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.
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.