Villon, François

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Villon, François

(fräNswä` vēyôN`), 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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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Villon, Francois


(real surname, Montcorbier or de Loges). Born between Apr. 1, 1431, and Apr. 19, 1432, in Paris; year and place of death unknown. French poet.

Villon was brought up by his foster father, the chaplain Guillaume de Villon, whose name he bore. He studied in the arts faculty at the Sorbonne, where he received a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree (1452). In 1455, Villon killed a priest in a brawl and fled from Paris. After being pardoned he returned and joined gangs of thieves; he was in jail several times. In 1463 he was condemned for brawling and sentenced him to be hanged. While awaiting death Villon wrote his Ballade of the Hanged. However, his execution was commuted to exile from Paris. Villon took part in the competitions for poets which were held at the court of Duke Charles d’Orleans, but his fate is unknown after 1464.

In 1456, Villon wrote his long poem Lais in 320 verses, well-known under the title of Minor Testament. This mock confession of an itinerant student, parodying a legal document, is a work of great realistic force, full of penetrating lyricism, irony, and earthy humor. Villon’s Grand Testament with its inserted ballades (such as “Of Ladies of Bygone Days,” “Women of Paris,” and “Fat Margot”) contains 2,023 verses. Especially noteworthy are the realistic little scenes from the life of the Parisian lower classes; vividly sketched are the riotous tramps, thieves, prostitutes, tavern keepers, and inveterately drunken clergymen. Villon’s poems contain his meditations on his lost youth, his unrequited love, his bitter poverty—the “mother of all crimes”—his presentiment of inevitable death, and repentant prayers; all this is shot through with irony, at times benign, at times sarcastic. Nor were patriotic moods alien to him (for example, “Ballade Against the Enemies of France”).

Villon’s verse was supple and musical. The poet had a command of both rhythm and rhyme; his ballades were complex in form and contained refrains. Villon’s language combined the dialect of the urban petite bourgeoisie with the jargon of thieves, the learned rhetoric of the Sorbonne, and archaisms used in the descriptions of the former days of chivalry. Villon’s successors (P. Gringore, M. Regnier, C. Marot, and F. Rabelais) were writers who were already free of medieval morality.

Villon was praised by the poets of classicism and the Enlightenment (J. La Fontaine, N. Boileau, Moliere, P. A. C. Beaumarchais), the romantics (V. Hugo, T. Gautier), and the symbolist P. Verlaine. Villon has been translated into Russian by V. la. Briusov, N. S. Gumilev, and I. G. Ehrenburg. The tragic, adventure-filled destiny of Villon has been the subject of poetic and romantic interpretations by such authors as R. L. Stevenson, F. Carco, K. Edschmid, and P. G. Antokol’skii.


Oeuvres complètes, 3rd ed. Published by A. Longnon. Paris, 1923.
Oeuvres. Published by A. Mary. Paris [1962].
Oeuvres poètiques. [Paris] 1965.
In Russian translation:
Stikhi. Translated by F. Mendel’son and I. Ehrenburg. [With a foreword by L. Pinskii. Moscow, 1963.]
[“Stikhi.”] In Ten’ derev’ev: Stikhi zarubezhnykh poetov v per. I. Erenburga. Moscow, 1969.


Veselovskii, lu. A. Literaturnye ocherki, vol. 1. Moscow, 1910.
Mandel’shtam, O. O poezii: Sb. statei. Leningrad, 1928. Pages 87-97.
Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1946. Pages 195-201.
Ehrenburg, I. Frantsuzskie tetradi. Moscow, 1959.
Cons, L. Etat prèsent des etudes sur Villon. Paris, 1936. (Contains a bibliography.)
Lewis, D. B. W. François Villon: A Documented Survey. London, 1945.
Chancy, E. F. Francois Villon in His Environment. Oxford, 1946.
Burger, A. Lexique de la langue de Villon. Geneva-Paris, 1957.
Seaton, E. Studies in Villon, Vaillant, and Charles d’Orléans. Oxford, 1957.
Charpier, J. Francois Villon. [Paris, 1958.]
Robert, A. F. Villon. New York [1968].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.