Francois Villon, some poetry and notes

From:  The poems of Francois Villon   (Translations) by Edward F Chaney.
This book was a private printing (1940) on behalf of the author and sold by B H Blackwell, Oxford.  (Chaney was Head Master of Manchester Central High School at time.   Notes say this was the sixth in a proposed set of eight titles but others may well be pamphlets rather than full textbooks.

Format: poem in French on left hand page, translation in prose opposite.  I have put lines into poem format though translation means lines are more varied in length than original and there are no rhyme endings.   Many books are currently available of Villon’s poetry.
The bulk of Villon can be found as ‘The Testament’, some 2023 lines.  Below are the first 32 lines only, followed by the last 28.

The Testament

I write this in my thirtieth year,
When I had drunk my cup of shame to the lees.
I am not quite mad, nor yet quite sane
In spite of the many pains experienced,
All of which I have received at the hands of Thibault d’Aussigny.
He may be a bishop and give blessings in the streets,
But I will not have him for mine!

He is not my lord nor yet my bishop;
I hold nothing from him but what lies fallow;
I owe him neither fealty nor homage and I am not his serf.
For a whole summer he fed me on a small loaf and cold water.
Liberal or not, he was very stingy towards me;
May God treat him as he treated me!

And if anyone desired to reprove me
By saying that I am cursing him, I am not.
If anyone can understand me aright,
I do not curse him at all.
This is all the evil I speak of him:
If he has been merciful to me,
May Jesus, the king of Paradise,
Be the same to his body and soul!

And if he was harsh and cruel to me,
Much more than I am telling here,
I wish that the eternal God treat him similarly!
But the Church tells and bids us to pray for our enemies!
So I will say to you: “I am wrong and sorry for it,
May whatever he did to me be remitted to God!”


The final lines:       Another Ballad

Here ends and finishes poor Villon’s will.
Come to his funeral
When you hear the bell tolling,
Dressed in bright red
For he died Love’s martyr.
This he swore to when about to quit his life.

I feel sure he does not lie
For he was scornfully dismissed
Like a scullion by his lady-love;
So that from here to Roussillon
There isn’t a bush or a shrub
Says he quite truly
But got a tatter from his skirts
When about to quit this life.

So it is that when he died
He had nought but rags;
Moreover, while he was a-dying,
Love’s dart was painfully stabbing him.
It made him feel it more sharply
Than the tongue of a shoulder-strap,
(That is something to marvel at!)
When he is about to quit this life.

Prince, noble as a hawk,
Know what he di at the end;
He drank a draught of red Morillon.
When about to quit his life.

Born c1431…..last date known 1464
Born in a poor family, father unknown, he was accepted as a pupil of Guillaume de Villon, a canon of St Benot and later went to University (Paris) where he probably adopted the name Villon.  Some dates and activities are known but he was mostly involved in assorted thievery, roguery and debauchery (with University peers) quite soon into his University years and afterwards, where his records are mostly judicial.  Condemned to hang after a brawl and stabbing a priest (Sermoise) but amended to being exiled out of Paris instead.  Later, another exile from Paris for crimes (and return to) and eventual demise in an unknown place or way.

However, his poetry survived and was published after his death, becoming well known throughout France.  (Apparently no original manuscript survives, seems to have been collected and scribed by close friends and collectors).  Next, the natural decline as tastes changed and some years of neglect.  Despite the centuries passing Villon was and is now recognised as a great French poet from the medieval period.  Its quality is retained even in translation, obviously dependent on the quality of translation.  Knowing a little of the poets life and imagining more through the description and subjects of his poetry you can glimpse the complexity of the man and the richness of his emotion and thought.  Whether he was a man of his time who could not escape his heritage or deliberately ran against the ‘intellectual’ class he could have risen into we cant really tell. ( Not me anyway from my limited knowledge).   Maybe he railed against the Paris under its rules versus the freedom and poverty of his early childhood.  Or a failed love affair which seems to run throughout much of his work?  Or always bright and always wild?  It seems the ‘underworld’ held sway.  His life can be seen as a brief rise due to influential/religious patronage and his own intellect followed by a spiral of decline caused by rejection and his own weaknesses. Rejection? of church?, law?, but perhaps overwhelmingly of love.  Possibly such rejection caused him to refuse all else that held him and society together.  Was he just self-obsessed, somewhat paranoid?
No matter, as a French poet he remains a significant figure.

His poetry has depth and meanings that can sway you as you read.  Chiding, joking, lampooning and lamenting or angry, his words can point like Damacle’s sword at himself as much as his target.  All life is there, literally and vividly portrayed.

My thanks to this book as it offers original French with English prose translation and as a small bonus it has some additional notation by a student, which sort of puts it back to the beginning.

My first contact with Villon?  As a student in 1965 I was in a school production of  ‘The Other Heart’ by James Forsyth.  We had to use uncorrected proofs of the play (first performances at the Old Vic in 1952).  I was told later it was the first amateur performance but that is unconfirmed.  Me, I played the priest, Sermoise, who was knifed in a brawl and died (One  account of the time says the priest was injured but recovered and eventually forgave Villon!).   This event caused Villon’s first exile from Paris.

Villon, he was who he was, and a lasting poet.  Two more poems below, and a book of the period I have ordered to be placed in line for reading:   Three poems, or four if you take the lines above from ‘The Testament’ as two poems…….

Swinburne wrote a poem to Villon, see it in Tag.


