Or, Sorry, I didn't quite catch that...

Recently, I was watching an HBO special that originally aired in 1997--after having tracked it down through a friend at that institution--called Ricky Jay and his Fifty-Two Assistants. The fifty-two refers to the number of cards in a standard deck, less the jokers, and indeed most of the show is a stocky, balding, tattooed, beady-eyed yet somehow very friendly looking middle-aged man doing absolutely astounding sleight-of-hand tricks and truly remarkable exercises in card control. He delivers throughout something of a history lesson in the art, and part of that lesson is the recitation of the following poem.

"Villon's Straight Tip to All Cross Coves" is the title, which Mr. Jay doesn't give, though he does tell us it is a late 19th Century "translation" of a 15th Century French poem by Francois Villon. Villon, as the writeup on him will tell you, was a thief and a murderer who wrote verse when serving out his various prison sentences.

I put translation in scare quotations above because William Ernest Henley's version of the poem is by no means literal. Henley was himself a poet, author, and critic, who published essays, plays, and most notably for purposes of this writeup, the Dictionary of Slang and Its Analogues. His translation is written in the canting language of the criminal class of Victorian England, and it provides both an interesting exercise in translation--capturing the essence of the original, as opposed to its literal meaning--as well as an example of the sort of language you don't often hear in the canonical novels. Charles Dickens sometimes throws some slang at you, but nothing like this. The poem is best performed out loud, as the phrases are, I think, very fun to master and throw about like an anachronistic cardsharp.

From top to bottom--and I apologize for the fomatting; side-by-side seems easier, but won't format correctly--is the original French, a "plain" English translation*, and Henley's creatively contemporary update.

Ricky Jay did not translate the slang after delivering the poem, but some preliminary research has provided insight into most of the phrases. Pipelinks reveal what certain terms mean, while regular hardlinks lead to good old Webster 1913 definitions that account for the slang. If any of you can provide more clues, please /msg me!

The Poem(s)

"De bonne doctrine a ceux de mauvaise vie."

CAR ou soies porteur de bulles,	
Pipeur ou hasardeur de dez,	
Tailleur de faulx coings, tu te brusles,	
Comme ceulx qui sont eschaudez,	
Traistres parjurs, de foy vuydez;           5
Soies larron, ravis ou pilles:	
Où en va l’acquest, que cuidez?	
Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.	
 
Ryme, raille, cymballe, luttes,	
Comme fol, fainctif, eshontez;	            10
Farce, broulle, joue des fleustes;	
Fais, es villes et es citez,	
Farces, jeux et moralitez;	
Gaigne au berlanc, au glic, aux quilles.	
Aussi bien va—or escoutez—	            15
Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.	
 
De telz ordures te reculles;	
Laboure, fauche champs et prez;	
Sers et pense chevaulx et mulles;	
S’aucunement tu n’es lettrez;	            20
Assez auras, se prens en grez.	
Mais se chanvre broyes ou tilles,	
Ne tens ton labour qu’as ouvrez	
Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.	
 
ENVOI

Chausses, pourpoins esguilletez,	    25
Robes, et toutes voz drappilles,	
Ains que vous fassiez pis, portez	
Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.

"Good Doctrines for a Bad Life" For whether you carry bulls Or cheat or play dice, Counterfeiting you burn yourself; Like those who are emboldened, Perjurious traitors, empty of faith; 5 Be a thief, steal or pillage: Where does the booty go, to what end? All to the taverns and to the girls. Rhyme, mock, disturb, wrestle, Like a madman or a shameless crook, 10 Con, embezzle, draw your sword; Do, in towns and cities, Tricks, games and parlor games; Win at the berlanc, the glic or bowling, It all goes--and listen-- 15 All to the taverns and to the girls. Walk away from such garbage; Get a hoe, labour in fields and meadows; Care for and saddle horses and mules; You are a blessed ignorant; 20 You will have enough, I guarantee. But whether you plough or till your field, You only labour for one thing All to the taverns and to the girls. THE MESSAGE Shoes, embroidered pourpoints, 25 Dresses, and all your clothes, So it doesn't get worse, carry them All to the taverns and to the girls.
"Villon's Straight Tip to All Cross Coves" 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? 5 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; 10 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; 15 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? 20 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. THE MORAL It’s up the spout and Charley Wag 25 With wipes and tickers and what not. Until the squeezer nips your scrag, Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Last words

The "plain" English version doesn't keep the rhyme of the original at all, but Henley's does: both are ABABBCBC. This is assuming I've read my 15th Century French right.

Note the slang that we still have with us: crib still functions in much the same way in parts of the United States, and mack, with a slight loss of specificity, also retains some of its 19th Century English meaning. Not the expected source for what is typically considered modern African-American slang!

Moskeneer captures a hint of the anti-semitism that was common in 19th Century England, especially in the lower classes where the line between thievery and legitimate business practice was blurry, if there at all. It comes from the Yiddish mosk, meaning to pawn, and derives from Hebrew misken.

As you have seen, a few of the terms remain a total mystery to me, probably as I don't own a copy of Henley's Dictionary. Again--anyone who can clarify any of the outstanding phrases will have an endless supply of Scriblerian gratitude!


Merry goblins to:
http://www.tlucretius.net/Sophie/Castle/victorian_slang.html
http://www.bartleby.com/244/37.html
http://www.logodrome.net/archives/000204.php
http://www.bartleby.com/65/he/Henley-W.html
*Extra super thanks to LeoDV, who translated the original French at my request, gratis.

Many thanks to KilroyWasHere, who probably should have done this wu instead of me!

Villon's and Henley's poems are in the public domain; English translation posted with permission of author.

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