Villon, François (Poetry Criticism)
François Villon 1431–1463?
(Born François de Montcorbier alias des Loges) French poet.
Villon is considered one of the most significant French poets of the Middle Ages. His best known works, Les Lais (also called Le Petit Testament or The Small Testament) and Le Testament (also Grand Testament or The Large Testament) have been held up as exemplars of the popular Medieval verse form, the testament, which parodies the traditional legal will. The personal nature of his subject matter—especially his vivid descriptions of his life as a thief and vagabond on the streets of Paris—is deemed atypical for his time, and he is credited with imbuing the poetry of his age with vitality and realism.
Born in France in 1431, Villon's real name was probably François de Montcorbier (after the village on the borders of Burgundy where his father was born) or des Loges (perhaps the name of his father's farm). Of his parents we know only that his father died while Villon was young, and that his mother was poor and illiterate. Villon was raised by Guillaume de Villon, a priest who was probably the poet's uncle. Under his patronage, Villon attended the University of Paris where he received both a Bachelor of Arts and later a Master of Arts. As a student he was often involved in thievery and mischief. In 1455, at the age 24, Villon killed a man, after which he fled Paris. As the murder was apparently a matter of self-defense, Villon received a pardon and returned to Paris six months later. On Christmas Eve, 1456, he participated in a robbery at the Collège de Navarre and fled Paris once again, this time for five years. Before leaving the city, he composed his first major poem, Les Lais. While wandering in exile in the provinces of France, Villon found a temporary patron in Charles, Duke of Orleans, who was himself a poet. According to Villon's poetry, he spent some time in the Duke of Orleans's prisons sentenced to death, but was pardoned in celebration of the birth of the Duke's daughter. During the summer of 1461 Villon suffered a particularly cruel imprisonment in Meung-sur-Loire under the order of the Bishop of Orleans, where he was apparently tortured and fed only bread and water. Upon his release in the fall of that year, the poet returned to Paris where he composed his major work, Le Testament, which expresses his bitterness toward the Bishop for this incarceration. In 1462, Villon was arrested under suspicion of committing another robbery, but was released due to lack of evidence. Shortly thereafter he was involved in a street brawl and, given his history of trouble with the law, was sentenced to death. While awaiting his sentence, Villon wrote his "Epitaphe Villon," also called "The Ballade des Pendus."
The poet appealed his death sentence and on January 5, 1463 the court commuted his sentence to ten years banishment from Paris. No authentic mention was made of Villon again.
Villon is known almost exclusively for his two testaments, Les Lais and Le Testament, the ballades which they contain, and for his epitaph. While his themes and forms were traditionally Medieval, his infusion of humor, pathos, and humanity into his verse was decidedly modern. His first testament, Les Lais, is said to genuinely evoke the atmosphere of Paris and the lives of common people during the Middle Ages. In this piece, Villon claims to be leaving Paris due to a troubled romance and he jokingly bequeaths mostly ridiculous items to his friends and enemies—a stolen duck, the sword and the breeches he has pawned, his broken heart. This work is noted by scholars for its clever wit and lighthearted tone. The larger Testament of 1461 is very different in sentiment and character from the first; this work is more serious and reflective. Villon reviews his life, his mistakes and disappointments, and the effect of his frequent imprisonments: sickness and poverty. Unlike traditional poetry of the day which was concerned with chivalry, mythology, and the lives of kings, Villon's work focuses on his own life, exploring a wide range of human emotions. Ezra Pound commented that in his poetry Villon "unconsciously proclaims man's divine right to be himself." Included within Le Testament are a number of ballades, which is a popular French verse form (not to be confused with the ballad) that follows a prescribed rhyme scheme and structure, with three stanzas and an envoi (a shorter closing stanza). Ballades such as "The Lament of La belle Heaulmière," and "Ballade of the Dead Ladies," are thought by some to best exemplify Villon's poetic genius. As another example of the intimacy and unflinching honesty of his work, "Villon's Epitaph," or "Ballade des Pendus," written under sentence of death, is a detailed and painful vision of himself dangling from the gallows among other hanged criminals.
Villon's work was much disseminated and appreciated during his lifetime. The earliest edition of his work bearing a date appeared in 1489, with as many as twenty-seven editions appearing by 1542. From early on, critics have remarked less on the structure and composition of the poetry and more on the content, particularly the vivid descriptions of the medieval streets of Paris. Interest in Villon's work almost completely dissipated after the sixteenth century but was revived in the nineteenth as French and English scholars rediscovered Villon. In 1877, August Lognon's study Etude biographique sur François Villon revealed new biographical details of the poet's life and helped decipher obscure references in his work. Some critics, such as Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cornhill Magazine in 1877, criticized the poet as an insincere cad and a troublemaker whose poetic skills were not sufficient to redeem his work. Most critics agree that Villon's use of personal subject matter, informal language, and sharp wit made him a truly innovative poet. John Payne wrote of Villon in 1880: "The true son of his time, he rejected at once and for ever, with the unerring judgement of the literary reformer, the quaint formalities of speech, the rhetorical exaggerations and limitations of expressions … that dwarfed the thought and deformed the limbs of the verse of his day."