Take pity, friends,
Please take pity on me at the very least!
In dungeon I lie, and not beneath holly or may,
In that exile to which Fortune has sent me – by God’s will.
All you girls, lovers, young folk and novices,
Dancers and tumblers with ungainly tricks,
Quick as dart, sharp as goad,
With throat sounding clear as bell,
Will you leave poor Villon thus?

Ye singers, singing as you like and without rule,
Roysterers, laughers, merry in word and deed,
Going to and fro all destitute of money,
Ye witty, feather-brained folk are all tarrying too long
For in the meantime he is dying.
Ye makers of lays, motets and rondeaux,
You will want to feed him up when he is dead!
Neither whirlwind nor lightning reaches his lair:
Thick walls shield his eyes.
Will you leave poor Villon thus?

Come and see him in this piteous plight,
Ye noble men free from tithes and fourths
Who hold your domains neither from king nor emperor
But from the God of Paradise alone.
For he has to fast Sundays and Tuesdays
As well his teeth are longer than a rake’s.
After dry bread. – not after cakes! – he swills his guts with water.
Deep down in earth he has neither table nor boards (to lie on).
Will you leave poor Villon thus?

Ye princes that I have named, young and old,
Pray get pardon with royal seal for me
And hoist me up in some basket.
Pigs do this much for each other
For, when one squeals the others swarm after.
Will you leave poor Villon thus?
The sorrows of the beautiful Armouress
(Les Regrets De La Belle Heaulmiere)

Methought I heard the lament
Of the Armouress who once was lovely.
She was wishing herself a girl again
And spoke in this wise!
‘Oh, age, so cruel and overbearing,
Why hast thou brought me low so soon?
What is to prevent me from striking and killing myself at once?
‘Thou hast robbed me of the haughty power
That my beauty ordained
Over scholars, merchants and churchmen:
For then there was no man born
But would have given me all he had –
Whatever might have been his repentance afterwards –
If I had only granted him what beggars would refuse today.

‘I refused it to many men,
Which was not very wise of me,
All for love of a sly fellow to whom I gave it utterly.
However much I cheated others, upon my soul!
I loved him well. But he did nothing but ill-treat me
And only loved me for my money.

‘However much he knocked me about
And trod me underfoot, I loved him still.
Even if he had dragged me about (by the hair)
He had but to bid me kiss him
And straightway I forgot all my ills.
This good-for-nothing miscreant had me in his arms
………..Little good has it done me!
What is left behind? Shame and sin.

‘He died thirty years agone but I am left behind,
Old and white-haired.
When I think, alas! Of the good old days
And consider what I was and what I am now;
And when I look at my naked body
And see myself so much altered,
So poor, so shrivelled, so spare, so lean,
I am nearly beside myself with rage.

‘What has become of that smooth brow,
Fair hair, arched eyebrows, nicely distanced eyes,
That pretty glance with which I caught the sharpest of men,
That beautifully shaped nose,
Those dainty little ears, noble chin, clear shapely face
And beautiful pink lips?

Those dainty little shoulders,
Tapering arms and shapely hands,
Little breasts and comely well-covered thighs,
Well fitted for playing love’s game.
Those wide hips, that queynte, set in its little garden
On big, firm thighs.

‘Grey hair and wrinkled brow,
Eyebrows gone and those dull eyes
That used to send forth smiling looks
By which many a merchant was caught.
Nose no longer straight and far from beautiful,
Ears loose and hairy, face pale,
Colourless and no longer lively,
Wrinkled chin and skinny lips.

‘And this is the fate of human beauty!
Squat arms and wrinkled hands,
Quite round-shouldered,
Breasts all shrivelled up, hips the same,
The queynte, foh! As for the thighs,
They are no longer thighs but thighlets
Speckled like sausages!

‘Thus we regret the good old times
Among ourselves, poor, foolish old women,
Squatting down, all huddled up into a ball,
At a little hemp-twig fire,
So soon lighted and so soon burnt out;
And formerly we were so dainty!
Such is the fate of many a man and woman’


macbre poets         Danse Macabre;    Francois Villon                                      Poetry and Murder in Medieval Paris

hardback: 224 pages
Publisher: Sutton Publishing Ltd;   illustrated edition       (20 Jan. 2000)
ISBN-13: 978-0750921770         by Aubrey Burel

Blurb from book:     Francois Villon (1431-?1465) is one of the great enigmas of French medieval history: a lyric poet of beauty and depth, he was also a murderer, pimp, thief and denizen of the underworld of 15th-century Paris. This study places Villon in the context of medieval France from the death of Joan of Arc, describing the appalling condition of the country during the Hundred Years War, the time when Gilles de Rais – the original Bluebeard – was practicing his diabolical craft of child abuse and alchemy. Born into a peasant family, Villon was adopted by Canon Guillaume Villon and sent to university. The book describes a riotous and debauched student life in medieval Paris and Villon’s first steps on a life of crime when he was publicly flogged for writing a scurrilous ballade and later involved in a scuffle which ended with his killing a priest. The rest of his short life was a round of arrests, imprisonment and torture, which is contrasted with his time at the court of Charles, Duc d’Orleans at Blois, one of the most magnificent French chateaux and one of the most civilized and artistic courts in Europe. He was finally implicated in a killing of which he was probably innocent, repreived by Louis XI in a general amnesty designed to restore Paris’ dwindling population but disappeared in the winter of 1463, never to be seen again.


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