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François Villon (ca. 1431 - ca. 1474) was a French poet, thief, and vagabond. He is perhaps best known for his Testaments and his Ballade des Pendus, written while in prison. The question "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?", taken from the Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis and translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as "Where are the snows of yesteryear?", is one of the most famous lines of translated secular poetry in the English-speaking world. It is worth noticing that 15th Century French was not pronounced like modern French -- for instance, Villon is pronounced as spelled and not as "Viyon".
Villon's real surname is a matter of much dispute; he has been called François de Montcorbier and François Des Loges and other names, though in literature Villon is the sole term used. Villon was born in 1431, almost certainly 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 in poverty and that his father died in his youth, but that his mother, for whom he wrote one of his most famous ballades, was still living when her son was thirty years old. The name "Villon" was stated by the sixteenth-century historian Claude Fauchet to be merely a common 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, a reckless way of living common among the wilder youth of the University of Paris. He appears to have derived his surname from his uncle, a close friend and benefactor named Guillaume de Villon, chaplain in the collegiate church of Saint-Benoît-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. 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. In the company of a priest named Giles and a girl named Isabeau, he met, in the rue Saint-Jacques, a Breton, Jean le Hardi, a master of arts, who was also with a priest, Philippe Chermoye (or Sermoise or Sermaise). A scuffle broke out, 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. He died of his wounds. Villon fled, and was sentenced to banishment - a sentence which was remitted in January 1456. Two different versions of the formal pardon exist; in one, the culprit is identified as "François des Loges, autrement dit Villon" ("François des Loges, otherwise called Villon"), in the other as "François de Montcorbier." He is also said to have named himself to the barber-surgeon who dressed his wounds as Michel Mouton, adding to his list of aliases. The documents of this affair at least confirm the date of his birth, by presenting 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. Before leaving Paris, he composed what is now known as the Petit Testament, Lais, or "Legacy," 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 Collège de Navarre was broken open and five hundred gold crowns stolen. The robbery was not discovered until March, 1457, and it was not until 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, after being arrested, turned king's evidence and accused the absent Villon of being the ringleader, and of having gone to Angers, partly at least, to arrange similar burglaries there. Villon, for this or some other crime, was sentenced to banishment; he did not attempt to return to Paris. For four years, he was a wanderer. He may have been, as his friends Regnier de Montigny and Colin des Cayeux certainly were, a member of a wandering gang of thieves. It is certain that he corresponded with Charles, duc d'Orléans at least once (in 1457) and it is likely that he resided for some period at that prince's court at Château 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 other places.
At his next certain appearance, he was again in trouble. He tells us that he had spent the summer of 1461 in the bishop's prison at Meung-sur-Loire. 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 jail-delivery at the accession of King Louis XI and became a free man again on 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-Benoît 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. He was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged ("pendu et étranglé"), but the sentence was commuted to banishment by the parlement on January 5, 1463. The actual event is unknown: but from this time François Villon 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 courtly ideal, but he often chose to write against the grain, reversing the values and celebrating the lowlifes destined for the gallows, falling happily into parody or lewd jokes, and constantly innovating in his diction and vocabulary; a few minor poems make extensive use of Parisian thieves' slang. Still, Villon's verse is mostly about his own life, a record of poverty, trouble, and trial which was certainly shared by his poems' intended audience.
In 1460, at the age of thirty, Villon began to compose the works which he named Les Lais (The Lays), and which have subsequently become known as Le grand testament (1461-1462). This "testament" has generally been judged Villon's greatest work, and there is evidence in the work itself that Villon felt the same.
The 2023 verses of the Grand testament are marked by the immediate prospect of death by hanging and frequently describe other forms of misery and death. It mixes reflections on the passing of time, bitter derision, invective, and religious fervor. This mixed tone of tragic sincerity stands in contrast to the other poets of the time.
In one of these poems "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" ("The Ballad of Yesterday's Belles"), Each stanza and the concluding envoi asks after the fate of various celebrated women, including Héloise and Joan of Arc, and ends with the same semi-ironic question:
Dictes moy ou n'en quel pays
Est Flora le belle Romaine
Archipiades, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo parlant quant ruyt ou maire
Dessus riviè ou sus estan,
Que beaultè ot trop plus qu'humaine.
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?"
"Tell me where, in what land of the shade,
Bides the fair Flora of Rome, and where
Are Archipiades and Thaïs,
Cousins-germain of beauty rare,
And Echo more than mortal fair,
That went one calls by river-flow,
Or marish, answers out of air?
But what is become of last year's snow?
This same "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" was famously translated into English in 1870 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as "Ballade of Dead Ladies." Rossetti translated the refrain as "But where are the snows of yester-year?"
A complete English translation of Villon's surviving works, with extensive notes, was published by Anthony Bonner in 1960. A translation of "The Legacy" and "The Testament" by the American poet Galway Kinnell appeared in 1965 and was revised in 1977.
Villon, nearly unknown in his own time, was rediscovered in the 16th century when his works were published by Clément Marot.
The most commonly featured motifs that can be found in Villon's poetry are "carpe diem", "ubi sunt", "memento mori" and "danse macabre".
In 1960, the Greek artist "NONDA" dedicated an entire one man art show to François Villon with the support of Andre Malraux. This took place under the arches of the Pont Neuf and was dominated by a gigantic ten-meter canvas entitled Hommage à Villon depicting the poet at a banquet table with his concubines. Sculptures, woodcuts and objects related to Villon were also displayed.
In 1927, John Barrymore starred as François Villon in The Beloved Rogue, directed by Alan Crosland (of The Jazz Singer fame). In this swashbuckling adventure, Villon is exiled from Paris for his outspoken views on the Duke of Burgundy, but after several roguish exploits is once again favored by the King of France, and eventually marries Charlotte of Vauxcelles.
The 1938 movie If I Were King, stars Ronald Colman as Francis Villon, and is based on a 1901 play of the same name. In this romance Villon is appointed by the King of France, Louis XI, played by Basil Rathbone, to be Constable of France for a week. The 1925 operetta The Vagabond King is based on this play, and has been filmed twice - in 1930, with Dennis King and Jeanette MacDonald, and in 1956, with Oreste Kirkop and Kathryn Grayson. In the operetta, however, Villon is appointed king for twenty-four hours, and must solve all of Louis XI's political problems in that amount of time.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Bonner, Anthony, trans. The Complete Works of François Villon. N.Y.: Bantam, 1960.
- Kinnell, Galway, trans. The Poems of François Villon. Rpt. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1982.
- ^ Villon, Poems, translated by John Payne, 1941
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