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An essay by Hilaire Belloc


Title:     Villon
Author: Hilaire Belloc [More Titles by Belloc]

I have said that in Charles of Orleans the middle ages are at first more apparent than the advent of the Renaissance. His forms are inherited from an earlier time, his terminology is that of the long allegories which had wearied three generations, his themes recall whatever was theatrical in the empty pageantry of the great war. It is a spirit deeper and more fundamental than the mere framework of his writing which attaches him to the coming time. His clarity is new; it proceeds from natural things; it marks that return to reality which is the beginning of all beneficent revolutions. But this spirit in him needs examination and discovery, and the reader is confused between the mediaeval phrases and the something new and troubling in the voice that utters them.

With Villon, the next in order, a similar confusion might arise. All about him as he wrote were the middle ages: their grotesque, their contrast, their disorder. His youth and his activity of blood forbad him any contact with other than immediate influences. He was wholly Northern; he had not so much as guessed at what Italy might be. The decrepit University had given him, as best she could, the dregs of her palsied philosophy and something of Latin. He grew learned as do those men who grasp quickly the major lines of their study, but who, in details, will only be moved by curiosity or by some special affection. There was nothing patient in him, and nothing applied, and in all this, in the matter of his scholarship as in his acquirement of it, he is of the dying middle ages entirely.

His laughter also was theirs: the kind of laughter that saluted the first Dance of Death which as a boy he had seen in new frescoes round the waste graveyard of the Innocents. His friends and enemies and heroes and buffoons were the youth of the narrow tortuous streets, his visions of height were the turrets of the palaces and the precipitate roofs of the town. Distance had never inspired him, for in that age its effect was forgotten. No one straight street displayed the greatness of the city, no wide and ordered spaces enhanced it. He crossed his native river upon bridges all shut in with houses, and houses hid the banks also. The sweep of the Seine no longer existed for his generation, and largeness of all kinds was hidden under the dust and rubble of decay. The majestic, which in sharp separate lines of his verse he certainly possessed, he discovered within his own mind, for no great arch or cornice, nor no colonnade had lifted him with its splendour.

That he could so discover it, that a solemnity and order should be apparent in the midst of his raillery whenever he desires to produce an effect of the grand, leads me to speak of that major quality of his by which he stands up out of his own time, and is clearly an originator of the great renewal. I mean his vigour.

It is all round about him, and through him, like a storm in a wood. It creates, it perceives. It possesses the man himself, and us also as we read him. By it he launches his influence forward and outward rather than receives it from the past. To it his successors turn, as to an ancestry, when they had long despised and thrown aside everything else that savoured of the Gothic dead. By it he increased in reputation and meaning from his boyhood on for four hundred years, till now he is secure among the first lyric poets of Christendom. It led to no excess of matter, but to an exuberance of attitude and manner, to an inexhaustibility of special words, to a brilliancy of impression unique even among his own people.

He was poor; he was amative; he was unsatisfied. This vigour, therefore, led in his actions to a mere wildness; clothed in this wildness the rare fragments of his life have descended to us. He professed to teach, but he haunted taverns, and loved the roaring of songs. He lived at random from his twentieth year in one den or another along the waterside. Affection brought him now to his mother, now to his old guardian priest, but not for long; he returned to adventure--such as it was. He killed a man, was arrested, condemned, pardoned, exiled; he wandered and again found Paris, and again--it seems--stumbled down his old lane of violence and dishonour.

Associated also with this wildness is a curious imperfection in our knowledge of him. His very name is not his own--or any other man's. His father, if it were his father, took his name from Mont-Corbier--half noble. Villon is but a little village over beyond the upper Yonne, near the division, within a day of the water-parting where the land falls southward to Burgundy and the sun in what they call "The Slope of Gold." From this village a priest, William, had come to Paris in 1423. They gave him a canonry in that little church called "St. Bennets Askew," which stood in the midst of the University, near Sorbonne, where the Rue des Ecoles crosses the Rue St. Jacques to-day. Hither, to his house in the cloister, he brought the boy, a waif whom he had found much at the time when Willoughby capitulated and the French recaptured the city. He had him taught, he designed him for the University, he sheltered him in his vagaries, he gave him asylum. The young man took his name and called him "more than father." His anxious life led on to 1468, long after the poet had disappeared.

