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Sunday, 2 October 2011

Working Notes: Louise Labé (1524 - 1566)

By Alexandra A. Jopp

Love and passion: The female voice in Louise Labe's sonnets

Louise Labé, poètes poètes

There are certain epochs in the history of literature in which poetry was the predominant verbal art, such as the classical period of Greek and Roman antiquity, the era of European romanticism and the "golden" and "silver" age in Russian poetry. The poetic period of the Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century and gradually expanded throughout Europe to join this short list. Characterized by the uses of personal applicability, limits and the purposes of human aspirations to understand the problems of society and what it means to be human, the poetry of the Renaissance, as much or more than any other art form, represents the "revival" and "rebirth" that defined the period. It can even be argued that the value of a person and of human life was not fully realized until the Renaissance.

When we think about literary genres in which women worked during the Renaissance, we usually think of lyrics, poetry, novels and essays. The men and women that we typically associate with these genres are Francesco Petrarch, who expressed his self-sacrificing love for Laura through his sonnets, the Venetian poet Veronica Franco, Marguerite de Navarre and her short stories from Heptameron or Michel de Montaigne with his Essai. Rarely, people will know the name of another brilliant French woman poetess: Louise Labe. That she is little known is not surprising given that she lived at a time in which society was dominated by men. Notwithstanding the limitations placed on the ability of women to express themselves, female writers in early modern Europe produced whole volumes of poetry, translations and letters. Writing these types of genres was an acceptable activity for women, so they used them to express their emotions, using flowery language to analyze human passions, struggles and desires. Through their letters and poems, these women offer images of benevolent and amazing lives. There is also, however, a naïve and innocent tone to their writings. The universal human emotions they express, though, as well as many of the cultural beliefs, values and philosophies, render them timeless.

La Castianire, portrait supposé de Louise Labé

Louise Labe

Three elegies, twenty four sonnets and one prosaic dialogue - a quantitatively modest art heritage left to us by Lyons poetess Louise Labe, yet more than enough to earn her recognition as one of the greats of not only French but also world poetry.

Very little is known about Louise Labe, the beautiful and talented daughter of a wealthy rope-maker. "Everything in the life of Louise is uncertain: the nature and the circumstances of her education, what sort of teachers she had, what her true admirers were like, what her morals were, and what was the nature of her loves" (Martin 2). Even her birth date is not certain; she is thought to have been born in April 1522.

Labe was the daughter of Pierre Charly and his second wife, Etiennette Roybet. After Labe's mother died in 1525, Charly married a third time to Antoinette Taillard, a girl without a dowry who was 20 years his junior. Louise's stepmother "cared and supervised her upbringing" and did not interfere with Louise's father's efforts to provide her with "a well-rounded and rigorous education," something that was uncommon for a girl in her bourgeois environment (Bourbon 2). Labe received a liberal education, studying ancient and modern languages and literature and becoming fluent in Spanish, Latin, Greek and Italian. She also had some musical training. Thus, it is not an accident that in the Debate of Folly and Love, she speaks of music as a superior art. She also brings music into her Sonnet XII: "Lute, in disaster my most loyal friend, Unimpeachable witness of my pain, with me you have sorrowed time and time again, giving of all my grief a true account;" (Martin 31).

The education received by Labe is especially surprising in that it exceeded even the instruction given to many members of France's upper class at the time. This helps to explain why, in her works, Labe so ardently defended the right of women to a liberal education and why she wanted women to "surpass or equal men, not only in beauty, but also in knowledge and virtue" (Bourbon 6). She expressed her thoughts on women's domestic duties by saying, "I can only urge virtuous Ladies to raise their minds somewhat above their distaffs and spindles" (Bourbon 6). In short, Labe was one of the first women writers in early modern Europe who understood the importance of self-achievement and saw learning and education as a way of achieving equality with men.

