François Villon

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

0111204977-Villon.jpg François Villon (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Other Literary Forms

François Villon indicates in The Great Testament that he also wrote a romance titled “Le Rommant du pet au diable” (romance of the devil’s fart). This work, apparently about an elaborate student prank, is not extant, and Villon’s mention of it is the only evidence that it ever did exist.


Of all the poets of the Middle Ages, perhaps only Dante and Geoffrey Chaucer are better known and more admired than François Villon. He has been widely praised since his own time by voices as diverse as those of Clément Marot in the sixteenth century and Nicolas Boileau in the seventeenth; by Robert Louis Stevenson (whose admiration for Villon’s poetic genius was even stronger than his revulsion at the depravity of the poet’s life) and Algernon Charles Swinburne; by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Remarkably enough, Villon has found his way into popular culture as well. He has been the subject of motion pictures (Beloved Rogue, with John Barrymore, 1927), novels such as Francis Carco’s Le Roman de François Villon (1926), and popular songs by George Brassens, Reggiani, and others.

The usual explanation for Villon’s extraordinary popularity is exemplified by Pound’s contention (in ABC of Reading, 1934) that Villon is the most “authentic” of poets and (in The Spirit of Romance, 1910) that he is the only poet without illusions. He is, in this view, notable for accepting and admitting his own failures and depravity and speaking of them forthrightly, frequently with regret but always without shame. It is the presumed presence of the poet in his poetry, the fact that when he says “I” he is referring to himself rather than to a disembodied allegorical voice, that readers have found refreshing and appealing. Nor is the world around the poet an abstract or idealized place. His poetry is more firmly rooted in his own historical and geographical context (Paris at the end of the Middle Ages, a place and time of social and intellectual turmoil) than is that of any other medieval poet. His city, its students and thieves and judges, its priests and prostitutes, are both his dramatis personae and his subject.

The personal element in Villon’s poetry—his honesty, sincerity, and authenticity—is related, according to the usual view, to his apparent lack of poetic artifice. Pound insisted that “Villon is destitute of imagination; he is almost destitute of art.” He is considered to be without affectation, personal or literary. It is presumably the voice of a fallible, ordinary man, and not the calculated utterance of a poet, that the reader hears. Such is the reaction of many students, casual readers, poets, and critics alike. Such an assessment must represent, however, something of a misreading if it is intended literally. The Villon to whom readers are drawn is clearly a persona which he has crafted with great care and subtlety, and while that persona has much in common with the historical Villon, one is nevertheless the creature of the other. Villon is far from “destitute of art”: While a very great poet and a very bad one might appear to be destitute of art, only the former is likely to be remembered. Perhaps one should say instead that Villon is destitute of obvious art: The impression of artlessness is his most artful illusion.

Although many generations have read and admired Villon, they have seen entirely different things in him—hero or coward, criminal or degenerate or tortured soul. This multiplicity of readings suggests that Villon is a great and complex poet, whose themes have universal appeal and whose command of his poetic resources is equal to the demands that his vision places on them.


François Villon was born François de Montcorbier (or perhaps des Loges) and later took as his own the name of his benefactor, Guillaume de Villon. He was a native of Paris, born there the year Joan of Arc died, and presumably reared there. He received his baccalaureate in 1449 and became a Master of Arts three years later.

Much of the fragmentary information which is available concerning Villon’s life comes from legal documents dating back to 1455. In that year, he was involved in a brawl and killed a priest named Phillippe Chermoye or Sermoise, but he was later pardoned for justifiable homicide. The following Christmas season, he and others committed a burglary at the College of Navarre, after which he apparently fled Paris.

In 1461, Villon was in a dungeon at Meung. Incarcerated there for reasons unknown, he was (as he says in The Great Testament) cruelly mistreated by Bishop Thibault d’Aussigny, but along with other prisoners he was released when the newly crowned King Louis XI passed through the town. Evidently unable to stay out of trouble, Villon was before long imprisoned once again, this time at the Châtelet in Paris. He was soon released again, but he had been incriminated in the College of Navarre burglary by a talkative accomplice, Guy Tabary, and had to agree to repay his share of the loot. Very soon, Villon was arrested yet again, following a brawl. This time, he was sentenced to be hanged; the sentence was commuted, however, and he was exiled instead. At that point, the trail ends, and further references to him (in François Rabelais’s works, for example) are probably pure fictions. He died during or after 1463.