For it is in 1461, in his thirtieth year, that Villon last writes down a verse. It is in 1463 that his signature is last discovered. Then not by death or, if by death, then by some death unrecorded, he leaves history abruptly--a most astonishing exit!... You may pursue fantastic legends, you will not find the man himself again. Some say a final quarrel got him hanged at last--it is improbable: no record or even tradition of it remains. Rabelais thought him a wanderer in England. Poitou preserves a story of his later passage through her fields, of how still he drank and sang with boon companions, and of how, again, he killed a man.... Maybe, he only ceased to write; took to teaching soberly in the University, and lived in a decent inheritance to see new splendours growing upon Europe. It may very well be, for it is in such characters to desire in early manhood decency, honour, and repose. But for us the man ends with his last line. His body that was so very real, his personal voice, his jargon--tangible and audible things--spread outward suddenly a vast shadow upon nothingness. It was the end, also, of a world. The first Presses were creaking, Constantinople had fallen, Greek was in Italy, Leonardo lived, the stepping stones of the Azores were held--in that new light he disappears.

* * * * *

Of his greatness nothing can be said; it is like the greatness of all the chief poets, a thing too individual to seize in words. It is superior and exterior to the man. Genius of that astounding kind has all the qualities of an extraneous thing. A man is not answerable for it. It is nothing to his salvation; it is little even to his general character. It has been known to come and go, to be put off and on like a garment, to be lent by Heaven and taken away, a capricious gift.

But of the manner of that genius it may be noted that, as his vigour prepared the flood of new verse, so in another matter his genius made him an origin. Through him first, the great town--and especially Paris--appeared and became permanent in letters.

Her local spirit and her special quality had shone fitfully here and there for a thousand years--you may find it in Julian, in Abbo, in Joinville. But now, in the fifteenth century, it had been not only a town but a great town for more than a century--a town, that is, in which men live entirely, almost ignorant of the fields, observing only other men, and forgetting the sky. The keen edge of such a life, its bitterness, the mockery and challenge whereby its evils are borne, its extended knowledge, the intensity of its spirit--all these are reflected in Villon, and first reflected in him. Since his pen first wrote, a shining acerbity like the glint of a sword-edge has never deserted the literature of the capital.

It was not only the metropolitan, it was the Parisian spirit which Villon found and fixed. That spirit which is bright over the whole city, but which is not known in the first village outside; the influence that makes Paris Athenian.

The ironical Parisian soul has depths in it. It is so lucid that its luminous profundity escapes one--so with Villon. Religion hangs there. Humility--fatally divorced from simplicity--pervades it. It laughs at itself. There are ardent passions of sincerity, repressed and reacting upon themselves. The virtues, little practised, are commonly comprehended, always appreciated, for the Faith is there permanent. All this you will find in Villon, but it is too great a matter for so short an essay as this.


It is difficult or impossible to compare the masterpieces of the world. It is easy and natural to take the measure of a particular writer and to establish a scale of his work.

Villon is certainly in the small first group of the poets. His little work, like that of Catullus, like that of Gray, is up, high, completed and permanent. And within that little work this famous Ballade is by far the greatest thing.

It contains all his qualities: not in the ordinary proportion of his character, but in that better, exact proportion which existed in him when his inspiration was most ardent: for the poem has underlying it somewhere a trace of his irony, it has all his ease and rapidity--excellent in any poet--and it is carried forward by that vigour I have named, a force which drives it well upwards and forward to its foaming in the seventh line of the third verse.

