François Villon

by D. B. Wyndham Lewis. With a preface by Hilaire Belloc. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc.; Hartford: Edwin V. Mitchell. 1928. 8vo. xix+407 pp. Frontispiece. $5.00.
IT would be difficult to overpraise this remarkable study of a great poet and of his works. And it is to be hoped not only that it will be owned by a large number of appreciative readers, but that it will be copied extensively by the next generation of biographers. They could have no better model. Mr. Lewis has turned the trick as well as it can be done. He has known how to extract the last drop of information about his long-dead poet from every word in any authentic contemporary mention of him, and how to cast the brightest possible light on his life and character from the internal evidence of his poems. But he has not destroyed the reader’s faith in his honesty by those over-flowery guesses and reconstructions unfounded on fact which, for my taste, destroy the interest of what are called ’interestingly and imaginatively written biographies.’ Yet, in spite of the strict integrity of his relations to his sources, there is not a dull or pedantic line in the long book.
Every reader of biographies must especially hope that other writers of Lives will imitate to the best of their abilities Mr. Lewis’s recognition of the fact that, after all, the work of a man of genius is the part of his life which makes it worth our while to read his biography. This recognition ought to be the most elementary virtue of every Life, but of late it seems to be forgotten. Would it not be possible for a person ignorant of English poetry to emerge from Maurois’s Ariel with practically no notion of what Shelley’s poetry means to Knglish-speaking people? What light has ever been cast on George Sand’s remarkable career as a writer by the accounts of her life?
Such a character as Villon’s might easily have so pleased a modern biographer that all his work would have gone lovingly to the depiction of the jailbird-murderer-drunkard-etc.-etc. man. But Mr. Lewis, although he evidently enjoys the gusto and abandon of Villon’s career and its background of low life as heartily as any other repressed modern, has nevertheless given almost exactly half of this monumental book to a beautifully achieved ‘portrait’ of Villon’s poetry, with a gorgeous plenty of quotations (why in the world, I wonder, were some of them left untranslated).
Finally let it be noted that the amusing Dedication, a perfectly successful tour de force in the mediæval Villon manner, is a small masterpiece in itself and quite worth the price of the book.