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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
Open, third prize

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Jane Tozer

The Gibbet


Everyman. Everyman. Live your life's full span.
Don't turn your heart to stone as you pass by.
If you have pity on your fellow man
Forgiveness might come faster when you die.
You watch us swing, a batch of half a dozen
Hunks of good meat, once sleek and overfed.
Then ravaged, gamey, rotten, dried and wizened
We weathered skeletons are dust, wind-spread.
Nothing to laugh at in our rise and fall.
   Pray God's pure mercy rain upon us all.

We are your likeness. Meaning no offence
Here, but for the grace of God… you know the rest.
Rough justice left us hanging in suspense.
All humans make mistakes. From worst to best
We're frail, and we should care for one another.
Friends, forgive us. Bid a kind farewell.
Kneel down and pray to Christ's sweet gentle mother:
Release us from the reeking jaws of hell
And save us from the everlasting fall.
   Merciful Mother, smile upon us all.

Harsh rain and hail have drenched us, scrubbed our skin
The sun came out and dried us, tanned our hides.
Fat birds have stitched us up, ripped our beards thin
Magpies pocked flesh and ravens hoiked out eyes.
We're jeered at, sneered at, hangdog, low-down, beat-up
If we could speak, you'd hear our doleful groans
We never have a chance to put our feet up
This way and that, the four winds shake our bones.
Don't join our band. We're Satan's free-for-all.
   Christ in compassion, save us one and all.

Jesus, staunch champion of the common man
Don't let the devil get the upper hand
To claim poor sinners in his counting hall.
Brothers, don't mock us dead, if laugh you can.
   Spirit of mercy, shine upon us all.

Translated from the French by Jane Tozer
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l'Epitaphe Villon: Ballade des pendus


Freres humains qui après nous vivez,
N'ayez les cuers contre nous endurcis
Car se pitié de nous povres avez
Dieu en aura plus tost de vous mercis.
Vous nous voiez cy attachez cinq, six.
Quant de la chair que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est pieça devorée et pourrie,
Et nous, les os, devenons cendre et pouldre.
De nostre mal personne ne s'en rie
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre.

Se freres vous clamons, pas n'en devez
Avoir desdaing, quoy que fusmes occis
Par justice. Toutesfois, vous sçavez
Que tous hommes n'ont pas bon sens rassis.
Excusez nous, puis que sommes transsis,
Envers le fils de la Vierge Marie
Que sa grace ne soit pour nous tarie
Nous preservant de l'infernale fouldre.
Nous sommes mors; ame ne nous harie
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre.

La pluye nous a debuez et lavez
Et le soleil dessechiez et noircis.
Pies, corbeaulx, nous ont les yeux cavez
Et arrachié la barbe et les sourcis.
Jamais nul temps nous ne sommes assis;
Puis ça, puis la, comme le vent varie
A son plaisir sans cesser nous charie,
Plus becquetez d'oiseaulx que dez a couldre.
Ne soiez donc de nostre confrairie
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre.

Prince Jhesus qui sur tous a maistrie
Garde qu'Enfer n'ait de nous seigneurie.
A lui n'ayons que faire ne que souldre.
Hommes, icy n'a point de mocquerie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre.

François Villon
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Translation commentary


Death row, le Châtelet, Paris 1462

Villon was caught on the fringe of a drunken stramash, outside the office of a papal notary, Ferrebouc. The story goes that a scrivener was knifed; no more than a flesh-wound, but still a capital offence. Ferrebouc had influence from Paris to Rome. He pulled rank. Villon was a marked man; an intractable rogue, no friend to the church. Despite a lack of evidence, he was tried and convicted.

His stark death sentence: 'Pendu et étranglé'. Dangled, strangled. A slow, cruel, humiliating spectacle. Bodies rotted on the gibbet; often at landmarks like crossroads, places of destiny where you must choose your way. The devil waits, as in The Soldier's Tale and Robert Johnson's famous Blues.

'Iconic' is a debased word. 'Ballade des pendus' is a true icon, breathtaking in more ways than one. It evokes woodcuts of plague, war, witch trials, danse macabre, tarantella. This poem is a bleak documentary; cautionary, with dashes of gallows humour. What courage.

'Frères humains': wow! Human brothers: yawn. My fellow humans: Dubya's drawl. When translating, I read the poem last thing each night, until it inhabits my unconscious. It's the 'lightbulb in the head' method. Everyman was a last-minute flash from an old allegory.

In French, pecked with more pockmarks than a thimble is vivid. I left that line out. It makes the crows appear once too often. Thimbles and saddler's palms are museum pieces now. 'Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.' If there's an inferno, it's here, now. Mankind made it. Drug cartels, fanatics, neo-nazis. Honour to Norway's solidarity, principles, dignity, justice. Villon was clearly stitched up like a kipper. In 1463, his sentence was commuted to ten years' exile from Paris. No one knows what happened afterwards. He was 32.

Jane Tozer