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Jean Francois
by [?]

Jean Francois was a vagabond by nature, a balladmonger by profession. Like many poets in many times, he found that the business of writing verse was more amusing than lucrative; and he was constrained to supplement the earnings of his pen and his guitar by other and more profitable work. He had run away from what had been his home at the age of seven (he was a foundling, and his adopted father was a shoe-maker), without having learnt a trade. When the necessity arose he decided to supplement the art of balladmongering by that of stealing. He was skilful in both arts: he wrote verse, sang ballads, picked pockets (in the city), and stole horses (in the country) with equal facility and success. Some of his verse has reached posterity, for instance the “Ballads du Paradis Peint,” which he wrote on white vellum, and illustrated himself with illuminations in red, blue and gold, for the Dauphin. It ends thus in the English version of a Balliol scholar:–

Prince, do not let your nose, your Royal nose,
Your large Imperial nose get out of joint;
Forbear to criticise my perfect prose–
Painting on vellum is my weakest point.

Again, the ballade of which the “Envoi” runs:–

Prince, when you light your pipe with radium spills,
Especially invented for the King–
Remember this, the worst of human ills:
Life without matches is a dismal thing,

is, in reality, only a feeble adaptation of his “Priez pour feu le vrai tresor de vie.”

But although Jean Francois was not unknown during his lifetime, and although, as his verse testifies, he knew his name would live among those of the enduring poets after his death, his life was one of rough hardship, brief pleasures, long anxieties, and constant uncertainty. Sometimes for a few days at a time he would live in riotous luxury, but these rare epochs would immediately be succeeded by periods of want bordering on starvation. Besides which he was nearly always in peril of his life; the shadow of the gallows darkened his merriment, and the thought of the wheel made bitter his joy. Yet in spite of this hazardous and harassing life, in spite of the sharp and sudden transitions in his career, in spite of the menace of doom, the hint of the wheel and the gallows, his fund of joy remained undiminished, and this we see in his verse, which reflects with equal vividness his alternate moods of infinite enjoyment and unmitigated despair. For instance, the only two triolets which have survived from his “Trente deux Triolets joyeux and tristes” are an example of his twofold temperament. They run thus in the literal and exact translations of them made by an eminent official:–

I wish I was dead,
And lay deep in the grave.
I’ve a pain in my head,
I wish I was dead.
In a coffin of lead–
With the Wise and the Brave–
I wish I was dead,
And lay deep in the grave.

This passionate utterance immediately preceded, in the original text, the following verses in which his buoyant spirits rise once more to the surface:–

Thank God I’m alive
In the light of the Sun!
It’s a quarter to five;
Thank God I’m alive!
Now the hum of the hive
Of the world has begun,
Thank God I’m alive
In the light of the Sun!

A more plaintive, in fact a positively wistful note, which is almost incongruous amongst the definite and sharply defined moods of Jean Francois, is struck in the sonnet of which only the first line has reached us: “I wish I had a hundred thousand pounds.” (“Voulentiers serais pauvre avec dix mille escus.”) But in nearly all his verse, whether joyous as in the “Chant de vin et vie,” or gloomy as in the “Ballade des Treize Pendus,” there is a curious recurrent aspiration towards a warm fire, a sure and plentiful supper, a clean bed, and a long, long sleep. Whether Jean Francois moped or made merry, and in spite of the fact that he enjoyed his roving career and would not have exchanged it for the throne of an Emperor or the money-bags of Croesus, there is no doubt that he experienced the burden of an immense fatigue. He was never quite warm enough; always a little hungry; and never got as much sleep as he desired. A place where he could sleep his fill represented the highest joys of Heaven to him; and he looked forward to Death as a traveller looks forward to a warm inn where (its terrible threshold once passed), a man can sleep the clock round. Witness the sonnet which ends (the translation is mine):–