At some time, perhaps after he first fled from Paris, Villon spent a while at Blois, at the court of Charles d’Orléans, and a poem is preserved (titled “Je meurs de seuf auprès de la fontaine”/ “I Am Dying of Thirst near the Fountain”) which he composed for a poetry contest held by Charles. His first long poem, The Legacy, was composed shortly after the 1456 Christmas burglary, while The Great Testament was written following his release from the Meung prison.


François Villon’s poetry offers a depiction of his narrator so vivid and effective that readers have traditionally inferred that the narrator is the poet himself, assuming that Villon is dispensing with poetic mediation in order to express directly the thoughts and fears of a fifteenth century Parisian. That readers find themselves fascinated with Villon the man, even to the point of ignoring his poetry, is a testimony to the mastery of Villon the artist. The methods by which he creates and presents his narrator thus provide one of the most accessible keys to an analysis of his poetry. Foremost among his methods is the thematic inconsistency and apparent formlessness that one would expect to characterize, not literary activity, but the thoughts of a complex human being.

Although Villon generally deals with sober and important themes (injustice and intolerance; disease, decrepitude, and death), the tone of his poetry is not always as heavy as these subjects would suggest. Villon can be lighthearted and playful one instant, sober and bitter the next. Throughout his work, he shows himself to be a master of irony. In many cases, that irony is directed at his enemies, whom he may characterize either as magnanimous friends or as needy and worthy citizens. (In a number of such cases, Villon’s ironic intent was revealed to posterity only in the last century or the present one, when historical research permitted the identification of most of the people mentioned by the poet.) He also, however, directs his irony at himself; for example, he may present himself as love’s martyr, the victim of an unhappy affair, when in fact it is clear that his “broken heart” is a thinly veiled reference to his criminal activity.

At times, Villon’s irony and humor fall away, and he launches into a direct and abusive attack on his enemies. This invective, all the more striking because it brusquely interrupts a lighter tone and sometimes interrupts another thought, has convinced readers that this, at least, is the “real” Villon, yet such “outbursts” can also be regarded as carefully planned poetic effects designed to add realism to his persona. Similarly, Villon often suspends banter and invective alike to offer a simple, plaintive statement of regret or a plea for forgiveness—although he is likely to cancel such a statement in turn by a joke or another attack. His work is thus built on contrast and digression, on a systematic rejection of consistency. His poetry is carefully composed so as not to appear to have been carefully composed, and it is certainly as dynamic as any ever written.

The Legacy

Villon’s first long poem, The Legacy, is a work of 320 octosyllabic lines arranged in eight-line stanzas. It was probably composed around the end of 1456, after the burglary at the College of Navarre, when Villon had fled from Paris or was preparing to do so. Characteristically, Villon uses events from his own life, and the premise for The Legacy is the necessity that he leave the city. The work is thus a congé (leave-taking), a traditional genre describing one’s reasons and preparations for a departure. Critics have sometimes interpreted The Legacy as an alibi intended to provide evidence that Villon was away from Paris when the Christmas robbery took place. It is more likely that his fictional absence was an “inside joke” for the benefit of his friends or accomplices who knew of his involvement in the burglary.

In any case, the robbery itself is not mentioned in the poem. Instead, the narrator tells us that he is leaving because a love affair has ended painfully. His discussion of the relationship and its end is replete with mock allegorical imagery drawn from the traditional vocabulary of courtly love. He thus speaks of the “prison of love,” the “pain of love,” and “sweet glances.” He concludes that his only recourse is to flee, but his poetic intent quickly becomes clear when we note that the word he uses, fouïr, means not only to “flee” but also to “copulate,” and his double meaning is obvious when he insists, for example, that he must “plant in other fields.” Specifically, he announces that his destination is Angers, but, as David Kuhn has pointed out in La Poétique de François Villon, “going to Angers” was a slang reference to orgasm.

Following this introduction is a series of bequests, in which Villon, by antiphrasis, leaves to others fictitious possessions or exaggerated assets (his money, tents, and fame—the first two nonexistent, the third undesirable), makes obscene puns (his branc, which he bequeaths to Ythier Marchant, means either “sword” or “excrement”), and bestows otherwise ironic gifts (as when he leaves money to “three poor orphans”—who, research has revealed, were actually three rich merchants and usurers).

The third and final section of The Legacy offers a closure which is an elaborate...

(The entire section is 4518 words.)