History of Literature

Francois Villon



Francois Villon


Francois Villon

born 1431, Paris
died after 1463

one of the greatest French lyric poets. He was known for his life of criminal excess, spending much time in prison or in banishment from medieval Paris. His chief works include Le Lais (Le Petit Testament), Le Grand Testament, and various ballades, chansons, and rondeaux.

Villon’s father died while he was still a child, and he was brought up by the canon Guillaume de Villon, chaplain of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné. The register of the faculty of arts of the University of Paris records that in March 1449 Villon received the degree of bachelor, and in May–August 1452, that of master. On June 5, 1455, a violent quarrel broke out in the cloisters of Saint-Benoît among himself, some drinking companions, and a priest, Philippe Sermoise, whom Villon killed with a sword thrust. He was banished from the city but, in January 1456, won a royal pardon. Just before Christmas of the same year, however, he was implicated in a theft from the Collège de Navarre and was again obliged to leave Paris.

At about this time he composed the poem his editors have called Le Petit Testament, which he himself entitled Le Lais (The Legacy). It takes the form of a list of “bequests,” ironically conceived, made to friends and acquaintances before leaving them and the city. To his barber he leaves the clippings from his hair; to three well-known local usurers, some small change; to the clerk of criminal justice, his sword (which was in pawn).

After leaving Paris, he probably went for a while to Angers. He certainly went to Blois and stayed on the estates of Charles, duc d’Orléans, who was himself a poet. Here, further excesses brought him another prison sentence, this time remitted because of a general amnesty declared at the birth of Charles’s daughter, Marie d’Orléans, on December 19, 1457. Villon entered his ballade “Je meurs de soif auprès de la fontaine” (“I die of thirst beside the fountain”) in a poetry contest organized by the prince, who is said to have had some of Villon’s poems (including the “letter” dedicated to the young child, “Épître à Marie d’Orléans”) transcribed into a manuscript of his own work.

At some later time, Villon is known to have been in Bourges and in the Bourbonnais, where he possibly stayed at Moulins. But throughout the summer of 1461 he was once more in prison. He was not released until October 2, when the prisons were emptied because King Louis XI was passing through.

Free once more, Villon wrote his longest work, Le Testament (or Le Grand Testament, as it has since been known). It contains 2,023 octosyllabic lines in 185 huitains (eight-line stanzas). These huitains are interspersed with a number of fixed-form poems, chiefly ballades (usually poems of three 10-line stanzas, plus an envoi of between 4 and 7 lines) and chansons (songs written in a variety of metres and with varied verse patterns), some of which he had composed earlier.

In Le Testament Villon reviews his life and expresses his horror of sickness, prison, old age, and his fear of death. It is from this work especially that his poignant regret for his wasted youth and squandered talent is known. He re-creates the taverns and brothels of the Paris underworld, recalling many of his old friends in drunkenness and dissipation, to whom he had made various “bequests” in Le Lais. But Villon’s tone is here much more scathing than in his earlier work, and he writes with greater ironic detachment.

Shortly after his release from the prison at Meung-sur-Loire he was arrested, in 1462, for robbery and detained at the Châtelet in Paris. He was freed on November 7 but was in prison the following year for his part in a brawl in the rue de la Parcheminerie. This time he was condemned to be pendu et etranglé (“hanged and strangled”). While under the sentence of death he wrote his superb “Ballade des pendus,” or “L’Épitaphe Villon” , in which he imagines himself hanging on the scaffold, his body rotting, and he makes a plea to God against the “justice” of men. At this time, too, he wrote his famous wry quatrain “Je suis Françoys, dont il me poise” (“I am François, they have caught me”). He also made an appeal to the Parlement, however, and on January 5, 1463, his sentence was commuted to banishment from Paris for 10 years. He was never heard from again.

