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.

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