Villon’s Testament (Unabridged original poem in translation)

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Brief Bio of Villon

François Montcorbier, but best known to the police and the world as Villon, taking on the surname of his benefactor and guardian, the priest Guillaume Villon, was born within a year more or less of the death of Joan of Arc in 1431. His parents were of low extraction, as he himself said, and lived in a town very near Paris, Pontoise, which now is a suburb of the modern city. When he was five, the English were expelled from Paris ending the Hundred Year War, so his infancy was passed under foreign occupation.

His father died when he was very young and he came under the protection of Guillaume Villon who was then chaplain of the church of St. Benoit. Father Villon put him through school and then the University of Paris where Francois received the Baccalaureate in 1449 and a Masters in theology three years later. University life in the Middle Ages was far wilder than the wildest college today so his degree in theology shouldn't mislead anyone about his manner of living. Students would regularly engage in armed battles with the police, go on rampages through the town and play a variety of practical jokes on the shopkeepers. One kind of prank which they found perenially amusing was to take down the business signs of the various stores, taverns and brothels. These depicted the names of the establishments such as "The Crowned Ox", "The Striped Ass" or "The Golden Lion" and the students would perform mock couplings of the most improbable kinds with them along with other stunts.

For three years following his Master's degree in 1452, Villon seems to have led a fairly straight existence although he had made friends in his college days with some basically criminal personalities. However in 1455 the police records recount his killing a priest, Phillippe Chermoie, who attacked him over some unknown dispute between the two. Fortunately for Villon, the priest on his deathbed confessed that he had been the aggressor and absolved Villon.

Four months later the courts gave Villon a full pardon on the grounds of the priest's confession and, ironically, Villon's lack of a prior criminal record. During those four months however Villon had gone into hiding fearing for his own safety and it seems certain he lived with student friends who had joined the criminal element in Paris. Due to the division of ecclesiastic and civil law, minor clerics could successfully avoid prosecution in the civil courts by appealing to the church courts who often would take a lighter view of such transgressions.

In March of 1457, Villon and four associates broke into the College of St. Navarre and smashed open a treasure chest containing a substantial amount of money. Several months later, one of the accomplices Guy Tabarie blurted out the truth while drunk to a good citizen who reported him to the police. After a short torture session, Tabarie told the police everything he knew and who to talk to about the things he didn't know. In the end, Villon was banished from Paris and spent the next five years roaming the French countryside between the Loire and Paris.

By the time of his banishment Villon had become a well-known figure in Paris due to his poetry and general antics both to the aristocracy and the common people. In fact Villon as much as anyone of his time moved through every strata of society. During his banishment we have evidence that Villon stayed in the palaces of dukes such as Charles d'Orleans and spent nights on the road performing petty larcenies.  In 1461 the law caught up with him again as he spent the summer in the prison of the bishop of Meung, Thibaud d'Aussigny. This time however the experience proved too much for his health.

From his own testimony he was near death before he was fortuitously freed by the arrival in Meung of the new king Louis XI, for it was the custom to free prisoners as a newly crowned king made his first visit to a town. The new king, who possibly knew of Villon from his earlier days in Paris, may have interceded personally on his behalf if Villon's fulsome praise is any indication.      Villon made his way back to Paris surreptitiously and gained assistance both financial and legal from Guillaume Villon. The good father got Francois a room somewhere outside the city since the banishment still held. At the same time, he used his influence to try to obtain some settlement of the sentence and case against Villon.

During this period, Villon began working on his greatest work The Testament. His starting point was the satirical testaments common in the Middle Ages which derided the clergy or comically expressed erotic and off color sentiments. Although The Testament contains some such passages they are placed in a deeper context through Villon's realistic assertions of his own precarious condition. Anyone able to crack jokes on the edge of the abyss acquires a certain moral authority no matter what their other qualities might be. And the lack of any pretense or axe to grind gives his opinions force beyond their purely philosophical content or worth.

