1902 Encyclopedia > François Villon

François Villon
French poet
(1431 - c. 1470)

FRANCIS VILLON, (1431-1461?), whose real surname is a matter of much dispute, so that he is also called Corbueil, Corbier, De Montcorbier, and Des Loges, though in litera-ture Villon is the sole term used, was born in 1431, and, as it seems, certainly at Paris. The mixture of the real and the ironical in the singular poems called Testaments, which form his chief, if not his only certain, work, make it very unsafe to speak positively as to such details of his life as depend upon them. Yet the Testaments, with some extant documents, are the only trustworthy information that we have, the legends and anecdotes which are told respecting him being for the most part of the most dubious, if not the most certainly apocryphal, character. It appears that he was born of poor folk, that his father died in his youth, but that his mother 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 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, long after there was any excuse for it in his years, 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, an ecclesiastic and a person of some property and position. The poet, either by his assistance or in some other way, became a student, and took the degree of bachelor in 1450 and that of master in 1452. Between this year and 1455 nothing positive is known of him, except that nothing was known against him.
On 4th June 1455 the first important incident of his life that is known occurred. Being in the company of a priest named Giles and a girl named Isabeau, he met a certain Breton, a master of arts, who was also in the company of a priest, Philippe Chermoye or Sermoise or Sermaise. A scuffle ensued; daggers were drawn; and Sermaise, who is accused of having 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 banish-ment,—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 de-scribed as "Francois des Loges, autrement dit Villon," in the other as " Francois de Montcorbier." That he is also said to have described himself to the barber-surgeon who dressed his own wounds as Michael Piton 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. A year later he was again in trouble. In his first broil "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, of which we shall speak presently, with the rest of his poems, and which, it should be said, shows little or no such mark of profound bitter-ness and regret for wasted life as 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. He left Paris for Angers in the very early spring of 1456-57, and shortly afterwards (in March) the chapel of the College of Navarre was broken open and five hundred gold crowns stolen. The inquiries set on foot discovered a gang of student robbers, one of whom, Guy Tabarie, turned king's evidence and accused Villon, who was then absent, of being the ringleader, and of having gone to Angers, partly at least, to arrange for similar burglaries there. Other crimes were confessed by the accomplice, and Villon was arrested, put to the torture, and condemned to be hanged,—a penalty which was actu-ally inflicted later on two of his gang, and which he com-memorated by anticipation in one of the most famous and remarkable of his poems, the sombre "Ballade des Pendus." He escaped Montfaucon, however, by appealing from the bishop's court, where as a clerk he had been tried, to the parlement of Paris, by which body his sentence was com-muted to banishment—that is, of course, banishment from the capital. Where he went and what he did for the next four years we do not know. It is certain that at one time, and probable that at more times than one, he was in corre-spondence with Charles d'Orleans, and it is likely that he resided, at any rate for some period, at that prince's court at Blois. He had also something to do with another prince of the blood, Jean of Bourbon, and traces are found of him in Poitou, in Dauphine, &c. But at his next certain appear-ance 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 his enemy, or at least judge, was Thibault d'Aussigny, who held the see of Orleans. Villon owed his release to a general jail delivery at the accession of Louis XL, and became a free man again on 2d October.
It was now that he wrote the Grand Testament, and this, the work which has immortalized him, is the last certain fact which is known of his life. If one could judge from a vague kind of internal evidence, it would seem likely that it is really a testament, and that the poet died soon after-wards. Although he was only thirty at the date of this composition (which is unmistakable, because given in the book itself), there seems to be no kind of aspiration towards a new life, nor even any hankering after the old. Nothing appears to be left him but regret; his very spirit has been worn out by excesses or sufferings or both. But, however this may be, he disappears from history. Babelais indeed tells two stories about him which have almost necessarily been dated later. One is a countryside anecdote of a trick supposed to have been played by the poet in his old age at Saint Maixent in Poitou, whither he had retired. The other, a coarse but pointed jest at the expense of England, is told as having been addressed by Villon to King Edward V. during an exile in that country. Now, even if King Edward V. were not evidently out of the question, a pass-age of the story refers to the well-known scholar and man of science, Thomas Linacre, as court physician to the king, and makes Villon mention him, whereas Linacre was only a young scholar, not merely at the time of Edward V.'s supposed murder, but at the extreme date (1489) which can be assigned to Villon's life. For in this year the first edition of the poet's work appeared, obviously not published by himself, and with no sign in it of his having lived later than the date (1461) of the Grand Testament. It would be easy to dismiss these Rabelaisian mentions of Villon as mere humorous inventions, if it were not that the autho: of Pantagruel was born quite soon enough to have actually seen Villon if he had lived to anything that could be called old age, that he almost certainly must have known men who had known Villon, and that the poet undoubtedly spent much time in Rabelais's own country on the banks of the lower Loire. The obscurity, the unhappiness, and the evil repute of Villon's

