The original bad-boy poet roamed the countryside of fifteenth-century France. Francois Villon narrowly escaped the gallows; a vagabond and a thief, he cast his major poems in the form of satiric versions of a last will and testament. In "Le Petit Testament" (also known as "Le Lais") -- a title that appealed greatly to the Australian inventors of the great twentieth-century hoax poet Ern Malley -- Villon bequeaths his possessions, whether tangible, spiritual, or imaginary -- to the people and institutions that deserve them. The mood is one of irony, sometimes bitter, sometimes of the type known as gallows humor, but there is warmth of feeling and also compassion. To the Holy Trinity, Villon leaves his soul; to the earth, his body; to a Parisian named Denis, some stolen wine; to a madman, his glasses; to a lover, all the women he wants. At least two of Villon's shorter poems -- "Ballad of Hanged Men" and "I Am Francois, They Have Caught Me" -- were composed in 1462 while under sentence of death.
Here is a brief excerpt of "The Legacy" ("Le Lais") rendered by John Payne in 1878:
Item, this trust I do declare
For three poor children named below:
Three little orphans lone and bare,
That hungry and unshodden go
And naked to all winds that blow;
That they may be provided for
And sheltered from the rain and snow,
At least until this winter's o'er.
This stanza, sweet and sad, yields a completely different set of emotions when you consider that the three "orphans. . .named below" were three of the richest man then living in Paris.
At Bennington College one winter, Anne Winters and I suggested that a group of young poets write a poem ending with Villon's grand line, "And I die of thirst at the rim of the fountain."
Here's my stab at a famous Villon verse:
“In my own country I live in a foreign place
With strength of mind and purpose yet powerless,
A winner at any game I try, yet awash in loss.
At dawn I say goodbye to the night,
And in bed, I fear I'll fall from a great height."
Among translators the late Louis Simpson had a go at Villon's testamentary masterpieces in 2000. Earlier, Galway Kinnell edited a Signet book of bilingual selections. Robert Louis Stevenson's story "A Lodging for the Night" prepetuated some of the legends surrounding Villon, which have formed the basis of more than one Hollywood swashbuckler. Simon Loekle has an excellent blog post on Villon, which begins with these paragraphs.
Francois Villon disappeared from written record circa 1463 (aged 30), when he was banished from the city of Paris, after a dramatic reprieve from the gallows.
Though Gutenberg's contraption was thumping clanking and squeaking in Germany, the first printing press did not set up operations in Paris until 1470; the earliest edition of Villon was published in 1489. That Villon's reputation survived for nearly 30 years after his disappearance, that it proved strong enough to support a half dozen published collections of his work over the XVI century is his true legacy. It was the literate and literary readership that preserved his words and brought them to the print shop, but he had a reputation among his contemporaries not only for his criminal activities: he was known for his poems. The First Respondents were listeners, in taverns and jail cells and fine chateaux.
That "The Legacy" is a work of hardboiled irony is palpable, though how the irony works through the poem is more difficult to grasp. Over the centuries, virtually all of the "heirs" have been identified, but we have lost the immediacy of the reference, and must bear in mind that Villon is engaged in presenting "the thing that is not." It is also clear that The Testament is unquestionably the masterpiece: the interludes of ballades and rondeaux enrich the poem, providing human details and warmth, and better exposing Villon's humours.The two poems cover much the same territory (behind or to the East of Notre Dame); some of the "heirs" in the first are "re-gifted" in the later. I cannot but think that the later work was a conscious revision of the first.