*Les Lais [also referred to as Le Petit Testament] 1456
*Le Testament [commonly called Le Grand Testament] 1461
Le grand Testament Villon et le petit. Son codicille. Le jargon et ses balades 1489; reprinted 1924
Les oeuvres de Françoys Villon de Paris, reveues et remises en leur entier par Clément Marot 1533
The Complete Works of François Villon 1960
The Poems of François Villon 1982
* Dates provided for these works are those given by Villon on the original manuscript versions of his work.
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SOURCE: "Early French Poets," in The London Magazine, Vol. VIII, October, 1823, pp. 436-38.
[Below, Cary reviews the Grand Testament and the Petit Testament.]
The praise bestowed by Boileau on Villon, and still more the pains taken by Clement Marot, at the instance of Francis the First, to edit his poems, would lead us to expect great things from them; but in this expectation most English readers will probably be disappointed. For while Alain Chartier is full as intelligible as Chaucer, and Charles Duke of Orleans more so, Villon (who wrote after both) can scarcely be made out by the help of a glossary. Even his editor, Marot, who, as he tells us in the preface, had corrected a vast number of passages in his poems, partly from the old editions, partly from the recital of old people who had got them by heart, and partly from his own conjectures, was forced to leave several others untouched, which he could neither correct nor explain. One cause of the difficulty, which we find in reading Villon, is assigned by Marot, in a sentence that shows his knowledge of the true principles of criticism.
Quant à l'industrie des lays qu'il feit en ses testamens pour suffisamment la congnoistre et entendre, il faudrait avoir esté de son temps à Paris, et avoir congneu les lieux, les choses et les hommes dont il parle; la memoire desquelz tant plus se passera, tant moins se...
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SOURCE: "François Villon, Student, Poet, and Housebreaker," in The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. XXXVI, No. 212, August, 1877, pp. 215-34.
[Stevenson was a Scottish novelist and poet. His novels Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) were considered popular literary classics upon publication and firmly established his reputation as an inventive stylist and riveting storyteller. Stevenson is also noted for his understanding of youth, which is evident both in his early "boy's novels," as they were known, and in his much-loved A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). In the following excerpt, Stevenson probes Villon's biography and verse, and finds him a disreputable and insecure scoundrel and poet.]
Perhaps one of the most curious revolutions in literary history is the sudden bull's-eye light cast by M. Longnon, only last winter, on the obscure existence of François Villon [in Etude Biographique sur François Villon]. 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 which he bequeaths his spectacles—with a humorous reservation of the case—to the hospital for blind paupers known as the Fifteen-Score. Thus equipped, let the blind paupers go and separate the good from the bad in the cemetery of the Innocents!...
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SOURCE: "François Villon," in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. VIII, No. XLIII, September, 1880, pp. 481-500.
[Below, Payne discusses Villon's ability to portray common people and events of 15th-century Paris in a clear and realistic manner, making him "the first great poet of the people."]
There are few names in the history of literature over which the shadow has so long and so persistently lain as over that of the father of French poetry. Up to no more distant period than the early part of the year 1877, it was not even known what was his real name, nor were the admirers of his genius in possession of any other facts relative to his personal history than could be gleaned, by a painful process of inference and deduction, from those works of the poet that have been handed down to posterity. The materials that exist for the biography of Shakespeare or Dante are indeed scanty enough, but they present a very harvest of fact and suggestion compared with the pitiable fragments upon which, until the publication of M. [Auguste] Longnon's Etude Biographique sur Francois Villon , we had alone to rely for our personal knowledge of Villon. Even now the facts and dates, that M. Longnon has so valiantly and so ingeniously rescued for us from the vast charnel-house of mediæval history, are in themselves scanty enough; and it is necessary to apply to their connection and elucidation no mean amount of...
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SOURCE: "Poets of the French Renaissance: Villon," in The Living Age, Vol. XX, No. 3089, September 19, 1903, pp. 763-65.
[At the turn of the century Belloc was one of England's premier literary figures. His characteristically truculent stance as a proponent of Roman Catholicism and economic reform—and his equally characteristic clever humor—drew either strong support or harsh attacks from his audience, but critics have found common ground for admiration in his poetry. W. H. Auden called Belloc and his longtime collaborator G. K. Chesterton the best lightverse writers of their era, with Belloc's Cautionary Tales (1907) considered by some his most successful work in the genre. Here, Belloc compares and contrasts the medieval and renaissance qualities of Villon's poetry.]
