François Villon (1431 – 1465) French
King of the beggars, brawler, thief and roistering drunkard and poet, who influenced great many writers including Gautier, Voltaire and Anatole France, was born in Paris in 1431, the year in which the Maid of Orleans was burned at stake. François de Montcorbier, better known by his adopted name of Villon, though born poor had the good fortune to be sent to University of Paris in 1446, due to the kindness of a relative, Canon of St. Benôit. At the age of 21 he became a Master of Arts and a Licentiate in Theology. He fell in with bad company. He got into real trouble in one occasion and was banished for a time from Paris. Returning to Paris in 1456, about a year after the fatal fracas in which he had to kill his assailant, he joined Colin de Cayeux, an expert pick-lock. A series of highway robberies and housebreakings, in which he had a hand, were revealed by one of the gangs babbling in his cups. Villon, now a wanted man in Paris, went on four and a half years of self imposed exile, wandering through much of France. In the summer of 1461 he landed himself in the prison at Meung.
He was saved by the clemency of the new king of France, Louis XI. After returning to Paris in November 1462, he wrote his masterpiece ‘The Great Testament’, which along with the small Testament constitute his literary legacy to the world. He also wrote several ballades in the argot of the underworld of which he was most familiar with. The ‘Great Testament’ written as though it were his will, bequeathing jesting or bitter legacies to his friends and foes, gives numerous sidelights of the poet’s life and times and its eight line stanzas are interspersed with several beautiful ballades and rondeaux. He was one of the most exquisite poets who ever turned a verse or cut a purse. The glaring contrast between the ugliness of his life and the beauty of his lyrics had exerted undying charm to the later generations. He holds his place in history both because of the greatness of his work and its influence on other writers and for that extraordinary contrast of lofty genius, religious feeling and drunken knavery that made up his character.
When Villon left Paris in 1463 after being banished for ten years ‘in view of his bad character’ he was only thrity two. Broken in health and spirit the poet (who had only one poetical theme – himself) disappeared from history; leaving a legacy great enough to keep his name alive for generations to come. The quatrain given below neatly sums up his credentials for kingdom come either for hell or for paradise it should be said.
I am François, which is unfortunate,
Born in Paris near Pontoise,
and with a six-foot stretch of rope,
my neck will know my arse’s weight.