(Engraving by Pierre Woeiriot)
Louise Labé was known for various reasons, all centered around the corpus of poetry attributed to her. Many believe her poetry had been the fabrication of notorious contemporary male poets seeking an outlet for their creativity. However, recent scholarship has decidedly credited Labé with her work, even as the specifics of her perhaps tumultuous life remain unaccounted for.
She was in fact the daughter of a well-off ropemaker in Lyon, and married a man of the same profession who was significantly older than her. She held a following of those enamored by her, either because she was charismatic, or due to her physical appearance according to those who testified to her unending beauty. Perhaps these traits are not as mutually exclusive as many texts have made them out to be.
I am less concerned with the details of her personal life, as I am with the message in her works, specifically her sonnets that recall earlier female writing, namely the trobairitz and their unprecedented chansons.
Labé wrote during a time of transition between what would later be referred to as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, significantly living in a town that straddled both Parisian and Italian culture. This afforded her exposure to art forms and conventions appealing to both. The region was well known in literary circles for its connection to the Pléiade poets, however, Labé’s contribution to the form received mixed reviews. She has often been criticized for the lack of breadth her work provides. Once again the connection between herself and the trobairitz becomes apparent, as they too only ever sang about a single unrequited love, but nevertheless, their oeuvres were significantly smaller, often no larger than half a dozen works. Despite the modest size of Labé’s corpus, it was still considered too large to be only concerned with a single subject.
All of her work was published in a single volume, Œuvres, containing Débat de Folie et d’Amour, three elegies, and twenty four sonnets. Her last sonnet, “Ne Reprenez, Dames,” beautifully sums up the entire work as she appeals to the ladies of Lyon, candidly and unapologetically attesting to her love history, while reminding them that they may suffer the same fate. And the suffering might just be bittersweet.
Here is the sonnet and my translation:
Si j’ay senti mile torches ardenttes,
Miles travaus, mile douleurs mordentes.
Si, en pleurant, j’ay mon tems consumé,Las! que mon nom ne soit par vous blamé.
Si j’ay failli, les peines sont presentes,
N’aigrissez point leurs pointes violentes:
Mais estimez qu’amour, a point nommé,Sans votre ardeur d’un Vulcan excuser,
Sans la beauté d’Adonis acuser,
Pourra, s’il veut, plus vous rendre amoureuses,
En ayant moins que moy d’ocasion,
Et plus d’estrange et forte passion.
Et gardez vous d’estre plus malheureuses!
If I have felt a thousand torches burning,
A thousand labors, a thousand biting pains.
If, in crying, I have my days consumed,Alas! Let my name not be by you blemished,
If I have failed, my pains are present,
Do not further sharpen needles to a point:
But consider that love, at the right moment,Without your ardor by Vulcan excused,
Without beauty by Adonis accused,
Can, if he wants, to render you more in love,
Having much less occasion than me,
And with a stranger and stronger passion.
And take care not be be even more unhappy!
The rhyme scheme is abba abba ccd ccd, clearly in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, also known as an Italian sonnet. However, note her breaks in the octave and sestet, rearranging the rhythm into quatrains and tercets. Even though this is hardly anomalous to this text, it signals her penchant for authority over her work, and her larger departures from conventions.
Additionally, while the topoi remains intact, the genders are reversed, and in another comparison to the trobairitz, Labé usurps male control when crafting her sonnet that clearly subverts gendered norms as she endows herself, a female speaker, with authority. Further, as this piece references her singular concern throughout her corpus of works, namely her love for a man that was not her husband, she positions herself as an everywoman. She cautions her audience of their own susceptibility towards love who “pourra, s’il veut, plus vous redre amoureuses,” (can, if he wants, to render you more in love), implying a complete lack of autonomy on anyone’s part in trying to withstand the power of love.
The piece begins with an imperative against reproach for having loved, enumerating the various sensations love engenders, all of which more closely resemble torture rather than the bliss generally associated with amorous feelings. The images of burning pain and tears depict the suffering endured by the lover to better demonstrate the burden which comes with the feeling, garnering sympathy for the trials she must, almost unwillingly, endure. This duty-laced performance ties back into the beginning request, since reproach cannot be doled out towards those who lack the freewill to resist love in the first place.
The same imperative command appears in the second quatrain that again absolves the speaker of volition. Paradoxically she uses this sonnet to relinquish autonomy, but not agency. She attests to her lack of choice in the matter of loving, but does not demonstrate regret, nor account for acquiescing to acting upon it. After all, to love in one’s head against one’s will is different than to follow through with actions. She most notably does not attempt to absolve herself in this regard. Within this quatrain also commences the cautionary prospect of love overcoming the sonnet’s audience who judges Labé for her actions.
She references Vulcan who had to suffer Aphrodite’s indiscretions as she openly chased after Adonis, and then Ares (among others). Here the husband will not excuse the same conduct, nor be blamed for his wife’s infidelity. Labé then evokes the image of Adonis, but here the man’s perfect form cannot be accused of seduction, however, neither can the one encountering these passions. The blame rests squarely upon the shoulders of a disjointed love. As the last tercet asserts, love cannot be deferred, or ignored, only tolerated, and placated.
The closing line summonses the beginning of the first quatrain as “malheureuses” refers to the unhappiness love has the ability to endow upon its victims. The caution she imparts in her closing remark is not against love, which is unstoppable, but against resisting it and causing more pain than is necessary. Here her line and stanza arrangement serves to increase the tension of the poem, relying on these final lines to convey the full impact of her meaning. Her last line, a full sentence, and the most compact complete thought within the sonnet, delivers the final shock. Passion can be “stranger and stronger” than anything felt before, and anything short of embracing it has worse consequences than all the reproach and rumors a town has to offer.