I have said that in Charles of Orleans the middle ages are at first more apparent than the advent of the Renaissance. His forms are inherited from an earlier time, his terminology is that of the long allegories which had wearied three generations, his themes recall whatever was theatrical in the empty pageantry of the great war. It is a spirit deeper and more fundamental than the mere framework of his writing which attaches him to the coming time. His clarity is new; it proceeds from natural things; it marks that return to reality which is the beginning of all beneficent revolutions. But this spirit in him needs...
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SOURCE: "Montcorbier, alias Villon," in The Spirit of Romance, New Directions Books, 1910, pp. 166-78.
[An American poet and critic, Pound is regarded as one of the most innovative and influential figures in twentieth-century Anglo-American poetry. He is chiefly renowned for his ambitious poetry cycle the Cantos, which he revised and enlarged throughout much of his life, and his series of satirical poems Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920). In the following essay, Pound analyzes Villon's particular method of writing poetry, comparing his approach to those of various literary movements and medieval and renaissance poets, especially Dante.]
The century between Dante and Villon brought into the poetry of northern Europe no element which was distinctly new. The plant of the Renaissance was growing, a plant which some say begins in Dante; but Dante, I think, anticipates the Renaissance only as one year's harvest foreshadows the next year's Spring. He is the culmination of one age rather than the beginning of the next; he is like certain buildings in Verona, which display the splendor of the Middle Ages, untouched by any influence of the classic revival.
In architecture, mediæval work means line; line, composition and design: Renaissance work means mass. The Gothic architect envied the spider his cobweb. The Renaissance architect sought to rival the mountain. They raised...
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SOURCE: "The Great Testament, with the Codicil and the Lesser Poems," in Francois Villon: A Documented Survey, Coward-McCann, Inc., 1928, pp. 333-40.
[Unrelated to the English author and painter Wyndham Lewis, D. B. Wyndham Lewis was a prominent English essayist, humorist, historian, and biographer. In the following excerpt, he defends Villon's poetry as high art of the most accomplished sort.]
Of [Villon's] scattered irregularities, his obscurities, his occasional untidiness of syntax, his wilful carelessness, his one or two verses left helpless in the air, dangling their legs, his demi-assonances, like the rhyming of Grenobles with Doles, peuple with seule, and enfle with temple, to take three instances, there is no need to make a howl. Les poëtes font à leur guise, as the goddess says in the play; adding, with enormous truth and aptitude, so far as Villon is concerned,
Ce n'est pas la seule sottise
Qu'on voit faire à ces messieurs-là.
[That is not the only folly we perceive emanating from those gentlemen.]
But those who would make him a slovenly improviser, throwing off his song carelessly and tossing together his verses as he felt inclined, do him wrong. The most superficial examination of the planning of the Grand...
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SOURCE: "The Impenitence of François Villon," in The Romanic Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, October, 1946, pp. 225-36.
[In the following essay, Frank studies the believability of what she considers Villon's feigned penitence.]
It has long been customary to think of François Villon as a great sinner who was truly remorseful and penitent on occasion. To be sure, since Siciliano put the famous phrase "je ris en pleurs" in its proper setting critics have recognized this contemporaneous cliché as a suitable contrevérité among the many others of the "Ballade du concours de Blois" rather than as the poet's description of himself. Nevertheless the romantic and sentimental conception of a Villon who wept over his sins and bitterly regretted them still persists. In the early days Marcel Schwob spoke of the Testament as "une œuvre de repentir" [in Revue des Deux Mondes, CXII, 1892], and Gaston Paris believed that at times Villon "se repentait de tout son cœur," that "les remords lui déchiraient le cœur" [Francois Villon, 1901]. More recently Champion called the poet's soul "repentante et insolente à la fois" [Francois Villon, 2nd ed., 1933]. Siciliano himself says that Villon experienced "le remords du péché et du crime" and sees him as "un pécheur repantant" [Francois Villon, 1934]. Cons refers to "ses repentances les plus amères" and contrasts "le Villon...
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SOURCE: "Syntax and Vocabulary," in The Poetry of Villon, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1962, pp. 78-111.
[In this excerpt, Fox concerns himself with Villon's often curious word order and phrasing, which give the impression of realistic thought and speech patterns while retaining poetic qualities. Fox also examines Villon's expansive vocabulary.]
It is impossible to read far into Villon's works without being struck by the concentrated, elliptical nature of his language. We have only to turn to the opening lines of his major work:
En l'an de mon trentiesme aage,
Que toutes mes hontes j'eus beues,
Ne du tout fol, ne du tout sage,
Non obstant maintes peines eues,
Lesquelles j'ay toutes receues
Soubz la main Thibault d'Aussigny…
S'evesque il est, seignant les rues,
Qu'il soit le mien je le regny.
