(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

François Villon was a poet of the first order. In his themes and poetic forms, his poetry is characteristically medieval, although many critics consider that the personal element in his poetry gives it a timeless quality. In The Great Testament, Villon’s art reaches its full maturity. His mastery of conventional medieval versification is evident in the use of complex rhyme schemes and verse forms that include the ballade, the rondeau, and the octave (an eight-line stanza). Octaves form the central body of the poem. The ballade, which demands considerable skill in the use of both rhyme and meter, consists of eight to ten lines grouped into three stanzas, each ending with a refrain and followed by a closing stanza (an envoy) of four to seven lines that concludes with the same refrain. Most of Villon’s ballades contain twenty-eight lines, and he uses the same three rhymes in the ballades and the octaves.

In structure, The Great Testament follows the plan of a testamentary will of the period. A brief preamble is followed by a declaration of the poet’s mental and physical state, a statement of his religious faith, the details of how his property is to be distributed to friends, relatives, acquaintances, and even strangers, and instructions as to how and where he is to be buried. This formal device establishes the framework, within which Villon provides a rich body of material interspersed with frequent displays of technical virtuosity.

Villon ranges through a wide variety of moods and subjects without losing the thread of his discourse or the personal focus of his poem. Whatever the subject under discussion, whether harlot, prelate, or profligate, the reader never loses sight of the poem’s central figure, the poet himself, who refers throughout the poem to his own poverty, premature aging, and skirmishes with the law. Much of what is known of Villon’s life, in fact, is taken from these personal references. His poem evokes pity because he is a self-confessed sinner and because he is remorseful and presently suffering the consequences of his former follies. His subject is also universal because he is preoccupied with death throughout the poem. When he is most intensely personal, his appeal is most intense, touching the feelings and sentiments of readers across language barriers and across the ages.

Throughout the poem, a playful, mocking spirit mingles with serious reflection, self-pity, remorse, crude jokes, jibes, and satirical attacks on civil servants, figures of authority, and the clergy. There is also a shift from one subject to another, and the shift is sometimes abrupt. The poet’s mood is always mercurial, but the poem’s unity is sustained by his ever-present voice and his continual references to himself. In the poem, for example, he offers a justification for his criminal activities by relating a story from antiquity in which a pirate explains to Alexander the Great that bad luck, not his own nature, has made him a thief, whereupon Alexander improves the thief’s fortune, and the man is reformed. Villon sees reflected in this tale his own ill-spent life, and he regrets not having an Alexander of his own to help him reform.

Transitions in mood and subject can be seen in the way Villon follows this tale with references to his lost youth and his current poverty, the result, in part, of too little studying and too much pleasure-seeking. A sense of loss runs through the poem, with allusions to great lords and masters, beggars and mendicants; this sense of loss culminates in the ballade whose poignant refrain—“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”—is both particular and universal. Two ballades that follow continue the theme of the uncertainty of fortune and the brevity of life, both subjects often found in medieval literature. In one of the ballades, Villon lists the names of famous rulers who have been carried away by “the wind”—time, death. The fate of these rulers, he continues, serves as a reminder that the exalted and the powerful and those who have “stuffed their faces well” die. His thoughts turn to the plight of women who lose their former beauty to old age. Another ballade portrays these creatures as nothing more than devalued coins.

The thought of female beauty shifts the poet’s attention to the...

(The entire section is 1761 words.)