Villon, François

Villon, François fräNswäˈ vēyôNˈ [key], 1431–1463?, French poet, b. Paris, whose original name was François de Montcorbier or François Des Loges. One of the earliest great poets of France, Villon was largely rediscovered in the 19th cent. He was brought up by the chaplain of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné, Guillaume de Villon, whose name he adopted. Knowledge of the facts of Villon's life is drawn from his poems and from the police records concerning him; it is believed that he died shortly after receiving a sentence of 10 years' exile from Paris, commuted from the death sentence. Confessedly a vagabond and rogue from his student days at the Sorbonne, Villon killed a man in 1455. During his subsequent banishment from Paris he fell in with the coquillards, a band of thieves that ravaged France at the close of the Hundred Years War, and for them he composed his ballads in thieves' jargon. The preservation of Villon's works was principally due to Clément Marot, who collected and edited them (1533). Villon used the medieval forms of versification, but his intensely personal message puts him in the rank of the moderns. Besides his ballads in jargon, Villon's work consists of his Lais (also known as the Little Testament), written in 1456; the Testament or Grand Testament (1461); and a number of poems including the “Débat du cœur et du corps de Villon” [debate between Villon's heart and body] and the “Épitaphe Villon,” better known as the “Ballade des pendus” [ballad of the hanged], written during Villon's expectation of the same fate. The Lais (a pun on the words lais, or lays, and legs, or legacy) is a series of burlesque bequests to his friends and enemies. The Testament follows the same scheme (not uncommon in medieval literature), but is far superior in depth of emotion and in poetic value. The work is filled with irony, repentance, constant preoccupation with death, ribald humor, rebellion, and pity. The Testament is interspersed with ballads and rondeaux, including the “Ballade de la grosse Margot,” his bequest to a prostitute, and “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” with the famous refrain “But where are the snows of yester-year?” There have been many English translations of the poems, including those by Rossetti and Swinburne, and more recently (1973) by Peter Dale. The standard French edition of the works was made by Auguste Longnon (1892, several revisions).

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