The sound of names was delightful to him, and he loved to use it; he had also that character of right verse, by which the poet loves to put little separate pictures like medallions into the body of his writing: this Villon loved, as I shall show in other examples, and he has it here.

The end of the middle ages also is strongly in this appeal or confession of mortality; their legends, their delicacy, their perpetual contemplation of death.

But of all the Poem's qualities, its run of words is far the finest.


_Dictes moy ou, n'en quel pays
Est Flora la belle Rommaine;
Archipiada, ne Thais,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus riviere ou sus estan,
Qui beaulte ot trop plus qu'humaine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?_

_Ou est la tres sage Hellois,
Pour qui fut chastre et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart a Saint-Denis?
Pour son amour ot cest essoyne.
Semblablement, ou est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust gecte en ung sac en Saine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan!_

_La Royne Blanche comme un lis,
Qui chantoit a voix de seraine;
Berte au grant pie Bietris, Allis;
Haremburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu'Englois brulerent a Rouan;
Ou sont elles, Vierge souvraine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan!_


_Prince, n'enquerez de sepmaine
Ou elles sont, ne de cest an,
Que ce reffrain ne vous remaine:
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan!_


(_Stanzas 75-79._)

Villon's whole surviving work is in the form of two rhymed wills--one short, one long: and in the latter, Ballads and Songs are put in each in their place, as the tenour of the verse suggests them.

Thus the last Ballade, that of the "Dead Ladies," comes after a couple of strong stanzas upon the necessity of death--and so forth.

One might choose any passage, almost, out of the mass to illustrate the character of this "Testament" in which the separate poems are imbedded. I have picked those round about the 800th line, the verses in which he is perhaps least brilliant and most tender.



_Premier je donne ma povre ame
A la benoiste Trinite,
Et la commande a Nostre Dame
Chambre de la divinite;
Priant toute la charite
Des dignes neuf Ordres des cieulx,
Que par eulx soit ce don porte
Devant le trosne precieux._


_Item, mon corps je donne et laisse
A notre grant mere la terre;
Les vers n'y trouveront grant gresse:
Trop luy a fait faim dure guerre.
Or luy soit delivre grant erre:
De terre vint, en terre tourne.
Toute chose, se par trop n'erre,
Voulentiers en son lieu retourne;_


_Item, et a mon plus que pere
Maistre Guillaume de Villon
Qui m'este a plus doulx que mere,
Enfant esleve de maillon,
Degete m'a de maint boullon
Et de cestuy pas ne s'esjoye
Et luy requiers a genoullon
Qu'il n'en laisse toute la joye._


_Je luy donne ma Librairie
Et le Romman du Pet au Deable
Lequel Maistre Guy Tabarie
Grossa qui est homs veritable.
Por cayers est soubz une table,
Combien qu'il soit rudement fait
La matiere est si tres notable,
Q'elle amende tout le mesfait._


_Item donne a ma povre mere
Pour saluer nostre Maistresse,
Qui pour moy ot doleur amere
Dieu le scet, et mainte tristesse;
Autre Chastel n'ay ni fortresse
Ou me retraye corps et ame
Quand sur moy court malle destresse
Ne ma mere, la povre femme!_


(_Written by Villon for his mother._)

The abrupt ending of the last extract, the 79th stanza of the "Grant Testament"--"I give..." and then no objective (apparently) added--is an excellent example of the manner in which the whole is conceived and of the way in which the separate poems are pieced into the general work.

What "he gives..." to his mother is this "Ballade of our Lady," written, presumably, long before the "will" and put in here and thus after being carefully led up to.

These thirty-seven lines are more famous in their own country than abroad. They pour from the well of a religion which has not failed in the place where Villon wrote, and they present that religion in a manner peculiar and national.