life would not be in themselves a reason for the minute investiga-tion to which the events of that life have been subjected, and the result of which has been summed up here. But his poetical work, scanty as the certainly genuine part of it is, is of such extraordinary interest, and marks such an epoch in the history of European liter-ature, that he has been at all times an interesting figure, and, like all very interesting figures, has been often praised for qualities quite other than those which he really possessed. Boileau's famous verses, in which Villon is extolled for having first known how to smooth out the confused art of the old romancers, are indeed a prodigy of blundering or ignorance or both. As far as art, or the technical part of poetry goes, Villon made not the slightest advance on his predecessors, nor stood in any way in front of such contemporaries as his patron Charles d'Orléans. His two Testaments (so called by the application to them of a regular class-name of mediaeval poetry) consist of eight-line stanzas of eight-syllabled verses, varied in the case of the Grand Testament by the insertion of ballades and rondeaux of very great beauty and interest, but not formally differ-ent in any way from poems of the same kind for more than a century past. What really distinguishes Villon is the inteuser quality of his poetical feeling and expression, and what is perhaps arrogantly called the modern character of his subjects and thought. Mediaeval poetry, with rare exceptions, and, with exceptions not quite so rare, classical poetry, are distinguished by their lack of what is now called the personal note. In Villon this note sounds, struck with singular force and skill. Again, the simple joy of living which distinguishes both periods—the mediaeval, despite a common opinion, scarcely less than the ancient—has disappeared. Even the riot and rollicking of his earlier days are mentioned with far less relish of remembrance than sense of their vanity. This sense of vanity, indeed, not of the merely religious, but of the purely mundane and even half pagan kind, is Villon's most prominent characteristic. It tinges his narrative, despite its burlesque bequests, all through ; it is the very keynote of his most famous and beautiful piece, the "Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis," with its refrain "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan ? " as well as of his most daring piece of realism, the other ballade of " La Grosse Margot," with its burden of hope-less entanglement in shameless vice. It is nowhere more clearly sounded than in the piece which ranks with these two at the head of his work, the "Regrets de la Belle Heaulmière," in which a woman, once young and beautiful, now old and withered, laments her lost charms. So it is almost throughout his poems, including the grim "Ballade des Pendus," and hardly excluding the very beautiful " Ballade pour sa Mère," with its description of sincere and humble piety. It is in the profound melancholy which the dominance of this note has thrown over Villon's work, and in the suitableness of that melancholy to the temper of all generations since, that his charm and power have consisted, though it is difficult to conceive any time at which his poetical merit could be ignored.
His certainly genuine poems consist of the two Testaments with their codicil (the latter containing the " Ballade des Pendus," or more properly " Epitaphe en Forme de Ballade," and some other pieces of a similarly grim humour), a few miscellaneous poems, chiefly ballades, and an extraordinary collection (called Le Jargon) of poems in argot, the greater part of which is now totally unintelligible, if, which may perhaps be doubted, it ever was otherwise. Besides these, certain poems of no inconsiderable interest are usually printed with Villon's works, though they are certainly, or almost certainly, not his. The chief are "Les Repues Franches," a curious series of verse stories of cheating tavern-keepers, &c, having some resemblance to those told of George Peele, but of a broader and coarser humour. These are beyond doubt, if not the poet's work, nearly contemporary with him, and may have some foundation in fact. Another of these spurious pieces is the extremely amusing monologue of the " Franc Archier de Bagnolet," in which one of the newly constituted archers or regularly trained and paid soldiery, who were extremely unpopular in France, is made to expose his own poltroonery. The third most important piece of this kind is the "Dialogue de Mallepaye et de Baillevent," a dramatic conversation between two penniless spendthrifts, which is not without merit. These poems, however, were never attributed to Villon or printed with his works till far into the 16th century.
It has been said that the first dated edition of Villon is of 1489, though some have held one or more than one undated copy to be still earlier. Between the first, whenever it was, and 1542 there were no less than twenty seven editions, the most famous being that of Clément Marot in 1533, one of whose most honourable distinc-tions is the care he took of his poetical predecessors. The Pléiade movement and the classicizing of the grand siècle put Villon rather out of favour, and he was not again reprinted till early in the 18th century, when he attracted the attention of students of old French like Duchat, La Monnoye, and Prosper Marchand. The first critical edition in the modern sense—that is to say, an edition founded on MSS. (of which there are in Villon's case several, chiefly at Paris and Stockholm)—was that of the Abbé Prompsault in 1832. The next and on the whole the most important was that of the bibliophile Jacob (P. Lacroix) in the Bibliothèque Elzevirienne
(Paris, 1854). Since then Villon has been frequently reprinted,
very great interest having been shown in him ; but not much has
been done to the text till the recent and uncompleted labours of a
Dutch scholar, Dr Bijvanck, who is occupied especially on the Stock-
holm MS. On the other hand, from the literary and biographical
view, Villon has been exhaustively studied of late, especially by
MM. Campaux, Vitu, and Longnon, the researches of the last-named
(Paris, 1877) having probably ascertained everything that there is
to know. In England, too, attempts have been made to translate
his work, especially by the late D. G. Rossetti, by Mr Swinburne,
and by Mr Andrew Lang, while a complete translation has been pro-
duced by Mr John Payne. (G. SA.)

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