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François Villon

François Villon

The French poet François Villon (1431-c. 1463), the greatest writer of 15th-century France, was the first creative, modern French lyric poet. His work is remarkable for its rare inspiration and sincerity.

François Villon, whose real name was François de Montcorbier or François des Loges, was born in 1431, the year Joan of Arc was burned at Rouen. English soldiers still occupied Paris. It was an era of social troubles and manifold evils, partly accounting for the vast output of mediocre literature aimed at general edification and filled with lugubrious didacticism. One mystery play popular in France at the time contains 60, 000 lines, but the two literary highlights of the period are short: the Pathelin, a farce of some 2, 000 lines, and the poems of Villon, which total about 3, 000 lines.

François was born into a poor family. His mother was pious but illiterate; his father died when François was very young. The child's lot would have been miserable had not Master Guillaume de Villon, the canon of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné, taken him to raise. He attended to François's early education, and the child affectionately referred to him as "more than a father." Later the poet adopted his name and rendered it imperishable. From this time on, most information about Villon derives from documents of the University of Paris, the prefecture of police, and his own poems.

In March 1449 Villon was received as a bachelor of arts at the Sorbonne, after which occurred his first involvement in civic disorders in the winter 1451/1452. His studies continued, however, and he received the licentiate and the degree of master of arts later in 1452. In short, Villon was a well-educated man, and incidental allusions in his works show considerable knowledge.

Brawls and Disappearance

In June 1455 Villon killed Philip Chermoye, a priest, in a brawl, and he immediately fled from Paris. But the murder was well provoked, and in January 1456 Villon was granted two official releases, one in the name of François de Montcorbier, master of arts, and the other in the name of Master François des Loges, also known as Villon, an indication that Villon was then known by all three names. Perhaps Villon's status as a man of learning or perhaps the later intervention of Charles d'Orléans influenced judicial leniency. Later in the year Villon completed his Lais.

About Christmas, 1446, Villon participated in a burglary at the College of Navarre. He fled to Angers, and then he wandered for more than 4 years. During this period he probably sojourned at the court of Charles d'Orléans, himself a first-class poet, and was in jail twice. At Orléans he escaped a death sentence by pardon; and at Meung-sur-Loire, where he was imprisoned by Thibault d'Aussigny, Bishop of Orléans, he was released, according to a merciful custom, by the passage of King Louis XI through the town in October 1461.

Villon's intense experiences inspired the Grand testament, which he completed in 1461. In 1462 he was confronted with the affair of the College of Navarre; he was imprisoned at the Châtelet but released on a bond of restitution for his share in the theft. Involved in a fight in which François Ferrebourg was wounded, Villon was sentenced to be hanged. He appealed the decision, and Parliament by an edict on Jan. 5, 1463, annulled the sentence and reduced his penalty to a 10-year exile from Paris. After that date nothing is known of him.

Villon's Character

The grim series of crises that make up most of the biographical facts that scholars can piece together about this artist-outlaw have been discussed time and again. Some see in him an innocent victim of unhealthy company, and others represent him as a sad example of genuine criminality. Yet an exquisitely delicate sensitivity like Villon's, in the face of rebuffs and frequent humiliations, could easily take refuge in taverns and in the society of pickpockets and prostitutes. Also, the extreme imbalance in the distribution of wealth at that time could well have contributed to the instincts of revolt in a bright and passionate young man with empty pockets.

Modern as his esthetic appeal is, Villon is intensely medieval. His poetic forms are standard fixed medieval patterns, his learning and subject matter belong to his century, and his personal devotion is that of the whole medieval period. In spite of his satire and grotesque humor, he is not gay. Villon stands apart in that he is one of the few major poets before the 18th century who did not enjoy, or endure, patronage. His poetry is totally personal; with never a thought of his public, or indeed any public, he speaks only for himself.

