Louise Labé

Translations, versions and other responses to the 16th century French poet.

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Louise Labé
Vermeer – Woman with a Lute
Vermeer – Woman with a Lute

As long as these old eyes can fill with tears,
reliving some sweet hour I spent with you,
and this old voice can hold a tune through all
my sighs and sobs and still be faintly heard,

as long as this old hand can pluck the strings
of my beloved lute, pick out your song,
as long as this old spirit can still yearn
for that complicity we used to share,

I’m far from feeling that I want to die.
But come the time I find myself dry-eyed,
with broken voice and hand too weak to play

a note, my spirit shrinking in its mortal frame,
no longer capable of any sign of love,
I’ll beckon Death to dim my brightest day.


Tant que mes yeus pourront larmes espandre,
A l’heur passé avec toy regretter:
Et qu’aus sanglots & soupirs resister
Pourra ma voix, & un peu faire entendre:

Tant que ma main pourra les cordes tendre
Du mignart Lut, pour tes graces chanter:
Tant que l’esprit se voudra contenter
De ne vouloir rien fors que toy comprendre:

Je ne souhaitte encore point mourir.
Mais quand mes yeus je sentiray tarir,
Ma voix cassée, & ma main impuissante,

Et mon esprit en ce mortel séjour
Ne pouvant plus montrer signe d’amante:
Prirey la Mort noircir mon plus cler jour.

 

With thanks to Dave and Via Negativa for encouragement and inspiration over the past year.

Written in the mid-16th century, this well expresses how I feel about starting, and continuing, latish in life, to write and translate poetry.

Louise Labé in Wikipedia

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Louise Labé

VIII

Painting by André Minaux 1

I’m living, dying, drowning, burning up –
extremes of heat and then I’m cold again.
Life is too soft on me and then too hard –
my trials are great, but intertwined with joys.

I burst out laughing and then into tears,
smile through the torment of my many wounds.
My happiness dissolves and yet endures:
I wither and I flourish, both at once.

So Love’s inconstant but remains my guide
and when the pain seems at its very worst
I rise above it unexpectedly.

Then just when I think joy has really come,
that peak experience is mine at last,
I find myself back where I started from.


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

Tout à un coup je ris & je larmoye,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure:
Mon bien s’en va, & à jamais il dure:
Tout en un coup je seiche & 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 certaine,
Et estre en haut de mon desire heur,
Il remet en mon premier malheur.

IX

Painting by André Minaux 2

As soon as I allow myself to rest,
safely tucked up in my own comfy bed,
my stupid, sorrowing mind can’t help itself –
it leaves my body, flies straight back to you.

It strikes me then: within this tender breast
I harbour still the very thing I’ve craved,
the object of my deepest sighs, of sobs
I’ve often felt would break my heart in two.

Oh sweetest sleep, oh night of happiness!
May joyful, calming rest bring me this fond
illusion every time I close my eyes.

If my poor lovesick soul is destined now
to never really know such love again,
at least let me have dreams and fantasies.


Tout aussi tot que je commence à prendre
Dens le mol lit le repos desiré,
Mon triste esprit hors de moy retiré
S’en va vers toy incontinent se rendre.

Lors m’est avis que dedens mon sein tendre
Je tiens le bien, où j’ay tant aspiré,
Et pour lequel j’ay si haut souspiré,
Que de sanglots ay souvent cuidé fendre.

O dous sommeil, o nuit à moy heureuse!
Plaisant repos, plein de tranquilité,
Continuez toutes les nuiz mon songe:

Et si ma pauvre ame amoureuse
Ne doit avoir de bien en verité,
Faites au moins qu’elle en ait en mensonge.

 

Louise Labé in Wikipedia.

Paintings by André Minaux (1923-86) – I came across his work by chance for the first time this week and the sharp, stylized imagery, often of women alone in interiors, somehow resonated with the sonnets; also an exquisite concert on the radio of short pieces by J S Bach and Jörg Widmann made me think about how mutually enhancing old and new(er) works can be.

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Louise Labé

photo of shadow of a head and hand

Don’t scorn me, Ladies, just for having loved.
Yes, I have felt a thousand torches’ fire,
a thousand sorrows, thousand biting pains.
Yes, I have spent a lot of time in tears…
look, think before you start maligning me –
if I’ve done wrong I’m suffering for it now,
don’t make things worse than they already are.
You’d do well to remember Love appears
unbidden, needs no Vulcan to inflame
your ardour or Adonis leading you astray –
its merest whim can leave you overcome.
Think you’re immune, strangers to violent
passion as you are? So sure you’re not like me?
Beware: you could be all the more undone.


Ne reprenez, Dames, si j’ay aymé:
Si j’ay senti mile torches ardentes,
Mile travaus, mile douleurs mordentes:
Si en pleurant, j’ay mon tems consumé,

Las que mon nom n’en soit par vous blamé.
Si j’ay failli, les peines sont presentes,
N’aigrissez point leurs pointes violentes:
Mais estimez qu’Amour, à point nommé,

Sans votre ardeur d’un Volcan excuser,
Sans la beauté d’Adonis acuser,
Pourra, s’il veut, plus vous rendre amoureuses:

En ayant moins que moy d’ocasion,
Et plus d’estrange & forte passion.
Et gardez vous d’estre plus malheureuses.

