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Wordbook: A Word from the Poet Louise Labé

The French Renaissance poet Louise Labé was from Lyon, a city in the southeastern part of France. In the sixteenth century it was very near the border with the Italian states. A center for printing and banking, Lyon was, in effect, the doorway through which the Italian Renaissance came up to France--and, we might add, to the rest of Northern Europe. Labé's slight output--25 sonnets, three elegies, and a dialogue between Love and Folly--was published in the mid 1550s.

Labé has gone down in history as a voice of singular passion and intensity. The poet Rilke, who translated her into German in the early twentieth century, called her, in a letter in 1912, one of the great "women lovers" (along with Gaspara Stampa and Marianna Alcoforado). She has become especially prominent in the past two decades as an important "voice" in the history of womens' writing. Recently, in a powerful revisionist argument, the eminent French scholar Mireille Huchon has suggested that she might, in fact, not have existed at all, but simply been a "creation" of a group of male poets. (See Huchon's fascinating book, "Une créature de papier").

Given Labé's/Lyon's position--geographically--on the border between France and Italy, we should not be completely surprised to find that she--or whoever wrote her poems-- begins with a sonnet written in Italian. Here is the beginning of Labé's first sonnet, followed by a translation by me:

Non havria Ulysse o qualunqu'altro mai
Più accorto fu, da quel divino aspetto
Pien di gratie, d'honor et di rispetto,
Sperato qual i' sento affani e guai.

Neither Ulysses, or anyone even more
Perceptive, could have foreseen the pain
And misery I suffer from that divine face,
Full of grace, honor, and respect.

I've smoothed out the diction. In Italian this first stanza is like a pretzel sandwich. It begins and ends with two parts of the beginning of a sentence. "Nobody--not even somebody smarter than the great hero Ulysses--. . .could have foreseen what I have suffered." Between the two halves of this convoluted reference to Ulysses we find the introduction of Labé's beloved. He's evoked with a phrase as simple as the rest of the stanza is twisted. He's present by virtue of his face, which is full of grace, honor, and respect--three clichés for describing beloved types (usually female) in the poetic tradition that Labé inherits.

This stanza traces an awkward sentence. But it makes a powerful argument about the history of literature. Ulysses is in here as the typical example of the cagey hero--the cleverest guy around, who can outwit the Sirens, the Cyclops, and all manner of unpleasant characters. However, here he gets cut down to size. It turns out he's not so smart after all. For one thing, he's just one among many (there are others "more perceptive"). More important, he couldn't even foresee a passion like mine (forget Penelope, forget Circe). Indeed, Homer's entire epic--one of the "great" poems of Antiquity--gets downgraded by Labé's little sonnet, which claims to express an experience beyond the imagining of the Ancients. My passion is so great that, compared with it, these classical authorities are clueless. She shrink wraps the Ancients.

So much for Antiquity, so much for handsome and clever men. Yet the real fun begins when we get to stanza two. Read More 
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