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Burning and drowning: Love and the poetry of Louise Labé

December 5, 2009

Louise Labé, 16th century French poet

Sometimes I find that I can only understand certain literature only after undergoing the same experience that it expresses. Such was case this week, which led me to look for solace in the poetry of Louise Labé (1524-1566), a female poet that wrote in 16th century Lyon. Very few English speakers, I can guess, have ever heard of Labé, also known as La Belle Cordière, which is, in the end, unfortunate. Labé was a remarkable woman of her times, profiting from the cultural crossroads that was Lyon during the Renaissance. She was well versed in the classics and multilingual. At the same she was also a skilled fencer and equestrian. While she was not hugely prolific, she composed a poetry of an emotional force and intensity that resonate still. This is especially the case of her sonnets. The focal point of her poetic production was nothing less than love, amorous relationships and the emotional maelstrom that arise from them. I find Labé particularly moving because she can delve straight into the whirlwind of passion and love’s pains without getting caught in a web of self-pity. Instead, it’s the poetic crystallization of an all too human experience.

Now as to how I arrived at  my new, personal understanding of Labé this week, I’ll refrain from any personal details (people have sufficiently saturated the Internet with trivial details) and let the words of Louise, over four centuries old, express what I find now to be our mutually shared experience. After all, discretion and suggestion is something I’ve learned from both French and Hawaiian traditions. I think the subject matter and the series of paradoxical oppositions will say enough. Perhaps, though, I could add, Je crie et je ne dis rien…. I cry out and I say nothing. Or to find a Hawaiian metaphor, maybe a line from Lunalilo could convey the experience just as well: Pani a pa‘a ‘ia mai nā mana wai o uka… Entirely closed off are the stream branches of the uplands. And adapting one of his verses, I’ll add Kau nui aku ka mana‘o i Kealaikahiki. My thoughts dwell upon the sea of Kealaikahiki.

Je vis, je meurs - I live and die

That said, enjoy Labé’s Eighth Sonnet in the original Renaissance French and in translation below.

Je vis, je meurs : je me brule et me noye.
J’ay chaut estreme en endurant froidure :
La vie m’est et trop molle et trop dure.
J’ay grans ennuis entremeslez de joye :

Tout un coup je ris et je larmoye,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure :
Mon bien s’en va, et jamais il dure :
Tout en un coup je seiche et je verdoye.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me meine :
Et quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me treuve hors de peine.

Puis quand je croy ma joye estre certeine,
Et estre au haut de mon desiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.

I live and die; drowning I burn to death,

Seared by the ice and frozen by the fire;

Life is as hard as iron, as soft as breath;

My joy and trouble dance on the same wire.

In the same sudden breath I laugh and weep,

My torment pleasure where my pleasure grieves;

My treasure’s lost which I for all time keep,

At once I wither and put out new leaves.

Thus constant Love is my inconstant guide;

And when I am to pain’s refinement brought,

Beyond all hope, he grants me a reprieve.

And when I think joy cannot be denied,

And scaled the peak of happiness I sought,

He casts me down into my former grief.


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