With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving” quantity and degree of attention. What is also unsurprising—and slightly depressing—is the rather gossipy nature of the comment and controversy surrounding Labé’s work, both past and present. Her contemporaries, we are told, spread rumours that she was a courtesan, albeit one with discerning taste in her clientele. In recent years, one Renaissance scholar has claimed that Labé’s poetry was actually written by a group of men, and that Labé herself never even existed. The life of a female writer, it seems, comes with some interesting occupational hazards.
Regardless of what she was or wasn’t, Labé herself is proudly conscious of her femininity in her work, and Love Sonnets & Elegies offers some rewarding insights into a pioneering female mind. In her dedicatory epistle to Clémence de Bourges, Labé expresses her desire to see women “surpass or equal men not only in beauty but in learning & worthiness,” and her poetry contains nods toward a community of presumably like-minded women, whom she addresses with a charming spirit of familiarity in “Sonnet 24” (“Don’t reproach me, ladies, for having loved”) and in “Elegy I,” in which she pleads, “Join in my sorrows, / Ladies, when you read of my regrets. / Some day, I may do the same for you.” Such disarming intimacy is hard to resist.
Writing in the sixteenth century, it is inevitable that Petrarchan tropes find their way into Labé’s work from time to time. Love dominates all of her poetry, and her verse is least inspiring when it is littered with such clichés as “I live, I die: I flare up, & I drown / The colder I feel the hotter I burn” (“Sonnet 8”). Yet there is something undeniably refreshing in hearing a female voice engaging in the sort of poetic objectification usually dominated by Renaissance male writers, and Labé seems to positively relish beating them at their own game: “Sonnet 21” finds her wondering aloud, “What height places a man beyond compare? / What size? What shade of hair? What color of skin?”; elsewhere she coos to her lover in “Sonnet 11,” “How sweet your glances, how lovely your eyes / Small gardens blooming with amorous flowers.” Whenever she isn’t carefully evaluating her lover piece by piece in the best blason tradition, she is occupied with calling him out for the sort of perfidious behaviour usually decried as the preserve of sly females, as when she berates him in “Sonnet 23,” “Where are those tears once shed & now no more? / Or that Death on which you solemnly swore / You would love me for the rest of your life?” It is not often that we hear a female answering back in early modern verse, and it makes for enjoyable reading.
Yet happily for the modern reader, Labé is not a mere Renaissance novelty, for her work frequently rises above the literary constraints and conventions of her era to provide lines of genuine pathos and wit that translate well across the centuries. Her endings can be particularly strong, as when the close of “Sonnet 5” finds her confessing that, “when I’m almost completely shattered / Lying in bed as if nothing mattered / My screams shall light up the entire night,” or when “Sonnet 16” finds her chiding her lover, “You’ve doused your flame in some other sea, / Much colder than I ever claimed to be.” If Labé really is a (literally) man-made fiction, she is certainly a very convincing one—the voice in these verses is strong and distinctive, imbued with a warmth and charm that is consistently present.
Richard Sieburth’s translations are elegantly concise and direct, giving Labé’s verses a supple feel in his English renderings. Any reader with a taste for Renaissance verse will find much to enjoy in this slim volume, and even a general reader may find it well worth his or her time to make the acquaintance of the lady of Lyon.
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