Understanding Labé through questions of power and love

Louise Labé, as « le plus grand poète féministe de la Renaissance française, » often attempts to reshape the power dynamic inherent within classical, Petrarchan and contemporaneous renaissance love poetry. As a woman writing against this backdrop of well-established, widely disseminated, and almost entirely masculine corpus of love poetry, which she was acutely attuned to thanks to her education, Labé’s work explores in depth twin concepts of love and power. She establishes from the outset that as a female poet writing in this convention, her work examines the power dynamic in male-female relations. However, it is crucial to remember that the poetry itself is concerned with men and women in love, and consequently, the male-female interplay is always framed in terms of love, and as such themes of love and questions of power enjoy a mutually dependent relationship. Whilst the female poet’s power struggle must be born in mind, one must equally guard against a hegemonic proto-feminist discourse in order to fully understand Labé’s work. The array of self-consciously intertextual aspects of Labé’s poetry, which feature Ovid, Catullus and Petrarch amongst many others, incorporating their themes of love, reveal a reliance on themes of love which have their basis within this masculine corpus of love poetry. Thus, a symbiotic rapport between love and power must be acknowledged in order to fully understand Labé’s work.

From the opening of the Épitre Dédicatoire, Louise Labé establishes that the theme of power will be a fundamental and pervasive one in her work, especially the question of a woman’s power in her era. Her direct address – “Mademoiselle” – makes abundantly clear her predominantly female audience, and the juxtaposition of this with her statement that “les severes lois des hommes n’empeschent plus les femmes de s’apliquer aus sciences et disciplines” immediately sets up a a power play between men and women, due to the semantic opposition of “hommes” and “femmes,” and the loaded choice of terms such as “severes” and “s’empeschent” which betray a sense of resentment. This initial power play serves as a harbinger of the sense of power imbalance between men and women which underpins many of the sonnets in the cycle. A ripe sonnet for analysis of this question of power would be sonnet XXI – in which Labé muses with no little frustration upon the incapacity of a female poet to render eloquently male beauty and female lovesickness. In a volley of rhetorical questions, Labé asks in vain « Quelle grandeur rend l’homme venerable ? / Quelle grosseur ? quel poil ? quelle couleur ? » The accumulation of short rhetorical questions reveals her frustration at the lack of adequate female expression, which cements the concept that a female poet’s power is limited. Moreover, Labé’s wearisome sense of resignation at the volta, in which she concedes that “je ne voudrois le dire assurément,” before eventually settling for a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion that “tout le beau que lon pourroit choisir… ne me [saurait] acroitre mon desir.” Considering questions of power between a male and a female poet is primordial in order to fully grasp the significance of this poem. Labé is frustrated by the inadequacy of her expression to elucidate her feelings about male beauty, and this is framed in no uncertain terms as being an issue of power between men and women. She feels powerless, since, as a poet, words are indispensable. Yet she repeatedly acknowledges the notion that she cannot say, as a female poet, in what manner a male object of attraction might be described as desirable, which conveys her lack of power and renders questions of power essential in our reading of this sonnet. Yet, it would be an oversimplification to state that power was the only element which should be considered in order to fully understand the poetry.

The sonnet cycle, whilst often concerning itself with questions of power, would collapse entirely were it not for its incorporation of themes of love. The two have a co-dependent relationship, and are indeed often blurred, since dynamics of power are often woven into themes of love. To examine this further, let us analyse sonnet XIX, a prime example of Labé’s reimagination of an established convention of love. To begin with, Labé sets the scene, describing “Diane estant en l’espresseur d’un bois/ apres avoir mainte beste assenee.” She draws upon the story of a young hunter, Actaeon, who stumbles upon the chaste goddess of hunting, Diana, who in turn transfigures the hapless young man into a stag, who is himself killed. This poem fuses the concepts of love and power, as Labé subverts our expectations. She imagines herself as a ‘Nynfe estonee,’ which is simultaneously concerned with themes of love as well as questions of power. Whilst this treats a classical scene of love and lust, Labé is also rethinking the power dynamic between men and women, as by situating herself in the role of the nymph, she is stating female solidarity with Diana, a clear attempt to reverse the male-female power dynamic in love poetry. Yet, established, masculine themes of love play a large part in understanding this poetry as well. Labé is reliant on many writers from antiquity, most notably Ovid and Catullus, for many of the images and topoi employed in her poetry.

In order to understand more deeply this theme, it would be worth exploring the first elegy of the collection. Themes such as love as warfare, an idea of expressing love forged principally by Ovid in Amores, features often – such as for instance when Labé writes that love is “d’hommes le vainquer” a reference to herself seeing love and military concepts being intertwined. This is similar to Ovid’s Amores – where he writes that “militat omnis amans, et habet sua castra Cupido” (all lovers are soldiers, and Cupid has his own camp). In this same poem, there are likewise clear overtones of Catullus and Virgil. Labé goes on to mention that Love « chanter me fait, non… de Jupiter, ou les cruelles guerres/ dont trouble Mars. » which is an echo of Virgil’s renowned opening of the Aeneid – “arma virumque cano” (I sing of arms and the man), and likewise employs the Catullan image of fire and flames to give voice to her amorous sentiments, when she says that Love “faisoit bruler de sa flame mon couer,” which has overtones of Catullus 51 – “tenuis sub artus flamma demanat” (a fine flame creeping under my limbs.

All of these instances betray the manifest influence which a large corpus of masculine classical themes of love had on Labé, which are crucial for understanding much of the background of her poetry, especially given her humanist education which would have involved the study of these. Yet, that love is inextricably linked with a male-female power struggle is made evicent when she then discusses “Semiramis,” an Egyptian warrior queen, who likewise fell victim to love, demonstrating that while often masculine themes of love must be accounted for in order to understand Labé’s work, at the same time, these themes are used to shape the discourse of power struggle between men and women, which is likewise critical for a full understanding. To conclude, love and power have a mutually dependent relationship, and this must be understood in order to fully comprehend the work of Labé. Whilst much of her poetry concerns itself with power, particularly power dynamics between men and women, at the same time, themes of love remain essential for understanding her poetry equally, as this power is most often explored through her treatment of men and women in love, and often in terms of masculine classical topoi of love poetry.