The criminal history of Villon’s life can all too easily obscure the scholar, trained in the rigorous intellectual disciplines of the medieval schools. While it is true that his poetry makes a direct unsentimental appeal to our emotions, it is also true that it displays a remarkable control of rhyme and reveals a disciplined composition that suggests a deep concern with form, and not just random inspiration. For example, the ballade “Fausse beauté, qui tant me couste chier” (“False beauty, for which I pay so dear a price”), addressed to his friend, a prostitute, not only supports a double rhyme pattern but is also an acrostic, with the first letter of each line of the first two stanzas spelling out the names Françoys and Marthe. Even the arrangement of stanzas in the poem seems to follow a determined order, difficult to determine, but certainly not the result of happy accident. An even higher estimate of Villon’s technical ability would probably be reached if more were known about the manner and rules of composition of the time.

A romantic notion of Villon’s life as some sort of medieval vie de bohème—a conception reinforced by the 19th-century Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, who saw him as the “accursed poet”—has been challenged by modern critical studies. David Kuhn has examined the way most texts were made to yield literal, allegorical, moral, and spiritual meanings, following a type of biblical exegesis prevalent in that theocentric age. He has discovered in Le Testament a numerical pattern according to which Villon distributed the stanzas. If his analysis is correct, then it would seem Le Testament is a poem of cosmic significance, to be interpreted on many levels. Kuhn believes, for example, that the stanza numbered 33—the number of years Jesus Christ lived—refers directly to Jesus, which, if true, could hardly be regarded as the random inspiration of a “lost child.” The critic Pierre Guiraud sees the poems as codes that, when broken, reveal the satire of a Burgundian cleric against a corps of judges and attorneys in Paris.

That Villon was a man of culture familiar with the traditional forms of poetry and possessing an acute sense of the past is evident from the poems themselves. There is the ballade composed in Old French, parodying the language of the 13th century; Le Testament, which stands directly in the tradition of Jehan Bodel’s Congés (“Leave-takings”), poetry that poets such as Adam de la Halle and Bodel before him had composed when setting out on a journey; best of all, perhaps, there is his “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (“Ballade of the Ladies of Bygone Times,” included in Le Testament), with its famous, incantatory refrain “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” (“But where are the snows of yesteryear?”).

However farfetched some of these insights into Villon may appear to be, it is not surprising that the poet—given the historical context of learning—should inform his own work with depth of thought, meaning, and significance. But an “intellectual” approach to Villon’s work should not distract from its burning sincerity nor contradict the accepted belief that fidelity to genuine, often painful, personal experience was the source of the harsh inspiration whereby he illuminated his largely traditional subject matter—the cortège of shattered illusions, the regrets for a lost past, the bitterness of love betrayed, and, above all, the hideous fear of death so often found in literature and art at that time of pestilence and plague, massacre and war.

The little knowledge of Villon’s life that has come down to the present is chiefly the result of the patient research of the 19th-century French scholar Auguste Longnon, who brought to light a number of historical documents—most of them judicial records—relating to the poet. But after Villon’s banishment by the Parlement in 1463 all trace of him vanishes. Still, it is a wonder that any of his poetry should have survived, and there exist about 3,000 lines, the greater part published as early as 1489 by the Parisian bookseller Pierre Levet, whose edition served as the basis for some 20 more in the next century. Apart from the works mentioned, there are also 12 single ballades and rondeaux (basically 13-line poems with a sophisticated double rhyme pattern), another 4 of doubtful authenticity, and 7 ballades in jargon and jobelin—the slang of the day. Two stories about the poet were later recounted by François Rabelais: one told of his being in England, the other of his seeking refuge at the monastery of Saint-Maixent in Poitou. Neither is credible, nor is it known when or where Villon died.

Perhaps the most deeply moving of French lyric poets, Villon ranges in his verse from themes of drunkenness and prostitution to the unsentimental humility of a ballade-prayer to “Our Lady,” “Pour prier Nostre-Dame,” written at the request of his mother. He speaks, with marvelous directness, of love and death, reveals a deep compassion for all suffering humanity, and tells unforgettably of regret for the wasted past.

His work marks the end of an epoch, the waning of the Middle Ages, and it has commonly been read as the inspiration of a “lost child.” But as more becomes known about the poetic traditions and disciplines of his day, this interpretation seems inadequate. It is probably either too early or too late fully to understand Villon’s work, as one critic has suggested; but although the scholar must still face a variety of critical problems, enough is known about Villon’s life and times to mark him as a poet of genius, whose work is charged with meaning and great emotional force.

