François Villon Essay - Critical Essays

Villon, François (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Introduction

François Villon 1431–-c. 1463

(Also François des Loges and François de Montcorbier) French poet. See also Francois Villon Poetry Criticism.

Villon is considered one of the greatest French poets of the Middle Ages. In Le Lais (The Legacy; 1456), Le Testament (1461), and other works, Villon wrote about an underworld—populated by thieves, pimps, and whores—that he knew well and a way of life that brought him into conflict with legal and clerical authorities. His reputation as a dissipated pauper stands in stark contrast to the image of refinement cultivated by the courtly poets of the Middle Ages, and it made him an object of embarrassment and derision for high-minded scholars, but made him a favorite of Romantic poets. While Villon's works highlight his life of crime and debauchery, they are also characterized by the author's unusually personal poetic voice and the depth of his spiritual concerns. Villon's ability to move seamlessly between high and low—and to rouse sympathy for a cruel and vulgar, if pathetic, narrator—distinguish his poetry both from the ballads of contemporary aristocrats and from merely journalistic portrayals of urban Parisian life. His bittersweet evocation of the relentless oblivion of history—reflected in his most often quoted verse, “Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?” (“But where are the snows of yesteryear?”)—has ironically kept alive his own fame as an undisputed master of direct poetic expression.

Biographical Information

Most of what is known about Villon's life has been taken from his work, particularly his two mock-wills, Le Lais and Le Testament. Separating fact from fiction in these works has long posed a challenge for Villon's biographers. “Villon” is not even the poet's birth name: sometime in his adult life, the poet changed his name to Villon to honor his patron, Guillaume Villon. Survivng court documents suggest that he was also known as François des Loges and François de Montcorbier. Records indicate that he studied at the University of Paris, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1449 and a master of arts three years later. While at the university, Villon had his first notable run-in with authorities for his participation in a student prank involving the theft of a stone called “The Devil's Fart.” His conflicts with the authorities grew more serious after he left the university. In 1455 a priest attacked Villon with a knife. Villon fought back, and the priest later died of the wounds he received. Villon fled Paris until, through the efforts of his friends, he received a pardon in 1456. Later that same year, however, Villon was involved with the theft of 500 écus from the Collège de Navarre. When he was named as the leader of the criminal expedition, he was forced to flee Paris again, or risk imprisonment. Scholars presume that before he left he wrote Le Lais, his first mock-testament. Little is known of his activities for the next four years, but it is believed that he spent some time at the court of Duke Charles d'Orléans.

Villon was imprisoned at Meung-sur-Loire in the summer of 1461. The nature of Villon's crime is unknown—earlier biographers maintained that he was there “no doubt for good cause,” while more sympathetic later scholars have imagined that the fault was minor. Villon was imprisoned by order of the bishop of Orléans, Thibaut d'Aussigny, whom he would attack viciously in Le Testament. If Villon was forthright in his poetry, he was tortured and starved until his release in October 1461, in an act of clemency celebrating the arrival of the new king, Louis XI. Villon, embittered by poor treatment in prison, the desertion of his friends, and his financial destitution, returned to Paris, where he wrote Le Testament. He was soon imprisoned again for a minor offense; while he was incarcerated authorities recognized him as one of perpetrators of the theft at Navarre. He was released, but was required to pay his share of the stolen écus. Within a month Villon was arrested again, apparently for no reason—a brawl broke out with a group of Villon's friends, but although Villon fled the scene before the fight began, he was imprisoned, subjected to water torture and condemned to hanging. Villon appealed his sentence, which was commuted on January 5, 1463, to a ten-year exile from Paris. Most scholars believe that Villon died shortly after his exile, a consequence of failing health and spirits as well as the utter destitution he detailed so poignantly in Le Testament.

