Louise Labé is commonly regarded as the most original woman poet of the French Renaissance. The daughter of an illiterate rope maker in Lyon, known to her contemporaries for her unusual learning as well as her skills as a singer and lutanist, Labé was in her thirties when she published her complete Works in 1555 and then disappeared from the scene, not to be rediscovered until the nineteenth century. Her love poetry, made famous by Rilke’s German versions, is published here with the originals en face and newly rendered into English by award-winning translator Richard Sieburth, who also includes a biographical chronology of the poet, notes, and an informative afterword to this edition. These Love Sonnets and Elegies confirm Labé’s reputation as the first modern Sappho.
[Labé] laments for one alone, but the whole of nature unites with them: it is the lament for one who is eternal.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
The deeply learned Louise Labé knew well the love poetry of Sappho, Propertius, Ovid, and Petrarch, but she herself joined the ranks of these great Western tossers and turners by breaking with convention. Across five centuries, thanks to Richard Sieburth’s beautiful translations, her urgent voice, her embodied images, and her rapid, somehow breathless, lines come to us as if they were spoken yesterday. Was she real or a fantasy? If we cannot tell, there is no doubt regarding the reality, and the fantastic force of life, pulsing here in her poems.
Whoever Louise Labé was or was not—and scholars are still wrangling about it—her collection of poems, published in Lyon in 1555, introduced a startling new voice into French lyric. Richard Sieburth has captured the vigor, directness, vernacular tang, and intensity of these remarkable poems. He has turned the ‘rhymed cordage as twined and tensile as rope’ of the fabled Belle Cordière, daughter of a rope-maker, into spirited poems in English, and his Afterword presents the phenomenon of Labé in the context of the sophisticated, male-dominated literary culture of 16th century Lyon with force and scholarly clarity. A book of brilliant homage and recreation.
A great poet, perhaps one of the greatest of all time.
—The Polar Bear, a character in Samuel Beckett’s Dream of Fair to middling Women