the more incline to pity you.
               You see us hang here, half a dozen who
               Indulged the flesh in every liberty
               Till it was pecked and rotted, as you see,
               And these our bones to dust and ashes fall.
               Let no one mock our sorry company,
               But pray to God that He forgive us all.

               If we have called you brothers, don’t disdain
               The appellation, though alas it’s true
               That not all men are equal as to brain,
               And that our crimes and blunders were not few.
               Commend us, now that we are dead, unto
               The Virgin Mary’s son, in hopes that He
               Will not be sparing of His clemency,
               But save our souls, which Satan would enthrall.
               We’re dead now, brothers; show your charity
               And pray to God that He forgive us all.

               We have been rinsed and laundered by the rain,
               And by the sunlight dried and blackened too.
               Magpie and crow have plucked our eyeballs twain
               And cropped our eyebrows and the beards we grew.
               Nor have we any rest at all, for to
               And fro we sway at the wind’s fantasy,
               Which has no object, yet would have us be
               (Pitted like thimbles) at its beck and call.
               Do not aspire to our fraternity,
               But pray to God that He forgive us all.
               Prince Jesus, we implore Your Majesty
               To spare us Hell’s distress and obloquy;
               We want no part of what may there befall.
               And, mortal men, let’s have no mockery,
               But pray to God that He forgive us all.


Pierre Jean David, David d'Angers as they called him, intimate of Canova, warrior in the ranks of the people in the July revolution, sculptor magnificent, and finally a senator in the revolutionary Parliament of 1848. They exiled him, of course, the putschniks who couped the revolutionaries. They exiled him to Greece, which for a man like David, whose greatest works were the Epaminondas (illustration above right, from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris) and the pediment of the Pantheon, was a bit like exiling Dreyfus in Tel Aviv or Napoleon in St Petersburg. But at least they allowed him back to die, in Paris, today in 1856.


Sir Henry Ernest Shackleton (born 1874, died today in 1922). 

I have vivid memories of watching a slow-moving but immensely powerful TV version of Shackleton’s failed expedition to Antarctica, Kenneth Branagh somehow inevitably in the lead role. It restored some faith in the power of the moving image to tell a good tale well, and to use its own language with relish. It also took me back to my childhood, to my prep school, where we had "Houses", and mine was named for one of Shackleton's late companions from his days with Captain Scott, the heroic suicide Captain Lawrence Oates.

The entire Scott-Oates-Shackleton saga is one that somehow encapsulates the British ideal of heroism, or at least the Immaculate Failure in an exemple par excellence, Dunquerque on ice if I may call it that. Shackleton made four expeditions. The first was as a junior officer on the "Discovery", until Scott sent him back unfit. The second, in 1909, he led himself, reaching a point just 97 miles from the South Pole, a southern record. He really enters the realm of the Titans through a later feat; in 1915, leading another expedition, his ship "Endeavour" was crushed between shifting icebergs. With sledges and makeshift boats, Shackleton got himself and his men to Elephant Island; then, leaving all but five behind, set out across 800 miles of the Antarctic to seek rescue on South Georgia, once again completing the expedition with not a single lost companion (Immaculate Failure is always failure, eventually -  upon their return home, all the men were conscripted to the trenches, and not a single one of them survived that expedition). The fourth expedition was his last; and his death, on the island of South Georgia, today, in 1922, by all accounts banal, like most of ours. But not his legacy there - South Georgia being now claimed for Britain, the next expedition to its shores took place on April 2nd 1982, a task force sent by Her Majesty Queen Margaret of Thatcher, to rescue it, with Las Malvinas, I mean the Falkland Islands, from those pirates the Argentines. 


One last obituary on this date, Charlie Mingus, not mentioned in any of the scholarly who’s whos, but the greatest jazz bass guitarist of them all, dead at only 56, in 1979. Joni Mitchell wrote an entire album in his honour (the picture's from her website), and Sue, his wife, let her intercut some tapes of him speaking in the gaps between the songs. He was into Vedanta, Hindu mysticism, so instead of a funeral in America, Sue took his cremated ashes out to India and released them at a point where the sources of the Ganges ran turquoise and flowed with golden carp. I like Joni’s verse on this: “Sue and the holy river will send you to the saints of jazz – to Duke and Bird and Fats, and any other saints you have.” She also tells how - mystical coincidence - the day after his death 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the Mexican coastline and had to be removed by fire. God must be a boogie man!

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