Villon, François 1431–ca. 1463 French Poet

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Villon, François
1431–ca. 1463
French poet

François Villon, the last major poet of the Middle Ages in France, attracted much admiration from French writers of the Renaissance. Clément Marot called him the greatest Parisian poet, and François Rabelais quoted him in two of his own works. Villon wove elements from his own difficult life into his two major works, Lais and Testament.

Villon was born into a poor family and raised by a clergyman, whose name the poet adopted in 1456. This father figure helped Villon attend the University of Paris, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees. In Paris Villon apparently fell in with some bad company and became involved in crime. He killed a man who had attacked him with a dagger, stole money from the College of Navarre, went to prison for another unidentified crime, and finally received a death sentence for his involvement in another fight. He escaped death in exchange for ten years of exile, and three days later he disappeared from Paris forever.

As a poet Villon was known for his biting humor, especially in his two major works: Lais (1456) and Testament (1462). In the 40 stanzas* of Lais, Villon painted himself as a wounded lover who, because his love is not returned, must leave town. The poet leaves his few belongings, such as his trousers and hair clippings, to his friends and fellow citizens. Villon's masterpiece, Testament, also deals with giving away possessions. In this lengthy work, which combines 158 stanzas of poetry with 16 ballads and three shorter poems, the poet looks back on his lost youth, poor background, and uncertain future as he makes his will. Villon's sarcastic wit appears in such details as the main character's decision to leave his glasses to the blind. In more thoughtful moments, the author reflects on himself and other victims of love, poverty, and time. Testament even has moments of tender sympathy, as when the poet leaves his most powerful gift, his poetic voice, to those who are not heard, such as his mother or an aging prostitute.

(See alsoFrench Language and Literature. )

* stanza

section of a poem; specifically, a grouping of lines into a recurring pattern determined by meter or rhyme scheme