Good François Villon, petty thief,
Carouser, cutpurse, scholar, sot;
Young chronicler of gallows-grief,
Escapee from the hempen knot;

Depicter of the dregs and lees
Of drunken students, louts, and sinners;
Of beggars, pimps, and hostelries,
Of men-at-arms, and roast fish dinners;

We need you here and now, Villon,
To resurrect the vibrant brawls
Of Paris, 1451,
Its alleyways and hawkers’ calls;

To down a tankard of cheap ale,
And dicker with the serving-wench;
To write ballades while still in jail,
Or sprawling on a tavern’s bench;

To pilfer money on the sly,
And spend the last sou on a whore;
To spit into a priestly eye,
And contradict some bourgeois bore;

To clear the trencher, drain the cup,
To pawn the basin, bowl, and ewer;
Show incorruption rising up
In glory from a foetid sewer;

And prove that poetry’s not made
By moralists and pious snots;
But is the furtive, grubby trade
Of souls besmirched with carnal blots.

—From Masquerade



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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18 Responses

  1. Peter Hartley

    Very colourful and minutely descriptive like the one about pirates, and Villon sounds even more so. I would never trust anybody with three pseudonyms and that should have been a dead giveaway to anyone to whom he was introduced. I discovered a new word in your poem. I’ve never heard of the word “dicker” (vb) but then found out it’s American and I’ve never been there long enough to hear it. But I’m not going to get into a chiropteroclastic radge about it. V good poem to read aloud and, incidentally, very educational (I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about him either beyond a vague idea of his dates).

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      The verb “dicker” (to argue and bargain over the price of something) is found in both Middle English and early Modern English, but has died out in current British usage. Like many older English words, it survives in American speech.

  2. Peter Hartley

    Very vague. I thought he was a contemporary of Chaucer but they didn’t even overlap.

  3. Leo Zoutewelle

    The ambiance is almost overwhelming, interesting! Thank you.

  4. Rob Crisell

    I think your poem is wonderful. Your language is direct, surprising, and muscular. You drag Villon into the present for a moment and he–with you–shatters the status quo once again, at least in words. I first met Villon through the writings of Ezra Pound. Such a fascinating figure. In 1924, Pound even wrote an opera about him, which (blessedly, no doubt) has only been performed a few times. Again, well done.

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I knew nothing of François Villon and had to look him up – what a character! Your poem brings him back to life in all his infamous glory. He explodes onto the page in a fiery array of literary device that has me in awe of your wondrous way with words. For me, this poem is an inspirational, educational, masterful delight. Thank you, Dr. Salemi.

  6. Joe Tessitore

    “pious snots” and “carnal blots” – it doesn’t get any better than that!

  7. Rod Walford

    I absolutely love this! Your final verse in particular spells out a timeless truth .
    Great work Sir – thank you.

  8. Lew Icarus Bede

    From Mr. Salemi’s “Masquerade” of a decade-and-a-half ago, comes the poem “Apostrophe to François Villon”, seven stanzas of iambic tetratmeter (perhaps Salemi’s favourite meter, and an important English Baroque meter).

    His apostrophe reminds me of Wordsworth’s sonnet, wishful for the words of Milton (unlike Keats). In my mind, the most extraordinary thing about the poem is its diction, which is Elizabethan, rich, and quite appropriate for its topic, a Salemi trademark.

    The phrasing is so nice. A few examples suffice: “Escapee from the hempen knot”; “Of men-at-arms and roast-fish dinners”; “Its alleyways and hawker’s calls”; and “To clear the trencher, drain the cup, To pawn the basin, bowl and ewer”. Surprisingly perhaps, at moments, I am reminded of Longfellow’s trochaic tetrameter “The Ropewalk”.

    Though one might not necessarily argue it for Mr. Salemi’s work, his poem certainly contains the insight into Villon’s work, which Pound knew well, and reminds me of what T. S. Eliot said of Blake, “His poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry”. For me, the strand of PostModern and NewMillennial poetry, which Mr. Salemi’s work traverses, vividly demonstrates one avenue down which NewMillennial poetry is moving.

    And though I do not like any particular poem of Mr. Salemi’s, like I moderately like “The Tyger”, for instance, still I am beginning to appreciate his attack, i. e. his approach, on and to NewMillennial writing in English. His effort to American letters, if not profound, is valuable in a way in which I can think no other American writer’s is. Who could fill such a vital role, as poet, critic and polemicist? Is he our Samuel Johnson? Who in our era could or would even answer either question? Certainly some samples of Mr. Salemi’s poetry should be placed in an anthology of New Millennial poetry; his apostrophe to Villon would surely suffice.