Régine Pernoud








Sweet face, sweet profile

By God, I adore

this devoted creature

I love her own nature

And she loves me, the sweet odalisque.

Whoever meets her when she plies her trade

Must read her this ballade.

I love to serve this belle

Why to call me degenerate and fool?

She is beautiful and proper,

I protect her with my dagger.

When a gentleman calls, I run to fetch a pot of wine

to keep them happy, quiet, satisfied.

I get them water, cheese, bread, and fruit

To make him pay well. If he does I say

When feeling horny come again in

To this inn we both live in.


Sometimes we fall on hard times

When Margot fucks a john who does not pay,

When she comes home, I hate her.

I seize her her dress, slip, jacket

To keep them as my share.

With hands on her hips, she calls me Antichrist.

She cries and swears by Jesus H. Christ.

Then I, seizing a stick
beat her through her flimsy habit

In this cat house we inhabit.


Wind, hail, frost, my life is not sweet,

I am dissolute, she follows my suite.

One like the other, copulated,

Cursed rat, cursed cat, catenated.

I linger in a garbage can, she follows my suite.

No, our lives are not sweet

In the cat house we inhabit.





Ballade du Temps Jadis

(The Ballad of the Dead Ladies)

translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Tell me now, in what hidden way is
Lady Flora, the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where is Thaïs?
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere--
She whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Where's Héloise, the learned nun,
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?
(From Love he won such dule and teen!) [grief and pain]
And where, I pray you, is the queen
Who willed that Buridan should steer
Sewed in a sack's mouth down the seine? . . .
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaidén--
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,
And Ermengarde, the lady of Maine--
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Rouen doomed and burned her there--
Mother of God, where are they then? . . .
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Except with this for an overword--
"But where are the snows of yesteryear?"






(I die of thirst beside the fountain)

Translated by Galway Kinnell

I die of thirst beside the fountain
I'm hot as fire, I'm shaking tooth on tooth
In my own country I'm in a distant land
Beside the blaze I'm shivering in flames
Naked as a worm, dressed like a president
I laugh in tears and hope in despair
I cheer up in sad hopelessness
I'm joyful and no pleasure's anywhere
I'm powerful and lack all force and strength
Warmly welcomed, always turned away.

I'm sure of nothing but what is uncertain
Find nothing obscure but the obvious
Doubt nothing but the certainties
Knowledge to me is mere accident
I keep winning and remain the loser
At dawn I say "I bid you good night"
Lying down I'm afraid of falling
I'm so rich I haven't a penny
I await an inheritance and am no one's heir
Warmly welcomed, always turned away.

I never work and yet I labor
To acquire goods I don't even want
Kind words irritate me most
He who speaks true deceives me worst
A friend is someone who makes me think
A white swan is a black crow
The people who harm me think they help
Lies and truth today I see they're one
I remember everything, my mind's a blank
Warmly welcomed, always turned away.

Merciful Prince may it please you to know
I understand much and have no wit or learning
I'm biased against all laws impartially
What's next to do? Redeem my pawned goods again!
Warmly welcomed, always turned away.







(The goat scratches so much it can't sleep)

Translated by Galway Kinnell

The goat scratches so much it can't sleep
The pot fetches water so much it breaks
You heat iron so much it reddens
You hammer it so much it cracks
A man's worth so much as he's esteemed
He's away so much he's forgotten
He's bad so much he's hated
We cry good news so much it comes.

You talk so much you refute yourself
Fame's worth so much as its perquisites
You promise so much you renege
You beg so much you get your wish
A thing costs so much you want it
You want it so much you get it
It's around so much you want it no more
We cry good news so much it comes.

You love a dog so much you feed it
A song's loved so much as people hum it
A fruit is kept so much it rots
You strive for a place so much it's taken
You dawdle so much you miss your chance
You hurry so much you run into bad luck
You grasp so hard you lose your grip
We cry good news so much it comes.

You jeer so much nobody laughs
You spend so much you've lost your shirt
You're honest so much you're broke
"Take it" is worth so much as a promise
You love God so much you go to church
You give so much you have to borrow
The wind shifts so much it blows cold
We cry good news so much it comes.

