In these verses, the fabled confrontation between the pirate captain Diomedes and the legendary emperor Alexander the Great attests to a basic equivalence between government and criminal, tyrant and terrorist, revolutionary and traitor. The last line of the third stanza is of course sardonic, and the syntactic slippage between Alexander and Diomedes in the final stanza is deliberate. The title “Pirate King” may refer to Diomedes, Alexander, or both at once.
François Villon (1431–1463?), poet, student, and outlaw, composed the translated verses in prison as part of his Testament, a poetic riff on the legal convention of a last will. Born into poverty, he was adopted and raised by a chaplain and future professor of canon law at the University of Paris, where he would receive a bachelor’s degree in 1449 and a master’s in 1452.
Villon’s first run-in with the law occurred in 1455, when he was arrested for assaulting a priest in a brawl; the following year, he helped to orchestrate the theft of five hundred gold crowns from the College of Navarre. His first major work, Le lais (The Legacy), a poetic last will that prefigures the longer Testament, dates from around the time of this robbery. Over the next few years, during his first exile from Paris, he may have found a literary patron and legal protector in Duke Charles of Orléans, whose personal album contains three of Villon’s shorter poems.
During the summer of 1461, Villon was imprisoned once again, this time at Meung-sur-Loire, where he composed the Testament before being liberated, along with many other prisoners, as part of a display of royal munificence by King Louis XI on his travels through the provinces. Villon’s final arrest occurred in Paris, in 1462. Condemned to hang, he appealed and was granted a commuted sentence of ten years’ banishment from the city. After January 1463, no further trace of him remained.
Samantha Pious is a graduate student in comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first book, A Crown of Violets (Headmistress Press, 2015), offers a selection of the French poetry of Renée Vivien in English translation. Some of her other translations and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Berkeley Poetry Review, Mezzo Cammin, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and other publications.