While Labe had much to say about the relationships between the sexes, little is known about her relationships with men. About 1544, Labe married a rich rope-maker, who was more than 30 years older than she. According to Peter Sharratt, "it was a strange marriage which seems to have left her almost total freedom, freedom in particular to run some sort of a literary salon or to invite men of letters to her house" (2).

The verses that were written about Labe by her contemporaries describe her as a woman blessed with captivating beauty and intelligence. She had extensive musical training, enormous language skills and an artistic output that rivals in literary, historic and scientific erudition the most prominent humanists of the Renaissance.

Reading the books and articles devoted to Labe, the admiration and amazement with which her poetry and her personality were regarded in 16th century France becomes quickly apparent. Anyone introduced to Labe's sonnets would likely describe them as spontaneous, sincere and passionate. According to Martin, however, "this does not mean that it expresses directly her own personal passionate experience, but rather it creates a new one which is independent of the lived experience" (12). Similarly, Geoffrey Brereton notes that, in Labe's "short collection of poems (elegies and sonnets) a sensual passion speaks frankly and ardently, yet purely" (Brereton 32). This sensual passion stems from the torment caused by the absence of her lover. "Ovilier de Magny is usually considered to have been the Lover whose presence in the sonnets of Louise Labe is most certain" (Martin 3). Although, the sonnets are similar in form to those of Francesco Petrarch, Labe's poems grow more directly from natural feelings. Her sonnets have love as a common theme, specifically, her vision of love "as the great equalizer … based on her recognition of the power of its ongoing paradoxes and contradictions" (Baker 76). This theme is incorporated into her poems by "the rhetorical representation of her female lover's emotional vagaries by a series of oppositional structures – oxymora, antithesis, and paradoxes" (Baker 77).

Labe depicts the effects of love through the vocabulary she uses, the format of her sonnets and her poetic voice. She usually makes a statement of her experience with love in the first two quatrains, then the tone of the sonnet changes, and in the tercets she expresses the meaning of the poem. Labe's Sonnet 8, I live and die, demonstrates this:

I live and die; drowning I burn to death,

Seared by the ice and frozen by the fire;

Life is as hard as iron, as soft as breath;

My joy and trouble dance on the same wire... (Martin 27)

In the first two quatrains, the poetess writes of opposites - life and death, ice and fire, hard and soft - developing antitheses that are common for her poetry. The sonnet is very emotional and reflects the peaks and valleys of life. But life, as they say, is about the journey, not the destination, and it is about the choices we make as to how to spend each moment. Will we be in a state of bliss or a state of sadness? The key is always to remember during trying times that this too shall pass. The good times, meanwhile, are even better when we are able to share them with loved ones, for, in sharing, we give a part of ourselves to another without expecting anything in return. In Labe's sonnet, love is not a noun, it is a verb, an action, and that action is giving. There is a certain sweetness to giving; it brings a joy that is not found elsewhere.

Thus constant Love is my inconstant guide;

And when I am to pain's refinement brought,

Beyond all hope, he grants me a reprieve.

And when I think joy cannot be denied,

And scaled the peak of happiness I sought,

He casts me down into my former grieve (Martin 27).

In the last tercets, Labe provides the reader with the message that love can have both good and bad effects, and that what it is important is the experience that love and life bring to a person.

Labe's language is not artificial, in contrast to many of her contemporaries, and there is little, if any, story in her sonnets. According to Martin, her love language is often "violent, yet is stilted because the poems proceed with antithesis; and the physical and spiritual suffering of love is analyzed" (7). Deborah Baker, meanwhile, notes that Labe's poetry echoes conventional themes and diction, and that the poetess "demonstrates her strong individuality and independent thinking on the subject of love" (8). The same theme of love's contradictory effects is observed in Sonnet IV: "Since the first moment when my bosom caught The fire of Love's infection, I was prey To his divine delirium, that brought No respite even for a single day." The sonnet is written in the Petrarchan tradition using antithesis, and it is "certainly devoted to love's cruel face" (Petrey 590).