    Still, lest I seem too appreciative of his work, I still stand by every poem I have written on him and his work.

  9. A.B. Brown

    I remember first reading about Villon several years ago in volume five of Will Durant’s magnificent ‘The Story of Civilization,’ and was immediately captivated. He is in many ways the prototype of the modern starving artist.

    Amazing that he wrote his greatest poetry in the span of a single year, in-between two prison sentences in which he was condemned to death and then pardoned. After the latter sentence was commuted to a 10-year banishment, Durant poignantly writes that “he packed his bundle, grasped the bottle of wine and the purse that good Guillaume [his priestly foster-father] gave him, received the old man’s benediction, and marched out of Paris and history. We hear nothing of him more.”

    Durant concludes a summary paragraph balancing Villon’s immoral character against his verse with, “He paid the penalty for what he was, and left us only the reward.” —In line with Dr. Salemi’s ‘Apostrophe,’ though, and against Durant, it seems that separating the crimes from the rhymes makes for a rather dull figure indeed.

  10. David Watt

    Francois Villon was also new to me. But the directness and rich language of Dr. Salemi is both welcome and familiar.
    This poem makes me realise that the colourful life of Francois Villon must have provided him with invaluable material for his poetic works.

  11. Joseph S. Salemi

    I did want to show that the brilliance of Villon’s poetry cannot be separated from the criminality and sordidness of his personal life, and that in fact they are inextricable. The overall aim was to show that we today needn’t always write poetry that is “edifying” or “inspirational” or “pious” or “virtue-signaling.” It also helps to be vicious and obscene, as Villon was in his “Ballade of Fat Margot” (a wonderful depiction of life in a cheap whorehouse).

  12. Sultana Raza

    Though I didn’t know much about François Villon, this poem pins him, his period, and his environment down with a rich plethora of period-specific words. It’s not that easy to limit oneself to words from a certain era in the past, but one gets the impression that Dr Salemi is quite dexterous at this kind of sleight of hand, i.e. pulling out unusual words and expressions from his poetic hat.
    I can’t help wondering if Rimbaud wasn’t Villon’s successor of sorts, as many of the adjectives and characteristics in the first two stanzas could apply to him as well…

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Arthur Rimbaud led an even wilder life than Villon did. How many brilliant poets are also dealers in illegal arms to savage tribes in Ethiopia? We could really use a poem about him here, if it wouldn’t scare off our resident moralists.

      • Sultana Raza

        Dr Salemi,
        Agreed about your comment on Rimbaud. I have a sneaking feeling that I won’t be the one composing a poem on him. However, you unique poem and these comments got me thinking of the fact that though Byron was ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know,’ when compared to Rimbaud’s life and (lack of) principles perhaps he should be put in a less ‘bad’ category. Speaking of bad boys of poetry, or poets with questionable morals, perhaps after about fifty years or so, as women continue to make strides in society, perhaps the treatment by TS Eliot, and Ted Hughes of their respective wives will be seen in an increasingly unfavourable light.

  13. Joseph S. Salemi

    Again, I never judge poets by their morals or lack of them. That’s up to God. The only thing I care about is the quality of the stuff they have produced. As serious readers of poetry, that’s all that should matter to us.

    As for T.S. Eliot and Ted Hughes, I think both of them suffered plenty in being married to women with major mental issues.

  14. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    Postmodernist American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) had mental problems before she married Ted Hughes (1930-1998). Perhaps if he had been faithful to her, he could have helped her; and maybe even written better poetry; but such was not the case. Of the two writers, though I despise so much of Plath’s work, I prefer her poetry, and she remains, for me, one of the best Postmodern American poets. Out of her neurotic-driven being, she created some of the best free verse ever produced in English. She made free verse believable; and that is not an easy task to do. To me, some of her poetry is absolutely incandescent.

    As for T. S. Eliot’s first wife, I have little to say, that others can say better. How could he help her, when at the time of the writing of “The Wasteland”, he was having his own mental breakdown?. That is one of the reasons I hate the poetry of T. S. Eliot; because I believed I had a duty to go through his personal nightmarish suffering to truly understand his poetry. Reading, rereading, and recording “The Wasteland”, edited by Ezra Pound, was one of the hardest (yet surprisingly, most fulfilling) things I have ever done poetically. It is largely through admiring Eliot, while fighting him, that I have come to my own New Millennial vision of poetry. He remains for me the greatest literary critic in our language, a poet who opened up vistas of English, not yet explored, and a dramatic failure—but one who tried to link the ancient classical world to our own.


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