About this poet

Most of what is known about François Villon has been gathered from legal records and gleaned from his own writings. Villon was born to a young, poor French couple in 1431. His father died when he was a small boy, and he and his mother were left in a poverty made worse as Paris suffered through English occupation, civil war, and famine.

The boy was then brought to Guillaume de Villon, a chaplain of the church of Saint-Benoît-le-Béntourné and future professor of ecclesiastical law at the University of Paris. Master Guillaume adopted François, gave him his surname, and began teaching him Latin grammar and syntax. At the age of eleven, Villon became a student in the Faculty of Arts of the University, and under his adopted-father’s tutelage received his bachelor’s degree in 1449. By 1452, when Villon received his Master of Arts degree, the young man was on the cusp of a promising career in either church or law.

Little is known about his life for the next few years, but on June 5, 1455, Villon was arrested for killing the priest Philippe Sermoise in a bar brawl in Paris. On his deathbed, however, the priest publicly forgave Villon, who had fled the city. The young poet was royally pardoned.

Early in 1456, Villon returned to his home in Paris. In December, he wrote Le Lais, also known as Le Petit Testament, one of Villon’s most important works. Villon claimed to have finished the poem at Christmas, while at the same time he met up with a number of acquaintances and later stole 500 gold crowns from a coffer at the College of Navarre, where the community kept their funds. In Le Lais, Villon shows himself composing the poem during the same hours he was orchestrating the robbery. In Louis Simpson’s notes to the translation, he poses the question: "Could it be that he wrote these stanzas after the robbery at the College in order to provide himself with an alibi?"

Villon left Paris shortly after the incident to find sanctuary in the provinces. Meanwhile, some of his criminal compatriots formed a small gang and conducted a crime spree throughout the north of France. When the authorities began arresting and hanging his friends, Villon was also accused and banished from Paris. He wandered for several years, and sought refuge with the Duke of Orleans, a fellow poet and admirer of his work, who eventually helped secure Villon's pardon.

And then in 1461, after being once again imprisoned for a minor crime and then pardoned by the newly crowned King Charles VII, Villon composed what is considered his masterpiece, Le Testament. The over two thousand verses are propelled by the immediate possibility of a death sentence for Villon by hanging and balance the extremes of anger and religious fervor.

But, Villon's luck finally seemed to have run out when he was once again arrested for brawling; this time he was sentenced to the gallows. While awaiting his death sentence, Villon composed "Ballad of Hanged Men" and "I Am Francois, They Have Caught Me." A last minute appeal to Parliament reduced his sentence to ten years banishment from Paris on January 5, 1463. At the time, Villon was only 34 years old. He left the city and was never heard from again.

Ballade [The goat scratches so much it can't sleep]

François Villon
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.

From The Poems of François Villon translated by Galway Kinnell, published by Houghton Mifflin, © 1965. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

From The Poems of François Villon translated by Galway Kinnell, published by Houghton Mifflin, © 1965. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

François Villon

Most of what is known about François Villon has been gathered from legal records and gleaned from his own writings.

by this poet

poem
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