Mon seigneur n'est ne mon evesque,
Soubz luy ne tiens, s'il n'est en friche…
(T [Testament] 1-10)
It is at once made clear that Villon is writing about himself at the age of thirty, though his account in these opening lines reads more like a series of disconnected jottings than a properly arranged autobiography. We are at once taken into his confidence and find ourselves in the midst of his affairs,...
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SOURCE: "Francois Villon," in An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the Present Day, revised edition, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1973, pp. 1-10.
[Brereton is an English educator who has written extensively on French literature of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Here, in a revised version of an essay originally published in 1956, he praises Villon's poetic technique of combining the traditional ballade form with the modern tendency to write about highly personal subject matter.]
Villon was the last of the great French poets of the Middle Ages and one of the few who can now be read without a considerable background knowledge of medieval culture. He loses, of course, something in the process. One may fail to recognize the traditional nature of the themes he is treating, one may miss catching in his comments on life and death echoes going back two hundred years before his lifetime and so not appreciate the interesting twists he gives them. One may, in particular, remain unaware of his masterly use of verse-forms which had been developing during more than three centuries, since the time of the Provençal troubadours. But though he belonged to his age and reflected its cynicism, its innocent obscenity, its piety, its learning (on a lowish level), and some of its literary conventions, he is more than a merely representative poet. He is both universal and personal enough...
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SOURCE: "The Theme of Authority in the Works of François Villon," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXIV, No. I, Winter, 1980, pp. 65-78.
[Below, Tukey Harrison comments on the respect for authority displayed in Villon's poetry.]
Because of his life as an activist, both student and postgraduate, Francois Villon has often appeared to be engaged in a lifelong rebellion against all authority figures. He was supremely poor, often in difficulty with the law, and he wrote irreverently about many of the men of high station of his time and place; it is easy to conclude that he condemned authority out of hand. Yet, a close reading of his poems reveals a mixed set of attitudes expressed through the varied assortment of specific references to influential persons and powerful institutions interwoven with opinions of the author. Even the most recent Villonistes arrive at contrasting if not contradictory conclusions. Evelyn Vitz writes of "Villon's questioning of the traditional hierarchy and disbelief in its moral justification" [The Crossroad of Intention: A Study of Symbolic Expression in the Poetry of François Villon, 1974], while Barbara Nelson Sargent states that "Nulle part il ne met en question l'ordre social ou politique" [Le Testament et Poésies diverses, 1967, edited by Sargent]. Vitz observes that "order is nowhere apparent in the world which Villon presents to us"; Sargent reaches a...
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SOURCE: "Communication and Implied Audience(s) in Villon's Testament," in Neophilologus, Vol. LXXVI, No. 1, January, 1992, pp. 35-40.
[In the following essay, Sargent-Baur finds Villon addressing three separate audiences in the Testament and examines the various personas that Villon presents to this "plural audience."]
By now, most careful readers are aware that behind every speech act as preserved in writing there is a speaking voice, an implied or explicit "I" from whom the text stems. This applies, as well, to compositions conceived as written from the outset. In the case of the Testament of François Villon the "I" of the narrator is very prominent indeed, to the point where the whole work takes on the character of a dramatic monologue with interspersed dialogue and debate. The personality and rôle of this narrator, his relations with the implied author and the historical author, have been much discussed, over a long period of time, and such investigations have in many cases been highly illuminating to modern readers of Villon's works.
My undertaking here is somewhat different. If the "I" of the narrative persona is much to the fore (as is the case in this work), so necessarily is an implied or expressed "you," singular or plural. Villon in fact, through divers means, frequently and quite explicitly conjures up a multifarious audience, one composed of types as...
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Peckham, Robert D. François Villon: A Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990.
Comprehensive bibliography of some 2000 foreign- and English-language sources, arranged chronologically by year, with an author and subject index.
Longon, Auguste. Etude biographique sur François Villon d'après les documents inédits conservés aux Archives Nationales. Paris: Henri Menu, 1877.
Earliest comprehensive biography of Villon. This french-language study is a seminal work of Villon scholarship.
Aldington, Richard. "François Villon." In French Studies and Reviews, pp. 64-82. New York: The Dial Press, 1926.
Offers justification for Villon's repute as a genius.
Anacker, Robert. François Villon. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968, 122 p.
Introductory monograph on Villon's life and works.
Besant, Walter. "François Villon." In Studies in Early French Poetry, pp. 114-43. London: Macmillan and Co., 1868.
Reviews Villon's life and the themes and style of his poetry.
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