Before I got this book, I had never heard of Louise Labé, a female French poet whose works of poetry are complete with twenty-four sonnets and three elegies, published in 1555. They come to us now in a lovely bilingual edition from the NYRB/Poets series, finally translated into English by Richard Siebuth.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB/Poets.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB/Poets.

This edition comes loaded with helpful material, including a preface by Karin Lessing, a chronology of Labé’s life and of these pieces of poetry (including a brief account of the latest bit from 2006 when Mireille Huchon claimed these were not really by Louise Labé, but rather are a hoax by Maurice Scève . . . and two dozen of his friends . . . oh, and the publisher — sigh), ten pages of helpful notes, and a twenty-five-page afterword by the translator (where we also learn that, hey, Scève was a bit of a trickster, once claiming to have found the grave of Petrarch’s muse, Laura, complete with another of Petrarch’s poem — and she was the French Laure de Noves, ancestor of the Marquis de Sade; Sieburth has also translated Scève’s Délie, published in 2003).

But I saved all of that (and it’s fascinating — and fun) until the end, figuring I’d just dive in and get to know Labé through her own words first.

The first thing we see here is a dedicatory epistle to a young Lyonnaise noblewoman named Clemence de Bourges, which shocked and simultaneously invigorated me:

The time having come, Mademoiselle, when the stern laws of men no longer bar women from devoting themselves to the sciences & other branches of learning: it seems to me that those who have the opportunity to do so ought to take advantage of that honorable liberty which persons of our sex formerly so desired, in order to study such matters: & to show men the harm they have done us by depriving us of the benefit & the honor which should have been our due.

It is obvious from the adamantly feminist dedicatory epistle that Labé has a great deal to say to us today. Indeed, Sieburth tells us in his afterword, in 2005 her works were made required reading for the French national agrégation exam in literature. She wasn’t prolific, but what we have is wonderful, and it feels like a gift finally getting these in English, even if I never knew they existed.

Though the elegies are at the back of this edition (according to Sieburth, most scholars agree they were written after the sonnets), they were at the front of the original 1555 edition, serving, in a way, as an introduction to Labé, her love, and her sonnets. I believe it is here that we get a lot of what we think we may know of her private life. We know that she married a ropemaker who was two decades older than her, yet this passage from Elegy 3 seems to suggest she loved, but could not love, someone else:

I hadn’t seen sixteen Winters pass
When I found myself in this awful plight:
And here it is, the thirteenth Summer
Since Love stunned me to the core.

Love is, as we might expect from Petrarchan sonnets from the Renaissance, the central theme. But for me it’s the sly way she goes about it, the mysteries inherent in the playful text, filled with Eros, that make these unique and, I’m assuming since I’ve already reread them five times, perpetually rereadable.

Just look at how much is hidden and slightly revealed in the highly sexual Sonnet VIII:

I live, I die: I flare up & I drown.
The colder I feel the hotter I burn:
Life is too hard & too soft in turn.
To every joy sorrow circles round.

All of a sudden I laugh & I weep,
Taking pleasure in each twinge of pain:
The moment I flower, I fade away:
The treasure I lose, a treasure I keep.

Inconstant Love is my most constant guide:
Whenever the pain grows beyond belief,
To my surprise, I feel nothing inside.

Then, convinced my bliss cannot be denied
And I’m about to climb joy’s highest peak,
He reminds me of all my former grief.

I loved this book, which, as I mentioned above, not only introduces English readers to the works of Louise Labé but also fills its pages with fascinating details of her life and of the attempts to strip her of her work. I’d love to keep quoting here, but best if you just go find a copy yourself and dig in.


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By |2014-04-21T11:55:14+00:00April 10th, 2014|Categories: Louise Labé|7 Comments


  1. Scott W. April 10, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    My spouse is a great fan of Louise Labé though I have yet to read her work. I’m happy to know of this new bilingual edition. The feminism of many Renaissance writers, both male and female, can be startling compared to the paucity of it in so much contemporary literature.

  2. Trevor Berrett April 10, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    I think the most I’ve dealt with feminism in Renaissance writers is (besides here and now) hypothetical: it’s Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, when she wonders about Shakespeare’s sister. I now remember I have read some of Queen Elizabeth’s works, which certainly counts.

    It’s an area I’d love to know more about (if anyone has a good resource).

  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) April 11, 2014 at 12:22 am

    I don’t have a general resource, but I can say this with certainty: read the poems of Gaspara Stampa. The Italian Labé, or vice versa. Both individuals, actually, post-Petrarchan individuals, fine poets.

