Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

François Villon’s LAIS (the “Little Testament” of early editors) is a youthful poem of bequests, ironic, equivocal, made to a very mixed group of acquaintances and enemies, whom the poet singled out for high-spirited mockery, sarcasm, insulting “gauloiserie” and spiteful attack because of their hostility or uncharitableness towards him. Each bequest fits its recipient’s position in society, or his weaknesses, or his treatment of the “povre Villon.” The difficulties of such a poem, written for the poet and his intimate friends, are obvious. However, it introduces the reader to the Villonesque manner and prepares him for the poet’s greater work.

Longnon and Vitu’s independent research into the archives and police records of Paris provided a major breakthrough in the understanding of Villon’s allusions, and consequently of the poet’s tone and manner. Yet we are still far from grasping all the innuendoes of the LAIS, nor can we be certain precisely when and why the poem was written. Almost certainly it was written shortly after Villon participated in a robbery of the College de Navarre at Christmas, 1456, his first grave, deliberate criminal act. Villon was then twenty-five, a maitre-es-arts of the University thanks to his foster father, the canon Guillaume Villon, had had a profitable career in the church open to him, and knew influential men, such as Robert d’Estouteville, Provost of Paris. Yet he, no victim of society, if not a member of an organized band of criminals, at least chose to associate freely with the riff-raff of town and gown.

The LAIS consists of forty eight-line stanzas of supple octosyllabic verse, rhyming alternately. The first eight stanzas tell us, in a parody of the courtly manner of an Alain Chartier or a Charles d’Orleans, that Villon, the “amant martir” of a treacherous mistress, has decided “Sur le Noel” of the year 1456 to escape the dangers of his “amoureuse prison” and leave Paris for Angers. At least in part the reason for his leaving, the girl becomes a butt of ridicule on two levels. To the ironic mockery of the courtly parody, she being no more a “lady” than he an “amant martir,” Villon manages to add (Stanza IV) obscenity in a contrasting colloquialism:

Et se j’ay prins en ma faveurCes doulx regars et beaux semblansDe tres decevante saveurMe trespersans jusque aux flans,Bien ilz ont vers moy les piez blansEt me faillent au grant besoing.Planter me fault autres complansEt frapper en ung autre coing.

(“And if I interpreted favourably those sweet looks and fair appearances, most deceptive in taste, which pierce me to the quick, I’ve had no change out of them, and they fail me in my greatest need. I’ll have to sew my seed in other plots, go strike my coins in another mould.”)

The uncertainty of the journey and of his return lead Villon to the formal establishment of the bequests, which take up the next twenty-six stanzas. Thirty-one individuals appear in the will: Guillaume Villon, the cruel mistress, representatives, high and low of the Parlement, the Law and the Chatelet prison, the Church, the nobility, the merchant and professional classes, the world of finance. Seven bequests are made to groups such as the sergeants of the guard, the Mendicants, the Filles Dieu, Beguines, Carmes, the hospitals.

In Line 51, Villon speaks of his “povre sens”; in Line 316, he describes himself in self-denigrating terms: “Qui ne menjue figue ne date/Sec et noir comme escouvillon” (“who eats no figs nor dates,/Dry and black as a flue-brush”). This sense of poverty, physical and spiritual, a major theme of Villon’s masterpiece, the TESTAMENT, here, incipient, muted in the high-spirited LAIS, gives significance to the order of bequests. Following Guillaume and Villon’s mistress, the next six victims are all rich men. They are never far from his thoughts, reappearing in Stanzas XXV to XXIX and at the end of the poem, Stanzas XXIII to XXXIV.

Villon’s is a mercurial, though penetrating, mind whose thoughts follow one upon another in a kind of free association of ideas. Within Stanza XII, for example, his thoughts pass from Saint-Amant, a rich financier, to the Carmelites, hated order of Mendicants, quite possibly because Saint-Amant’s wife “Me mist ou renc de cayement” treated him as a “mendicant,” a beggar. One can speak of the unity of the LAIS, but it is one of...

(The entire section is 1944 words.)