In 1462 Father Villon's efforts were rewarded and Francois returned to Paris although he was made to agree to pay back his share of the Navarre robbery. The next year however Villon was again picked up by the police, although he seemed to be no more than a bystander at a bloody street brawl. For reasons due more to his disreputable past than the particular event, he was sentenced to be hanged. The clear unjustness of the sentence however led the court of appeals to commute it. Thus, Villon was banished again from Paris, this time for a ten year period. Villon wrote a trio of poems about this time concerning these events, but the day he left Paris on his exile he drops from the pages of the police blotter and of history. Several years later the authorities in Paris rescinded all banishments because of increased mortality of the city's residents, yet Villon did not return. We must assume he perished sometime prior to then, but whether on a sickbed or the gallows or in some thieves' den we'll never know.

Villon's Poetic Career 

Although we have no direct evidence, François Villon almost certainly began writing poetry by the time he entered the University as a teenager. The first poem that can be dated is The Lay, written at the end of 1456, around the time of the robbery at the College of Navarre that he and several associates carried out. The Lay has the form of a satirical bequest written, so the poet maintains, because his lady love's cruel refusals have forced him to leave Paris or remain and die of unrequited love. The less romantic truth (or more romantic, depending on your point of view) is that Villon was fleeing Paris because of a well grounded fear that he would be arrested for his role in the Navarre robbery. The Lay is composed in 8 line stanzas of 8 syllables per line called huitains in French with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbc. This form will become Villon's characteristic poetic form, except for the occasional use of a decasyllabic line used in some of his ballades. Ballades had a traditional recurring last line or refrain common to all the stanzas of the poem and typically ended with a half stanza called the Envoi.

The Lay tells of the poet's cruel love and the necessity to leave Paris. This introduction is then used as a basis for the mock testament which follows, in which the poet bequeaths his remaining possessions to friends, enemies, acquaintances or well known individuals of Paris. The bequests typically involve some sexual or ironic double entendre which can be guessed on the basis of what we know about the individuals named in the work. For example, Villon bequeaths a fellow student and criminal associate, Regnier de Montigny, three barking dogs, hardly a welcome gift to a burglar. It may also refer to a quarrelsome or loud-mouthed character. As a poetic work, The Lay shares a long medieval tradition of satirical testaments. As an individual work, however, Villon's poem can safely be characterized as poetically immature, although flashes of brilliance shine in certain passages.

The next four years, Villon wandered the French countryside to the south of Paris. Several ballades are datable to this period as they involve Duke Charles of Orleans and possibly the Duke of Bourbon. One rather long poem celebrates the birth of Duke Charles' daughter in somewhat sycophantic measures. Another ballade describes Villon's imprisonment at Meung in the Loire valley in 1461. It is also likely that his poems in the criminal jargon of the time (and still untranslatable, although vaguely understood) were written during these wanderings.

After his release from prison in Meung, Villon returned to the environs of Paris and renewed contact with his godfather and patron, Guillaume Villon, in order to resolve the matter of the Navarre robbery. While he was in hiding, Villon began to set down his greatest work, The Testament, although parts of it had undoubtedly already been written in prior years.

The Testament in one sense picked up the same threads as The Lay and the earlier work is in fact mentioned in the Testament. Villon protests, however, that The Lay should not be considered in the same light as The Testament since the later work is a true testament written by a man nearing Death, unlike the posturing poet of The Lay. Of course, Villon is being ironic since The Testament is as satirical in outlook as The Lay, if more aptly phrased. However, the long preamble and other scattered stanzas do begin to blur the line between satire and the reality of the poet's ill?]health. In addition, the tone and sentiments expressed go far deeper than the facile satires of the day and occasionally break out in passages of great intensity and directness seldom encountered in poetry.  Interspersed among the huitains, Villon placed a number of ballades woven into the bequests. Some are conventional, some satirical, others contain his finest poetry, but their variety surely represents the essence and range of his art. 

After completing The Testament, Villon wrote at least 3 more ballades in connection with his last known imprisonment, this time in Paris in late 1462. One of them, The Ballad of the Hanged, stands as the summit of his poetry, the other two are fine characteristic satires, the first addressed to the doorkeeper of the Chatelet prison and the other to the appeals court which commuted his death sentence. But his banishment in January 1463 ended his poetic career and presumably his life soon after.

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