- The Conquest of the Ancients:The Gender of Imitation in Louise Labé's Euvres and the "Escriz de divers poëtes, à la louenge de Louize Labé Lionnoize"
Literary critics have long recognized the centrality of imitation as a literary practice in Renaissance France, but they have paid less attention to the gendered rhetoric used to defend the practice.1 Especially in the 1550s, the members of a loosely organized poetic movement—that eventually became the self-proclaimed Pléiade—took pride in the supposed virility of their vernacular poetry and their technique of imitating ancient sources. In theoretical writings, the poets of the Pléiade described the act of imitation and the composition of poetry as an inherently masculine activity or "labor."2 In practice too, this labor was reserved for men and, specifically, for those men who could afford the years of humanist training it required to learn to read, translate, and compose in Latin and, in some cases, classical Greek. It was not entirely impossible to penetrate this select group, however. In 1555, the publication of the Euvres de Louïze Labé Lionnoize demonstrated that prose and poetry written by a woman could also emulate and [End Page 54] imitate classical and Petrarchan models. Her mastery of imitation threatened the masculinity of "ce tant louable labeur poétique" [such praiseworthy poetic labor].3
Louise Labé's skillful use of contemporary literary forms and imitative techniques posed a unique threat to the authors of the Pléiade. The similarities between her writing and the verse composed by her male contemporaries called into question the idea that a poet's words transmitted his virile force. In this regard, Labé triggered anxieties about gender. Many scholars have analyzed the techniques by which early modern writers tried to keep female bodies and female attributes at a safe distance. Nancy Vickers and Ann Rosalind Jones, for example, argue that Petrarchan poets regularly make a scene of repudiating any possible continuity between the male speakers and the female objects of their poems.4 By figuratively dismembering their beloveds' bodies and exchanging these fetishized images amongst themselves, these poets at once overcame the danger of identifying with their female objects and cemented social and literary bonds with their male peers. Leah Chang has most recently applied this theoretical framework to Labé's Euvres. Chang argues that the community of erudite Lyonnais men assembled around Jean de Tournes, the publisher and printer of the Euvres, initiated a kind of trade in Labé's name—which Tournes had typographically emphasized in his edition. In addition to reinforcing social and literary bonds among Lyonnais men, this exchange contributed to a contemporary "male fantasy" of Labé.5 Although clearly related to the Petrarchan poets' repudiated identifications with their beloveds, the Labé fantasy also introduces something new. It is, I argue, an attempt to contain the special threat Labé posed as a female writer. [End Page 55]
In this article, therefore, I will not only examine how Labé's literary prowess and imitative skill equaled that of her male contemporaries, but I will also analyze the reaction this similarity triggered in their writings. My analysis focuses on the edition of Labé's Euvres printed in 1555 and then reedited in 1556, which, as we will see, is ideally suited for demonstrating both sides of my argument. The Euvres begin with a prose dialogue, three elegies and twenty-four sonnets written by Labé, but they end with a separate section, titled "Escriz de divers poëtes à la louenge de Louize Labé Lionnoize" (The writings by various poets in honor of Louise Labé of Lyon). The twenty-four poems written in honor of Labé and appended to her Euvres offer a contemporary reading and de facto interpretation of Labé's writings. By studying the praises sung on her behalf, we can infer the contemporary assessment of Labé's Euvres and her literary achievement. This assessment is revealing: rather than praising Labé for her skillful imitations and technical accomplishments, the "Escriz" fix Labé's poetry as a static, literary object, much like the ancient texts and tropes that she imitates. This denial of Labé's dynamic imitative skill and poetic...