François Villon Villon, François (Poetry Criticism) - Essay

François de Montcorbier


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

*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

Oeuvres 1932

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.

Henry Francis Cary (essay date 1823)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

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Robert Louis Stevenson (essay date 1877)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

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John Payne (essay date 1880)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4998 words.)

Hilaire Belloc (essay date 1903)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 reformand his equally characteristic clever humordrew 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 entire section is 1686 words.)

Ezra Pound (essay date 1910)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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D. B. Wyndham Lewis (essay date 1928)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)

Grace Frank (essay date 1946)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Fox (essay date 1962)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9267 words.)

Geoffrey Brereton (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Ann Tukey Harrison (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Barbara N. Sargent-Baur (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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.


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