Prince a fool lives so much he grows wise
He travels so much he returns home
He's beaten so much he reverts to form
We cry good news so much it comes.









Goodbye! the tears are in my eyes;
Farewell, farewell, my prettiest;
Farewell, of women born the best;
Good-bye! the saddest of good-byes.
Farewell! with many vows and sighs
My sad heart leaves you to your rest;
Farewell! the tears are in my eyes;
Farewell! from you my miseries
Are more than now may be confessed,
And most by thee have I been blessed,
Yea, and for thee have wasted sighs;
Goodbye! the last of my goodbyes.


I have a tree, a graft of Love,
That in my heart has taken root;
Sad are the buds and blooms thereof,
And bitter sorrow is its fruit;
Yet, since it was a tender shoot,
So greatly hath its shadow spread,
That underneath all joy is dead,
And all my pleasant days are flown,
Nor can I slay it, nor instead
Plant any tree, save this alone.

Ah, yet, for long and long enough
My tears were rain about its root,
And though the fruit be harsh thereof,
I scarcely looked for better fruit
Than this, that carefully I put
In garner, for the bitter bread
Whereon my weary life is fed:
Ah, better were the soil unsown
That bears such growths; but Love instead
Will plant no tree, but this alone.

Ah, would that this new spring, whereof
The leaves and flowers flush into shoot,
I might have succour and aid of Love,
To prune these branches at the root,
That long have borne such bitter fruit,
And graft a new bough, comforted
With happy blossoms white and red;
So pleasure should for pain atone,
Nor Love slay this tree, nor instead
Plant any tree, but this alone.


Princess, by whom my hope is fed,
My heart thee prays in lowlihead
To prune the ill boughs overgrown,
Nor slay Love's tree, nor plant instead
Another tree, save this alone.


Brothers and men that shall after us be,
Let not your hearts be hard to us:
For pitying this our misery
Ye shall find God the more piteous.
Look on us six that are hanging thus,
And for the flesh that so much we cherished
How it is eaten of birds and perished,
And ashes and dust fill our bones' place,
Mock not at us that so feeble be,
But pray God pardon us out of His grace.

Listen, we pray you, and look not in scorn,
Though justly, in sooth, we are cast to die;
Ye wot no man so wise is born
That keeps his wisdom constantly.
Be ye then merciful, and cry
To Mary's Son that is piteous,
That His mercy take no stain from us,
Saving us out of the fiery place.
We are but dead, let no soul deny
To pray God succour us of His grace.

The rain out of heaven has washed us clean,
The sun has scorched us black and bare,
Ravens and rooks have pecked at our eyne,
And feathered their nests with our beards and hair.
Round are we tossed, and here and there,
This way and that, at the wild wind's will,
Never a moment my body is still;
Birds they are busy about my face.
Live not as we, nor fare as we fare;
Pray God pardon us out of His grace.


Prince Jesus, Master of all, to thee
We pray Hell gain no mastery,
That we come never anear that place;
And ye men, make no mockery,
Pray God pardon us out of His grace.








Le Testament: Ballade Des Dames Du Temps Jadis

Tell me where, or in what country
Is Flora, the lovely Roman,

Archipiades or Thaïs,

Who was her nearest cousin,

Echo answering, at clap of hand,

Over the river, and the meadow,

Whose beauty was more than human?

Oh, where is last year’s snow?

Where is that wise girl Eloise,

For whom was gelded, to his great shame,

Peter Abelard, at Saint Denis,

For love of her enduring pain,

And where now is that queen again,

Who commanded them to throw

Buridan in a sack, in the Seine?

Oh, where is last year’s snow?

Queen Blanche of the Siren’s voice

White as a swan, and Alice, say,

Bertha Big-Foot and Beatrice,

Arembourg, ruler of Maine,

Or Jeanne d’Arc of Lorraine,

The English burned at Rouen? Oh,

Where are they Virgin, you who reign?

Oh, where is last year’s snow?

Prince, don’t ask of me again

Where they are, this year or no,

I have only this last refrain:

Oh, where is last year’s snow?