Apart from its piety and its exquisite tenderness, two qualities of Villon are to be specially found in this poem: his vivid phrase, such as:

_"Emperiere des infernaux paluz,"_

(a discovery of which he was so proud that he repeated it elsewhere) or:

_"sa tres chiere jeunesse."_

And secondly the curiously processional effect of the metre and of the construction of the stanzas--the extra line and the extra foot lend themselves to a chaunt in their balanced slow rhythm, as any one can find for himself by reading the lines to some church sing-song as he goes.


_Dame des cieulx, regente terrienne,
Emperiere des infernaux paluz,
Recevez moy, vostre humble chrestienne,
Que comprinse soye entre vos esleuz,
Ce non obstant qu'oncques rien ne valuz.
Les biens de vous, ma dame et ma maistresse,
Sont trop plus grans que ne suis pecheresse,
Sans lesquelz biens ame ne peut merir
N'avoir les cieulx, je n'en suis jungleresse.
En ceste foi je veuil vivre et mourir._

_A vostre fils dicte que je suis sienne;
De luy soyent mes pechiez aboluz:
Pardonne moy, comme a l'Egipcienne,
Ou comme il feist au clerc Theophilus,
Lequel par vous fut quitte et absoluz,
Combien qu'il eust au Deable fait promesse.
Preservez moy, que ne face jamais ce
Vierge portant, sans rompure encourir
Le sacrement qu'on celebre a la messe.
En ceste foy je veuil vivre et mourir._

_Femme je suis povrette et ancienne
Qui riens ne scay; oncques lettre ne leuz;
Au moustier voy dont suis paroissienne
Paradis faint, ou sont harpes et luz,
Et ung enfer ou dampnez sont boulluz:
L'ung me fait paour, l'autre joye et liesse.
La joye avoir me fay, haulte Deesse,
A qui pecheurs doivent tous recourir,
Comblez de Foy, sans fainte ne paresse.
En ceste foy je veuil vivre et mourir._


_Vous portastes, digne vierge, princesse,
Jesus regnant, qui n'a ne fin ne cesse.
Le Tout Puissant, prenant notre foiblesse,
Laissa les cieulx et nous vint secourir,
Offrit a mort sa tres chiere jeunesse.
Nostre Seigneur tel est, tel le confesse,
En ceste foy je veuil vivre et mourir._


As I have not wished to mix up smaller things with greater I have put this _ballade_ separate from that of "the Ladies," though it directly follows it as an after-thought in Villon's own book. For the former is one of the masterpieces of the world, and this, though very Villon, is not great.

What it has got is the full latter mediaeval love of odd names and reminiscences, and also to the full, the humour of the scholarly tavern, which was the "Mermaid" of that generation: as the startling regret of:

Helas! et le bon roy d'Espaigne
Duquel je ne scay pas le nom....

and the addition, after the false exit of "je me desiste".

_Encore fais une question_

He laughed well over it, and was perhaps not thirsty when it was written.


_Qui plus? Ou est le Tiers Calixte
Dernier decede de ce nom,
Qui quatre ans tint le papaliste?
Alphonce, le roy d'Arragon,
Le Gracieux Duc de Bourbon,
Et Artus, le Duc de Bretaigne,
Et Charles Septiesme, le Bon?....
Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne!_

_Semblablement le roy Scotiste
Qui demy face ot, ce dit on,
Vermeille comme une amatiste
Depuis le front jusqu'au menton?
Le roy de Chippre, de renom?
Helas! et le bon roy d'Espaigne
Duquel je ne scay pas le nom?...
Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne!_

_D'en plus parler je me desiste
Le monde n'est qu'abusion.
Il n'est qui contre mort resiste
Le que treuve provision.
Encor fais une question:
Lancelot, le roy de Behaigne,
Ou est il? Ou est son tayon?....
Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne!_


_Ou est Claguin, le bon Breton?
Ou le conte daulphin d'Auvergne
Et le bon feu Duc d'Alencon?...
Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne!_



This is the best ending for any set of verses one may choose out of Villon. It follows and completes the epitaph which in his will he orders to be written in charcoal--or scratched--above his tomb: the sad, sardonic octave of "the little scholar and poor." It is a kind of added dirge to be read by those who pass and to be hummed or chaunted over him dead. But it is a rondeau.