The Lais

The Lais (Legacy), often called the Petit testament, consists of 320 octosyllabic lines evenly divided into 40 stanzas of 8 lines each. In the first line Villon gives the date of composition (1456), and in the second, following a medieval custom, he identifies himself as the author. Like his other works, this poem is highly personal and furnishes some clues to his associates and whereabouts. About to flee to Angers at the time of its composition, the poet bequeaths what he has to those who remain in Paris. To his foster father he leaves his fame; to the cruel and disdainful Catherine de Vaucelles he leaves his heart; and to various others at all levels of society he leaves abstractions and trivialities, the legatees forming a sort of cortege of 15th-century society. Passages of the poem are variously realistic, satirical, lyrical, cruel, and farcical. Throughout the Lais the sublime and the grotesque stand in juxtaposition, a literary technique revived during the romantic period.

The Grand testament

Although written only 5 years later, the Grand testament is vastly more mature than the Lais. Here the central theme of the will serves only as mere framework, for intermixed in the text of more than 2, 000 lines are 16 ballades, 2 rondeaux, a song, and a regret. With striking clarity many more persons pass in review than in the Lais; persons of all types appear, beginning with the harsh bishop of Orléans. Certain themes recur throughout: a feeling of bitterness derived from his sufferings and from his disappointments in love; regrets about what Villon thought in his periods of remorse was a wasted life; and ever-returning preoccupations with death, near or remote. But even his melancholy passages and despairing accents are interrupted by pleasantries and clowning touches, which by contrast make them even more stark.

Individual Poems

Most of Villon's best poems are inserted in the Grand testament. The "Regrets of the Belle Heaulmiére" is a bleak reflection on the ravages of time: a celebrated beauty's polished forehead, blond hair, arched eyebrows, and pretty glance are turned by the years into a wrinkled brow, gray hair, fallen eyebrows, and dead eyes to form a grim piece of naturalism in keeping with the macabre mirrors so dear to the 15th century. The best-known of Villon's poems is the "Ballade of the Ladies of Yester-year"; in this poem three groups of great ladies appear: first a group from antiquity, then cruel celebrities of the past, and finally true heroines. But where are they now? Where are the snows of yesteryear? A parallel ballade on great men of the past asks: where is the mighty Charlemagne? Another celebrated poem is the one that Villon wrote at the request of his mother to contain her prayer to Our Lady. It is one of the finest flowers, and perhaps the last, of medieval religious poetry. Villon frequently calls upon the Virgin, his only refuge, and he often repents his sins, but his repentance is always without any effort of substantiation.

Other Poems

Villon's early poem about a schoolboy escapade is lost; there remain only 17 poems not included in the Grand testament. In this group is his "Epitaph, " a ballade in which he pictures himself and a few companions as hanged. He asks his human brothers who survive not to laugh at the bodies they see hanging from the gibbets but to pray for them. The decomposition of the corpses is depicted in ghastly naturalistic detail. It is generally supposed that this ballade was written in 1463 after Villon had been condemned to hang. With its accent of despair and its rare quality of human sympathy, this ballade is perhaps the finest lyric poem in medieval French literature.

Further Reading

Perhaps the best version of Villon's writings in English is the excellent prose translation by Geoffroy Atkinson, The Works of François Villon (1930). Major studies of Villon are in French. The most comprehensive book in English is D. B. Wyndham Lewis, François Villon (1928). Also useful is Cecily Mackworth's brief study, François Villon (1947). □

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Villon, Francois (1431–?)

Villon, Francois (1431?)

French poet, whose entire body of work comprises about three thousand lines of verse but who is considered one the greatest French authors of the fifteenth century. Born in Paris, Villon's given name was Francois de Montcorbier or Francois des Loges. He was taken into the household of Guillaume de Villon, the canon of Saint Benoit le Betourne, who educated him. Villon attended the University of Paris, earning the degree of master of arts in 1452.