Major Works

Villon's first known work was Le romaunt du Pet au Deable (The Romance of the Devil's Fart). Although no copies have survived, several accounts of manuscripts passed among Villon's fellow students demonstrate its existence. The work details the misadventures of those students involved in the prank of stealing the stone known as “The Devil's Fart” from the garden of Mademoiselle de Bruyères. Between 1450 and 1463 Villon composed some twenty-seven short poems, which survive in a variety of manuscript sources. These have been gathered into two groups. The eleven Ballades en jargon were written in the Coquille slang of thieves and counterfeiters. Although modern readers have found them largely unintelligible because of the archaic slang, the meter and form of the ballads are perfect, and they exhibit the same acrostics that have become familiar to readers of Villon's other works. The sixteen Poèmes variés include several pieces that pertain to his time at the court of the Duke d'Orléans; others address other members of the nobility and the Parlement, and still others detail his wretched existence in the prison at Meung. Villon's first major work is Le Lais, which follows the mock-testament form popular in the Middle Ages. The poem is a humorous will in which the poet leaves both real and imagined possessions to friends and enemies. The particularity of many of the names, places, and events described in the poem renders much of the humor lost on modern readers, and critics have been divided on whether this early work contains any of the more universal themes found in Le Testament. Most readers of Villon, however, know him only for Le Testament, which uses the same mock-will form asLe Lais but demonstrates a greater scope and vision. For years scholars considered Le Lais a precursor to Le Testament, but that view has largely been discarded. Critics currently focus less on the particular biographical details and coarse humor of the poem, and more on Villon's capacious view of humanity and his eschatological concerns.

Critical Reception

The tragic facts of Villon's biography—particularly his likely ignominious death—demonstrate that he was not widely appreciated in his own time, although he was known to patrons of the arts such as the Duke d'Orléans. Indeed, it was the appreciation of authors such as François Rabelais, Nicolas Boileau, and several poets of the Romantic era that has preserved his work in the Western canon. Even Villon's admirers could not always ignore his reputation for debauchery and crime, however; although Robert Louis Stevenson professed admiration for the poet, he excoriated Villon for his cynicism, dissolution, and amoral lifestyle. Others, such as William Carlos Williams, found Villon's reputation part of his renegade charm. Such views, however, presumed that Villon is accurately represented by the narrator of his poems—a presumption that has been challenged by more recent scholars. Ann Tukey Harrison has pointed out that despite his conflicts with authority, Villon wrote as one very much involved in the literary culture of his day and, despite his “povre Villon” persona, as a master of his chosen field. Karl D. Uitti has suggested that the perception of Villon's “marginality” has been an important factor in his later reception. In a study of Villon and the theme of authority, Tony Hunt has examined in detail how Villon created a complex persona throughout Le Testament, and argued that readers must not equate the “François” of the poem with Villon the poet.

The issue of Villon's vulgarity and amorality has been treated by modern scholars as merely part of his broad worldview. Critics including David A. Fein and Evelyn Birge Vitz have addressed the Christian themes in Villon's work, noting that despite Villon's cynicism, his faith in a redemptive deity was sincere and an important theme of his later work. Robert D. Peckham has suggested that, rather than being contradictory, Villon's mix of crude humor and religious supplication demonstrates the possibility of redemption. Villon's technique, lauded as flawless by critics and fellow poets alike, has prompted critics to consider his education: Barbara Sargent-Baur has cited Villon's classical education as a source for his rhetorical style, while Nancy Freeman Regalado has argued that Villon's education enabled him to make the evocative faux-errors, or misquotations, that adorn his poetry

Principal Works

*Ballades en jargon [Poems in Jargon] (poetry) c. 1450

Poèmes variés (poetry) c. 1450-63

Le Lais [The Legacy] (poetry) 1456

§Le Testament [The Testament] (poetry) 1461

Le Grant Testament Villon et le petit. Son codicille. Le jargon & ses ballades (poetry) 1489

Oeuvres complètes de François Villon, publiées d'après les manuscrits anciennes éditions (poetry) 1892

François Villon: Oeuvres [François Villon: Works, 4th ed.] (poetry) 1970

François Villon: Complete Works (poetry) 1994

...