See how sharp it is with the salt and vinegar of his pressed courageous smile--and how he cannot run away from his religion or from his power over sudden and vivid beauty.

"Sire--et clarte perpetuelle"--which last are the best two words that ever stood in the vulgar for _lux perpetua_.

It is no wonder that as time went on, more and more people learnt these things by heart.


_Repos eternel, donne a cil,
Sire, et clarte perpetuelle,
Qui vaillant plat ni escuelle
N'eut oncques, n'ung brain de percil.
Il fut rez, chief, barbe et sourcil,
Comme un navet qu'on ret ou pelle.
Repos eternel donne a cil.
Rigueur le transmit en exil
Et luy frappa au cul la pelle,
Non obstant qu'il dit "J'en appelle!"
Qui n'est pas terme trop subtil.
Repos eternel donne a cil._


Stanza 1, line 1. Note the redundant negative; it is characteristic of mediaeval French, as of all primitive work, that the general suggestion of doubt is sufficient to justify a redundant negative.

Line 2. _Flora_, etc. It is worth while knowing who these women were. _Flora_ is Juvenal's Flora (Sat. II. 9), a legend in the university. Of _Archipiada_ I know nothing. _Thais_ was certainly the Egyptian courtesan turned anchoress and canonized, famous in the middle ages and revived to-day in the repulsive masterpiece of M. Anatole France. _Elois_ is, of course, _Heloise_, and _Esbaillart_ is Abelard. The queen, who in the legend had Buridan (and many others) drowned, was the Dowager of Burgundy that lived in the Tour de Nesle, where the Palais Mazarin is now, and had half the university for a lover: in sober history she founded that college of Burgundy from which the Ecole de Medecine is descended; the legend about her is first heard of (save in this poem) in 1471, from the pen of a German in Leipzig. _Blanche_ may be Blanche of Castille, but more likely she was a vision of Villon's own, for what did St. Louis' mother ever sing? _Berte_ is the legendary mother of Charlemagne in the Epics; _Beatris_ is any Beatrice you choose, for they have all died. _Allis_ may just possibly be one of the Troubadour heroines, more likely she is here introduced for rhyme and metre; _Haremburgis_ is strictly historical: she was the Heiress of Maine who married Foulque of Anjou in 1110 and died in 1126: an ancestress, therefore, of the Plantagenets. _Jehanne_ is, of course, Joan of Arc.

Line 8. _D'Antan_ is _not_ "Yester-year." It is "Ante annum," all time past before _this_ year. Rossetti's "Yester-year" moreover, is an absurd and affected neologism; "Antan" is an excellent and living French word.

Stanza II, line 2. Note the pronunciation of "Moyne" to rhyme (more or less) with "eine": the oi, ai and ei sounds were very similar till the sixteenth century at earliest. They are interchangeable in many popular provincialisms and in some words, _e.g._, Fouet, pronounced "Foit" the same tendency survives. The transition began in the beginning of the seventeenth century as we learn from Vaugelas: and the influence towards the modern sound came from the Court.

Stanza III, line 2. _Seraine_="Syren."

Line 5. "_Jehanne_", "_Jehan_", in spite of the classical survival in their spelling, were monosyllables from the earliest times.

Line 7. The "_elles_" here would not scan but for the elided "e" in "_souv'raine_" at the end of the line. In some editions "_ils_" is found and _souveraine_ is spelt normally. _Ils_ and _els_ for a feminine plural existed in the middle ages.

_Envoi._ The envoi needs careful translation. The "que" of the third line="sans que" and the whole means, "Do not ask this week or this year where they are, _without_ letting this refrain haunt you". "Que" might possibly mean "de peur que", did not the whole sense of the poem forbid such an interpretation.


