Renaissance French Literature au féminin

Emily Prestley | guest writer – Tufts University

In 1555, the French poétesse Louise Labé saw the publication of Œuvres, her sole collection of poems and prose to be published before her death in 1566. Today, Œuvres represents one of the most significant contributions of the Renaissance to the development of the feminine narrative across French literature. Labé’s poetry, in large part due to the opportune arrival of the printing press in France, spread throughout Western Europe from her in home in Lyon, France, a cultural center geographically situated between Paris and Italy. In the preface of Œuvres, Labé shed light upon the intellectual virtue of her comrades féminins: “Women occupy an exceptional position…not contented by a decorative and honorific place of courtly society, they participate in artistic life and the debate of ideas…One recognizes and asks of women the talents and personality superior to what, in general, is accorded to them by French society…We ask of them elegance, intelligence, culture, the talent of holding a salon…they have their word to say…and on occasion, they write.”¹ With this call to arms of sorts, Louise Labé became the voice of French female writers during the Renaissance, and to this day, her poems published in Œuvres — three elegies and 24 sonnets – remain one of the only traces of the female writing during this period.

Labé’s poetry was a true representation of the spirit of the Renaissance. At its very core, the Renaissance was the product of a simple formula: a reprisal of tradition inscribed in an accelerating current of renewal, upheaval, and growth. The development of the female narrative through the poems of Louise Labé occurred often through traditional poetic forms, common themes, and the universal influence of the great Greek and Roman poets of l’Antiquité. Traditionally, the male poet of the French Renaissance wrote poetry concerning his beloved – his bien-aimée. He assumed the classical sonnet form and spoke love through poetry to a woman wholly abstract, transcendent, and sublime. The bien-aimée of these productions was an idealized object, lacking inherent value beyond her beauté.

In her sonnets, Louise Labé reprised her contemporaries’ form from a female perspective, writing poems that spoke not to a bien-aimée (feminine) but instead to a bien-aimé (masculine). The inflection of this binary renewed the amorous discourse of the Renaissance in France and began to deconstruct the idealized image of the single-faceted woman in literature and develop a powerful female narrative.

Sonnet XIV, one of Labé’s lesser-celebrated sonnets, highlights the facultative expression of a woman – her eyes, her sobs, her signs, her hands:

While these eyes can pour out fountains of my tears,
mourning our shared peace, gone now, so long gone;
while my slow sobs and sighs can still bemoan
this loss (and in a voice that someone hears);
while my hands can still caress the lute, with clear
praises for the grace that you have shown;
and while my spirit’s thoughts can bend alone
on you, on nothing that’s outside your sphere-
I’ll never want to reach the point of death!
But when my eyes grow dry and my quick breath
forsakes my voice and my hand is powerless,
and my poor spirit, in its mortal flight,
beats with no more signs of love-then I will press
death to come cover my clearest day with night.²

The bien-aimé is referenced from a distance just four times – “our” (line 2), “you” (lines 6, 8), “your” (line 8), and therefore it is instead the narrator with whom the reader shares the closest proximity. In this way, Louise Labé rediscovered the raw humanity of women and the inherent power of pain across her poems, allowed to develop in stark contrast to the idealized, statuesque female image of traditional Renaissance sonnet.

Louise Labé’s perspective, echoing the sentiment of the preface of Œuvres, celebrates the power of expression of women. The development of the feminine narrative evolved significantly through the poetry of Labé, assuming a level of complexity, dynamicity, expression, and power that it had not been widely afforded before the Renaissance. With Labé’s inflection of the male construct of the bien-aimée in French literature, a female voice – fundamentally human and flawed – was found. ♦

¹Translated by me (so not perfect but you get the gist)

²Translated by Annie Finch

Photo: Louise Labé. Released to public domain.

Emily Prestley is an economics and French double major at Tufts University in Medford, MA who enjoys French literature and good coffee, especially together. She talks about her semester abroad in Paris almost daily and is lucky to have friends that still pretend to listen.


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