Translation of “Sonnet II” from Louise
Labé’s Euvres (1555)
University of California, Santa Cruz
o brown eyes, beautiful,
o glances turned
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
o o o o
o o o o o
o worse evils fated against me.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
Petrarca, Francesco. Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Poems.
Trans. Robert M. Durling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.