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The Subject of Desire: Petrarchan Poetics and the Female Voice in Louise Labé

Deborah Lesko Baker with a Foreword by Tom Conley

The French Renaissance poet Louise Labé is one of the most striking and influential women writers of early modern Europe. In her broad-ranging volume of prose and poetic works (1555), Labé transforms the position of woman in Renaissance discourse from an object to a subject of erotic and artistic desire and privileges the notion of desire itself as a central problem for literary and psychic exploration.

Deborah Lesko Baker presents the dramatic creation and evolution of female subjectivity in Labé as a passionate quest for internal selfhood made possible both through authentic self-study and self-expression and through authentic connection and exchange with others in the real world. In so doing she analyzes how the development of the female subject coincides with an ongoing interrogation of the inherited models of the Petrarchan lyric tradition.

The Subject of Desire traces Labé’s restructuring of the female subject and speaking voice through a detailed, integrated study of all four texts comprising the 1555Œuvres. Through a series of close readings, the book highlights Labé’s revision of Petrarchan poetics and her creation of an original voice in the evolution of the French Renaissance lyric. In detailing Labé’s movement from acute interiority to active exteriority, The Subject of Desire reveals how Labé struggles to construct a new set of values concerning communication about love in both public and private discourse—values that her readers are called upon to consider as they face the complexities of their own personal experiences.

"This first comprehensive study of Louise Labé's Oeuvres since Karine Berriot's...more than ten years ago will be welcomed both by French Renaissance specialists and nonfrancophone readers of women writers of that period.... Baker's book is well-presented, easy to follow, clearly organized, attractive by its topic, and keeps drawing the reader's attention in by its minute, analytic qualities balancing out some of the more general notions.... The text is not overloaded with translations of long passages, clearly referred to in the text and easy to locate in the appendix.... a useful index.... All in all, I agree with Francois Rigolot that Baker demonstrates a thorough knowledge of Renaissance criticsm and that her critical acumen is impressive. Though the book addresses nonfrancophone readers, it also constitutes an excellent point of reference and reflection for Labé specialists as well as an effective teaching aid for professors of courses on early modern French women writers." Brigitte Roussel, Sixteenth-Century Journal. For the full review see Sixteenth-Century Journal 28.3 (1997): 997-99.

"...a unique and creative work, full of erudition, which constitutes a very engaging and informative addition to Renaissance scholarship." Anne-Marie Bourbon, Renaissance Quarterly. For the full review see Renaissance Quarterly 51.3 (Autumn 1998): 992-93.

"Not a book for the student coming to Labé for the first time, this work provides excellent insight into the workings of the mind of a Renaissance woman." C.E. Campbell, Choice. For the full review see Choice 34 (1997): 801.

"Baker gives a graceful and intriguing but hard analysis of the superior value of Louise Labé's Oeuvres, ... This study is very important, because it opens in a welcome, new way to modern readers—both expert and neophyte, both women and men--the poet's cherished, centuries' old poetic legacy; because it adds a sophisticated reading of Labé's complete works; and, because it adds substantially to the discussion of feminine subjectivity in psychological and literary terms." Christine Clark-Evans,Comparative Literature Studies. For the full review see Comparative Literature Studies 34.3 (1997): 282-84.

"Baker's study of Labé's work is invigorating and thoughful, and amplifies one's enjoyment and understanding of her writing.... this densely argued book is very rewarding." Liz Guild, French Studies. For the full review, see French Studies 52.1 (1998): 80-81.

"Her intelligent reading of the texts and her interpretation of Labe's reworking of Petrarch are convincing and produce a much more feminine picture of the poetess than in previous portrayals.... a thought-provoking study (... there is a useful bibliography and index) that will be read with interest and profit by those who specialize in sixteenth-century and in women's studies." Keith Cameron, Modern Language Review. For the full review, see Modern Language Review 94.4 (1999): 1101.

"Labé's sense of self-worth is the underlying subject of Deborah Lesko Baker's The Subject of Desire, which pits 'her celebration of the full potential for selfhood in the individual woman' against the perceived limitations of Petrarchism. An uncritical fan, Lesko Baker portrays Labé as 'powerful,' 'vibrant,' 'bold,' 'sparkling' and 'scintillating.'...She is right to emphasize Labé's 'sense of passionate, achieved selfhood.'" Katy Emck, Times Literary Supplement. For the complete article, see "Laura Answers Back," Times Literary Supplement, 16 May 1997.

"Through a series of sophisticated readings of Labé's complete works, Baker examines the strategies Labé uses to reflect her various poses as a desiring female subject. In addition to being a subtle reader of Labé's text, Baker demonstrates a thorough knowledge of Renaissance criticism as well as modern literary theory. Her genuine love for Labé's poetry is moving, but her critical acumen is equally impressive." François Rigolot, Princeton University

"Cet assai a la triple intérêt de présenter la totalité de l'œuvre de Louise Labé en resituant chaque texte dans son contexe littéraire avant d'en dégager les points forts au travers d'analyse stylistiques précises et particulièrement intéressantes." Sabine Lardon, Studi Francese. For the complete review, see Studi Francese 41.2 (May-Aug 1997): 367.

"… Baker apporte une précieuse contriution à l'étude des femmes écrivains de la Renaissance. … Nourrie d'une solide connaissance de Pétrarque et de Maurice Scève (à qui était consacré un précédéntNarcissus and the Lover), appuyée sur les plus récents travaux critiques relatifs à la Belle Cordière, cette étude met en lumière la cohérence d'ensemble des Œuvres, dont les quatre sections s'appellent l'une l'autre, pour unir la polèmique à la poétique, la théorie à la pratique le discours public à la parole privée." Denis Bjaîcours, Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France. For the complete text, see Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France 98.6 (Nov.-Dec. 1998): 11

"The merit of Deborah Baker's monograph, however, lies in its close, detailed and integrated reading of all four texts comprising the 1555Œuvres. [Her] discernment of a textual 'journery' is engagingly convincing." —Anne R. Larsen, Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance. For the complete texte, see Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance 60.1 (Feb. 1998): 189.

"This female poet-lover will replace such a fragmented and anguished sensibility with the valorization of love's union in the here and now. … No serious study of Labé's writings can henceforth be undertaken without recognizing these values [that Baker's rewriting of Labé's Sonnet 18 creates] and benefiting from them by reading Baker's The Subject of Desire." Jerry C. Nash, Modern Philology. For the complete text, see Modern Philology 96.3 (Feb. 1999): 375-77.

Deborah Lesko Baker, Georgetown University, is the author of Narcissus and the Lover: Mythic Recovery and Reinvention in Scève's "Délie" and of articles on Renaissance poetry and mythic structures in literary texts.

ISBN: 978-1-55753-388-3
2004. PSRL 11. xvi, 249 pp. Paper $32.95
1st published in 1996. Cloth


Louise Labé
Louise Labé (1524-1566). Engraving by
Pierre Woeiriot (1532-1596) (detail), 1555.
From Wikimedia Commons.

Information last updated June 24, 2015

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