Booze and Blowens Cop The Lot

François Villon (1431 – 1463)


Villon’s Straight Tip To All Cross Coves

by William Earnest Henley

“Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.”

Suppose you screeve? or go cheap-jack?
Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
Or get the straight, and land your pot?
How do you melt the multy swag?
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
Or moskeneer, or flash the drag;
Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
Rattle the tats, or mark the spot;
You can not bank a single stag;
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Suppose you try a different tack,
And on the square you flash your flag?
At penny-a-lining make your whack,
Or with the mummers mug and gag?
For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag!
At any graft, no matter what,
Your merry goblins soon stravag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

It’s up the spout and Charley Wag
With wipes and tickers and what not.
Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Ricky Jay Potash died several days ago.   Known as Ricky Jay, he was one of the greatest sleight of hand magicians and card performers over the past 50 years. His talents a combination of incredible skill, brilliant memory and showmanship. The video below is an hour-long stage act produced by the famed director David Mamet which showcases Jay’s prowess with a deck of cards. In it he recites at about the 5:30 mark Henley’s translation of Villon’s masterful poem about the life of pick pockets, con men, thieves and swindlers. Henley uses the idiom’s of 19th century London street slang in place of Villon’s 15th century French Paris. As poems go, it is as fun to read aloud as Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. Both are great examples that sometimes poetry doesn’t have to make sense, it simply has to be fun to read.

Francois Villon’s real life reads a bit like Miguel Cervantes’ fiction. Villon was a scoundrel, brawler, purported murderer and thief, whose quick wits and propensity for humorous and finely rhymed poetry gained him enough recognition during his lifetime to obtain several pardons, including once by King Louis XI himself who allegedly said “I cannot afford to hang François Villon. There are a hundred thousand rogues in France as great as he, but not such another poet.”

Villon was born poor and orphaned early, but his keen intelligence attracted a priest as benefactor, and he eventually won scholarship at the University of Paris, earning both a Baclaurate and Master’s degree in the Arts.  Though his poetry gained him little income in his lifetime, his humor and candor about both his life as a scoundrel, and his depiction of the common poor and the rich in verse usally reserved for courtly elite, made him popular in France. Villon’s unique approach to lyric poetry influenced and inspired many of the innovative French poets of the 19th century including Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mallarme.

Villon was largely unknown outside of France  as a poet until a few English poets began translating some of his work in the 19th century. It is a testament to Villon’s talent that brilliant minds like William Earnest Henley, Charles Algernon Swinburne, Galway Kinnell and Dante Gabriel Rossetti tackled translations faithful to his originals in both intent and playfulness.  Today Villon is likely the most well known French poet of the middle ages, his poetry translated into more than 25 languages.

So why are men like Henley, Rossetti, Baudelaire and Jay attracted to Villion’s verse? I think its because they recognize in his poetry a kindred soul, a fellow poet and thief.  All poet’s are thieves. They steal their best lines by listening for the poetry that is all around them and then pawn it off as original.  I think they applaud his originality, his avante garde style for his day.  And who doesn’t admire a man whose poetry kept him more than once from the gallows as a metaphor for what every poet aspires.

Skip an hour of Netflix tonight and check out the video below.  Jay’s card tricks and sleight of hand are incredible.


Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis

by  François Villon

Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “Ballad of the Dead Ladies”

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where’s Hipparchia,and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?.
Where is Echo,beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,
She whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yester-year?.

Where’s Héloise, the learned nun,.
For whose sake Abeillard, ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?.
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen.
Who willed that Buridan should steer.
Sewed in a sack’s mouth down the Seine?
But where are the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden,
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,.
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,
And that good Joan whom Englishmen.
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,
Mother of God, where are they then?
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with this much for an overword,
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Beyond This Place

Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)

“In my country, we go to prison first and then become President.”

Nelson Mandela

You Played And Sang A Snatch of Song

By William Earnest Henley (1849 – 1903)

You played and sang a snatch of song,
A song that all-too well we knew;
But whither had flown the ancient wrong;
And was it really I and you?
O, since the end of life’s to live
And pay in pence the common debt,
What should it cost us to forgive
Whose daily task is to forget?

You babbled in the well-known voice –
Not new, not new the words you said.
You touched me off that famous poise,
That old effect, of neck and head.
Dear, was it really you and I?
In truth the riddle’s ill to read,
So many are the deaths we die
Before we can be dead indeed.

It was the hundredth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday this week.  For a man with such eloquence of speech and writing, I have been surprised that I have yet to find any poetry as part of his legacy.  Mandela related many times that his favorite poem was Invictus by William Earnest Henley, the words a personal prayer and inspiration during his 27 years in prison.

Henley had a long and productive literary and publishing career for a man that died relatively young. Henley was a poet, a literary critic, an editor of journals and newspapers and a writer, who was highly influential in late 19th century English literature.

Invictus is Henley’s most famous poem. The circumstances surrounding its creation fueled by his own personal trials. Henley wrote it from a hospital bed, while seeking treatments over a three year period to save his remaining leg from amputation as a result of complications from tuberculosis.   Henley suffered under the weight of TB from the age of 12 onward, the disease infecting his bones which resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee in 1868.  Henley refused to take the advice of doctors to remove his remaining leg to save his life, and spent three years undergoing treatments in a London hospital in his early 20’s.  Although the treatments proved only partially successful, and he would suffer from complications from TB for his entire life, it did not stop him from living a robust and colorful life. It was during his three year confinement to the hospital that Henley wrote the poem, initially untitled, published with a group of poems known only as “Hospital Poems.” The poem would become known as Invictus well after his death, the title appointed by an editor of anthology of English poetry many years later.

Henley’s suffering from TB did not diminish his life experience. Following the publication of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that the character of Long John Silver was inspired by his friend Henley.   Stevenson described Henley as “… a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet.”  Stevenson wrote, “… it was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

I wonder whether Henley ever contemplated how enduring his legacy would become while he penned those lines, or how powerful those words would be to inspire others to overcome hardship and injustice? Nelson Mandela, by strength of his inner character, lived to see a better world and his nation freed from the injustice and moral failure of apartheid. Mandela’s entire life was an inspiration to the world, that leadership based on a reasoned goal of justice and equality will ultimately prevail. One of my favorite sayings of a friend of mine is:  “Justice is just us.”

So, what will it be, just you and me, equal and united or separate and divided?  I’ll take equal and united…


by William Earnest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
  .Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
 .For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
 .I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
.My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
  .Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
  .Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
  .How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
.I am the captain of my soul.