Louise Labé: Sonnet 23 "Men and their Clichés" (From French)


Sonnet 23
Louise Labé
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

What use to me that you sang long ago 
 The perfect praise of my gold flowing hair,
 And my eyes' beauty like unto a pair
 Of suns, whence Love drew back a subtle bow
To shoot the bright shafts needling you with woe?  
 Ah momentary tears, where are you now?
 Where now is Death whereby you bound that vow
 Of steadfast love which you repeated so?
Was this the goal behind the ruse you gave me? — 
 Pretend to serve, the better to enslave me.
 Forgive me this time, love, if I speak free
For I'm beside myself with rage and spite, 
 Yet I should like to think: wherever you be,
 You're no less miserable than me tonight.  
Sonnet 23
Louise Labé
Click to hear me recite the original French

Las! Que me sert, que si parfaitement  
 Louas jadis et ma tresse doree,
 Et de mes yeus la beaulté comparee
 A deus soleils, dont Amour finement
Tira les trets causez de ton tourment? 
 Où estes vous, pleurs de peu de duree?
 Et Mort par qui devoit estre honoree
 Ta ferme amour et iteré serment?
Donques c’estoit le but de ta malice 
 De m’asservir sous ombre de service?
 Pardonne moy, Ami, à cette fois,
Estant outree et de despit et d’ire: 
 Mais je m’assure, quelque part que tu sois,
 Qu’autant que moy tu soufres de martire.

Two notes on the French text:

L5: Trets of course means "darts, arrows (of love)" and also "traits, features."

L9: Renaissance French Malice is not the malignity of Modern English "malice" though almost all Labé's translators into English seem to have taken this as the primary sense. The word has, and has had over the history of the French language, a multitude of meanings and shades thereof. By this word, in her time and place, Labé probably means something like "toying" or more precisely: screwing around with someone without due regard for their well-being, but more for your own pleasure than out of a desire to do them harm. Yet the word also has other resonances, and polysemy is one of Labé's best skills.

On Louise Labé:

Louise Labé was - apart from being a great poet of 16th century France - an accomplished scholar, a spirited horsewoman and an outspoken defender of women's humanity. I don't like to use the term "feminism" to describe advocates of women's dignity from before the 19th century, but in Labé's case I think it applies. Her surviving writings  attest to a vision of emancipation for women both in public and private life. Her achievement was possible because Lyonnais society, relatively speaking, offered women a considerable measure of freedom and opportunities which would have been denied them in other parts of Europe at the time. It is no accident that not just Labé but a few other women of letters hailed from 16th century Lyon. One might compare this to the exclusively male output of other contemporaneous literary centers.
"Since the time has now come, Madamoiselle. when men’s draconian laws can no longer prevent women from applying themselves to scholarship and learning, it seems to me that those with the means should avail themselves of this deserved freedom— which our sex so deeply desired in ages past —to pursue them: demonstrate to men how wrong they were to deprive us of the benefit and esteem we might have earned by achieving these things."
"Estant le tems venu, Madamoiselle, que les severes loix des hommes n’empeschent plus les femmes de s’apliquer aus sciences et disciplines: il me semble que celles qui ont la commodité, doivent employer cette honneste liberté, que notre sexe ha autre fois tant desiree, à icelles aprendre: et montrer aus hommes le tort qu’ils nous faisoient en nous privant du bien et de l’honneur qui nous en pouvoit venir"
-Louise Labé, from an epistle written in 1555. 
Labé could not have known that the growing trend of female emancipation in her region was going to completely reverse itself a few decades after her death, and her dream would have to wait hundreds of years more to begin to be realized.

That she was a celebrated beauty we know because her male contemporaries did as men often do with women who distinguish themselves intellectually, and made much of her appearance. One wonders whether the amatory verse of her male contemporary, the celebrated Pierre de Ronsard, would have achieved preeminence had readership and posterity paid that kind of attention to how very ugly he was by the standards of his time.

She was also the subject of much popular male opprobrium in her own day (the society of Lyon may have been relatively flexible and free, but even the Lyonnais had limits), and much male innuendo in the centuries after her death, principally for her forays into typically male domains. Calvin famously called her a plebeia meretrix "common whore." He especially disapproved of her wearing men's clothes, and of her encouraging women to focus on cultural and intellectual development rather than on jewels and fashion.

While not always approaching Calvin's crudity, a goodly amount of the scholarship on her until recently has focused - to put it bluntly - on which men she did, or did not, have sex with (and if so, how much.) I'm not even kidding. The writings about her from before the second half of the 20th century, with the wildly overblown comparisons between her and Sappho, sometimes read like an almost parodic refraction of male sexual psychoses into the realm of literary criticism. On the other hand, her habit of masculinizing herself socially lead critics as late as the 60s to use the term "Amazon" to describe her.

Now onto Labé's actual poetics:

The Petrarchan poetic tradition, imported from Italy, exerted a strong influence on the literary scene of Labé's place and time, and she imbibed it deeply, even going so far as to write one of her sonnets in Italian. She writes not merely within, but also against, that universe, constantly exploring the both the possibility and the difficulty of using it as a medium to express feminine lust, and much more besides.

She is quite remarkably unflinching in claiming her own passion for male beloveds. At the same time she uses the Petrarchan tradition to critique or mock the insincerity or absurdity that the male dominance of that tradition typically suppresses. The result seems like something of a love-hate relationship with the tradition itself.

Alongside statements of passion, and urgings directed toward other women to explore their desire, the reader finds, for example example, a sonnet lamenting a desired man's sexual impotence. Elsewhere in prose, she has an insecure Venus validating herself exclusively through Cupid's visual assessment of her own good looks, and does so to satirize the blason (a Renaissance poetic genre characterized by male praise of specific female body parts.)

In the poem translated above, one finds Labé lamenting - as is her wont - a man's failure to deliver. In this case, she is undercutting the semantic value of the poetic clichés men's verse typically used to describe women (golden hair, eyes like suns, cupid's arrow, I would die before I cease to love thee, etc.)  and demonstrating that that banality corresponds to  dishonesty, namely that of a man lacking the courage of his conceits.


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