Le Testament: Les Regrets De La Belle Heaulmière

By chance, I heard the belle complain,
The one we called the Armouress,

Longing to be a girl again,

Talking like this, more or less:

‘Oh, old age, proud in wickedness,

You’ve battered me so, and why?

Who cares, who, for my distress,

Or whether at all your blows I die?

You’ve stolen away that great power

My beauty ordained for me

Over priests and clerks, my hour,

When never a man I’d see

Would fail to offer his all in fee,

Whatever remorse he’d later show,

But what was abandoned readily,

Beggars now scorn to know.

Many a man I then refused –

Which wasn’t wise of me, no jest –

For love of a boy, cunning too,

To whom I gave all my largesse.

I feigned to him unwillingness,

But, by my soul, I loved him bad.

What he showed was his roughness,

Loving me only for what I had.

He could drag me through the dirt,

Trample me underfoot, I’d love him,

Break my back, whatever’s worse,

If only he’d ask for a kiss again,

I’d soon forget then every pain.

A glutton, full of what he could win,

He’d embrace me – with him I’ve lain.

What’s he left me? Shame and sin.

Now he’s dead, these thirty years:

And I live on, old, and grey.

When I think of those times, with tears,

What I was, what I am today,

View myself naked: turn at bay,

Seeing what I am no longer,

Poor, dry, meagre, worn away,

I almost forget myself in anger.

Where’s my smooth brow gone:

My arching lashes, yellow hair,

Wide-eyed glances, pretty ones,

That took in the cleverest there:

Nose not too big or small: a pair

Of delicate little ears, the chin

Dimpled: a face oval and fair,

Lovely lips with crimson skin?

The fine slender shoulder-blades:

The long arms, with tapering hands:

My small breasts: the hips well made

Full and firm, and sweetly planned,

All Love’s tournaments to withstand:

The broad flanks: the nest of hair,

With plump thighs firmly spanned,

Inside its little garden there?

Now wrinkled forehead, hair gone grey:

Sparse eyelashes: eyes so dim,

That laughed and flashed once every way,

And reeled their roaming victims in:

Nose bent from beauty, ears thin,

Hanging down like moss, a face,

Pallid, dead and bleak, the chin

Furrowed, a skinny-lipped disgrace.

This is the end of human beauty:

Shrivelled arms, hands warped like feet:

The shoulders hunched up utterly:

Breasts….what? In full retreat,

Same with the hips, as with the teats:

Little nest, hah! See the thighs,

Not thighs, thighbones, poor man’s meat,

Blotched like sausages, and dried.

That’s how the bon temps we regret

Among us, poor old idiots,

Squatting on our haunches, set

All in a heap like woollen lots

Round a hemp fire men forgot,

Soon kindled, and soon dust,

Once so lovely, that cocotte…

So it goes for all of us.


Le Testament: Ballade: ‘Item: Donne A Ma Povre Mere’


This I give to my poor mother
As a prayer now, to our Mistress

– She who bore bitter pain for me,

God knows, and also much sadness –

I’ve no other castle or fortress,

That my body and soul can summon,

When I’m faced with life’s distress,

Nor has my mother, poor woman:


‘Lady of Heaven, earthly queen,

Empress of the infernal regions,

Receive me, a humble Christian,

To live among the chosen ones,

Though I’m worth less than anyone.

Your grace, my Lady and Mistress

Is greater than my sinfulness,

Grace without which, I tell no lie,

None deserve their blessedness.

In this faith let me live and die.

Say to your Son that I am His.

Through Him all my sins are lost:

Forgive me, as Mary Egypt was,

Or, so they say, Theophilus,

Who by your grace was still blameless,

Though he vowed the Devil a guest.

Protect me always from like excess,

Virgin, who bore, without a cry,

Christ whom we celebrate at Mass.

In this faith let me live and die.

I am a woman, poor and old,

I can neither read nor spell.

At Mass in church, here, I behold,

A painted Heaven, with harps: a Hell,

Where the damned are boiled, as well.

One gives me joy: one strikes me cold,

Grant me the joy, Great Goddess,

On whom all sinners must rely,

Fill me with faith and no slackness.

In this faith let me live and die.

V irgin, you bore, O High Princess,

I ssue, whose kingdom is endless,

L ord, who took on a littleness

L ike ours: to save us left the sky,

O ffering his lovely youth to death.