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Criticism

Robert Louis Stevenson (essay date 1874)

SOURCE: “Francois Villon, Student, Poet, and Housebreaker,” in Virginibus Puerisque and Familiar Studies of Men and Books, J.M. Dent and Sons, 1929, pp. 229-251.

[In this essay, originally published in 1874, Stevenson celebrates Villon's writing style while condemning both his life and his choice of subjects.]

Perhaps one of the most curious revolutions in literary history is the sudden bull's-eye light cast by M. Longnon on the obscure existence of François Villon.1 His book is not remarkable merely as a chapter of biography exhumed after four centuries. To readers of the poet it will recall, with a flavour of satire, that characteristic passage in...

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William Carlos Williams (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Complete Works of Francois Villon, Bantam Books, 1964, pp. ix-xv.

[In this essay, Williams cites Villon's intensity and directness as key reasons for continued interest in his work. Williams also delights in finding Villon to be consummately French.]

By a single line of verse in an almost forgotten language, Medieval French, the name of Villon goes on living defiantly; our efforts, as we seem to try to efface it, polish and make it shine the more. What is that secret that has escaped with a mere question, deftly phrased, the profundity of the ages:

Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

All that has been forgotten...

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Evelyn Birge Vitz (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “‘Contamination’ and the Central Metaphors,” in The Crossroad of Intentions: A Study of Symbolic Expression in the Poetry of François Villon, Mouton, 1974, pp. 29-63.

[In this excerpt, Vitz examines patterns of erotic and gustatory metaphors to establish the major contrasts in Villon's work. For Vitz, “contamination” describes the way in which metaphor seems to work by proximity in Villon's poetry, as symbolic connotations seem to seep from one line to the next.]

I propose, as an initial approach or avenue into Villon's Testament and accessorily his other works, a study of certain aspects of his use of symbolic expression: a study of certain...

(The entire section is 12538 words.)

Joseph J. Hayes (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Gothic Love and Death: François Villon and the City of Paris,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 11, No.3, 1977, pp. 719-29.

[In this essay, Hayes focuses on the theme of death and dying to demonstrate how Villon wrote “city” poetry, in contrast to the courtly poetry of the aristocracy. In addition to literary analysis, Hayes draws from the culture of Medieval France and the art of the late Gothic era to establish Villon's place in the development of a more popular literature.]

In the popular imagination one literary figure from the close of the Middle Ages towers above all others, Francois Villon. Later ages have made much of his death-defying...

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Galway Kinnell (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Poems of François Villon, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977, pp. xi-xx.

[In this excerpt from the introduction to his translation of Villon's poems, Kinnell contrasts Villon's Laiswith his Testament as forms of mock-testaments, arguing that the later poem, despite its frequently comic tone, offers a very serious and unflinching view of death and mortality.]

François Montcorbier, also known as François des Loges, was born in Paris in 1431. He took his bachelor's degree in 1449, and his master's degree in 1452, according to records at the University of Paris. Villon is a nom de plume taken from his friend and benefactor,...

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Norris J. Lacy (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Flight of Time: Villon's Trilogy of Ballades,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 22, No.3, 1982, pp. 353-78.

[In this essay, Lacy, an important Villon scholar, suggests that the latter two ballades of the trilogy on the ubi sunt theme—“Ballade des seigneurs”” and “Ballade en vieil langage françoys”—have been undervalued by modern critics. Lacy argues that as a unit, the ballades represent Villon's continuing development of a unified theme, that of fleeting fame and the relentless forgetfulness of history.]

Villon's three ballades concerning the flight of time and the ubi sunt topos have rarely been studied as an ensemble. This failure...

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David A. Fein (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Final Preparations (Verses 1844-1995),” “Three Readings of the Final Ballad (Verses 1996-2023),” and “Conclusion” in A Reading of Villon's Testament, Summa Publications, 1984, pp. 69-83.