    Very exciting to have Sieburth working on Labé. He is so good with the period. I hope he is working on Ronsard.

  4. jayant April 12, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Hello Trevor,

    A rather long-time visitor to this blog (well, at least for the past four-five years), but a very quiet one–may have commented on a post here and there, but no more. Wanted to say that while I appreciate the blog’s expanding scope with the new contributors and, I saw just now, the summation of each post in a line or two on the main page, and understand that it’s in the natural order of things to grow, it does induce in me a bit of sadness. These developments make the blog seem, at least to an old-world person like me, more like a corporate entity than the personal, individual expression of someone whose taste and style one has grown to understand and trust over the years. I’m sure the word ‘corporate’ here can be challenged, as I suppose the blog is still hardly a profit-making enterprise, yet that’s the closest I can get to expressing how it feels.

    That’s all I wished to say. I should add that I remain a very grateful reader, as the number of wonderful books to which I have been introduced here is immense. But that, I suppose, is why the regret.

  5. Trevor Berrett April 12, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Hi jayant, thanks so much for the comment. You raise legitimate concerns, and ones I have every time I make a change on here. I worry that people will feel it’s losing some degree of authenticity.

    I suppose the best thing I can say is I hope the things you like about The Mookse and the Gripes don’t change. I certainly don’t plan on changing my own approach to the books and material.

    Let me try to explain the changes to you and to others who surely feel the same way you do. I welcome all feedback.

    Why the contributors?

    The first and biggest reason is that I get too many books to read (so general growth is a part of this), let alone review, and yet I’d like to give more coverage. The contributors — and there are some more I’m excited for you to meet — will be helping out with those as well as pursuing their own interests.

    Their posts will speak for themselves in time, but right now I’ll step up: the contributors are each phenomenal individuals from various backgrounds and interests. I can’t wait for you to meet them. I looked primarily at two things: 1) can they write up to my standards, such as they are and 2) does their taste fit my personal vision for this blog. I had a surprising response to my call for contributors and selected only a few. I think, like me, you’ll end up feeling they fit right in.

    One thing to note, each of them came to me knowing the blog and knowing full well it wouldn’t pay a dime. They are interested in what the blog is interested in, and, consequently, I think you’ll be interested in them too.

    Why the blog format change?

    The primary reason is that my old “theme” failed on me about two weeks ago, so this wasn’t a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I had barely touched my format in nearly six years, and then one evening it just stopped working. I tried to restore it, even deleted it and tried to start over from scratch (format-wise, not content-wise), but that didn’t work either. I had to find a new theme. I’m liking this one so far. The old one was outdated anyway; this new theme is flexible and responsive to formatting, whether on an iPhone or computer screen. Plus, it looks a lot sharper on modern HD or retina screens. I like that, and I didn’t even know it. I’ll be experimenting with this for some time as there are plenty of options for me to consider, so expect some more changes, based purely on personal preference and not on any view for profits.

    Which leads me to the changes to the homepage, which today I changed to include little blurbs rather than full posts. This was a tough decision for me, and not one I’m completely sure I’ll keep. Honestly, the only reason I put the post introduction on the outside page is because, with contributors, I want you to know who is writing the review immediately, but without making the reviewer’s name a part of the post title. I recognize there are other ways of doing this (like putting the reviewer’s name at the top of the post), but so far I haven’t like them. Under this theme, this seems the best way.

    I realize that many sites attempting to make money do things this way as an attempt to get more click-throughs, but you’re right to suspect this blog is hardly profitable. Even if it doubled the views, I’m not sure I’d recognize it in the revenue.

    But money is neither here nor there for me when it comes to this blog. It’s still very personal to me, which is one of the reason these contributors excite me so much.

    Thanks again for speaking up, and please speak up again with future thoughts :-) .

  6. sshaver April 14, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Happy to know about Labe’

    Just wondering: whose is the handwriting at the top of the website page? What does it say?

  7. Scott W. April 15, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Trevor – Thanks to your post I picked up the Louise Labé book and have read all the sonnets (the elegies await). It’s a terrific little book, though I’m experiencing a slight disconnect between the original French and the rather liberal translation. This isn’t necessarily a fault: some translations that take liberties do marvelous things, and my appreciation of these will require rereading in any case. But the French is so exquisite – for example, in the sonnet you quote above, “flower” in the translation is, in the original, the magnificent French verb “verdoyer” – to become verdant, to green, to flourish like the spring. Well, there really is no great translation for that, is there?

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