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Villon's Legacy
François Villon (1434-1465?) is one of the greatest French poets.

François Villon's The Legacy & The Testament
by François Villon
Translated by Louis Simpson
Story Line Press
ISBN 1-58654-001-7

Some of the greatest writers in history have been thieves and criminals, or at the very least scandalous characters and spies. Of course, there was always some reason. Times were tough. It was difficult to make a living... What else could a writer do?

François Villon (1434-1465?) was born in Paris when there was great hardship. Out of his experiences with poverty, suffering and imprisonment, Villon created great poetry. Villon writes:

Poverty tracks us. You may trace
On tombs a long line coming down,
Of souls who lie in God's embrace.
No scepters there, and not a crown.

Of the time and place of Villon's birth, translator Louis Simpson explains, "These were years of great hardship... People died of hunger and cold... Wolves were in the streets—they ate the dogs and attacked women and children."

Villon's mother was a poor, illiterate, "but devoutly religious" woman. She was probably related to Guilaume de Villon, the chaplain of St. Benoit-le-Bientourne who took the boy in, adopted him, and raised him as his own.

Even though his background was hard, Villon was fortunate. As Simpson writes, "Instead of starving as many children did, and running wild in the streets, François would be educated." His later poetry references some of the works that he read as a boy and young man, but he did not want to study. Simpson writes, "The boy who followed in the footsteps of his adoptive father could look forward, one day, to being rich."

Unfortunately, while at the University of Paris, he ran with "bad company: he was one of the students who frequented the taverns and whores, who gambled, and who sang in the street at night... " He did manage to graduate in 1449, but he was banished from Paris several years later when he killed a priest, Philippe Sermoise, in a street brawl.

In 1455(6?), Villon wrote "Le Lais" ("The Legacy"). Although largely fictitious, the poem does contain some hints at truth in lines like: "Now my very life's in danger, / I must escape at once... " He later writes:

And as it seems that I must go,
And my return is far from certain—
I am not without fault, you know...
And death is such a final curtain—
I'm making out my will today.

Much of the rest of the poem consists of his bequests to family, friends and complete strangers, with lines like: "I bequeath to all hospitals / Spider webs on dirty windows... "

Although he was allowed to return to Paris that same year, after claiming self-defense, his troubles—fictional and otherwise—did not end there... In December of 1456, Villon once again fled from Paris, when he was implicated in a robbery at the College of Navarre.

After wandering for several years, he ended up in the dungeons of Mehun-sur-Loire in 1461. Fortunately, King Louis XI stopped at the prison and freed the prisoners in honor of his coronation.

Around 1461, Villon finished "Le Testament" ("The Testament"). Much like "Le Lais, "this work is not autobiographical, but Villon could not help but draw from his own experiences. As Simpson point out, how could experiences like being "imprisoned at Mehun-sur-Loire, put in chains, tortured, and kept alive on bread and water" help but affect Villon.

Although this work is in some ways similar in style to "Le Lais," "Le Testament" is longer (some 2,000 lines), with earlier works like "Ballad de la Grosse Margot" ("Ballade of Fat Margot"), "Ballade de Bonne Doctrine" ("Ballade of Good Doctrine"), "Chanson" ("Song"), "Ballade de Mercy" ("Ballade for Pardon"), and seven other poems inserted into the text.

In and out of jail on various charges during the next several years, Villon was eventually sentenced to be hanged. His sentence was transmuted to ten years of banishment from Paris... and there doesn't seem to be any historical evidence about what happened to him after his departure. With his criminal past, and his frequent associations with thieves, we might surmise that his death was not a peaceful one. But then, we just don't know.

Villon's work was rediscovered in the 19th century. Translations of his works were done by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, W. E. Henley, and Ezra Pound.

This most recent translation, by Louis Simpson, is based on the French edition by Auguste Longnon (1892). With the French and English text appearing side-by-side—and with the introduction and notes—Simpson offers a truly unique perspective on Villon's works.

Simpson was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and has written more than 17 books of poetry and criticism.

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