N ow, such is our Lord: such we confess:

In this faith let me live and die.

Le Testament: Ballade: A S’amye

F alse beauty that costs me so dear,
R ough indeed, a hypocrite sweetness,

A mor, like iron on the teeth and harder,

N amed only to achieve my sure distress,

C harm that’s murderous, poor heart’s death,

O covert pride that sends men to ruin,

I mplacable eyes, won’t true redress

S uccour a poor man, without crushing?

M uch better elsewhere to search for

A id: it would have been more to my honour:

R etreat I must, and fly with dishonour,

T hough none else then would have cast a lure.

H elp me, help me, you greater and lesser!

E nd then? With not even one blow landing?

Or will Pity, in line with all I ask here,

Succour a poor man, without crushing?

That time will come that will surely wither

Your bright flower, it will wilt and yellow,

Then if I can grin, I’ll call on laughter,

But, yet, that would be foolish though:

You’ll be pale and ugly: and I’ll be old,

Drink deep then, while the stream’s still flowing:

And don’t bring trouble on all men so,

Succour a poor man, without crushing.

Amorous Prince, the greatest lover,

I want no evil that’s of your doing,

But, by God, all noble hearts must offer

To succour a poor man, without crushing.

Le Testament: Ballade: Pour Robert d’Estouteville

A t dawn of day, when falcon shakes his wing,
M ainly from pleasure, and from noble usage,

B lackbirds too shake theirs then as they sing,

R eceiving their mates, mingling their plumage,

O, as the desires it lights in me now rage,

I ’d offer you, joyously, what befits the lover.

S ee how Love has written this very page:

E ven for this end are we come together.

D oubtless, as my heart’s lady you’ll have being,

E ntirely now, till death consumes my age.

L aurel, so sweet, for my cause now fighting,

O live, so noble, removing all bitter foliage,

R eason does not wish me unused to owing,

E ven as I’m to agree with this wish, forever,

Duty to you, but rather grow used to serving:

Even for this end are we come together.

And, what’s more, when sorrow’s beating

Down on me, through Fate’s incessant rage,

Your sweet glance its malice is assuaging,

Nor more or less than wind blows smoke away.

As, in your field, I plant I lose no grain,

For the harvest resembles me, and ever

God orders me to plough, and sow again:

Even for this end are we come together.

Princess, listen to this I now maintain:

That my heart and yours will not dissever:

So much I presume of you, and claim:

Even for this end are we come together.

Note: The ballade was written for Robert to present to his wife Ambroise de Loré, as though composed by him.

Le Testament: Rondeau

Death, I cry out at your harshness,
That stole my girl away from me,

Yet you’re not satisfied I see

Until I languish in distress.

Since then I’ve lost all liveliness:

What harm alive, to you, was she?

Death, I cry out at your harshness,

That stole my girl away from me.

Two we were, with one heart blessed:

If heart’s dead, yes, then I foresee,

I’ll die, or I must lifeless be,

Like those statues made of lead.

Le Testament: Epitaph et Rondeau


Here there lies, and sleeps in the grave,
One whom Love killed with his scorn,

A poor little scholar in every way,

He was named François Villon.

He never reaped a morsel of corn:

Willed all away, as all men know:

Bed, table, and basket all are gone.

Gallants, now sing his song below:


Oh, grant him now eternal peace,

Lord, and everlasting light,

He wasn’t worth a candle bright,

Nor even a sprig of parsley.

Of eyebrows, hair, and beard he’s free,

A turnip scraped with a spade, all right:

Oh, grant him now eternal peace.

Exiled with strict severity,

Rapped behind with a spade, despite

It all he cried: ‘Appeal, for me!’

– Which wasn’t the height of subtlety.

Oh, grant him now eternal peace.

Ballade: Du Concours De Blois

I’m dying of thirst beside the fountain,
Hot as fire, and with chattering teeth:

In my own land, I’m in a far domain:

Near the flame, I shiver beyond belief:

Bare as a worm, dressed in a furry sheathe,

I smile in tears, wait without expectation:

Taking my comfort in sad desperation:

I rejoice, without pleasures, never a one:

Strong I am, without power or persuasion,

Welcomed gladly, and spurned by everyone.

