Jamee Indigo Eriksen

Joseph Holmes

Rachel Robbins

Michael Ursell


Translation of “Sonnet II” from Louise Labé’s Euvres (1555)

Michael Ursell
University of California, Santa Cruz


o brown eyes, beautiful,

                                         o glances turned away,

o hot sighs,
                    o tears poured out,

o black nights awaited in vain,       
o daylight come back again in vain:

o sad laments,
                    o obstinate desires,
o time lost,
                    o pains spent,

o a thousand deaths held in a thousand
traps,                       o o o o o o o o o

o worse evils fated against me.

o laugh,
o brow, hair, arms, hands and fingers:
o crying lute, viola, bow, and voice:
so many flames to burn a woman.

I plaineth of you, that carrying
so many fires in so many places

feeling my heart

not a single spark has landed on you.



O beaus yeus bruns, ô regars destournez,
O chaus soupirs, ô larmes espandues,
O noires nuits vainement atendues,
O jours luisans vainement retournez:

O tristes pleins, ô desirs obstinez,
O tems perdu, ô peines despendues,
O mile morts en mile rets tendues,
O pires maus contre moy destinez.

O ris, ô front, cheveus, bras, mains et droits:
O lut pleintif, viole, archet et vois:
Tant de flanbeaus pour ardre une femelle!

De toy me plein, que tant de feus portant,
En tant d’endrois d’iceus mon cœur tatant,
N’en est sur toy volé quelque estincelle.

Though simple in its syntax and metrical arrangement, this sonnet written in French by Louise Labé (1522-1566) represents a sophisticated experiment in sixteenth-century lyric form. The experiment transforms the interminable sighs of a Petrarchan lover into the phonetic and graphic mark of the letter “o.” In the translation I offer above, I have stripped the sonnet of its rhyme scheme and loosened its meter, shifting emphasis to this single vowel which becomes a determining force in the poem.

Like the sigh, the “o” of apostrophe is a hyperbolic manifestation of breath. These little pieces of linguistic excess, between onomatopoeia and metrical place-holders, create a governing structure for the lyric, based on the potential “noncoincidence” of sound and sense. Mutlu Konuk Blasing describes this “noncoincidence” in a contemporary treatise on lyric poetry: “If sounds dominate, sense is compromised; if sense is too fixed, sounds are not free to do their kind of affective signifying work” (29). In Labé’s sonnet, the letter “o” has a lot of work to do. Labé’s model for her experiment comes from Petrarch’s Rime Sparse (ca. 1360). The following lines in particular lay the groundwork for her poem:  

O passi sparsi, o pensier vaghi et pronti,
o tenace memoria, o fero ardore,
o possente desire, o debil core,
oi occhi miei (occhi non gia, ma fonti); (161.1-4)

[O scattered steps, O yearning, ready thoughts, O
tenacious memory, O savage ardor, O powerful desire,
O feeble heart, O my eyes, not eyes but fountains –]1

“O” marks regular caesurae in each poem. And in both, apostrophe is interlaced with rhyme scheme to establish a repeating sound pattern at the opening and close of each line. Her poem shares a breath pattern with Petrarch’s; inspiration in this case, is a literal phenomenon, a measured way of breathing that carries over from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. For Labé, the significance of this shared breath pattern makes translating each “o” just as significant as her translation of an image like the “tears poured out,” which show up in her opening quatrain and evoke Petrarch’s “eye-fountains.” Shared sighs, more than tears, are the material make-up of these poems.

In a discussion of “the phenomenal roots of the figure known as apostrophe,” Canadian poet-critic Don McKay offers this account: “The ‘o’ which sometimes precedes apostrophe, and is always implicit in the gesture, might be described as the gawk of unknowing. […] It says ‘this is for you, not just about you’” (66). This vocative towardness – the “for you” heard within the letter “o” – intensifies Labé’s lyric address. Even when Labé’s sonnet reads like a catalogue, and even when it simulates a blason in the first line of its sestet, it is not strictly “about” an object of desire. Unlike Petrarch, who writes “about” his beloved Laura as much as he writes “about” his own pursuit of poetic fame’s laurel crown, Labé’s sonnet sequence refuses to name its object. In this sonnet in particular, objectified body parts – brow, hair, arms, etc. – transform into musical instruments in the space of just two lines. For whom or by whom these instruments are played remains uncertain. Instead, the word “viole” – or “viola” in my translation – makes its own vocative gesture with its central “o” sound, carefully placed in the middle of its line; the instrument re-sounds the apostrophe. The sonnet transforms desire into a series of articulate sighs, a graphic pattern of “o’s” that resist separating subject from object. The repeated “o” then, plays a central part in an experiment of composing a poem toward something or someone, rather than writing about something or someone.

I have allowed the sonnet’s familiar rhyme scheme to dissipate in order to emphasize the work of each apostrophe. Further, the only license taken in my otherwise fairly literal translation is a series of nine “o’s” placed on a horizontal axis, forming a sound wave that replicates the vertical arrangement of the same letters in the original.

The “o” is a direct translation of linguistic material that carries over from Labé’s French into modern (if stylized) English. In contrast, the archaic English verb form of “plaineth” – used throughout lyrics by Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), another translator of Petrarch whose poetry appeared in print just two years after Labé’s – has an unfamiliar ring to it. It serves as a reminder that Labé’s poems were part of a sixteenth-century wave of sonnet writing that extended across the European continent, and re-shaped the lyric subject. “Plaineth” also captures the sonnet’s insistence on the terms “pleins,” “pleintif,” and “de toy me plein.” The repeated “o’s” build to this plea, until a “lover’s complaint” is at last registered in the final tercet. The series of sighs build to a fire. Wayward sparks become the closing image, the emblem to accompany the sonnet’s graphic and sonic shape.


English translation of Petrarch by Robert M. Durling. See Works Cited.

Works Cited

Blasing, Mutlu Konuk. Lyric Poetry : The Pain and Pleasure of Words. Princeton :
         Princeton University Press, 2007.

Labé, Louise. Œuvres Complètes. Ed. François

Rigolot. Paris : Flammarion, 1986.McKay, Don. Vis-à-Vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry and         Wilderness. Wolfville: Gaspereau Press, 2001.

Petrarca, Francesco. Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Poems.
         Trans. Robert M. Durling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

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