[In this excerpt, Fein turns to the conclusion of Villon's Testament, suggesting that behind its sarcasm and apparent celebration of dissipation the poem reveals an enthusiasm for life and offers a serious meditation on both humanity and eternity.]

FINAL PREPARATIONS (VERSES 1844–1995)

Now that all the bequests have been made, Villon turns his attention to the last few remaining formalities: provisions for the execution of the...

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Julie A. Storme (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Love in Le Testament,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1984, pp. 270-76.

[In this essay, Storme argues that in avenging his own domination, Villon—as the narrator of Le Testament—victimizes the women he writes about, particularly in ballades such as “Les regrets de la belle Heaulmière” and “Ballade de la Grosse Margot.”]

The strength of Villon's poetry comes not from conventional poetic forms or didacticism, but rather from the poet's presence in his art which engages him in a struggle to define and resolve his feelings about himself and his life. He reaches, however, neither definition nor resolution; the internal struggle...

(The entire section is 2378 words.)

Robert D. Peckham (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Francois Villon's Testament and the Poetics of Transformation,” in Fifteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 11, 1985, pp. 71-83.

[In this essay, Peckham considers the mix of high and low—spiritual and crude—in Villon's Testamentas a sign of the transformation of the narrator that takes place within the poem.]

Readers have long observed ambiguities in François Villon's Testament (T.). Some of these have been deemed the incidental results of an extended period of composition,1 but more recent scholarship tends to view them as the deliberate acts of a truly protean poetic voice.2 Furthermore, studies by Jean...

(The entire section is 3572 words.)

David A. Fein (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Audience” and “Another Poet, Another Audience” in François Villon and His Reader, Wayne State University Press, 1989, pp. 15-27, 111-22.

[In the first excerpt, Fein informally theorizes a historically aware reader-response approach to Villon's Testament drawing from the work of literary scholars Stanley Fish and Hans R. Jauss, establishes an identity for Villon's contemporary readership, and discusses Villon's deft maneuvering between obscure historical detail and universal themes. The second excerpted chapter compares Villon's Testament to the work of his patron Charles d'Orléans, discussing the role of the interpretive community.]

...

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Rouben C. Cholakian (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The (Un)naming Process in Villon's Grand Testament,” in The French Review, Vol. 66, No. 2, 1992, pp. 216-28.

[In this essay, Cholakian discusses Villon's widespread use of names in his Testament, suggesting that they serve to disempower those who are named and empower the narrator. The intense self-referentiality of the poem, he argues, further emphasizes Villon's use of naming as a means of asserting selfhood against dominating Others.]

Many scholars have delved into the university, police, and municipal archives of fifteenth-century Paris to identify the names appearing in Villon's pseudo-testament.1 My own interest in the...

(The entire section is 5689 words.)

M. J. Freeman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “‘Faulte d'Argent M'a Si fort Enchanté’: Money and François Villon,” in Romance Studies, Vol. 24, 1992, pp. 59-70.

[In this essay, Freeman contends that the critical tendency to interpret Villon as a precursor to Romantic poets has caused scholars to overlook the importance of money and poverty in Villon's oeuvre. Focusing on Le Lais and Le Testament, Freeman suggests that the modern view of the Romantic starving artist cannot take into account Villon's real desire and need for material security.]

Since he was rediscovered at the beginning of the 19th century (one thinks of Théophile Gautier's seminal chapter in Les Grotesques...

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Barbara N. Sargent-Baur (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Persuasion and (Special) Pleading in Francois Villon,” in Fifteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 22, 1995, pp. 1-18.

[In this essay, Sargent-Baur examines possible influences for Villon's rhetorical style of addressing potential benefactors, especially those Greek and Roman models Villon would have studied in school. The author considers Villon's Testament as well as several of his Poèmes variés.]