Nothing is sure for me but what’s uncertain:

Obscure, whatever is plainly clear to see:

I’ve no doubt, except of everything certain:

Science is what happens accidentally:

I win it all, yet a loser I’m bound to be:

Saying: ‘God give you good even!’ at dawn,

I greatly fear I’m falling, when lying down:

I’ve plenty, yet I’ve not one possession,

I wait to inherit, yet I’m no heir I own,

Welcomed gladly, and spurned by everyone.

I never take care, yet I’ve taken great pain

To acquire some goods, but have none by me:

Who’s nice to me is one I hate: it’s plain,

And who speaks truth deals with me most falsely:

He’s my friend who can make me believe

A white swan is the blackest crow I’ve known:

Who thinks he’s power to help me, does me harm:

Lies, truth, to me are all one under the sun:

I remember all, have the wisdom of a stone,

Welcomed gladly, and spurned by everyone.


Merciful Prince, may it please you that I’ve shown

There’s much I know, yet without sense or reason:

I’m partial, yet I hold with all men, in common.

What more can I do? Redeem what I’ve in pawn,

Welcomed gladly, and spurned by everyone.

Ballade: Epistre

Have pity now, have pity now on me,
If you at least would, friends of mine.

I’m in the depths, not holly or may,

In exile, where I’ve been consigned

By Fortune, as God too has designed.

Girls, lovers, youngsters, fresh to hand,

Dancers, tumblers that leap like lambs,

Agile as arrows, like shots from a cannon,

Throats tinkling, clear as bells on rams,

Will you leave him here, your poor old Villon?

Singers, singing in lawless freedom,

Jokers, pleasant in word and deed,

Run free of false gold, alloy, come,

Men of wit – somewhat deaf indeed –

Hurry, be quick now, he’s dying poor man.

Makers of lays, motets and rondeaux,

Will you bring him warmth when he’s down below?

No lightning or storm reach where he’s gone.

With these thick walls they’ve blinded him so.

Will you leave him here, your poor old Villon?

Come see him here, in his piteous plight,

Noblemen, free of tax and tithe,

Holding nothing by king or emperor’s right,

But by grace of the God of Paradise.

Sundays and Tuesdays he fasts and sighs,

His teeth are as sharp as the rats’ below,

After dry bread, and no gateaux,

Water for soup that floats his guts along.

With no table or chair, he’s lying low.

Will you leave him here, your poor old Villon?

Princes of note, old, new, don’t fail:

Beg the king’s pardon for me, and seal,

And a basket to raise me, I’ll sit upon:

So pigs behave, to each other, they say,

When one pig squeals, all rush that way.

Will you leave him here, your poor old Villon?

L’Epitaphe Villon: Ballade Des Pendus

My brothers who live after us,
Don’t harden you hearts against us too,

If you have mercy now on us,

God may have mercy upon you.

Five, six, you see us, hung out to view.

When the flesh that nourished us well

Is eaten piecemeal, ah, see it swell,

And we, the bones, are dust and gall,

Let no one make fun of our ill,

But pray that God absolves us all.

No need, if we cry out to you, brothers,

To show disdain, if we’re in suspense

For justice’s sake. How few of the others,

Are men equipped with common sense.

Pray for us, now beyond violence,

To the Son of the Virgin Mary,

So of grace to us she’s not chary,

Shields us from Hell’s lightning fall.

We’re dead: the souls let no man harry,

But pray that God absolves us all.

The rain has soaked us, washed us: skies

Of hot suns blacken us, scorch us: crows

And magpies have gouged out our eyes,

Plucked at our beards, and our eyebrows.

There’s never a moment’s rest allowed:

Now here, now there, the changing breeze

Swings us, as it wishes, ceaselessly,

Beaks pricking us more than a cobbler’s awl.

So don’t you join our fraternity,

But pray that God absolves us all.

Prince Jesus, who has all sovereignty,

Preserve us from Hell’s mastery.

We’ve no business down there at all.

Men, you’ve no time for mockery.

But pray to God to absolve us all.

Translated by A. S. Kline




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