Love has an ambiguous nature throughout Labe's sonnets. It is joy and sorrow, life and death, power and weakness. Reading these love songs, we are able to follow the story of the poetess' life. Through these sonnets, she expresses her thoughts about perfect love and ultimately creates a self-portrait of a passionate woman: "kiss me again, kiss, kiss me again; give me the tastiest you have to give …" (Martin 37). Just as Petrarch offers an example of an ideal man in love, so does Labe describe an ideal woman in love "who is neither separated spatially from the object of her passion, nor dependent upon anyone" (Tucker 835).

Labe tries to find meaning in her life through love. Her conception of a meaningful life, similar to Petrarch, consists of understanding how to touch the soul of others by building a life on love, sacrifice and humanity. Though we are far from perfect, in love, perfection can be found. Hence, as was the case with Petrarch, Labe's life is a portrait of pure love, devotion and sacrifice. Through this type of love, one can understand all aspects of human existence. This is especially evident in Sonnet V: "Bright Venus, who across the heavens stray, I pray you be my listener and witness; My voice, while still your star is shining high, Will bitterly lament its loving sickness"(Martin 25).

This love, however, is not always a joyful feeling for Labe. Often, the despair and futile hope of such love brings her pain and suffering: "This one poor woman. Almost I despair; My heart a house assailed with flaming brands; Yet not one spark to catch and make you flare" (Martin 25). Even in her sadness and sorrow, though, she does not renounce her love. Instead, she recognizes the value of the experience of love, even though it sometimes leads to heartache, and glorifies it.

  • Louise Labe's life, like her poems, was a product of antitheses that, together, formed an unexpectedly coherent whole. She has been a subject of romantic legends "which send her to war in male armour and also make her a lettered courtesan" (Brereton 177). She was born in a society dominated and controlled by men, but she urged women to apply themselves "to knowledge and study." She was a renowned poetess of love and passion, but she used her verse to praise freedom and independence. She knew the force of male prejudice, but was not afraid to express explicitly her erotic desires and passions. Her insights, creativity and courage produced not just great poetry, but also social change, for, in writing about the value of love, she also wrote about the value of women, and this helped to begin the process of breaking down the institutionalized inequality between the sexes in Europe. Louise Labe not only advocated for the rights of women, she lived a life that demonstrated undeniably that an educated woman could achieve just as much as a man. She was not just a great female poet of early modern Europe, she was a great person of the Renaissance.

  • Baker, D. L. (1996). The Subject of Desire: Petrarchan Poetics and the Female Voice in Louise Labe. West Lafayette, Purdue University Press.

    Bourbon, A.-M. (2000). Louise Labe: Debate of Folly and Love. New York, Peter Lang.

    Brereton, G. (1954). A Short History of French Literature. London and Beccles, William Clowes and Sons, Ltd.

    Brereton, G. (1957). An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the Present Day. London, New York, Methuen & Co Ltd and Barnes & Noble Inc.

    Jones, A. R. (1991). The Currency of Eros. Women's Love Lyric in Europe 1540-1620. Italica 68 (4): 11-35.

    Judith Brown, R. D. (1998). Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy, Addison Wesley Publishing Company.

    Martin, P. S. a. G. D. (1973). Louise Labe Sonnets. Edinburgh, W&J Mackay Limited, Chatham.

    Nash, J. C. (1993). "Louise Labe: Les Voix du Lyrisme. by Guy Demerson." Renaissance Quarterly 46(1): 173-174.

    Petrey, S. (1970). "The Character of the Speaker in the Poetry of Louise Labe." The French Review 43(4): 588-596.

    Tucker, C. G. (1974). "Rilke's Eternal Woman and the Translation of Louise Labe." MLN 89(German): 829-839.


  1. nice share. i write something like this on my blog.

  2. Very helpful as a general summary, thanks!