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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. Here it is:

Pur, Amour, co i begli occhi tu fatt'hai
Tal piaga dentro al mio innocente petto,
Di cibo et di calor già tuo recetto,
Che remedio non v'è si tu n'el dai.

Yet, Love, you made, by means of beautiful eyes,
Such a wound in my innocent breast--
Where you take nourishment and heat--
That there is no remedy unless you give it.

Whew. Be careful whom you look at; that's my advice. But what is striking here is that while Labé's poem is in Italian, her calling out to love, ("Yet, Love, you made. . .") is in French. Or, rather, the "Love" invoked here is a French love, "Amour," not the Italian "Amore" or the Latin "Amor."

I have the impression that Labé is calling Love into being as a kind of French force. From the position of an Italian speaker, she is speaking French love ("toujours l'amour," in the words of Michael Hurley and the Clamtones in their immortal song "Midnight in Paris"). We seem to be between languages here. Italian, for Labé, as for others in her generation, is the language of love poetry. Her she calls to French love through that language. Perhaps this is some older French "Amour" that she is calling into the new modern world so that the torments of love (which the Ancients don't get) can be spoken in French. Perhaps this is the character in her own philosophical dialogue the "Debate Between Love and Folly," in which case she might be calling her own work into being. The love I have analyzed for you is what has also made me a suffering French lover.

But there is music here as well. "Pur Amour" is an inter-lingual rhyme. Semantically and rhythmically, it marks a break in the flow of the poem--"But, Love." Sonically, however, it makes a bridge--"Pur-Amour," a repetition of the same sound. Suddenly French and Italian, otherwise different, sound the same. You can't say "Pur, Amore," it doesn't rhyme. Only if you blend the two tongues into a sonic unit can you have the music of poetry.

Visually, however, something else is happening. The "pur" in "Pur, Amor" means "but," in Italian. In French it means "pure." "Pure love" is what "Pur Amour" suggests in French. It doesn't actually say it, because in normal French you would say "l'amour pur." So we should tread carefully here. Yet in poetry you could say something like "Le pur amour de la Vierge Marie" ("the pure love of the Virgin Mary"). And, remember, we are dealing here with poetry written before the rules of French were codified in the seventeenth century. Either way, "pur" is not a word often found with "amour" during Labé's time (or so my word search tells me). When "pur" appears in poetry it refers almost exclusively to the Virgin. It is She, not some local dame, whose love is "pure," no matter how much flattery is being slung about.

In this regard we might recall, as François Rigolot has pointed out, that Labé's name suggests the Latin word "Labia," for lip. She's a real kisser, as we learn from her most famous poem, which begins "Kiss me, and kiss me again." Yet there is another resonance, not noticed to my knowledge, that is even more striking: Labé's name suggests the Latin word "labes," which means "stain," "ruin," "destruction," or "sin." To be "labe" is to be marked with a stain. To be "sine labe," is to be "without stain." This is, in fact, another phrase for the Virgin Mary--she of the "pure love." It is a phrase sometimes used in lieu of the more common phrase for Mary, "immaculata"--"immaculate," or un-stained (macula also means stain). So Louise Labé is disowning the possibility of "pure love" every time she says her own name.

And yet. "Pur Amour" suggests pure love, the perfect passion that many of Labé's contemporaries linked to the tradition of Petrarchan poetry, of idealized ladies and suffering aristocrats weeping their rhymes to the indifferent moon. By a beautiful coincidence--if a coincidence is what it is--this idea of a "pure love" which the poem says in spite of itself is precisely what Louise Labé's entire poetic work is not about. Her poems are about passion and sex, not "pur amour." She's a victim of love who gives her body to her man and is then abandoned. Her love can be "pure" only through a linguistic trespass, in an untenable space "between" Italian and French, and between the oral and the visual. To read "Pur Amour" as "pure love" is to read it completely against sense, and against Labé's entire poetic personality. Yet it jumps off the page. The music of the poem--we might say the "purest" effect of poetic language, beautiful sound--unfolds against the psychology of the character who utters it. No wonder Rilke admired Labé. "Reine Spannung. O Musik der Kräfte!" says Rilke in his "Sonnets to Orpheus." "Pure tension. O music of the forces!".

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