 

Thank you, Louise Labé, for continuing to surprise and engage me across the centuries.

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Louise Labé

After Louise Labé, Sonnet VII

Detail from a lithograph by André Minaux

We’ve all seen death –
the soul, the subtler part, depart the body
and if I’m the body you’re the soul, my better half.
Where are you now, beloved?
How could you leave me for so long?
I know you, you’ll be thinking
just to stretch your legs and you’ll be back –
it doesn’t work like that! You left my soulless body
swinging in the wind, unloved, unanchored.
I’m at risk, I’m nothing, you are all my worth.
So come to me, my love, but never undermine
my sanity again – no more demands,
mixed messages. Show me your softer face.
You’ve been so cruel. Time now to make amends.


On voit mourir toute chose animée,
Lors que du corps l’ame sutile part:
Je suis le corps, toy la meilleure part:
Ou es tu donq, o ame bien aymee?

Ne me laissez par si long temps pamee,
Pour me sauver apres viendrois trop tard.
Las ne mets point ton corps en ce hazart:
Rens lui sa part & moitié estimee.

Mais fais, Ami, que ne soit dangereuse
Cette rencontre & revue amoureuse,
L’accompagnant, non de severité,

Non de rigueur: mais de grace amiable,
Qui doucement me rende la beauté,
Jadis cruelle, à present favourable.

 

Louise Labé in Wikipedia.

Picture: detail from another lithograph by André Minaux.

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Louise Labé

After Louise Labé, Sonnet XII

painting of a woman playing a lute by Matisse

Lute, you’ve always been there for me –
true friend in the worst of times,
companion of all my sorrows,
you’re my comforter when I weep.

I know my tears really get to you
because every tune becomes a lament,
every rising note plunges
to a melancholy key.

If I try to play something uplifting
you go silent on me –
sad songs are all you let me sing
and they give me such sweet closure.


Lut, compagnon de ma calamité,

De mes soupirs témoin irreprochable,
De mes ennuis controlleur veritable,
Tu as souvent avec moy lamenté:

Et tant le pleur piteus t’a molesté,
Que commençant quelque son delectable,
Tu le rendois tout soudein lamentable,
Feignant le ton que plein avoit chanté.

Et si te veus efforcer au contraire,
Tu te destens & si me contreins taire:
Mais me voyant tendrement soupirer,

Donnant faveur à ma tant triste pleinte:
En mes ennuis me plaire suis contrainte,
Et d’un dous mal douce fin esperer.

 

Picture: Le luth, Henri Matisse (1943), which I didn’t know till last week – trying for a sort of poignant flatness in the poem, inspired by the vibrating flatness of the painting.
Louise Labé in Wikipedia.
More posts on Louise Labé here, here, here and here.

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Louise Labé

After Louise Labé, Sonnet XVII

etching by Paula Modersohn-Becker

So I’ve not been going into town or to church
or anywhere,
she says, where I might
run into him and let him soft-soap me
into giving it another go.

I’ve not been dancing, or to watch the game –
it’s no fun without him anyway. I’ve tried
everything to cool things down, stay away,
find new interests, even…

find myself a new man! I’ve been taking
long walks in the woods on my own, the lot,

she says, but now it dawns on her

he won’t be leaving their town any time soon –
she’s the one who’s got to get out of there,
out of her own head, start over.


Je fuis la vile, & temples, & tous lieus,
Esquels prenant plaisir à t’ouir pleindre,
Tu peus, & non sans force, me contreindre
De te donner ce qu’estimois le mieux.

Masques, tournois, jeus me sont ennuieus,
Et rien sans toy de beau ne me puis peindre:
Tant que tachant à ce desir esteindre,
Et un nouvel obget faire à mes yeus,

Et des pensers amoureus me distraire,
Des bois espais sui le plus solitaire:
Mais j’aperçoy, ayant erré maint tour,

Que si je veus de toy estre delivre,
Il me convient hors de moymesme vivre,
Ou fais encor que loin sois en sejour.

 

Image: etching by Paula Modersohn-Becker, c. 1900.

My other translations and versions of sonnets by Louise Labé are here.

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Louise Labé

Louise Labé - engraving by Pierre Woeiriot

Dear lioness, Louise, coming upon
the sonnets was a coup de foudre
you reached across the centuries
to touch a lonely heart as I thought
nothing old and formal could.
Your lute-songs, silliness and sorrow
inspired me to wordplay – hours
of delight today, tomorrow…

You ambushed me with memories,
a buried sense of self – so long since
I’d been young, yet I was moved.
Nearly five hundred years apart
and some things never change: yours,
Louise, is the lasting roar of love.

 

Image: Louise Labé – engraving by Pierre Woeiriot, 1555.

Here endeth, for now anyway, my small series of tributes to Louise Labé.