Stanza 75, line 4. A charming example of those "flashes" which reveal Villon.

Stanza 76, line 2. Note the spelling of _Grant_ in the feminine without an _e_. Adjectives of the third declension whose feminine was not distinguishable in Latin took no "e" in early French. A survival of this is found in grand' rue, grand' messe, etc.

Line 5. _Grant erre_, "quickly", and the whole line reads: "Let it (my body) be delivered to it (luy=la terre) quickly," the "erre" here is from the popular late Latin "_iterare_"="_iter facere_". It survives in the nautical idiom "reprendre son erre"="to get under weigh again."

Line 7. "_Erre_" here comes, on the contrary, from _errare_, to make a mistake, to err.

Stanza 77, line 4. _Maillon._ Swaddling clothes.

Line 5. _Boullon_, scrape. The two lines are obscure but seem to read: "He has got me out of many a scrape which gave him no joy" (_esioye_ from _esjouir_=_rejouir_).

Line 7 and 8. These are obscure but apparently="And beseech him on my knees not to forsake all joy on that account."

Stanza 78, line 2. "_Le Romman du Pet au Deable_." The Pet au Deable was a great stone at the door of a private house in the university. The students took it away and all Paris fought over the matter. The "Roman" was a set of verses, now lost, which Villon wrote on the quarrel.

Line 3. _Guy Tabarie_ who _grossa_ (wrote out), these verses was a friend of Villon's: soon hanged.

Line 5. _Soubz._ The "b" is pedantic, the _ou_ indicates of itself the loss of the _b_. The "z" (and the "s" in the modern _sous_) are due to the derivation not from _sub_ but _subtus_.


Stanza 2, line 3. _Egypcienne._ St. Mary of Egypt.

Line 4. _Theophilus._ This was that clerk who sold his soul to the Devil and whom Our Lady redeemed. You may find the whole story sculptured on the Tympanum of the exquisite northern door of Notre Dame in Paris.

Line 8. _Vierge Portant_="Virgin that bore a son".

Stanza 3, line 4. _Luz_="luthus". "S" becomes "z."

The Envoi. Note the Acrostic "Villon" in the first letters of the first six lines. It is a trick he played more than once.


Stanza 1, line 1. _Calixte._ These names are of less interest. _Calixte_ was Pope Calixtus III, Alphonso Borgia, who died in 1458--in Villon's twenty-sixth year. _Alphonse_ is Alphonso V of Arragon, who died in that same year. The _Duc de Bourbon_ is Charles the First of Bourbon, who died at the end of the year 1456, "gracieux" because his son protected Villon. _Artus_ (Arthur) of Brittany is that same Richemont who recaptured Paris from Willoughby. Charles VII is Charles VII. The _Roy Scotiste_ is James II, who died in 1460: the _Amethyst_ half of his face was a birthmark. The _King of Cyprus_ is probably John III, who died in that same fatal year, 1458. Pedants will have it that the _King of Spain_ is John II of Castille, who died in 1454--but it is a better joke if it means nobody at all. _Lancelot_ is Vladislas of Bohemia, who died in 1457. _Cloquin_ is Bertrand de Guesclin who led the reconquest. _The Count Daulphin_ of Auvergne is doubtful; _Alencon_ is presumably the Alencon of Joan of Arc's campaign, who still survived, and is called "feu" half in ridicule, because in 1458 he had lost his title and lands for treason.

Stanza 2, line 3. _Amatiste_=amethyst.

Stanza 3, line 7. _Tayon_=Ancestor. "_Etallum._" Latin "_Stallio_."


Line 1. _Cil_=celui-ci. The Latin "_ecce illum_."

Line 3. _Escuelle_=bowl. "With neither bowl nor platter."

Line 4. Note again the constant redundant negative of the populace in this scholar: "Had never, no--not a sprig of parsley."

Line 5. _Rez_=ras, cropped.

[The end]
Hilaire Belloc's essay: Villon