François Villon (1431 - c.1474) was a French poet, thief, and general vagabond. He is perhaps best known for his Testaments and his Ballade des Pendus, written while in prison. It has been claimed that the villanelle is named after him, although few scholars today defend that theory. His question, "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?", translated by Algernon Charles Swinburne as "Where are the snows of yesteryear?", is one of the most famous non-biblical lines of translated poetry in the English-speaking world.
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Villon's real surname is a matter of much dispute; he has been called De François Montcorbier and François Des Loges and other names, though in literature Villon is the sole term used. Villon was born in 1431 in Paris. The singular poems called Testaments, which form his chief if not his only certain work, are largely autobiographical, though of course not fully trustworthy. But his frequent collisions with the law have left more certain records.
It appears that he was born of poor folk, that his father died in his youth, but that his mother, for whom he wrote one of his most famous ballades, was alive when her son was thirty years old. The very name Villon was stated, and that by no mean authority, the president Claude Fauchet, to be merely a common word and not a proper noun, signifying " cheat " or "rascal", but this seems to be a mistake. It is, however, certain that Villon was a person of loose life, and that he continued, throughout his recorded life, the reckless way of living common among the wilder youth of the University of Paris. He appears to have derived his surname from a friend and benefactor named Guillaume de Villon, chaplain in the collegiate church of Saint-Benoit-le-Bestourne, and a professor of canon law, who took Villon into his house.
The poet became a student in arts, no doubt early, perhaps at about twelve years of age, and took the degree of bachelor in 1449 and that of master in 1452. Between this year and 1455 nothing positive is known of him, except that nothing was known against him. Attempts have been made, in the usual fashion of conjectural biography, to fill up the gap with what a young graduate of Bohemian tendencies would, could, or might have done; but they are mainly futile.
On the June 5, 1455, the first important known incident of his life occurred. Being in the company of a priest named Giles and a girl named Isabeau, he met, in the rue Saint-Jacques, a certain Breton, Jean le Hardi, a master of arts, who was with a priest, Philippe Chermoye or Sermoise or Sermaise. A scuffle ensued; daggers were drawn; and Sermaise, who is accused of having threatened and attacked Villon and drawn the first blood, not only received a dagger-thrust in return, but a blow from a stone which struck him down. Sermaise died of his wounds. Villon fled, and was sentenced to banishment - a sentence which was remitted in January 1456, the formal pardon being extant, strangely enough, in two different documents, in one of which the culprit is described as "Francois des Loges, autrement dit Villon" ("Francois des Loges, otherwise called Villon"), in the other as "Francois de Montcorbier." That he is also said to have described himself to the barber-surgeon who dressed his wounds as Michel Mouton is less surprising, and hardly needs an addition to the list of his aliases. It should, however, be said that the documents relative to this affair confirm the date of his birth, by representing him as twenty-six years old or thereabouts.
By the end of 1456 he was again in trouble. In his first brawl "la femme Isabeau" is only generally named, and it is impossible to say whether she had anything to do with the quarrel. In the second, Catherine de Vaucelles, of whom we hear not a little in the poems, is the declared cause of a scuffle in which Villon was so severely beaten that, to escape ridicule, he fled to Angers, where he had an uncle who was a monk. It was before leaving Paris that he composed what is now known as the Petit testament or Lais, which shows little of the profound bitterness and regret for wasted life that can be found in its (in every sense) greater successor, the Grand testament. Indeed, Villon's serious troubles were only beginning, for hitherto he had been rather injured than guilty.
About Christmas-time the chapel of the college of Navarre was broken open, and five hundred gold crowns stolen. The robbery was not discovered till March 1457, and it was not till May that the police came on the track of a gang of student-robbers owing to the indiscretion of one of them, Guy Tabarie. A year more passed, when Tabarie, being arrested, turned king's evidence and accused Villon, who was then absent, of being the ring-leader, and of having gone to Angers, partly at least, to arrange for similar burglaries there. Villon, for this or some other crime, was sentenced to banishment: and he did not attempt to return to Paris. For four years he was a wanderer; and he may have been, as each of his friends Regnier de Montigny and Colin des Cayeux certainly was, a member of a wandering gang of thieves. It is certain that at one time (in 1457), and probable that at more times than one, he was in correspondence with Charles, duc d'Orléans, and it is likely that he resided, at any rate for some period, at that prince's court at Chateau Blois. He had also something to do with another prince of the blood, Jean of Bourbon, and there is evidence that he visited Poitou, Dauphine, and elsewhere.
But at his next certain appearance he is again in trouble. He tells us that he had spent the summer of 1461 in the bishop's prison (bishops were fatal to Villon) of Meung. His crime is not known, but is supposed to have been church-robbing; and his enemy, or at least judge, was Thibault d'Aussigny, who held the see of Orléans. Villon owed his release to a general gaol-delivery at the accession of King Charles VII and became a free man again on the October 2, 1461.
In 1461, only thirty years old, he wrote the Grand testament, the work which has immortalized him. Even his good intentions must have been feeble, for in the autumn of 1462 we find him once more living in the cloisters of Saint-Benoit and in November he was in the Chatelet for theft. In default of evidence the old charge of the college of Navarre was revived, and even a royal pardon did not bar the demand for restitution. Bail was accepted; however, Villon fell promptly into a street quarrel, was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged, but the sentence was commuted to banishment by the parlement on the January 5, 1463. The actual event is unknown: but from this time he disappears from history.
Villon was a great innovator in terms of the themes of poetry and, through these themes, a great renovator of the forms. He understood perfectly the medieval ethic, but he often chose to write against the grain of the courtly ideal, reversing the values and celebrating the lowlifes destined for the gallows, falling happily into parody or lewd jokes, and constantly innovating in his language. Still, Villon's verse is mostly about his own life, and it was not a happy life. The Grand Testament (1461), his greatest work, is in some ways a continuation of the Petit Testament (a.k.a Lais, 1456). The 2023 verses are marked by the immediate prospect of death by hanging. With a remarkable ambivalence, it mixes reflections on the passing of time, bitter derision, invective, and religious fervor. This mixed tone of pathetic sincerity stands in contrast to the other poets of the time.
Villon, nearly unknown in his own time, was rediscovered in the 16th century when his works were published by Clément Marot.
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