In 1455 Villon killed a priest in a street brawl and fled Paris. He joined a roving band of thieves and highwaymen known as the coquillards, who were a common threat on the chaotic byways of France in the years after the Hundred Years' War. He was granted leniency by the Paris city officials in the next year, when he completed the Lais, forty stanzas of eight lines each, in which he describes his turbulent life and satirically details a legacy for his friends, enemies, and acquaintances. This work is also known as the Little Testament. In 1461 he completed the Grand Testament, a much longer work that includes two thousand lines in various forms and presents a grand spectacle of personages of the medieval French world in which the poet moved. The Grand Testament includes Villon's most famous poem, Ballade of the Ladies of Yesteryear. In 1462 Villon was arrested and imprisoned in the Chatelet fortress in Paris for the burglary at the College de Navarre in 1446, for which he was again granted a pardon on condition that he make restitution for the crime. When he took part in another street brawl, he was sentenced to death; on appeal his hanging was stayed by an edict of the Paris Parlement. Some time after sentence was passed he composed the Ballade of the Hanged, in which he describes in vivid detail his fate as an executed criminal. He was sentenced to ten years of exile from Paris; after this event he disappeared, and historians know nothing of his whereabouts for the remainder of his life.

Villon's career as an outlaw prevented him from winning any patronage from the court or the nobility. His poetry is intensely personal, full of satire and a bitter, grotesque sense of humor, describing his life in his own words, and owing nothing to the traditional themes of chivalry and religion that were standard for medieval poets and prose authors. His works were collected and edited by Clement Marot, and the discovery of Villon's poetry by the romantic poets of the nineteenth century made his permanent reputation as one of the great poets of French literature.

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Villon, François

François Villon (fräNswä´ vēyôN´), 1431–1463?, French poet, b. Paris, whose original name was François de Montcorbier or François Des Loges. One of the earliest great poets of France, Villon was largely rediscovered in the 19th cent. He was brought up by the chaplain of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné, Guillaume de Villon, whose name he adopted. Knowledge of the facts of Villon's life is drawn from his poems and from the police records concerning him; it is believed that he died shortly after receiving a sentence of 10 years' exile from Paris, commuted from the death sentence. Confessedly a vagabond and rogue from his student days at the Sorbonne, Villon killed a man in 1455. During his subsequent banishment from Paris he fell in with the coquillards, a band of thieves that ravaged France at the close of the Hundred Years War, and for them he composed his ballads in thieves' jargon. The preservation of Villon's works was principally due to Clément Marot, who collected and edited them (1533). Villon used the medieval forms of versification, but his intensely personal message puts him in the rank of the moderns. Besides his ballads in jargon, Villon's work consists of his Lais (also known as the Little Testament), written in 1456; the Testament or Grand Testament (1461); and a number of poems including the "Débat du cœur et du corps de Villon" [debate between Villon's heart and body] and the "Épitaphe Villon," better known as the "Ballade des pendus" [ballad of the hanged], written during Villon's expectation of the same fate. The Lais (a pun on the words lais, or lays, and legs, or legacy) is a series of burlesque bequests to his friends and enemies. The Testament follows the same scheme (not uncommon in medieval literature), but is far superior in depth of emotion and in poetic value. The work is filled with irony, repentance, constant preoccupation with death, ribald humor, rebellion, and pity. The Testament is interspersed with ballads and rondeaux, including the "Ballade de la grosse Margot," his bequest to a prostitute, and "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" with the famous refrain "But where are the snows of yester-year?" There have been many English translations of the poems, including those by Rossetti and Swinburne, and more recently (1973) by Peter Dale. The standard French edition of the works was made by Auguste Longnon (1892, several revisions).

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"Villon, François." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Mar. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Villon, François

Villon, François (1430–63?) French lyric poet, b. François de Montcorbier or François des Loges. He led a troubled life after killing a priest in 1455. Villon wrote the famous Ballad of a Hanged Man while awaiting execution in 1462 (the sentence was later commuted to banishment). Among his other major works are Le Petit Testament (1456), a satirical will in verse, and Le GrandTestament (1461), in part a lament for lost youth.

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