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Complete Poetry and Prose by Louise Labé | 04-Sep-16

Staff Pick from our Poetry Library Open Day 2015.

Complete poetry and prose : a bilingual edition / Louise Labé
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006

Louise Labé (1524-1566) dedicated her Evvres (1556) to ‘M.C.D.B.L.’ (Mademoiselle Clémence de Bourges, Lyonnaise), and in her ground-breaking feminist, dedicatory letter exhorts women to study and to write: for ‘le contentement’ (meaning, in the 16th century, not ‘contentment’, but something like ‘the fullest form of pleasure’) that this will bring, and in order to know oneself better.

Much has been written about Labé: her independent spirit was not in keeping with a society ‘in full patriarchal reconstruction’ (Les relations amoureuses entre les femmes, Odile Jacob, 1995, Marie-Jo Bonnet). Was Labé a lesbian? In her first elegy, she states her identification with Sappho, who sang L’Amour Lesbienne; Labé’s eighth sonnet is inspired by Sappho’s ‘He appears to me'; and her (most often quoted) sonnet 18 ‘Baise m’encore, rebaise moi et baise’ Kiss me again, rekiss me and kiss me), is inspired by Catullus’s ‘Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus’ (a Latin version of Sappho’s poem). Or was Labé just a loose (i.e. free-thinking) woman, or a prostitute? Labé’s Complete Poetry and Prose is made up of a play (Débat de la folie et de l’amour where Love has its eyes ripped out by Folly, who, for this crime, is condemned to accompany Love everywhere), elegies, and sonnets that look at desire from the point of view of a woman – decidedly revolutionary in the 16th century. More recently Mireille Huchon has asked if Labé didn’t actually exist, was perhaps a collaborative fiction (Louise Labé: une creature de papier, Éditions Droz, 2006). In fact, Huchon ‘doesn’t doubt Labé’s existence, only [...] her authorship [of the Evvres]’ (Times Literary Supplement, 5856) – close reading by Labé’s translator Richard Sieburth has firmly disproven this latest hypothesis (see TLS, idem).

Returning to the work itself, I find Labé’s poetry so memorisable and read-out-loud-ably delicious. My three favourite sonnets are numbers 8, 14 and 18.

To listen to the poems read in French:

Mia Farlane
Library Assistant


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