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French Forum 30.2 (2005) 15-30

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A Latin Legacy in Louise Labé

Imitation of Tibullus 1.2.89–94

Louise Labé (ca. 1520 to 1566) published her works in Lyon in 1555, only a few years after the appearance of Du Bellay's La Deffence et illustration de la langue francoyse (1549), in which the author strongly urges poets to imitate classical models in order that French literature may become as illustrious as the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome.1 Du Bellay specifically advocates writing elegies "à l'exemple d'un Ovide, d'un Tibule [sic] et d'un Properce" (207).2 Sixteenth-century French poetry written by men provides ample evidence that they did indeed imitate the classics. Du Bellay does not, however, address the dilemma presented to any female poet aspiring to follow his directives.

The rhetorical doctrine of imitatio, as Struever points out, produced "many pronouncements on the relation of the author's 'self' to the continuing stream of past literary expression" (145), but how was a female writer of erotic poetry to meet the expectation that one imitate Roman poetry if almost all Roman poetry was written by men?3 Labé faced the challenge of inserting herself into a long tradition of male-authored love poetry. Her debt to Italian sources has been well documented, but surprisingly little has been written about her debt to the Roman elegists.4 There is abundant evidence both that Labé knew Latin (see Appendix 1) and that the text of Tibullus was easily available in Lyon at the time at which she was writing her poetry (see Appendix 2).

Labé makes extensive use of the conventions employed by Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid, the three foremost Roman elegists. Throughout her poetry and her prose, she engages in contaminatio, what Greene calls the "eclectic mingling of heterogeneous allusions," which in–cludes the use of "conventional topoi that might or might not have recalled a familiar author but that had been reused over and over by [End Page 15] many authors" (39). She rarely engages in a close imitation of a particular classical text. A striking example of this phenomenon, however, is to be found near the end of her first elegy. In a passage of fourteen lines, she effects an imitation, analyzed here for the first time, of six consecutive lines of Tibullus:

At tu, qui laetus rides mala nostra, caueto:
Mox tibi non uanus saeuiet ipse Deus.
Vidi ego qui iuuenum miseros lusisset amores
Post Veneris uinclis subdere colla senem
Et sibi blanditias tremula componere uoce
Et manibus canas fingere uelle comas.
(Tibullus, 1.2.89–94)5

But you who happily laugh at my6 troubles, look out:
Soon upon you, not ineffectually, the god himself will vent his rage.
I have seen one who had made fun of the pitiable love affairs of the young
Afterwards place his neck under the chains of Venus when he was old
And compose to himself ingratiating little speeches in a tremulous voice
And be eager to arrange his gray hair with his hands.7

Donques celui lequel d'amour esprise
Pleindre me voit, que point il ne mesprise
Mon triste deuil: Amour, peut estre, en brief
En son endroit n'aparoitra moins grief.
Telle j'ay vù qui avoit en jeunesse
Blamé Amour: apres en sa vieillesse
Bruler d'ardeur, et pleindre tendrement
L'ápre rigueur de son tardif tourment.
Alors de fard et eau continuelle
Elle essayoit se faire venir belle,
Voulant chasser le ridé labourage,
Que l'aage avoit gravé sur son visage.
Sur son chef gris elle avoit empruntee
Quelque perruque, et assez mal antee.
(Labé, Elegy 1.91–104)8

Many male writers have used the image of an old woman's faded beauty to exhort a female addressee to yield to a male speaker's demands before time takes away both youth and beauty. Famous examples of this carpe diem topos9 include Ronsard's ode "Mignonne, allon voir si la rose" (5...


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