Les Sonnets, by Louise Labé
There is something sad and seemingly inevitable about this book and its context. The author was a southern French woman who married but had a lover and then took another lover when the first was detained and found her reputation shot when one of her discarded lovers decided to blow her cover and tell her husband that she had been faithful and the other lover wrote about her as one of the most noted courtesans of her time. Ouch. Making it all the more painful is that the author herself predicted that her reputation would be shot. Nevertheless, this realization that her conduct would cause her name to suffer did not prevent the author from behaving in a more decorous manner and remaining faithful to her husband, which would have preserved her good name for history and would have avoided being shamed for centuries. It is altogether easier to recognize what is right and proper to do than to do it, and the price for knowing ahead of time that one faces ruin for one’s behavior but not being able to control one’s behavior is a deeply sad fate, in that one is ruined both in anticipation and then in reality.
This book is a relatively short one, coming in at around seventy pages. The first part of the book consists of a biographical essay that discusses the tragic life of the writer. The editor of this collection appears to want to encourage the reader to feel sympathy for the prophetic abilities of the author who accurately prophesied doom upon herself, but while I feel a sense of futility I am not particularly sympathetic to the fate of an adulteress who received her just desserts. The rest of the book consists of sonnets in both French (on the left side) and in English translation (on the right) that demonstrate the author as a learned woman who was certainly capable of recognizing the parallels between her own behavior and the morality of the heathen ages of the classical era. If the morality of these poems is not something I appreciated or supported, the author is certainly intelligent enough that she would have made for a witty conversation partner and who probably was smart enough to know better if a bit too young and foolhardy to care about the inevitable result of her behavior.
If we wish to be wiser than the author, it is possible for us to recognize where she went wrong and to reflect on how the author should have been aware that she was engaged in folly. For one, the author chooses to write about her amours openly and passionately, making it clear that she is not writing about her husband and giving herself a reputation of being outspoken, which is not always the best sort of reputation to give oneself if one wants to avoid trouble. The author could have taken a clue from the danger of using so many heathen deities in her writings, for the moral tone of the heathen deities was far lower than that of the Bible. She should have seen that she was departing from the path of virtue and wisdom before she wrote enough sonnets to create a book of doomed erotic love, but the author is unfortunately not a wise person and best serves the contemporary reader as an object lesson in how smart people can do very dumb things and by their lack of control give themselves a bad reputation and a bad name for centuries. That is a fate most of us would like to avoid, obviously.