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.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

Love Sonnets & Elegies
By Louise Labé
Translated by Richard Sieburth
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison
120 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9781590177310
$12.95
Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >

Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

Read More >

Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

Read More >

Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

Read More >