“Le lesserez la, le povre Villon?” asks le povre Villon, clearly soliciting the answer No. This appeal to readers, developed in each strophe of the “Epitre a ses amis”1 and driven home four times by the refrain, is perhaps Villon's...

(The entire section is 7590 words.)

Karl D. Uitti (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Villon's Le Grand Testament and the Poetics of Marginality,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 93, No.2, 1995, pp. 139-60.

[In this essay, the author reviews Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist interpretations of the legend of Villon, arguing that such legends have been detrimental to readings of Villon's most famous poem. With comparisons to Le Roman de la Rose and the genre of hagiography, Uitti demonstrates how Villon illustrates issues of marginality and power in the context of Medieval France.]

My discussion will focus upon François Villon's best-known work, the 2,025-line poem called Le Grand Testament. This work, usually dated around...

(The entire section is 11693 words.)

Tony Hunt (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Writing and the Fragmentation of Authority,” in Villon's Last Will: Language and Authority in the Testament, Clarendon Press, 1996, pp. 13-33.

[In this excerpt, Hunt examines the methods by which Villon calls into question the authority of his narrator in Le Testament, including his asides to the “scribe,” his allusions to other sources, and his use of irony.]

Ce que j'ay escript est escript.(1)
[What I have written is written]

The testator places some emphasis on the writing of the Testament, that is, on its status as a written record—‘Escript l'ay l'an soixante et ung’ (81). There is never the slightest doubt...

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Nancy Freeman Regalado (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Villon's Legacy from Le Testament of Jean de Meun: Misquotation, Memory, and the Wisdom of Fools,” in Villon at Oxford: The Drama of the Text, Rodopi, 1999, pp. 282-311.

[In this essay, first presented at a conference of Villon scholars in 1996, Regalado argues that instances of misquotation in Villon's work are not errors of memory, but intentional poetic devices. Regalado proposes further that the faux-errors help create the wise-fool persona of the poems' narrators.]

Can a poet make a mistake? What is the meaning of Villon's poetic mistake, his misquotation in the Testament (T, 113-20)1 from an important yet largely...

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Evelyn Birge Vitz (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “‘Bourde jus mise’? Villon, the Liturgy, and Prayer,” in Villon at Oxford: The Drama of the Text, Rodopi, 1999, pp. 170-194.

[In this essay, first presented at Oxford in 1996, Vitz traces Villon's use of liturgical language and themes, noting that modern scholars wrongly tend to dismiss Villon's serious spiritual concerns. Instead, Vitz argues, Villon is deeply concerned with eschatological questions, in both the Lais and the Testament.]

This paper is part of a large study on the impact of the liturgy on medieval vernacular literature.1 By “liturgy” I mean not merely the Mass, but more broadly the official and public life of church...

(The entire section is 8451 words.)

David A. Fein (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “The Lais” in François Villon Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1997, pp. 20-34.

[In this excerpt, Fein details the groups of people Villon addresses in his earlier mock-testament, many of which reappear in The Testament. Fein demonstrates the variety of tones—playful, ironic, cruel, sympathetic—Villon uses in portraying the various classes of society.]

Although it was long believed that Villon participated in the Navarre theft and wrote the Lais on the same night—Christmas Eve of 1456—most critics now doubt that these events occurred so close together. First, we must remember that Villon's dating of the poem is somewhat...

(The entire section is 5071 words.)

Norris J. Lacy (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “In Defense of Villon's Lais,” in The French Review, Vol. 72, No. 6, 1999, pp. 1000-09.

[In this essay, Lacy takes exception to the standard critical practice of devaluing the Lais—seeing it as trivial or as merely an early draft for Le Testament. Lacy suggests that the habit of imagining that the first-person narrator of Villon's poems is Villon himself leads readers to overlook the more serious themes of the light-hearted earlier work.]

François Villon's 1456 Lais is a pleasant, amusing, and poetically inconsequential text. That this statement accurately summarizes prevailing scholarly sentiment is beyond dispute. For...

(The entire section is 4866 words.)